I love hiking… and I bet you’re reading this because you love it too! I could spend every day out hiking, mountain biking, and exploring.
Have you ever stopped to think about those trails that you are racking up the miles on? Why do they follow the route they do? Why the heck are logs dug in the ground? Who keeps the trails open?
From designing and construction, to basic yearly maintenance, there is a lot of thought and upkeep that goes into the trails that we love to get outside and play on. It’s usually done on a shoestring budget, with lots of volunteer help.
If you are like most people, you’ve never even noticed or given much thought to trail design, other than to swear under your breath at the idiot who designed it to unnecessarily go uphill both directions. (Yes, even I have done that more than a few times.)
Good trail design is almost invisible. No one will know how many people it took, or the hours spent, trying to get that rock or log in the exact right spot, or trying to rehab and erase a shortcut trail.
As a result, trail work is a tough, dirty, and mostly thankless job!
Why Trail Building is Necessary
The biggest threat to any trail is erosion from water. Most of the structures on a trail are designed to prevent water from running down or across the trail and to keep the trail dry so that people don’t go around and unintentionally widen the path.
Humans also cause damage by taking shortcuts and creating new paths. These structures are designed, as much as possible, to look like a natural part of the trail and be aesthetically pleasing.
By recognizing and pointing out some of these trail features to your kids, you can help them learn the work that goes into making a trail, the science of erosion, and the importance of Leave No Trace and staying on the trails.
How They’re Made
Trail structures can be made out of many materials, the scale of which depends on the kind of traffic on the trail.
In a heavily-visited National Park, you might see concrete and/or steel structures that will hold up under millions of feet. In busier National Forest, BLM, or State Parks, you may see a combination of pressure-treated lumber, gravel, and beefy rock or masonry work. Areas with mountain bike-specific trails will use flexible rubber tubes. In less-trafficked areas and in designated wilderness areas, you will likely see only native materials like logs and rocks.
The materials used are designed to complement the landscape. For example, in the desert, you’ll likely see a lot of beautiful rock work, and in the Pacific Northwest, you’ll likely see lots of log structures because of the plentiful timber.
In general, rock is the most difficult material to work with, sometimes taking hours to shape and place each individual rock. Timber is generally the easiest, but it also needs special selection and preparation to prevent rotting.
Ideally, trail design will blend into the landscape, and won’t be overly visible if you aren’t looking for it!
How to Find Trail Features
If trail structures and engineering are designed to blend in, how can you see and point these things out to your kids? First and foremost, look for where the water would go if it were raining hard.
I like to imagine a tennis ball, rolling down the trail. Where would it go? If there’s a spot it looks like it would roll off to the side of the trail, then there’s likely a bit of trail engineering in place! You can also take a second look at steep grades, as there’s likely some supporting structures.
Make it a game, like “I Spy” or have a competition to see who can spot the most trail features. Stop at features and see if you can guess what they are there for!
Here’s a few of the most common trail structures you will see:
1. Drain Dips and Water Bars
Drain Dips are the most basic trail structure, and it’s literally just that: A dip built into the trail that funnels flowing water off of the tread. When the trail is steeper, a water bar is a log or overlapping series of rocks placed at an angle across the trail, downhill from a drain dip. The water bar provides a bigger, more solid diversion for faster and higher-volumes of water. They are often mostly buried, so are not always obvious to see!
2. Check Steps
Check steps or “check dams” are logs or rocks placed perpendicular across the trail, and often look like widely spaced steps. These are usually in steeper parts of the trail and prevent soil from moving downhill with the flow of water. Basically, these keep the trail from turning into a mini Grand Canyon every time there’s heavy rain! These steps will sometimes be built like a staircase, especially if they are made from rock.
If you ever get annoyed that the trail is zig-zagging up a hill, instead of going straight up, the trail designer wasn’t drunk. This is intentional engineering! Not only is a flatter trail easier to walk up, it erodes less and provides more opportunities for the water to exit at each 180-degree turn. When people take a shortcut on a switchback, they kill vegetation, allowing the soil to erode and encouraging water to also take the same shortcut. This can cause washouts of the trail, and it looks pretty terrible too!
4. Crib Logs and Retaining Walls:
Often seen on switchbacks or areas with steep side hills, these keep the outside edge of the trail supported and prevent it from eroding downhill. Usually you can’t even see these unless you are looking up from below. A crib log is simply a log sidewall, anchored and buried along the edge of the trail to keep soil in. A full retaining wall can be made from logs or rock, and will hold back a much greater volume of loose soil on a much steeper slope.
One of my personal favorite structures, turnpikes elevate the trail through particularly muddy or boggy areas (and often save you from wet feet). They can range in length, from just a few feet long to hundreds of feet through a marshy area. Turnpikes use long, parallel logs to create a frame, which is filled in with rocks and gravel, and crowned with dirt to create a nice, dry surface to walk on. Usually there are drainage ditches built on either side of the turnpike. Whoever put the turnpike in likely spent a long time slogging in the mud and hauling enough gravel (sometimes by wheelbarrow, but often by 5-gallon buckets) to fill the trail in.
The most complicated structures in trail work are bridges. There are a huge variety of bridge styles, depending on the location, elevation, materials, and even what kind of users the bridge will see. A bridge built for horses or cyclists is way different than a bridge built for foot traffic! Some bridges are just a log across the creek or river with the top flattened and a hand-rail. Some “puncheon” bridges are low to the ground through a swampy area like a boardwalk. Still others are engineering marvels, including suspension-style bridges that cross very wide rivers or canyons and required helicopters or heavy equipment to build!
7. Signs of Maintenance
Maintaining trails each year can be a major project. Winter storms often down trees across trails, avalanches can deposit debris, and flooding can wipe out entire sections of trail, so keeping them up takes a lot of time and energy.
Keep an eye out for logs that have been sawn and moved off the trail, brush that has been cut back, and water bars and drain dips that have been freshly dug out. In designated wilderness areas, all this work is done by hand, using cross-cut saws, axes, and loppers. In some areas, clearing the trails each year can take the entire summer. The Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana is a great example, with over 1,100 miles of trail to clear each year and a staff of only about 30 people to work on them.
By teaching your kids the work and thought that goes into a trail can help them connect with the ideas of land stewardship and conservation. Most Forest Service and Park Service sites have local non-profits they work with, who frequently help with trail projects. There are too many to mention, but a few examples include the Washington Trails Association, Student Conservation Association, Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation, the Sierra Club, Colorado 14ers Initiative, and Trailkeepers of Oregon.
Corporate and community groups, such as REI, Starbucks, and scout groups also work directly with public lands managers on volunteer projects. Do a little research on the local trails programs in your area and see if you can volunteer with your kids. They will gain a hands-on understanding of human impact on the environment, natural processes like erosion, and they will have a ton of dirty fun in the process. You might even inspire the next generation of land managers!
If you ever run into a trail crew while you are out there hiking, they are likely sweaty, dirty, hot, tired, hungry, and covered in bug bites. But, they also believe in stewardship, conservation, and playing outside, so they love what they are doing! Give them a big high-five, some treats or cold drinks if you have any, and let them know that you appreciate their work.
One of my favorite memories from my years of trail work was a nice couple who gave us some Yoo-hoo chocolate milk and watermelon, which tasted like heaven after being camped in the middle of nowhere for almost a month! Trail crews don’t get thanked very often, and your appreciation will go a long way.
Ginny Galbreth: Ginny has spent her career focused on getting people outside; working with the Park Service, Forest Service, Student Conservation Association and Keystone Science School, as well as spending a decade in the outdoor retail industry. She practices what she preaches, so can usually be found outside: downhill and cross-country skiing in the winter and hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, riding her dual-sport motorcycle, running, and SUPing in the summer. She currently lives in Montana with her husband, 2-year old son, and awesome trail dog.
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