Trail Maintenance for Safer, Healthier Trails

image or a person using a mountain bike on a maintained trail

As we ease into the summer months, more people want to be in nature and enjoy the outdoors. Trails need to be maintained to handle the increased traffic safely.

Even well-constructed trails need routine inspections and maintenance. Resolving any emerging drainage, erosion, and tread issues quickly saves time, money, and resources in the long run.

Let’s take a look at some of the more common trail problems. Then we will dive into a few trail maintenance tasks to keep on your team’s radar.  


Common Trail Problems

Discovering and addressing these problems early can prevent a lot of trail damage. Often, one trail problem leads to another. 

For example, a large puddle usually forms in the middle of the trail. Visitors need to walk off course to get around it. Soon going “off the beaten path” creates another unintended path. 

Not only is there already a drainage issue present, but the trail braiding kills vegetation, causes erosion, and gets harder to repair as the braiding gets more prominent. 


Common trail problems include:

  • Braiding: A small trail that branches out from the original because visitor usage patterns have changed. 
  • Widening: An unintentional widening of the width of a trail due to heavy or inappropriate use. 
  • Poor drainage: When a trail becomes an obstacle course of puddles after it rains. The puddles give way to muddy or swampy areas. Visitors avoiding these areas can lead to trail braiding or widening.
  • Trail trenching: The trail gets worn down in the middle, becoming unlevel. Deep trenching often turns trails into streams during heavy rains, which leads to soil erosion. Trenching may also cause visitors to walk alongside the path instead of on it. 
  • Cut Switchback: Switchback trails are curved paths that allow hikers to go up hills or mountains without going directly up the slope. When visitors create shortcuts to save a few steps, the “shortcut” ruins the trail’s design, kills vegetation, and causes erosion.


The Importance of Inspecting & Maintaining Trails

Maintaining trails makes using them safer for visitors and employees. It also protects the natural and cultural resources of your assets. Trails hold up longer and are less likely to suffer from problems with routine monitoring. 

Also, well-maintained trails make for a better visitor experience. The public has an easier time navigating these trails. The better, well-kept appearance highlights the hard work of your maintenance crew to visitors.


What to Look for During Trail Inspections

Routine trail monitoring should include inspecting for:

  • Large branches or other tripping hazards on the trail
  • Puddling or pooling of water
  • Presence of litter or vandalism
  • Visible, undamaged signs and trail markers
  • Evidence the trail or area is being misused (e.g., ATV tracks on a walking path)
  • Indications visitors are going off-trail
  • Overgrown vegetation impeding the trail
  • Presence of non-native invasive species
  • Any other evidence that trail problems are beginning.


Routine Trail Maintenance Tasks

Along with monitoring the trail, periodic maintenance helps keep the trails healthier and safer. Regularly inspecting areas will determine when these tasks are necessary.  


Remove Obvious Hazards

When possible, trails should remain free of objects that may cause a person to lose balance or fall. After all, a large fallen tree or tree branch is dangerous to visitors and the health of the trail. As mentioned earlier, when visitors go off-trail to avoid something, it can damage the area near the path.  

Also, look for exposed roots or portions of rock on the trail. When appropriate, cut or dig them out if they are likely to create hazardous situations. Another option is to bury them with gravel or other suitable filling material.


Trimming or Removing Brush & Vegetation 

Vegetation that extends on the trail should be cut or cleared to remove any unnecessary obstacles. Tending to brush creates a better sightline so visitors can be aware of each other (especially on multi-use trails). 

Also, as brush establishes on the trail’s berms, it may trap water and cause erosion. Brush taking over one side of the trail can make visitors walk on the opposite edge causing trail widening.


Clearing Invasive Plant Species

Areas along trails can be a breeding ground for invasive plant species. Since trails are a break in the natural area, invasive species tend to establish there. 

Some invasive species spread aggressively (especially if they have no local predators), and it’s only a matter of time before they take over other areas. A non-native invasive plant species takeover degrades the area, limits plant diversity, and is not aesthetically pleasing. 

Removing or herbiciding invasive plants helps prevent them from taking over. 


Fixing Drainage Issues

Unresolved drainage issues can cause significant damage to a trail. Fixing the problem begins with determining what is causing the puddling or poor drainage.

Check for debris that builds up and blocks any drainage paths of water. Also, investigate if there are areas of soil displacement or compaction from heavy use collecting rainfall or snowmelt.

Removing the debris and filling in compacted areas can help resolve trail drainage issues. Of course, drainage issues can be more complicated. Poorly planned and designed trails can take a lot more work to fix. Methods to divert surface water include outslopes, ditches, drain dips, and water bars. 

If drainage problems are severe, it may be worth considering closing the trail during wet or rainy periods. If possible, plan an alternate route.


Scheduling Routine Monitoring & Maintenance

We all know the growing season can get really busy. Scheduling inspections and monitoring ahead of time is an excellent way to stay on top of the task. Establishing a routine or standing work order system gets the crew in the habit of checking trails and noticing if there are issues. 

Some parks and recreation departments stay on top of these tasks--even when things get real busy--by using maintenance software to help plan, track, and report maintenance tasks. When the entire crew knows what they need to do, little problems get noticed earlier and don’t become significant issues.