October 1, 2019
An earlier article discussed how trail builders maintain Hinesburg’s existing trails to avoid damage from water and erosion while making it more pleasant to walk, run or ride. But our trail network is growing and that means designing and building trails from scratch. Even if you don’t own a lot of land, you too can create trails that allow more access and enjoyment on your own land. But as with most things involving nature, doing it right can be a lot harder than doing it fast. When I constructed our first trails years ago, I built our rough trails in just a couple of days — but spent years fixing my mistakes! As Cathy Busch, a veteran trail builder for the national Girl Scouts noted about the trails she built, “Planning was the worst part, the rest was just muscle.” There’s the impulse to start clearing, cutting and digging — and figure it out as we go. But a guide to trail building on smaller land parcels from the University of Arkansas cautions that, “a trail that just ‘happens’ is almost always too steep or narrow, doesn’t follow the contour and has erosion problems.”
Here are a few questions to get started in designing a trail:
What’s the purpose? How will the trail be used and what do you want to get out of your experiences on it? Are you mostly interested in enjoying aesthetics — the beauty of nature? Will it be used for walking or for heavier exercise like hiking or trail running? Maybe faster uses like mountain biking or even winter skiing or sliding? Plain dirt may support walking but won’t hold up so well to mountain biking. Natural features like roots and rocks may also not cause problems for summer strolls but can be hazardous for faster uses like running or sliding. Will it be straight out and back or a loop — or even a figure-eight design? Trails for small acreages often work better as loops or figure eights that bring us back to the starting point — more interesting than straight out-and-back trails.
What else besides our feet might often use the trail surfaces? Will there be frequent use by bikes, horses or motorized vehicles? These are likely to require additional design work because of heavier impacts from use. Examples for bikes include additional banking of the trail and wider turning areas. Or for trails used by horses, embedded stones to support the heavier concentrated weight of horses’ hoofs — especially in steep sections. Having the right surface in place to handle the type of use is more work upfront but much less effort in the long run.
How might the needs of trail users change across different seasons? Summer means foliage that can block views but offer more interesting plants. It means that clearing outlooks and protecting vegetation may be needed. And there’s more risk of erosion from flowing water. Winter means more open views but also ice and snow, which can make those steep grades that provided welcome summer exercise into unworkable obstacles.
Around Hinesburg these parameters or rules often depend on the topography of the land. Contours including the grade or slope plus the streams or cliffs we are working with must guide the design. One common rule is to follow the contours where possible. Another example is the very rough rule of thumb for multiple uses which is to keep the trail grade less than half of the grade of the hillside it is crossing and climbing. The time to develop trail planning parameters or rules that resolve the different challenges versus your limited resources — especially the time you want to put into building the trail — is before the digging and cutting begin.
And don’t forget to ask, where’s the water headed … and going to? Try to work with the flow rather than fighting natural processes by trying to change how the water flows. Steve Andrews noted in an article in the Clymb magazine that, “… understanding how water flow and soil type interact — erode or form mud etc. — is more important to a successful trail design than any amount of digging — usually the first impulse in building a trail … if you think about the slope of a trail, you may think simply about the direction people will be walking/biking etc. But the angle of the fall line, or basically the slope that water flows, is very important to the trail that crosses the slope. Any trail that follows the fall line … will not be a trail for long. The trail will just attract water and that will become the next river/creek/stream etc. down the hill.”
Outsloping: One suggestion is to have the downhill side of your trail slightly lower than the uphill side, so that any water can continue to run down the hill. Doing the opposite is a surefire way to become a mud magnet. Another easier solution than numerous water bars for diverting water off trails is to build rolling grades into the trail itself. These gently rise and fall to help slow down and divert water from the trail. Rolling grades can be combined with gentle outsloping to guide water off the trail. Outsloping is similar in some ways to how the hardworking Hinesburg road crew grades our dirt roads to handle downpours. The grader operator tries to create higher crowns following the center lines of our dirt roads, so water flows off the roads to the side rather than forming puddles in the road or flowing straight down the hills. If these solutions — sloping and rolling grades — aren’t enough or workable, you can add switchbacks or climbing turns to reduce grades. These may be more work than rolling grades but work well on steep hillsides.
One final goal is to leave no trace. “Remember: trail building is behind-the-scenes work, and you want to keep it that way. Fill soil pits with decomposing logs, sticks, and leaf litter to cover tracks and eliminate ground hazards. Scatter discarded duff off-trail, top side up, for a natural look.
Trail building is not like landscaping to dress up a house. Instead it’s to provide access to nature — the way it’s meant to be experienced. And last, it takes time to get it right. So have fun trying it out and be proud of the effort even if it’s not perfect. One guarantee is that with nature’s help it will never be perfect.