It’s an age of skinny budgets for land agencies to maintain their trails. How do trail users keep trails like this from going feral?
Pruning on the Go
by Andy Dappen
We live in an era of shrinking budgets affording trail maintenance on our backcountry trails. We also live in an area where the agencies managing our frontcountry trails are cash strapped and lack deep pockets for much trail maintenance. So what’s a dedicated trail user to do in keeping the trails (s)he frequents in good shape?
Answer 1: Give the trails a rest when they are wet enough that your passage leaves footprints deeper than ¼ inch (hikers) or ruts deeper than ¼ inch (mountain bikers) – footprints and ruts greatly accelerate the way water works on and erodes a trail. Answer 2: Perform some light trail maintenance yourself while you hike or bike—there are many easy things we can each do to improve a trail.
Photo: Simple tools of the trail maintenance trade. Folding saw (left). Next, a saw blade made lighter with a duct tape handle and sheath. Next, 2 types of clippers. Finally a trowel (right).
Heavy trail work (whether that’s sawing large-diameter trees blocking a trail or re-routing a stream running down a segment of trail) should be left for land agencies to orchestrate. Each year, however, many trails need light attention. On forested trails, small-diameter trees may have fallen across the trail, or vine maples may have grown to the point that they partially block the trail. Trails in the shrub-steppe, meanwhile, may have sagebrush canopies that have grown enough that they have begun to block the trail. Or the trail surface may have 6-inch-deep craters (post holes) left in the soil by horses. These are all trail-lite issues that any trail user can tackle if they simply pack a few lightweight tools. Here are a few trail-lite maintenance tools to consider:
- First and foremost, carry an eight- to ten-inch folding pruning saw and a holster to carry the saw on your belt or hip belt for quick deployment. Saws using razor-tooth blades are recommended because they remain sharpness for so long. Folding saws like the Corona RS 7360 (a 10-inch pruning saw) and the RS 7255 (for an 8-inch saw) weigh under half a pound, are available locally at Lowes and Home Depot. These saws can cut fallen logs that are four- to five-inches in diameter, limb the branches larger deadfall so you can over or under major trail blockages, cut vine maples and slide alders that are overgrowing a trail, and cut other runners (like salmonberries) that are crowding trail.
- Next, consider a pair of garden clippers like those pictured. If you’ve already removed the larger, woodier branches choking a trail, you might return on a future pass with a pair of clippers or shears to cut back those pesky vines and runners that scratch arms and legs as you pass. If two of you are walking a trail, divide and conquer with one of you manning the saw, the other the clippers.
- Finally a lightweight, metal garden trowel has occasional uses in the Wenatchee Foothills where, every year, a number of horseback riders use the trails too soon and crater the trail’s surface with deep hoof prints. For such problems a trowel can be used to patch particularly deep post holes.
Helping maintain segments of trails is ultimately a pay-it-forward proposition. The extra time spent making a trail more pleasant benefits everyone who follows. Meanwhile, if others take a little time to improve the trails they travel, we’ll often be the beneficiary of someone else’s effort. If we each help a little, we all benefit en masse.
Photo Below: Pruning shears or loppers (left) are useful (but heavier) on trails where you expect lots of shrubs and vines to be overgrowing the trail (i.e., longer neglected trails). Clippers (right) are light and great for trails that are not so far gone.
This is also an example of the outdoor etiquette promoted on each WenatcheeOutdoors guidebook entry when we suggest that you leave a place ‘better than you found it.’ If we all stay off trails when they are too wet, pick up litter, pull noxious weeds, cut small obstacles blocking trails, and/or patch holes found in a trail’s surface then, even in the age of shrinking budgets, we can keep our trails easy to travel and our public lands beautiful.
Note: This post was first published in July of 2013. We’re republishing because we are in the midst of hiking/mountain biking season and the budget situation of land agencies has not changed. Time to lift a hand and help out. We suspect land agencies may slap our hands for making these recommendations, but we think involving lots of people to help a little is a viable way to keep trails from falling into disuse.