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Have you ever been out on a hike, bike, or equestrian trail and wondered who maintained it and how it got there in the first place? Who puts that boulder there, strategically keeping you from entering the non-charted territory? Where are the materials used on the trail coming from, and how is it always so well-maintained?
If you live in an area where outdoor recreation is a way of living and public lands are easily accessible, you may have answered some of these questions as you've seen who works on the trails. But if you are visiting a National Park or public space, you may not understand the land management, and that's ok! Here, we discussed how to build and maintain trails on public land.
While spending plenty of time on the trails, I became curious about my role as a user of the land. I wanted to build a more robust understanding of every aspect that goes into public land preservation. Recently, I talked trails with a Conservation Work Skills Instructor for the Student Conservation Association (SCA), Greg Jackson. He teaches students in SCA to build and maintain trails. Greg is a member of The Nature Conservancy's 13ers Young Professionals Organization, has served in AmeriCorps, and is currently involved with several other conservation organizations. Through his involvement in the outdoor sector, he has gained expert knowledge in trail building, which he passes on by teaching his passion for preserving public lands to young adults through SCA. Greg and I discussed trail basics and the main components that are important for anyone who wants to get involved.
Greg compiled a list of the most critical aspects of trail building as follows:
New Trail, as with most aspects of trail building, involves understanding the thought process of a human using the trail. The user group, or whom you intend the trail to be for, is how you can start making some critical decisions about the trail's grade. Some considerations to make for the project include:
Will this be a family-oriented trail? Is there a viewpoint that we want to take people to? Is this trail handicap accessible? Is the path intended for users other than hikers, such as bikers or equestrian users? Planning a new trail takes precision and accuracy, down to the types of tools allowed in certain areas of public lands and what materials will be available to crews when working.
Trail Survey and Design takes New Trail to the next step; crews will go into the field to consider everything the user might do when they are recreating. Crews plot routes by exploring the territory, testing the trail's grade, flagging the trail, and finding every possible way a hiker would think to avoid social trails.
Halle Brown: What does it mean to flag out a trail?
Greg Jackson: Let's say you want to create a trail network for users on a 40-acre parcel of land with a blank canvas, and it's up to you to decide where the trail should go. Where do we want people to go on their journey? Are there any viewpoints or a point of interest? You go through a stack of pin flags and put them out every ten feet to pick where the trail should go from the starting point. Maybe it's a loop, you could flag from one corner to the other, and it eventually allows the crew to go out and start building. You have to place the flags strategically, so the crew understands how to connect the flags.
For example, Greg worked on a handicapped trail for ADA, which can only be a 6% grade or less, meaning that for every 100 ft. of travel, the trail can only increase six feet for the duration of the entirety of the trail, allowing for easy accessibility to disabled users. Since there is not a lot of elevation gain, trail crews must carefully construct the trail by creating an easy accent and removing obstacles that would affect the safety of disabled users.
Surveying a trail is getting all the necessary information about an area and anything you might encounter on a track to mitigate human impacts on the land properly. Crews need to prepare for their project with proper protective equipment (PPE), building materials, transportation, and a viable timeline for the project. Extensive research and planning occur before the New Trail site excavates.
Now that we have covered some of the basics of planning a trail, the next step for crews is knowing how to work with different materials they will encounter. Building With Rock is crucial for different types of uses, such as water bars, culverts, bridges, steps, and turnpikes within trail design. Since rocks have a significant use variability, crews need to choose the correct rocks to work with given the terrain and how to properly remove them from the landscape and replace them within the circumstance.
The rock structures are the most stable material to work with since they never rot or weather. They are beneficial for the longevity of the trail, placing great importance on appropriate use and construction. For example, rock stairs are a widespread use for crews where areas have a steep incline. Stairways can keep the tread in place, slows the flow of water, stabilize hillsides and make for a more comfortable ascent for hikers. For these structures to be built or maintained, they must be well-thought-out, so they are set for a solid route, withstanding repetitive use, whether the user group is humans or horses and animals that pass along the trail.
Timber is another material that crews work with to keep water off the trails, and they provide an alternative path for users to avoid moving water, such as rivers and streams. Native Timber Construction allows crews to make bridges, retaining walls, and other structures that keep users on the trail while native materials also blend in with the natural environment. Crews must be educated on wood selection and proper tool usage when working with timber. The wood available to a crew could be standing trees, downed logs, and sometimes, lumbar exposed to preservatives. Some wood may be dangerous today, such as old telephone poles containing toxins harmful to humans. Certain trees are native to specific areas, and some are harder to work with than others. For instance, the Rocky Mountain region trail crews work primarily with lodgepole pine, which is easy to use with hand tools or machinery and is rated moderate to low in decay resistance.
While Wilderness areas and some other areas of public land restrict motorized tools, appropriate use of hand tools is necessary to work efficiently and prevent injuries. Proper training is needed to educate crew members when working with heavy and sometimes dangerous tools.
Alongside working with specific land-given materials, probably the most significant factor that trail crews have to consider when building a new trail or working on an existing trail is WATER.
Halle Brown: How does water play a role when planning a new trail or doing Maintenance on an existing trail?
Greg Jackson: Crews have to create proper drainage structures because if a trail has water on it, people will try and walk around the wet spot, which pushes people to the outside of the trail, widening the trail, pushing into ecosystems, and creating erosion.
Trail crews will build water bars in the trail to divert the trail away from the water. It is crucial to evaluate the path of the current flow of water, its end destination, what happens when there is much water (rainstorms), and assess how your impacts could potentially change the future flow of water on the trail. Placing water bars is a standard solution for this issue, these raised ridges in the tread work to divert water off the trail.
Halle Brown: How to predict the future impact of water, and why is it important to think ahead?
Greg Jackson: Seasonality of moisture is a big consideration, and if you build the trail in June when it's not rain season, you have to consider what the conditions will be when it is rain season, and you have to compensate for that. What will happen when water does start to flow here? This is all related to erosion, and you are going for trail sustainability, that the trial will last repetitive use by boots or horse hooves.
Trail Drainage and Maintenance often go hand in hand. Usually, water-related trail damage is what causes upkeep and continuous Maintenance. Natural deterioration of a trail is common, but having solutions to some of these problems will allow for better management of trail systems. In more ways than one, trail crews act as human psychologists, constantly thinking about what will be the user's next move. Humans may veer the back slope, or maybe something is blocking the trail that causes them to take a detour. Perhaps they feel unstable on the terrain, so they decide to walk on the grassy side of the trail instead. One of the most effective ways to maintain a trail is by cutting a proper corridor. A corridor is everything impacting the trail other than the actual path itself.
Halle Brown: What is a corridor?
Greg Jackson If a trail is two feet wide and you are standing in the middle, and you put your hands straight out, you should not be able to touch anything on the sides and above you. This is important to keep people on the trail; otherwise, they will avoid barriers pushing them off the trail.
The corridor is crucial to keep in mind with horses and bikers. For instance, someone on a horse will travel higher into the vegetation and take up more space on the trail. Crews will use this information when deciding how to cut the brush, where to cut it, and remove or place any necessary barriers.
Having a good knowledge base of New Trail developments, Trail Survey and Design, how to Build with Rock and Native Timber, and proactive Trail Drainage and Maintenance is necessary information when starting as a trail crew member. Planning a trail requires extensive thought and detail; it can take years of environmental impact studies, budget meetings, and planning to implement a trail. Trail crews need resources to build and maintain trails. User education is necessary to keep the trails as healthy as possible; combatting erosion is one of the most significant issues in the outdoor sector today, creating a snowball effect and harming our current and future routes. For humans to enjoy the land, user education is necessary to formulate a commonality of shared stewardship that will only benefit the future of the outdoor space as a whole.
A huge thanks to Greg, who has been able to give us a better idea about how trail systems work and an insight into what goes on when making a decision that impacts the user group, animals, and land health. Building a foundation of information for the outdoor community strengthens the system, encouraging the public to take pride in the land.
Copy by: Halle Brown