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Trails Don’t Build Themselves

Disclosure: Products are selected by our editors. We may earn a commission on purchases from a link.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if road riders were gathering on weekends with steam rollers and trucks full of asphalt to patch or repair rough roads? That doesn’t happen, but on any given weekend, anywhere across the country, mountain bikers get together with rakes, shovels, or maybe even mini excavators to create or improve the trails that we all ride on. Building trails—the right way—takes lots of work, and in many cases most of that work takes place before a shovel or hoe even scratches the dirt.

What We'll Cover

Here, we’ll dig into some of what that work entails, from planning to building. The process includes many steps and could take years if the project is on federal or state land, or it could take an afternoon of hard work with some hand tools if you’re working on your own property. This will just be an introduction, but the proverbial rabbit hole runs deep, and before you know it, you could be studying soil hydrology to better understand how water affects the trails or enrolling in a trail building certificate program. Also, much of what will be covered here pertains mostly to cross country-ish trails. Bike parks, pump tracks or the bridge and “skinny” laden trails like those found in British Columbia’s north shore are different beasts entirely.

Plans, Permission, and People

Some of what we ride might have started out as game trails, or just paths in the woods that eventually got worn in over time by hikers or hooligans; if enough feet, hooves, or tires cross some terrain, a trail is born. Unfortunately, sometimes these trails cross private property, sensitive natural areas, or are built in a way that leads to erosion and crappy conditions. A good, and sustainable, trail needs a plan.

Organizations such as the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) and the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), are both well-established trail advocacy organizations that have created standards which are used on mountain biking trails across the country, and the world. Both of their books, “Trail Solutions, IMBA’s Guide to Building Sweet Singletrack,” and “AMC’S COMPLETE GUIDE TO TRAIL BUILDING AND MAINTENANCE,” spell out how to create a trail plan and a significant portion of that plan will involve identifying and working with landowners or other agencies that manage forests and natural resource areas. 

Trail building manuals
Quality trail building literature

A recent Pinkbike article, discussing trail work, noted, “the only acceptable way for you to do your part is under the organized direct supervision of a land manager or a group legally authorized by that land manager.”

This can be a complicated process and the most time-consuming aspect to a trail project. That’s probably why so many trails just get created; who wants to attend a few 4-hour Conservation Commission meetings, or learn how to approach a private landowner about a trail easement or answer questions about liability?

As an example,more than two years ago a local trail runner came to my city’s Open Space and Recreation Committee, a committee that I now chair, with a proposal to add a new trail to a small trail area with about two miles of already established trails. The trail would connect the current loop to another area of the park that was, as of yet, inaccessible. Conceptually, the trail made sense, at least to some of us. Others had concerns about the impact this could have on an area that’s protected, untouched and unmolested by trail users.

After several months of meetings, different trail route proposals and site visits, our committee voted to support the trail.

Building a trail
Putting in the work

Then, the proposal had to be presented to our city’s Conservation Commission (ConCom), which is responsible for enforcing Massachusetts’ Wetlands Protection Act. The WPA is Massachusetts law, but some other states have similar regulations. Anyway, after reviewing the proposal, the ConCom  determined that they would need to do their own site visit and they felt that a short wildlife impact study was also needed to ensure that the trail wouldn’t impact any sensitive bird habitat.

I’d like to point out right now that I am 100% in support of wetland and environmental protections. If a trail is going to impact salamanders or lady slippers (wild orchids), I’d rather reroute the trail. I’m merely pointing out why trail proposals can take months or years before any dirt is touched.

For this trail, the process has been ongoing for almost three years, and we’re still working on it. It needs a small bridge for which we applied for a grant, and again, that takes time. However, without doing things “the right way,” if someone had just started clearing and cutting a trail for their buddies to bomb down on their mountain bikes, we would have been forced to close off the trail. That would have been a lot of work for us and wasted a lot of work for the rogue builders. Trails that just get built without permission also create a lot of headaches for the people and groups trying to go through the proper channels. Unapproved trail work and building paints all mountain bikers in a bad light. The lesson here: take the time to develop a good plan and get permission from the right people.

A single track trail
Trails like this are the result of an immense amount of planning and hard work

Do the Homework

With this in mind, the first step to any trail proposal is determining who owns and/or manages the land in question. The organization in charge might be simple to figure out initially, if say the proposed trail would be in “Your Local State Park,” but the layers of bureaucracy might lead from a park ranger to a state office of conservation or environmental protection or beyond. The trail to find who ultimately has approval authority can be as long and winding as your favorite singletrack, and may involve committees, and local politicians. It’s often a complicated process, whether the land is federally, state, or city owned. One of the other challenges here is that sometimes people move on and advocacy organizations have to keep constantly maintaining or developing relationships with the right people.

If there’s no clear sign stating who owns or manages the land, then some research is needed. A state’s or city’s GIS (geographic information system) will be able to provide publicly available information about who owns a specific parcel of land just by zooming and clicking, although it may take some time to learn how to navigate menu. Some of these GIS sites, like the one for Massachusetts are more user friendly than others. However, these online resources will have many helpful layers available to show wetlands, topographical features, aerial photos and much more. An app called onX also provides ownership information in the palm of your hand and is great for gathering data in the field.

Clearing trees for a trail

Private land can come with just as many layers of complexity. First off, if a trail needs to cross someone’s land, the owner can just say, “no,” and that’s that. If the owner will consider allowing access, that could be in the form of an official trail easement and will impact future ability for development and property values. An easement could open a landowner up to liability, off-trail trespassing, or vandalism. Because of this, gaining access across commercial property might need approval from a board of trustees and need legal input. Oh, and government agencies might have jurisdiction over activities on private land, and even if a landowner green lights a trail project, it still might need to be presented to a Conservation Commission or other organization.

If all of this sounds confusing, complicated, and time consuming, that’s because it is.

Just as much time needs to be spent understanding the land and terrain for the potential new trail, and the area should be scouted extensively and under different conditions. A dry summer trail could be a boggy mess in spring, or one area may work well for singletrack trails but will need to also accommodate horses. Also, protected species, like the lady slippers mentioned before, or vernal pools which are important for amphibians, might only be visible in certain times of year. In Massachusetts, vernal pools are protected and typically need a 100ft buffer, so poor planning could derail a project before it’s even started. Other things to think about before sketching more trails on a map include:

  • As above, who owns or manages the land? What is the official proposal process?
  • Who are the intended users? Hikers, bikers, equestrians might all have different wants and desires when it comes to trail features.
  • Are there points of interest that should be included on a trail, such as scenic vistas or rock formations?
  • Are there points of interest that should be avoided such as sensitive habitat or wetland areas?
  • Who will build the trail? Volunteers? Are there liability concerns?
  • Who will maintain the trail in the long term?
  • How will the trail be built? You may need to include specifics such as “hand tools only,” and “no trees more than 2” in diameter will be cut.”
  • Will any hardscape, such as bridges, boardwalks, or stonework be needed?
  • How will erosion and drainage be managed?
  • How will signage and/or maps be handled?
  • Does the trail need parking?

Good proposals cover all this information and show that the research was done to ensure that the trail is well thought out and should be sustainable.  Getting a trail proposal approved is all about being prepared to answer questions and easing any fears or concerns a landowner or agency might have. Images of a Redbull Rampage or any other “extreme” version of mountain biking can make some people apprehensive when it comes to approving MTB trails. Be sure to include photos of kids and families on bikes! 

Kids and families on bikes
Kids and families on bikes

Sustainable Trails

Sustainability is a bit of a buzzword when it comes to trail design, but it’s important because poorly built trails lead to erosion, more maintenance and often a poor user experience. With severe weather occurring in more areas, and more people on the trails, planners and builders need to think about the future. But what IS a sustainable trail?

The National Park Service, in a 2012 trails guideline book quotes Don Beers’ definition as “a trail that has been designed and constructed to such standard that it does not adversely impact natural and cultural resources, can withstand the impacts of the intended user while receiving only routine cyclic maintenance and meets the needs of the intended user to a degree that they do not deviate from the established trail alignment.” Another more brief definition is that it’s a trail that protects the environment, meets user needs and expectations, and requires little maintenance.  Mike Repyak, IMBA’s Trail Solutions Director of Planning and Design goes a bit further, saying, “there are three lenses to sustainability… Environmentally Sustainable, Socially Sustainable, and Fiscally Sustainable.” I think, bottom line; it’s a trail that’s built to last.

Planning and building a sustainable trail in southern California will be different than in Florida and that will be different from a trail in Michigan. Varying soil types, elevation, root or rock content, and many other features need to be considered. But the common theme will be dealing with the destructive effects of water.

As The State of New Hampshire’s Division of Parks & Recreation Bureau of Trails puts it, “water is the most powerful influence in the trail world and its mission is to remove your soil.”

Both standing water and flowing water are detrimental to a trail’s long term sustainability, but for different reasons. Standing water is bad because most people, hikers and mountain bikers alike, will try to avoid large puddles and will widen a trail to go around. The bigger the puddle, the more widening that occurs. And riding fast through smaller, shallow puddles will disturb and pull sediment from the bottom which will eventually make the puddle deeper, which will perpetuate the wet area, likely leading to trail widening.

A wooden bridge over water
If you can't drain it, you have to go over it

Standing water can be bad, but flowing water is brutal; just look at the Grand Canyon to see what it can do. “Sheet flow” is widespread water flowing downhill, but that eventually becomes “concentrated flow” which is more like a river and follows the path of least resistance, such as compacted soil free of vegetation—a trail. The longer and steeper the trail, the faster the water flows and the more destruction it can cause.  This is why mountain bike trail builders will work to avoid “fall line” trails—ones that go straight down a slope—no matter how fun that steep line might be, unless of course it’s down a rock face or otherwise armored to protect against erosion.

Diagram explaining the fall line
Fall line (from the book Trail Solutions, IMBA's Guide to Building Sweet Singletrack, reprinted with permission)

Trails that were built before sustainability considerations were in common practice may need more frequent maintenance or a complete re-route. One of my local state parks has an older, relatively steep, fall line trail that had water bars installed—logs partially buried and oriented diagonally across a trail to break up the water flow—and then the trail was re-graded with gravel, and it still gets deep ravines after heavy rains. The best way to avoid this constant cycle of erosion and maintenance is to build the trail the right way the first time.

Fortunately, in its Trail Solutions book, IMBA gives mountain bike trail builders some guidelines to help do it right from the get go, and these are the five basic elements of sustainable trails. Before getting into these, I should point out again that these are guidelines and not hard and fast rules. Different trails in different areas may need more or less work than suggested here. Some trails that don’t get much use may be able to handle a steep line, and in some instances, riders may want more roots and rocks, and less emphasis on drainage. Trail design is very subjective, and someone probably hates your favorite trail and you’ll hate a trail that someone put their heart and soul into.

Also, before going further, you should understand that a slope’s grade is defined as its rise over run. Does the slope rise (or fall) 10ft as it goes 100ft of linear distance, (10/100 = 10% grade), if so that’s a 10% grade. See, you always wondered when middle school algebra was going to be needed. You can geek out on more trail definitions here.

Defining trail grade
Trail grade (from the book Trail Solutions, IMBA’s Guide to Building Sweet Singletrack , reprinted with permission)

The Half Rule–A trail’s grade should not exceed 50% of the slope’s grade. If you want to go down a hill that’s got a 10% grade, you’d have to make a trail that cuts across the slope and doesn’t exceed 5%.

Half rule diagram
Half rule (from the book Trail Solutions, IMBA's Guide to Building Sweet Singletrack, reprinted with permission)

The Ten Percent Average Guideline–Not all trails are straight lines and sometimes short sections may need to be steeper, but the overall average grade of trail should not exceed 10%.

Average grade diagram

Maximum Sustainable Grade–Certain features to specific areas may allow for some steep sections, but for the most part, a trail grade of 15-20% is the maximum steepness that can be sustained, unless there’s rock or other structural armoring.

Grade Reversals–Grade reversals, in addition to making a trail more fun as it undulates, also helps shed water that may otherwise collect or run straight down a trail. This practice takes a trail’s overall grade, downhill let’s say, and goes up slightly before going down again. The changes can be subtle, but effective at controlling water flow, especially with good outslopes (below), and add a roller-coaster feel when riding.

Grade reversal diagram
Grade reversal (from the book Trail Solutions, IMBA's Guide to Building Sweet Singletrack, reprinted with permission)

Outslope–Trails that go across a side slope should also have their outside edges slightly lower than the inside edge by about 5% to also help move water off the trail. Outslopes promote sheet flow over concentrated flow, and help prevent running water from washing out a trail or carving a ravine.

Outslope diagram

And while these general guidelines will help trails withstand the elements, a good trail builder is an artist, working with the land rather than against it. Soil characteristics and average rainfall will also affect how a trail is laid out, and these don’t even start the discussion about managing areas of standing water on flat trails.  You can find numerous books and other resources that describe the mechanics of good trail design, but it takes years of experience to really see what’s possible in any given area, whether that’s a re-route or a whole new trail.

Tools of the Trade

When it comes to trail work, much like bike work, there are certain tools that are “must haves” and plenty of “nice to haves.” IMBA considers these to be the 10 essential tools:

  • Clinometer–for determining the steepness of a trail or slope
  • Flagging Tape–obviously for flagging where the trail should or shouldn’t go
  • Pulaski–part ax, part hoe, great for loosening dirt and cutting through roots
  • McLeod–good for shaping dirt, raking, and tamping or compacting tread
  • Rockbar (pry bar)–for prying large rocks or logs
  • Tape Measure–obviously for measuring
  • Digital Level–helpful for getting that perfect outslope
  • Pruners/loppers–for cutting branches, roots or small trees
  • Shovels–different blade shapes help move or shape dirt, different handle options (long handle or D-shaped) also have different purposes
  • Sledgehammer–look for a 6-8lb head and 3ft handle for stone work (another kind of sledgehammer might help while you’re doing trail work as well)
Tools and materials being transported on a card
Tools and materials need to be hauled in - make it easy on yourself

These are all great, but I also love a good folding saw to fit in a pack, a good folding shovel, different rakes, a brush mower, and chainsaws. Given you’ll be swinging around sharp and/or pointy things, first aid kits are also a good idea as well as gloves, glasses, and other protective gear. Of course, you need a way to carry all this stuff, either on your body or your bike. And someday I also want a mini-excavator and a trail dozer, but I digress. 

Motorized tools for trail building
Clearing a path with a brush mower
Sometimes you need to bring out the motorized equipment

The Planners and The Diggers

Mountain bike and trail advocacy groups can be found in all corners of the country and everywhere in between for those who feel the need to build trails. Some are large, like NEMBA with 33 chapters and more than 8000 members and others will be small, with maybe just a few riders focusing on trails in one small area. It would be impossible to list all of the trail advocacy groups out there, but here are a few. If this has inspired you to get out there and help shape the trails of tomorrow and you want to find the group near you, just ask Google.

Operating a steamroller
It might be motorized, but at least it has two wheels

End of the Trail (or the Beginning)

I hope this has given you a better appreciation for all the work that goes into a mountain bike trail, and I also hope it’s inspired you to reach out to your local mountain bike trail building organization to offer a hand. There is definitely a feeling of satisfaction that comes with working in the dirt and you can make the trails better for everyone. “No dig, no ride” is an ethos and philosophy that I wholeheartedly believe in, so reach out and pitch in.


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