How Are Hiking Trails Made? Hint: With More Effort Than You Thought


You’ve probably wondered how trails are made a thousand times as you’ve wandered through the wilderness. I admit at being surprised at witnessing a trail being worked on in the wilderness–trail work is still often manual labor. I thought I’d share what I’ve learned firsthand and also do some research on other trail-making methods.

Trails are made by several methods, from diesel-powered construction equipment to basic methods including rock bars, human labor, and mules. The type of trail construction is chosen based on remoteness to civilization, sensitivity of the nature, and accessibility to the area (e.g. a mountain pass or a forest).

After understanding how trails are actually made, I gained a new appreciation for them. It’s easy to take for granted! Perhaps the details will also surprise you! Let’s jump into it.

3 Ways Hiking Trails Are Made

I’ve hiked many miles in the wilderness. It’s easy as a hiker to zone out and focus only on putting one foot in front of the other, focusing on your destination. The ability for you to be able to hike comes at a tremendous price.

1. Manual Labor

I witnessed my first wilderness trail crew in the High Uinta mountains. There was one part of the trail that made switchbacks up a saddle between tall mountains. The pass was really tiring, and it wandered back and forth up the mountain for what seemed like forever before making it over the saddle.

Near the top of the saddle, we encountered a trail crew, and before this time, I always assumed that trail crews were equipped with power tools. They are not.

To say the least, I was blown away. I was exhausted carrying my backpack up this pass, but I wasn’t shoveling or using a pickax, or wedging a rock bar underneath a boulder for every precious foot of the trail.

Not all trails are made with manual labor, it really depends on how remote the trail location is. Often mountain trails are considered too sensitive to bring heavy construction equipment, anyway, so there is no other choice than to use human-power. You can see evidence of this because you’ll notice that many wilderness trails are very narrow–these trails are definitely made by human hands with basic tools.

Tools Used

On the way up we were passed by a mule or a donkey (I couldn’t tell then… probably couldn’t tell now), with gigantic saddlebags. The mule was carrying long and powerful hand tools, including shovels, pickaxes, and rock bars (essentially a long, heavy iron bar used for leverage to get under rocks.)

If a trail crew is lucky, they will have access to chainsaws for help with fallen logs, but that’s it–no jackhammers, no construction equipment, just their own muscles. Other times a trail crew may only be equipped with axes.

In the case of this trail crew, they had access to animals to help carry the heavy tools up the mountain.

How the Trail is Made by Manual Labor

The trail maker tries to find the path of least resistance through an area, trying to find a natural course of a path avoiding trees, boulders, and other obstacles.

The next step is to clear the ground and brush from the area using hoes, loppers, and axes. Fallen logs are sawed and separated making space for the trail.

If the trail is through a mountain pass (especially in the rocky mountains), then the trail makers often have to clear rocks to uncover the dirt or gravel underneath. This is extremely difficult labor–and this is where trail makers have to carefully unearth rocks using rock bars or other leverage as necessary. This has to be done very carefully since rocks tumbling down a mountainside can be deadly.

Many popular trails through the mountains often have a bit more development–including wooden platforms that sit on top of swampy areas so that foot traffic doesn’t make a bog. I’m assuming that some of these wooden platforms are built elsewhere and carried in sections to the trail–although you will see rough hewn wood at times used for such purposes, showing the trail maker had to improvise on location.

Another task that many trail makers do is to make another type of trail marker so that over time as the trail becomes less or more defined over time, the trail is still distinguishable. This is an incredibly important step–many times we definitely would have gotten lost without secondary trail markers. These trail markers are often called blazes.

Blazes can be a stack of rocks (a cairn), paint on the tree, a section of the bark cut out in a square (very common for old trails), colored stakes in the ground, or simply just posts or signs. We take for granted that someone had to carry the gear to make these blazes–even making a cairn takes a few minutes of stooping and picking up and stacking appropriately-sized rocks.

2. Machine-made Trails

If the location has easy access to roads, or is expecting a large amount of foot traffic (such as seen at national parks), or require exceptional levelness as in the case of dirt bike trails, then it may be time to call in the cavalry.

Some companies, like Sutter, make “dozers” specifically for the purpose of trail making. These machines are thin in profile and are meant to cause as little impact as possible. You can see more information including pictures about the Sutter trail makers here.

Trailbuilders.org, which is a website for the Professional Trailbuilders Association, has a list of construction equipment resources that are used for building trails. There are many different manufacturers who specialize in equipment for trail-making.

That being said, even though there are dozers that are specifically made for trail building, it’s likely that any dozer can be used (and has been used) to help in building a trail. Moving soil, rocks, and brush is done much more effectively with the help of a dozer. The ecological impact of these machines is another discussion, entirely, though.

In reality, it’s very likely that most major trails in a national park or other location are made from both manual and machine methods.

Furthermore, machine use is always more expensive initially, so some parts of the forest service or other trail maintainer may opt for manual labor in the short term.

3. Animal Runs (deer trails)

You may have made the mistake of following a trail that is very narrow that winds carefully around logs and brush but that doesn’t seem to lead anywhere. You may have found an animal run!

Animals, just like people, try to find the easiest route between point A and point B. Enough animals going the same route will eventually make a trail. These are often called deer trails but any woodland creature can help in establishing the trail.

Even people just marching in single file for a long enough period of time will make a trail. (I noticed that on my college campus easily enough)

Image Examples of Trail Construction

I found an incredible document from the BLM website that shows the entire process, manual and machine. Although we aren’t privy to the presentation notes, these are pictures of many aspects of trail construction, and you’ll see a mix of both manual and machine.

BLM Trail Equipment PDF. One thing the document does show that isn’t necessarily accurate is everybody wearing hard hats. 🙂 The trail workers I saw didn’t wear any, but I’m sure in an official presentation everybody has to.

From these images, you get an idea of the incredibly difficult labor that entails building and maintaining a trail–and you see some of the high danger that some of these trails have.

Who Works on Trails?

As you might expect, some people who on trails are employees of that particular park or of the park system, many specifically hired to be a trail builder.

Job Monkey writes a bit about the work as a trail builder and some resources (including its own website) for finding a trail building job.

The crazy part about trail building jobs is that some do this difficult labor as volunteers, solely based on their love of nature.

On a personal level, I only know of the trail builders that I met in the mountains that day. We talked to them for some time, and learned that many of them were only working for the Summer in between college semesters, and if I recall correctly only being paid around $10 an hour, but with meals paid for (whatever they fed them while in the mountains or in between projects).

I gained a new respect and admiration for those who maintain and build trails. It’s a tremendous amount of work that goes largely unthanked. We don’t even think about the effort it takes to allow us access into earth’s most beautiful locations.

Thank you trail builders! We appreciate you!

Peter

Peter is a software developer who loves to take every opportunity to go outside that he can get. Peter grew up going on long backpacking excursions with his family every Summer and now enjoys staying at the beautiful Texas State Parks and swimming in the amazing Texas Rivers.

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