Do you ever wonder, as you’re hiking, how the trail you’re on emerged in the first place, and who maintains it? Well, give countless thanks to the dedicated organizations and volunteers throughout the country who work all year long to maintain and monitor hiking and multi-use trails. Like your car or house, trails also need upkeep and regular inspections. And all this requires significant resources, both in labor and money, to ensure the public has access to safe, cleared and well-marked paths.
The greatest challenge facing volunteers is how to minimize erosion, not only from foot travelers but also from Mother Nature as well. Outdoor activities such as hiking and backpacking have become increasingly popular in recent years, resulting in greater foot traffic with lasting impact. For instance, a 2005 report by the National Park Service noted that several million people set foot on the Appalachian Trail each year, which averages just 24 inches in width. Most hikers venture for several miles, but some hike for weeks and months at a time, covering hundreds, if not thousands of miles, from Georgia to Maine.
Common Trail Problems
A dedicated effort, based on sound soil management, is needed to preserve our trail systems throughout the US. Different methods are used for different trail problems. Some problems that arise on trails include side hill erosion, trail widening due to muddy conditions, traversing delicate ecosystems, hardening a trail to manage water runoff and direct foot traffic to name several.
Side Hill Erosion
A perfect illustration of correcting side hill erosion with trail hardening is currently being conducted at Bear Mountain State Park by the New York/New Jersey Trail Conference, an organization that preserves open space and maintains an extensive trail network throughout the region. Called the Bear Mountain Trails Project, it is designed to rebuild the Appalachian Trail on Bear Mountain, the first section of the AT which opened in 1923. This section has an estimated 200,000 hikers a year. This type of use over the years resulted in significant side hill erosion. The Bear Mountain Trails Project proposed and built an amazing stairway up Bear Mountain to eliminate the side hill erosion and minimize water runoff damage with the trail’s new route. When completed, the new section will feature over 1,000 steps made of 1,000 pound slabs of granite!
Sometimes the pitch of a trail is such that water runoff is a major problem that must be managed. Volunteers build trail drainage to direct water away from the trail to prevent erosion. Drainage measures consist of any effort to remove water from the trail. Depending on the region, this process normally entails utilizing wood and rock water bars (drainage dips) which are mounds of soil, rock or wood built to move water off trail and into ditches. Arduous work indeed! But without this vital effort, most trails would simply wash away if they were not fortified with rock steps and run-off outlets.
Another water-related problem on trails is low-lying areas on the trail that collect water and do not have any drainage. These areas require puncheon, a wooden walkway used to traverse bogs and muddy sections. Puncheon is a great way for trails to cross delicate ecosystems like bogs or dunes. Stepping stones and corduroy road (a series of logs laid side by side to cross a muddy section) are additional strategies that are often employed.
Mother NatureAs if all this wasn’t hard enough, trail volunteers must also face the consequences of snowstorms, windstorms, hurricanes…you get the idea. Remember Hurricane Irene last summer? Irene wreaked havoc on campgrounds and trails in New York and Vermont, leaving behind tree blow-downs and washed-out bridges. Volunteers set out to remove numerous obstacles, re-blaze new trail markers, and build new bridges. Not surprisingly, work is still not finished.
So the next time you venture outdoors, recognize the all-important benefits of trail maintenance and those who have committed their time and effort to ensure that your experience is a safe and enjoyable one. And if you have some spare time, try lending a helping hand on one of your favorite trails!