Thank a Trail Maintenance Crew: Cleaning Up the Backcountry for Summer Hiking and Camping
Editor’s note: Each spring, AMC volunteer and professional trail maintenance crews take to the trails across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic to get them ready for the summer hiking season. The following article is excerpted and adapted from the newly updated AMC’s Complete Guide to Trail Building and Maintenance, 5th ed., detailing some of the work that goes into this seasonal trail maintenance.
All trails require regular maintenance. If maintenance is ignored, issues will arise that over time that can develop into serious problems. Just as a failure to clean the gutters on a house can lead to expensive water damage, failure to maintain drainages on a trail can lead to severe erosion. In both cases, the initial investment (in money and time) has been wasted. Constructing a drainage requires considerable time and effort: rocks must be located, excavated, moved, and installed; trees must be felled, limbed, peeled, bucked, moved, and buried. Cleaning drainages helps ensure a good return on a trail crew’s initial investment in building a trail.
Basic maintenance helps keep a trail usable, minimizes deterioration, and prevents damage to the surroundings. The objectives of maintenance are to concentrate impact on the trail corridor and to direct water off the trail. With these goals properly addressed, preventable damage to the resources and the trail can be eliminated.
Clean drainages prevent large-scale soil erosion and the costly reconstruction that could follow, because soil cannot be easily replaced. Clearing blowdowns, brushing, and marking the trail do protect resources, but the main purpose of these maintenance duties is to allow hiker passage and keep a physical trail corridor open. Maintainers can always return to blaze or cut brush, but if they do not clean a trail’s drainage in timely fashion, the results could be cumulatively disastrous.
Patrolling trails to clear blowdowns—trees or large branches that have fallen onto or across trails—is one of a trail maintainer’s first springtime tasks. While blowdowns are more common in winter due to heavy snow, ice, and wind, downed woody debris can be a problem at any time of the year.
- Eases passage for hikers;
- Protects resources, because hikers tend to create bootleg trails around uncleared blowdowns;
- Opens trails for early season hiking use; and
- Offers an opportunity to assess the upcoming season’s work needs.
A well-brushed trail is one in which a hiker with a big pack can walk without touching limbs, trees, or brush. Footing is clear, and the route is easy to follow. Line of sight is open and unobstructed. Branches of trailside vegetation, even if weighed down by rain or snow, do not obscure the trail.
Brushing, sometimes called brushing out or standardizing, means clearing vegetation from established trails. Without regular brushing, even frequently used trails can become overgrown in just two to three years. Brushing in, on the other hand, occurs when a decommissioned trail, visitor-created trail or campsite (also known as bootlegs), or wide section of trail needs to be closed to traffic or made smaller. Downed branches and small trees are installed haphazardly on the trail, thus closing it to hikers while attempting to mimic the natural state of the environment.
Good trail markers guide the hiker effortlessly along the route without intruding on the experience. The marks must be easily understandable, systematic, and vandal-resistant. The most popular types of marking include paint blazes; metal or plastic markers; signs; and, for treeless areas, posts or cairns. Tailor marking to specific trail types. For example, a short trail within a state park that is heavily used by inexperienced hikers might be extensively marked. On the other hand, a trail through private land in an urban area may be sparsely marked to prevent heavy or undesirable use. Light marking in remote backcountry locations preserves the wild character of the areas. (Note: Standards for markings in federally designated Wilderness Areas may be more stringent or not allowed at all.)
Making Trail Signs
Signs are an essential component of any trail; they are usually located at trailheads, junctions, road crossings, and trail features. They can indicate the trail name, direction, highlights, facilities, and distances. Some have a symbol or identification of the land manager and maintaining organization(s). In addition to signs, some trails have markers that refer to a special designation or point out that the trail is part of a specific system. These markers are usually placed at trailheads or at intervals along the route.