Build a Hiking Trail

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by Getty Images/Matt Francis

America is crisscrossed by thousands of miles of hiking trails, deep within national parks and forests and peppered around state public lands. Often, these dirt paths can take you far from any roads for a true wilderness experience.

Some of my most memorable moments in life have been deep in the backcountry, having snaked through the mountains on a well-maintained trail. A few weeks on the Appalachian Trail gave me new friends. Weekends in the secluded San Juan Mountains in Colorado taught me the importance of slowing down when life starts to get too hectic.

For many other Americans, too, these sorts of public land hiking trails represent the best way to explore the outdoors. State and federal agencies, as well as trail club partners, have worked tirelessly to build and maintain these footpaths, from the world-famous Pacific Crest Trail to little-known ones dotting the countryside. The best part is that most of them are accessible. They might require only a nominal entry fee, while others are free of charge to all.

For those of you with some land of your own, building a hiking trail can be a practical way to explore the depths of your property like never before. The benefits include a clear walking path that’s easy to access and follow, which can snake next to the highlights of your land. Guests, too, will surely relish the chance to explore the woods on a manicured path. Here are the steps you’ll need to take to build a hiking path of your own.

Survey Your Property

The first step to constructing your own hiking trail is to think about places on your property that are special to you, such as unique trees or beautiful meadows, as well as areas with a good chance of spotting wildlife. You’ll likely want the trail to wend through these highlights. Think of good starting and ending points, so you can envision where a footpath might connect the two. Drawing a map of the property with these points can help you plan potential corridors.

Shauna Wilson, a trail crew supervisor who works on Tennessee’s Cumberland Trail, says after you have an idea of the trail’s beginning and end, it’s best to step outside and begin to survey the terrain. On the ground, you’ll be able to uncover the easiest path between your planned starting and ending points. Slowly walk the woods and be observant, noting low and high points, which could mean infrastructure such as steps or drainages. On your hand-drawn map, mark where you think you might need to install some infrastructure or create big changes in terrain.

“You want to use the 50 percent rule,” Wilson says. “That means you don’t want the trail to be more than 50 percent fitness.” Use the terrain to your advantage to hit that mark. Envision climbing gentle turns up hills rather than switchbacks, which zigzag up a hillside and require a lot of work and more walking.

As you build a path in your head, you’ll likely notice an array of vegetation standing in your way. Much of what lies within the trail corridor will need to be removed or trimmed back. Public land trail builders must consult with botanists to ensure that no endangered plants will be trampled during the construction process. Though that’s not required on privately owned property, it’d be beneficial to the biodiversity on your land to do the same sort of survey before cutting any trees. Consult books or local residents with knowledge of flora in your area.

As the potential path becomes more certain, you can begin to mark where it’ll lie. And, as you identify where the trail will be, hang flagging tape on trees to mark a rough path; Wilson recommends marking every 15 to 20 feet.

Trail Basics

After all of the flagging is in place, you’ll start construction. The first step is to rake off the leaf litter that covers the forest floor. Simply move this to the side to clear enough bare ground to work with.

“The second step is to remove the duff, which is the spongy, organic layer of material on top of the ground,” Wilson says. “If you leave patches of that, it’ll cause low spots that eventually turn into puddles. After that’s done, you’ll be left with the mineral soil, where you can start to cut the actual trail tread.”

Keep in mind that trails range in size from as little as 12 inches wide to as much as 36 inches on the Cumberland Trail, but you can make yours as wide as you’d like. The wider the tread will be, the more you’ll have to dig into the earth during construction. Conversely, “The narrower you make a trail, the faster the vegetation is going to encroach on it within the next warm season,” Wilson says.

Wilson recommends using a mattock to dig into the mineral soil. It’ll make quick work of even the hardest clay, including that on steep hillsides. The idea is to get the path close to level to make it easier to walk. “Rough up the soil, removing roots and rocks, and then rake the soil back to level it out, making a comfortable walking surface,” Wilson says.

However, in flat areas, it’s best to raise the tread to prevent water from building up on the trail, according to Gabe Etengoff, field programs coordinator with the Continental Divide Trail Coalition. “I’d recommend filling it in with small gravel,” he says. “That can ensure the trail tread is stable and water won’t be pooling underneath. Or, you can add more dirt to raise up the grade.”

Forest duff under pine trees

Develop Drainage

Plan to have a small slope on the trail to help water sheet off of it. Use a level to get an idea of how the land is sloping, or eyeball it as best you can. “If you have organic matter piled up on each side of the trail, water will pool in the middle without anywhere to go,” Etengoff says. “Ideally, you want an inslope and an outslope, which means the outer edge of the trail is cleared of organic material so water can flow off instead of pooling.”

A proper slope will limit erosion, Etengoff adds, which is the primary reason that trails degrade over time. “As it starts to rain and water pools on the trail, if it doesn’t shed off, it’ll flow in the path and create a channel that will cause erosion.”

Typically, a sloped trail will be enough to avert the need for drainage ditches or other infrastructure. However, heavy rains can still cause erosion in places where the terrain is steep or low enough to allow pooling water. To limit this, Wilson advises installing a rolling grade dip. “It’s like a speed bump for the trail,” she says. “You can build a rolling grade dip on a steep section of trail, and that’ll help the water drain off to the side rather than continuing down the trail and causing erosion.”

Another method, although a more invasive technique, is to install a water bar. This is often a 4×4 or 6×6 board dug into the ground at an angle, stretching across the trail. This also helps water to drain off to the side of the path, although it requires the hiker to step over it.

If there are small creeks to traverse, keeping it simple is the best option, Etengoff says. That means having to rock-hop across or get your feet wet. A bridge is a better option on large bodies of water. Again, Etengoff stresses simplicity, such as using a sturdy log to allow passage across.

As a nice touch to the trail, add signs marking highlights or directions, if you choose to create multiple paths that link together. When the trail is complete, the best upkeep is walking on it regularly. This will ensure that the ground remains compact and vegetation doesn’t grow on the path. From time to time, you’ll have to use some pruners or a saw to remove any encroaching limbs or fallen trees. After a big storm, walk the trail to survey which parts might need maintenance.

Those paths wandering through America’s public lands are still worth a visit, but with your own hiking path, you’ll have your own private respite in the woods — no crowds, no entry fees.

Trail Tools

Mattock. Similar to a pickaxe, the mattock is used to chop, dig, and pry. Its two blades — one a pick blade and the other an adze — are multifunctional. A 3- to 4-foot handle enables the user to swing the tool easily. A mattock is great for chopping roots and digging into sod, as well as hoeing hard, compacted soil.

McLeod. This tool is comprised of a two-sided blade with a flat hoe that’s often sharpened, as well as a rake with tines. It sits on top of a long handle. Designed in 1905 by Malcolm McLeod, a U.S. Forest Service ranger, this tool is typically used by wildland firefighters to make fire lines. For the trail builder, it can be used to remove sediment from a new pathway and rake it back to flatten out the tread.

pruning scissors

Hand pruners. When nearby trees have long, thin branches that hang over the trail corridor, hand pruners can remove them. These are best used as a precision tool to keep the vegetation at bay, although they won’t be effective at removing larger trees.

Loppers. The long handles on loppers enable you to prune larger branches or cut small trees near the trail corridor. There are two types: bypass and anvil. The latter has only one sharpened blade with a curved edge, leaving a rougher cut, while the bypass (also with one sharpened blade) works more like scissors with a cleaner cut.

Folding handsaw. When a tree needs to be removed, but is too small for a chainsaw, a manual handsaw is a good option. Its aggressive blade quickly cuts through small trees.

Chainsaw. If there are large downed trees blocking the path, a chainsaw is the best option to cut them into pieces that can be moved to the side. Take caution when using a chainsaw; be sure to employ the proper safety equipment, such as chaps and safety glasses.

Pry bar. Also known as a crowbar, this 16-pound steel rod is used to remove large rocks from the soil. By prying the sharp end underneath a rock, you can leverage it out of the earth and push it to the side of the trail.

Pulaski. This tool, invented in 1911 by Ed Pulaski of the U.S. Forest Service, is widely used among wildland firefighters. It combines an axe and adze in one head. It can chop wood on one end, while the other is best for busting up hard soil and removing roots.

Safety gear. Gear to ensure you stay safe during trail-building includes a helmet, glasses, gloves, and ear plugs. Working with so many tools, especially mechanized ones, presents the potential for injuries. Using precaution and the proper safety gear at all times will limit the chances of something going awry.

Jonathan Olivier is an independent journalist who primarily writes about the environment and how humans interact with the natural world. His work has appeared in Outside, Backpacker, and other national publications.