Zen and the Art of Basic Trail Maintenance

Trail work is an act of conservation. That is the approach we take here at the AMC trails department. It is why we reconstruct gullied trails into staircases, stabilize boggy sections with bridges, and build drainage ditch after drainage ditch after drainage ditch. It is a beautiful struggle with the elements of water, thin soil, and heavy foot traffic. It is work that we believe in.

Trail work is also an act that requires consideration of something called the primitive, or natural, experience. This is the art of rockwork, scree walls, and occasional reluctance to use wood; a carefully constructed trail often does not look like a trail at all. It is an attempt to prevent the trappings of civilization from intruding on common perceptions of wildness and wilderness. Whatever that means.

Instead of slouching towards the tempting question of “what is wilderness” (a philosophical mess I have no interest in answering today), let’s get down to business.

What is the art of basic trail maintenance?

Basic trail maintenance is the most important part of trail work. Every element of basic trail maintenance is geared towards the conservation of the physical integrity of the treadway and the intangible primitive experience. Let’s consider them in order of priority.

Clearing drainages is the top priority of trail maintenance here in the northeast. Hands down. No contest. Pick up a pick mattock or hazel hoe or use your boot to knock those leaves out. We don’t want that water eroding our poor trails any more than it already has.

Then there are second and third priorities: blowdowns and brushing, both serving similar purposes (or at least so I tell myself when five hours of clipping hobblebush has numbed my brain, and I’d rather be feeling tough swinging an axe). We clip back brush that blocks the trail and chop blowdowns to ensure that hikers follow the path, rather than dodging long branches or skirting large trees. We don’t want unnecessary widening of trails.

Drainages, blowdowns, and brushing are the subtle powers of the basic trail maintainer. They are methods that use natural materials, the manipulation of the elements lying before us in the woods.

It is with blazing and signage, the fourth and lowest priority, that we start to enter into that messy question of “what is wilderness.” At the moment we decide to re-paint blazes, or paint new blazes, or plant a new sign, we are introducing something into the experience. Something produced through a chemical process, transported in metal buckets by shipping trucks, and coming in a variety of non-natural colors (white, blue, red, yellow, and more). For this reason, blazing is a delicate subject, and a tool that should never be taken lightly. Here’s where the “what is wilderness” debate starts to rear its ugly head.

“Trail markings have to work well but should not intrude on the natural experience,” wrote Carl Demrow and Dave Salisbury in their third edition of the AMC’s Complete Guide to Trail Building and Maintenance. That is the standard we apply at the AMC, we don’t have any hard and fast rule. This is what makes this issue thorny, and many a debate has been had over how to mark trails. But let’s not debate. Let’s look at some examples.

We don’t blaze on rock. Not on a trail that is in the woods. For multiple reasons, one being it calls attention to a physical structure (the rock waterbar) that we already intrusively (but necessarily) built.

We don’t blaze excessively. Excessive blazing is noisy. I liken it to the visual violence of a string of taillights in a traffic jam. Those are the kinds of things we generally want to avoid when we come to the woods. The following pictures are examples of excessive blazing: trees next to each other, ledges and cairns, and being able to see more than a single blaze at a time. What one takes away from a hike along these trails is the glaring blue and white paint, rather than the quiet green of the Northern Forest.

The factors of the balancing act are as follows: what kind of trail is this? Low use? High use? Use by experienced hikers? What is the purpose of this strip of paint I am adding to the trail? What role in conservation does it play? Can I send the same message through something more subtle like clipping or trail reconstruction?

To add more fuel to the philosophical wilderness mess, consider this: Some of these photos are of a trail that runs from a road to the Appalachian Trail.
Along the way, it intersects no other trails, and the nearest trails on either side are two to three miles. The trail is located in a particularly primitive area, with rugged peaks and unmanicured water crossings. While walking this trail, you know you are on a trail and you know what kind of trail it is. What is the purpose of the blaze? What impact does it have on the experience?

The art of basic trail maintenance is conservation, both of the stability of the treadway and the sense of wildness of the woods. Not an easy subject. But who takes up trail work because it’s easy?

Submitted by: Sally Manikian, AMC Mahoosuc Rover