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Simple Trail-Clearing Guide



Select the equipment you will need for a specific outing from this list: 

  • Pack: for carrying other gear.

  • Work gloves: Should have at least a leather palm for comfort and durability. 

  • Long-handled lopping shears: Pruning shears for limbs over 1/2-inch diameter; 24-inch handles are lighter and suitable for most tasks; 30-inch handles provide more leverage and require less bending. 

  • Bow saw: For large branches and blowdowns; 24- and 36-inch blades will suffice for most tasks. 

  • Pruning saw: 10-inch for most pruning work. Folding style is very handy. 

  • Weed whip: Long-handled, scythe-like tool with 12-inch serrated blade, to be swung through vegetation at ground level; before using, replace nuts with lock-nuts, or use Loctite or a similar compound. Keep two hands on the handle at all times. Do not use near other people. 

  • Hand pruning shears: Keep handy for thin branches, stalks and vines. 

  • Plastic bags: for litter; heavy duty is best. 

  • Surveyor's tape: For temporary blazes. 


Axes are not recommended for routine trail maintenance. 

Power tools require training and certification before being used on the trail and should never be used when alone. 

Edged and toothed tools are more effective, less tiring, and much safer if they are kept sharp. 




Ideally, hikers should find a path cleared to a width of 4 feet and a height of 8 feet. They should be able to walk with backpacks without touching surrounding growth. This width allows side growth of approximately 1 foot before needing re-cutting. 


Where a trail receives little use by backpackers, these measurements may be adjusted downward, with your Coordinator's prior approval. 


If you are working alone, you will find that it is difficult to lop, clear blowdowns, blaze and pick up litter all on one trip. Gradually, you will develop a method that suits you. For a start, carry your loppers, saw and litter bag on every trip. Keep the loppers in hand for frequent use, and keep the other tools handy in your pack. 


Reporting: Each time you perform work on the trail report the tasks performed, time worked and travel time to your Trail Coordinator. Aggregate volunteer hours are used to document the extent of our activities. This information is particularly important for obtaining governmental support and private funding. 


Vegetation: Cut all branches as close as possible to the trunk and all main stems or trunks as close as possible to the ground. If a small sapling is growing at the immediate edge of the trail, cut it off at ground level so that no stub protrudes. If a branch originates from a tree a step or two off the trail, step off the trail and cut the branch off next to the trunk. 


Branches cut some distance from the trunk, and trunks cut some distance above the ground, are safety hazards to the hiker and tend to develop suckers or side branches, which eventually multiply the maintainer's work. 


At first, it takes some steeling of the will to cut laurel, rhododendron, hemlock and other live growth, but if the trail is to exist, the clearing must be done. Throw all clippings and cuttings off the trail . with the cut ends away from the trail — and out of sight if possible. 


Blowdowns: A chainsaw should only be used by a maintainer who has been trained and certified in its use and is accompanied by someone else for safety purposes. Otherwise, the maintainer should use a folding saw or bow saw which restricts the size of the log that you can cut. A 10 inch folding saw can cut logs smaller than 6 inches in diameter and a 24 inch bow saw can cut logs smaller than 12 inches in diameter. You should report logs larger than this so that a trained and certified sawyer can cut them. 


Fire Rings: Unauthorized circles of stone and ashes should be destroyed by heaving the stones into the woods in different directions and sweeping away the ashes. If possible, cover the area with leaves and sticks. Removing all traces of the fire ring discourages repeated use of the area. Make a special effort to discourage all fire rings in hemlock groves, where fire will travel quickly along the flammable surface and the underground roots. 


Litter: Litter is the bane of the trail maintainer in some areas. The best time to do a thorough cleanup is in late summer, when litter is not yet obscured by fallen leaves. Pick up the litter, using heavy work gloves, and carry it out in heavy-gauge plastic bags. You can make the work easier by tying the bag to your pack frame or by carrying it out in a plastic garbage container fastened to a pack frame. 


Do not leave litter at the trailhead. Place it where trash pickup will be made, or bring it home for neighborhood pickup. If you have an unusually large amount of litter that you cannot handle alone, contact your Coordinator about organizing a cleanup day; there are many local groups that perform this kind of activity as a community service. 


Waterbars: Waterbars are logs or rocks placed diagonally across a sloping trail to control erosion from water. Clear them of debris on each trip, especially after the leaves have fallen. When needed, you should scrape the uphill side to restore the original trench depth. The discharge end must also be kept clean to ensure free-flowing runoff. Right-angled checkdams are intended to hold back soil. Do not clear them out. Add additional ones if necessary. 


Other construction: Check steps, bridges and other construction for signs of deterioration or damage. Repair what you can, and report major problems to your Coordinator.

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