Leveling up: understanding trail maintenance
~ Yohann Hanley, Project Manager
If you have made it to this blog section of the WMTC website, it is safe to assume that you have more than a passing interest in trail maintenance and perhaps have perused our past and upcoming projects as well. In those write-ups, you will have noticed references to the types and “levels” of work that need to be done, both forest-wide and at specific sites.
While we try to be as clear as possible about what is going to be happening at any given site, we do take some liberty in assuming some shared terminology specific to trail maintenance with which newcomers may not be familiar. This post should help clarify what we mean when we talk about the level of maintenance planned for an area or specific trail – breaking down what Level 1, 2, and 3 maintenance looks like and a bit of how we determine what a project requires.
Level 1 maintenance is the most important maintenance that can and should be done for the sustainability of a trail. It is the trail’s equivalent of an oil change, the annual dental cleaning, or the physical exam. The most potentially damaging factors to a trail’s longevity are: water, humans, plant growth, and wind. We have little to no control over how any of these factors interact with the trails on a daily basis, so we must do everything we can to mitigate their potential for damage whenever we can. Level 1 maintenance is aimed directly at that mitigation effort on a large scale and focuses on three things: (1) clearing drainage to get water off the trail, (2) cutting back blown-down trees and in-growing plant material to keep the corridor open, and (3) ensuring that blazing and signage are adequate to keep people safely on the trails.
Running water is the most potentially damaging force that impacts a trail. Through sustainable grading design and installation of drainage structures, we can mitigate the ability of water to run along the trail’s treadway (the compacted soil where we want you to put your feet), which removes soil and creates wet spots that people will bypass. Those drainage structures, however, need regular, thorough maintenance to keep operating properly. At least once a year, a drainage should be cleaned of all loose material and plant matter that has accumulated; the outflow of the drainage needs to be cleared; and the soil in the drainage should be reshaped to move water off of the treadway.
Blow-Downs and Brushing:
Most (non-wilderness) trails should have a 4x8 foot corridor for hikers to move along. The “treadway” may only be a foot or two in width, but the extra width keeps branches out of your face and creates better sight lines in thick woods or brush. Trees die, or are blown down in storms, and fall across trails all the time. The obstruction creates hazards for hikers who attempt to go over or under those trees, or go out and around them, which impacts the plants and soil along the trail. Branches and brush can quickly grow into the open space of a trail corridor, making it difficult to follow. People also actively avoid walking through branches, especially wet ones, and by moving around them, individuals widen the trail and impact the plants and soils alongside the intended treadway. Blown down trees should be removed from the corridor and brush should be cut back to maintain the 4x8 opening as much as possible. Cut logs and brush should be dispersed away from the trail to avoid creating piles of dead plant material alongside the trail.
Painted blazes, or reassurance markers, are used along many trails to ease hikers’ minds that they are indeed following the intended path. Depending on the land manager, there are typically specific colors for different types of trails. Blazing is one of the harder skills to master, as it is more open to interpretation than drainage clearing or brush removal. White Mountain National Forest blazes are White (AT), Blue (connects to AT), or Yellow (does not connect to AT), and should be 2x6 inches (roughly the size of a dollar bill). Ideally, you should only see one blaze in front of you at any given time. Blazing is typically the last Level 1 skill folks are asked to do and often involves a greater degree of mentorship from an experienced maintainer or land manager. Signs and sign maintenance are not typically part of Level 1 maintenance, but it is good to note their condition as you go so you can report it to the land manager if they are damaged or missing.
With over 1200 miles of non-motorized trails in and around the White Mountain National Forest, it is easy to be overwhelmed with the sheer scope of just this basic, yearly maintenance to keep our trails safe and passable. The paid crews of the WMNF, NH State Parks, and the many larger clubs would not be able to keep up with this work if it was not for the vital assistance of hundreds of volunteer trail stewards and adopters who give their time and energy to specific areas or sections of trails every year. Level 1 maintenance is a great way to begin giving back to the trails you love in a tangible way, and there are many ways to get involved through landowners and clubs across the Forest.
Despite the best efforts of volunteers and trail crews to keep up with basic maintenance, there inevitably comes a time in a trail’s life when it will need more involved work to keep it safe and sustainable. Many of our trails in the WMNF are decades, even centuries, old and were built in a time when the best route was considered the fastest route to the top. They were also built in a time when they might see several thousand hikers a year, not several thousand per week as some trails currently see. Trails can also be severely impacted by storms, floods, and avalanches depending on the terrain they cross.
When a trail becomes washed out, deeply eroded, or otherwise unsustainable, it is time for a larger scale project - Level 2 work. This work can involve many different things:
- Restoration or rebuilding of existing structures - failed drainages, steps, retaining walls, bridges or boardwalks, cairns for navigation in alpine zones
- Installation of new structures in newly impacted areas
- Small relocations around new hazards, such as moving away from a changed riverbank or traversing a rockslide
- Installing switchbacks in the trail to ease the grade and prevent future erosion damage
This is a brief and not nearly comprehensive list of mitigation techniques, but serves to give you an idea of what this “project” level work might entail. Level 2 work does require a greater level of training and skills for implementation, but much of this work is still conducted or supported through large-scale volunteer efforts in addition to paid crews.
To me, the main distinction between Level 2 and Level 3 work is the need for highly specialized tools or techniques to accomplish the same basic types of work. Where building a new staircase in a spot with good soil and readily available stone requires a specific skill set, building that same staircase in a spot with poor or no soil, or only huge boulders available needs advanced techniques that require much more training and experience. Some factors that would advance a project from Level 2 to Level 3 maintenance include:
- Use of highline systems to move materials uphill or across sensitive soils or vegetation
- Use of rock drills and splitting materials to make useable-size rock for construction
- Historical preservation work
- Chainsaw carpentry- building log ladders or bridges
Another major distinction between Level 2 and 3 work is the time (and therefore money) required to do the work. A 10-step staircase in ideal conditions may take an experienced trail worker 3-5 days to complete. The same staircase that requires all the rock to be cut and “flown” on a highline might take 7-10 days to complete. The tools needed for this level of work are also very expensive on their own, plus the additional training time required to use them safely. While there are some very highly skilled volunteer groups out there that do work at this level, much of this specialized work is done by paid crews, or at least by volunteers who are heavily supported by paid crews.
I hope this post has helped clarify what we mean when we talk about Level 1 maintenance and Level 2 and Level 3 project work on our trails. The lines can be fuzzy, and some other maintainers might define the levels slightly differently than we do, but operationally, the WMTC relies on these distinctions when determining the levels of maintenance required on our projects.
I have tried to emphasize how vital the work of volunteer maintainers and stewards is to the maintenance of our trails, but if I haven’t made it clear- we would never be able to keep up with trail work without the thousands of hours of labor these folks contribute to our public lands every year. If you are a volunteer maintainer: thank you, thank you, thank you! If you are not currently a volunteer, I would ask that you please consider how you can give back or support those who are. There is important, needed work that can be done by anyone who wants to, regardless of age or ability.
If you want to find out how to get involved in trail maintenance, please contact the Forest Service, your local trail organization, or reach out to those of us here at the WMTC about how to connect with training and trail adoption programs.
Adoption of Crawford Path
~ by Melanie Luce, Executive Director
During the summers of 2018 and 2019, the WMTC successfully completed a trail restoration project on 200-year-old Crawford Path, which provides an ascent to Mount Washington from the southern section of the Presidential Range. Over 15,000 hours of professional trail crew and volunteer time were required to restore the scenic 8.5-mile trail, but the maintenance doesn't end with that project!
In an effort to protect and preserve the "oldest, continuously maintained hiking trail in America," and to ensure its sustainability for future generations, the WMTC is formally adopting Crawford Path from the USFS, WMNF.
The WMTC will be responsible for on-going Level 1 maintenance and will be allowed to use the unique trail landscape for maintenance training and education.
Crawford Path is home to a landscape or “trailscape” that includes incredible rock features and exposed areas of fragile alpine vegetation. This vegetation is known as “alpine cinquefoil” and needs continuous monitoring to ensure it is allowed to flourish. The WMTC will work closely with WMNF botanists to ensure the sustainability of this vegetation.
Meet Yohann Hanley, WMTC Project Manager
Location: Center Conway, NH
Start date with the WMTC: February 2020
Why I’m involved with the WMTC:
My position as Project Manager allows me to combine my favorite parts of my previous careers: I get to build trail, I get to teach skills, and through those things I have a lasting impact on my community and the physical landscape. I have been recreating in the White Mountains for more than 20 years, so it's very important to me to give back to this place that has given me so much.
Interests/activities: Rock Climbing, hiking, reading
Favorite muscle powered activity to partake in: Climbing
Favorite trail in the Whites and why:
Franconia Ridge, my first solo backpacking trip at 17
Favorite piece of outdoor gear: Limmer Boots
Favorite color: Green
Something most people don’t know about me:
The axe I carry in the woods was my great-grandfather’s, and my dad gave it to me for my birthday after my first year in the woods.
Best meal I’ve ever had while camping or out on the trails:
Ugali with goat and lentil stew
Three words that describe how I feel when I’m out on the trails: Sore, Hungry, and Tired (I’m getting old.)
Life before the WMTC:
I am an AMC Professional Trail Crew alumnus (2004-2006) and co-founder of the Ragged Mountain Foundation’s Conservation Crew (2013-16) in Connecticut. I’ve spent most of my professional career in education, both in classrooms and the outdoors. As an avid climber and hiker, I believe that the outdoors can and should be accessible to all people.