How to Build Trails

How to Build Trails
Many people enjoy walking on hiking trails to bird-watch, look for wildflowers, exercise, or to just get out and enjoy nature. Few people consider how much hard work goes into building that trail. Trail building is hard, dirty work, but the result is something beautiful that can be appreciated for generations to come.


Difficulty: Moderately Challenging

Things You’ll Need:
  • Topographic map of the area
  • Saw or chain saw
  • Pruning shears
  • Shovel
  • Metal rake
  • Lumber and tools for building bridges and stairs (if necessary)
  • Surfacing material such as topsoil, gravel or crushed rock (optional)
  • Trail markers (optional)
Step 1
Survey the area in which you would like to build a trail. Walk through the area (if it is passable) and take note of potential hazards, such as steep slopes, poison ivy or bear dens, as well as any particularly scenic spots you would like the trail to pass by. If you can find a topographic map, this will greatly help you navigate hills and valleys.
Step 2
Rough out your trail on paper. Are you trying to build a trail that goes from point A to point B as quickly as possible, or do you want it to meander through the wilderness and afford spectacular views? Sketch a map of your anticipated trail, but prepare to adjust it as conditions warrant.
Step 3
If possible, plan your trail around the land's natural features. Rather than trying to cut through a patch of thorny blackberry brambles, consider going around it. Can you avoid the low, wet spots and minimize the number of bridges and boardwalks you'll have to create? Take advantage of existing paths made by animals or people; they often indicate the best route through the land.
Step 4
Remove larger trees with a saw or chain saw. Use caution when felling trees, and wear eye and ear protection when using a chain saw. Ask someone else to do the job if you have no experience removing trees. Cut down as few trees as possible, and do not cut any trees with bird nests in them. Reserve the trunks of whatever trees you do cut down for use in building boardwalks.
Step 5
Clear away scrub and brush with pruning shears or a hand saw. If possible, pile the trimmings in the woods so they can decompose and return to the soil. If the area is grassy or weedy, you may be able to clear it with a lawnmower.
Step 6
Roll stones out of the way, using a shovel if necessary.
Step 7
Build bridges over any waterways and boardwalks over low, wet spots. The bridge can be an elaborate structure with treated lumber and nails, or it can be as simple as throwing a log across a creek or using stones to make steps.
Step 8
If your trail goes up any steep inclines, you might want to reinforce it to aid in traction and minimize erosion. Build steps with lumber hammered into the side of the hill, or use stones. Avoid using tree roots for footing, as this will damage and possibly kill the tree over time. Consider building the trail to slowly zigzag up a slope, instead of taking the hill in a straight line. This will make hiking easier and will also reduce erosion.
Step 9
Decide what surface you want. You can do nothing and wait for traffic to create a path, although it will naturally be narrow. You can widen the trail by removing existing vegetation with a metal rake, and you can also spread topsoil, gravel or crushed rock to create a more even walking surface.
Step 10
If desired, mark the trail with signs, ribbons or paint blazes.

Tips & Warnings

Hiking trails are generally 24 to 36 inches wide. Ski, bike and equestrian trails should be wider, 60 inches or more.
You may only build trails on land you own unless you have the owner's permission to build on her land. If you propose to build on public land---in a park or municipal forest---contact your state, provincial or city government. Most maintain their own lands, but they might be open to letting volunteers build a trail.

Article Written By Heidi Almond

Heidi Almond worked in the natural foods industry for more than seven years before becoming a full-time freelancer in 2010. She has been published in "Mother Earth News," "Legacy" magazine and in several local publications in Duluth, Minn. In 2002 Almond graduated cum laude from an environmental liberal arts college with a concentration in writing.

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