How to Ace Your First Day of Trail Work

The best trail is the one you build. Take the work out of trail work and look like you know what you’re doing with these tips.
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The best trail is the one you build. Take the work out of trail work and look like you know what you’re doing with these tips.

Some volunteer days are about team-building and socializing—others are about dropping the hammer and getting work done. This particular day was one of the latter.

I had signed up for a trail work day with the Barkeaters Trail Alliance in the Adirondack Mountains near Wilmington, New York. I could have spent my weekend hiking existing trails. Instead I chose to lift rocks and haul dirt alongside about two dozen volunteers and a professional crew. Why? I was looking for a new way to explore those forests, and after years of hiking the same trails, I felt like I owed them.

So I hiked into the hardwoods to add a one-mile link to the 3.6-mile Beaver Brook multiuse network.

I arrived with scant trail building experience, so at first, I left rock prying and branch clipping to the pros and put myself to work harvesting “Adirondack Gold,” a clay-like soil, to build the trail’s surface. But I learned a lot by watching my coworkers, and by midday, I was building, buttressing, and benching with the best of them.

When we were done, a stable turnpike ran smoothly through moss-covered rocks and beech trees. Our crew—hikers, runners, mountain bikers, and trail building pros alike—had come together to create something new for our communities. No hike I could have done that weekend would have given me that kind of pride.

Here’s how to get the most out of your first day of trail work:

Bring the stoke. 

According to Wes Lampman, the Adirondack Mountain Club’s North Country Operations Director, attitude is the most important quality of a trail builder, even over experience. “There’s power in numbers,” he says. “We ask volunteers to bring a positive attitude and be open to new things.”

Dress to impress. 

This is one outdoor pursuit where ultralight isn’t appropriate. Swap your mesh-toed trail shoes for ankle-high leather boots to keep splinters and McLeod tines out of your toes. Complete the look with leather work gloves and safety glasses. Bring everything else you’d usually pack for a full day on-trail, plus extra water—hard labor is sweatier work than hiking.

Improve your posture. 

As with skiing, the easiest way to spot noobs is the way they carry their tools. In this case, the over-the-shoulder method isn’t the way to go. Instead, carry trail-building implements by your side, sharp end pointed at the dirt. Lift buckets, rocks, and anything else heavy with your legs, not your back. If you’re toting soil downhill, carry bags in front of your body and keep your back straight.

Be patient. 

Trail building is a process, and most of it isn’t the bicep pump-fest of lifting rocks. Often, the first step is clearing duff, or forest floor debris, so it doesn’t decompose and hold water on the path. Prying up boulders, clipping overhanging branches, and gathering smaller rocks to build up erosion zones come next. The final touch: tamping soil over the finished trail.

Learn something new. 

Think of trail building as free training for your home improvement projects. Ask questions and try several different jobs. Learn to move car engine-sized rocks, buttress a crumbling trail edge, or use soil to set stacked stones.

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.

Go for a test-drive. 

Hike, run, or bike your work site a few days after the build to enjoy the ultimate reward: the soft echo of footsteps on a stretch of fresh new trail.

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