Does your daily commute include a stroll through silver sage and butterscotch-scented Ponderosa pine? Probably not. But it could. Building trails lets you rise with the sun, use hand tools as your gym and work where hikers create nothing but footprints and memories.
The freedom to hike, climb, bike and horseback ride through pristine wilderness comes with a small price. Meaning that if your favorite area isn’t up to par, you’re able to fix it. So whether it’s to blend a new trail with nature, reroute an existing segment to avoid erosion or groom a favorite footpath, here are some options to dig into a trail on your own. (Don’t want to get dirty? There are ways to do that too.)
Volunteer Cathy Busch built a trail with the Girl Scouts and afterwards said, “Planning was the worst part, the rest was just muscle.” Before your shovel hits the dirt, ask for permission and follow the rules, no matter how arduous. Talk to the local landowner (whether it’s privately held or government managed) and put together a plan. Chances are they’ll be psyched you’re willing to pitch in.
A few questions to consider: Who will use the trail? (Climbers, hikers, mountain bikers all have different requirements.) Who will do the work? Is there a local organization you can tap into for volunteers? Or will you act as a lone wolf and do it yourself? How many rock walls will be built? What about bridges? Where will the funds come from? Who needs to approve the project?
Once you’ve cleared that list of hurdles, walk the land. Get familiar with the destination and how to get there in the most aesthetically-pleasing way. Take slope measurements and determine the angle of the trail. Pick out key areas to define your masterpiece — a rock wall, a natural slab, a stream.
Next, it’s time to lay it out. Use plenty of flagging tape and watch the trail take shape.
Not sure how to do all of this? Reach out to a community veteran; they’ll likely offer valuable trail building wisdom.
“It’s super intense,” climber Sam Claassen said of his first project with the Access Fund, a non-profit that protects the integrity of climbing areas around the country through trail building, maintenance and obtaining access from private land owners. “I did it for a day and thought I was going to die.”
Building a trail is hard, physical work, yet getting your hands dirty can help develop a deeper respect for your local wilderness area.
If you haven’t built a trail before, seek out on-the-job training to learn the craft from someone who can lead the way. There’s digging, hauling rocks, chopping down trees and moving logs. Break time comes beside a babbling stream with fields of flowers at your feet. Keep an eye out for natural hazards like poison ivy and rattlesnakes. And don’t forget the safety goggles and other protective equipment.
On the technical side, you might need to expand your vocabulary. Get comfortable with a McLeod — a double-edged blade used to dig and smooth the contour of the path so it tilts away from the hillside. The ideal trail is relatively flat, so dig out from the slope, away from the high side to keep puddles from forming. Some slopes are too steep and a retaining wall (crib) is built on the downslope side.
Other considerations include water and wetland crossings. Boardwalks, culverts and bridges can span that gap. Stonework is a major part of the gig, from quarrying rocks to moving 100- to 500-pound boulders on a skyline through the air to reduce impact on the slope.
The best part? You’ll burn more calories than you can possibly replenish and get buff without setting foot in a gym.
Mike Morin, who spends 170 nights a year camping for work as a conservation specialist for the Access Fund, said, “We return regularly to key project sites to tackle erosion issues and perform routine trail maintenance.” This includes anything from removing brush and tripping hazards, to rerouting and hardening steep trails to minimize impact.
Join a team
So you don’t have the grassroots initiative to tackle trail building solo? Join an existing organization where you can still make a big impact. The National Park Service has both volunteer and paid trail building positions. Local and national hiking, climbing and biking organizations put together trail management days. The Access Fund has two conservation crews who travel around the country and work with 100 local climbing organizations. The American Alpine Club (AAC) supports healthy climbing landscapes with grants to support their mission. The International Mountain Bicycling Association put together tips to guide your trail-building mission.
Build a trail without getting dirty
No time or desire to get out there yourself? Trail building and maintenance is not a cheap endeavor, so donations are welcome. Some organizations use membership dollars to support trail stewardship, while others accept contributions for specific projects. The Access Fund’s title sponsor, Jeep, keeps their conservation crews on the road year around. Jeep, along with REI, Therm-a-Rest and Clif Bar, provide the necessary funding and help supply Access Fund volunteers with a little extra incentive to get down in the dirt.