Who Maintains Hiking Trails and How do They do It

trail maintenance

I’ve hiked through thousands of miles of trails over the years and I’m always a little amazed out how well maintained some of these trails are.  I used to think it was mostly foot traffic that was keeping the trails groomed.  Then I started to notice how quickly fallen trees were removed from my favorite trails and realized that the trail must be being maintained by someone.

So who maintains hiking trails and how do they do it?  Hiking trails are maintained by volunteers, businesses, and state, local, and federal government agencies.  Some crews do it the old fashioned way with machetes and axes but most trails are cleared using power tools like chain saws and pruning saws.

Maintenance tasks vary and there are some steps that are taken on a yearly basis and some steps that must be taken on an ongoing basis.  Typically, large projects will be undertaken in the spring and fall as it is easier to work on the trails during this time period.  Reason being, there are fewer people on the trails and the weather is usually more cooperative.

The Creation and Maintenance of Trail Structures

Trail structures aren’t just there to look pretty.  It isn’t there to make your hike easier either.  A trail structure is typically built into a hiking trail to protect and support the land.

The three main types of trail structures are:

  • Trail Bridges
  • Trail Boardwalks
  • Trail Steps

Trail Bridges

Trail bridges are built to cross over streams, rivers, lakes, and even waterfalls.  These bridges usually aren’t meant to carry anything other than people and they’re often built using just wood.  However, this isn’t always the case.  If you go to Fairmount Park in Philadelphia Pennsylvania, you’ll find a metal bridge that was flown into the area in sections by helicopter.

Most trail maintenance builders and maintenance crews don’t have the luxury of having bridges flown in by helicopter though.  Instead, they must make use of naturally fallen trees that they find in the area.

Moving these trees is hard work and they’ll need to use a lot of people, pulley systems, and pry bars to get the logs into place.  If they’re lucky, the fallen trees in the area will be ones that are naturally resistant to rot so that the bridge doesn’t have to be rebuilt for a while.

hiking bridge

Trail Boardwalks

A trail boardwalk is usually built to protect swampy areas of a trail.  The constant foot traffic in these areas would lead to too much soil erosion.  This would lead to the trail losing dirt and becoming deeper.  It would also lead to tree roots being exposed.

The exposure of the tree roots could lead to more fallen trees and the deepening of the trail could lead to flooding.  Eventually, the trail would become so flooded that it would become impassable.

To prevent this, wooden walkways are built over the surface.  This walkway is tough to build as all of the materials must be carried in on foot.  If you think moving building materials from Home Depot to the store’s parking lot is tough, imagine what it must be like to carry building materials several miles into the woods.

hiking boardwalk

Trail Steps

Steps can be built directly into the ground using stones.  These steps will help to support the slope that they are built in so that the land does not erode and eventually give way.

Sometimes ditches will be dug next to these sloping areas to help direct water away from the steps.  This also helps to prevent erosion and often serves to protect the trail it’s on as well as any trails further down in elevation.

hiking steps

Ongoing Trail Maintenance Tasks

Even after the trail has been carved out and all of the necessary trail structures have been put into place, there is still a lot of ongoing work that needs to be done to protect the trail.  Fallen trees must be removed, invasive species must be eradicated, and massive amounts of trash must be cleaned up on a regular basis.

Fallen Trees

Have you ever gone hiking on your favorite trail the day after a massive storm, only to find that many of the trails have become impassable?  It probably isn’t the safest thing to do but I always find hiking on trails the day after a storm to be fun and challenging.  I get to hike my favorite trails, but with a higher level of difficulty.

This being said, these trees must be managed or the trails would quickly become overrun.  In some cases, the trees are cut into sections and pulled further off the trail.  In other cases, a person simply cuts the section out of the tree that is blocking the trail.

fallen tree

The Removal of Invasive Species

Invasive species of plants can quickly change a natural habitat.  Unfortunately, forests with hiking trails are much more vulnerable to invasive species.  This is because hikers inadvertently bring the seeds of other plants with them on their hiking shoes.

In fact, you may have seen some trailheads with shoe cleaners built into them.  These are there to help prevent you from dragging the seeds and plant spores of invasive species deeper into the trailhead.

invasive species cleaner

Trash Cleanup

Hiking trails patrolled by rangers are sometimes cleaned by the rangers themselves.  Other hiking trails may be cleaned up by a crew that goes through high-traffic areas.  This crew will empty the trashcans that were left in place and they’ll pick up any trash along the way.

In most cases, the trails will be cleaned by volunteers.  These volunteers do this formally through a volunteer organization or they just take it upon themselves and pick up trash as they see it during their hike.

If you’d like to join a volunteer group, just do a web search for your favorite hiking area and type the word volunteer next to it.  In most cases, you’ll find a volunteer organization that you can join.

Otherwise, consider bringing a trash bag with you every once in a while.  It may be frustrating to have to clean up someone else’s trash but it’s better than having to hike on a trash-filled hiking trail.

hiking trail trash
I saw this sign on a trail near the Wissahickon Environmental Center.

Help Maintain Hiking Trails

In addition to volunteering to clean up hiking trails, you can actually become part of the regular maintenance crews.  There are a couple of easy ways to get in on the action.

Maintaining Local Trails

The first step you might want to take is to help to maintain the trails in your local area.  You can do this by joining a trailblazer’s club.  Just do a search for the town, county, or state you’re in with the word trailblazer next to it.

Join a trailblazer club and you’ll get to meet like-minded people and you may even have some say over how the trail is maintained and how new trails are marked.  Don’t worry if you don’t have much experience with tools like chainsaws and power pruners.  Other members of the group are usually willing to train you and you won’t have to do anything that you’re not comfortable with.

Taking a Trailblazing Trip

For those of you who want to experience new trails, you might want to consider volunteering for a larger trailblazing project in a state or national park.  You’ll have to do a lot of backpacking and a lot of manual labor but you’ll be rewarded with an experience you’ll never forget.  Here is a link to Volunteer Vacations.  There, you’ll be able to sign up for projects that interest you.

How it works

Basically, you’ll volunteer to go to an area with a group of other people for a specified period of time.  Sometimes these projects can last a few weeks and other times they’ll last for well over a month.

You’ll work the trails during the daytime and you’ll camp overnight.  These volunteer projects are physically intense, so you’ll want to make sure you’re in good health and that you’re up for the challenge before you sign up.  I’d highly recommend that you at least do a few local projects before you decide to take on a project like this.

Final Thoughts

Cleaning and maintaining hiking trails is hard work and the people that do it rarely get paid.  When you’re on the trails, remember this and be sure you don’t leave any trash behind.  And always remember, wood fairies cry when you litter.

wood fairies cry
I saw this awesome sign on a trail marker during one of my hikes.
Hiking Trail Maintenance
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Christopher Schopf

Christopher Schopf like to write about hiking, camping, snowshoeing, kayaking, and anything else that gets him outside.

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