Gravel road maintenance is particularly important if a long stretch of driveway is all that connects you to the outside world.
Heavy rains, freezing and thawing, and the constant wear and tear from cars and trucks all take their toll on the gravel drive that leads to my place. The white-rock road runs nearly half a mile down one side of an Ozark hollow, across a stream and up the other side — in short, the country it covers isn't exactly the best terrain for a driveway.
The road was built by a man referred to locally as "an artist with a dozer," a reputation he earned by being able to clear a path through even the stupidest of chosen routes without doing unnecessary damage. And the cost of the job he did for me indicated that the place I had chosen was plenty stupid. (It also suggested that the dozer operator could probably afford to change his name to Picasso and retire to the south of France.)
Considering the money I'd invested — and the funny habit we have of occasionally wanting to leave the farm for shopping trips and the like — I decided I'd better learn how to take care of our driveway. After seven years of trial and error, some reading and a lot of talk with people who know their gravel roads, here's what I've learned about gravel road maintenance.
Gravel Road Maintenance Basics
If you own a tractor (almost any size, other than the smallest yard and garden machine, will do), the only other tool you'll need is a 6-foot, rear-mounted blade that's reversible and adjustable for angle and slope. A 6-footer is best because it gets about half the road's width in a single swipe and still will cover the tracks of all but the biggest tractors. A blade much longer than 6 feet is hard for the average person to handle. If you don't own a tractor, try to borrow or rent one; the principles I describe here for keeping a gravel road in good shape will still apply if you're willing to do a lot of digging and raking with hand tools, but you'll be in for plenty of hard work, to say the least.
The first step toward successfully maintaining a gravel road is to realize that producing a smooth surface — the smoother, the better — is your ultimate goal. Undulations set vehicles bouncing up and down on their springs. The vertical forces generated, even though they may be too small for you to object to while riding in the vehicle, are then transferred back to the road. After enough of this bouncing activity, things eventually worsen until the road is nothing but a series of humps and gullies. Car travel on such passageways takes tremendous fortitude. (If you open your mouth to scream when your head hits the roof, you're likely to bite your tongue off when you're jammed back into the seat a moment later.)
The second step toward maintaining a gravel road, once you've decided to strive for a tabletop-smooth surface, is to accept the fact that you'll never be able to achieve that goal. Then make up your mind to go ahead and try for the impossible anyway.
Arrive at the work site in the early morning or late afternoon, when the sun is low and the shadows are long enough to emphasize any humps in the surface. If you examine the terrain, you'll find that there is almost always a hollow just uphill from every bump. That's because, as vehicles crested the bump, their wheels became "light" and lost traction, spun and dug a trench on the uphill side.
One basic principle of gravel-road maintenance, therefore, is to work always toward the uphill, in order to fill in those trenches.
Set your blade to cut, and adjust it so that it's perpendicular to your line of travel. The blade should also be sloped slightly, using the adjustment on your tractor's hitch arm, so that it cuts a little deeper at the edge of the road than it does in the middle.
Now go ahead and start grading. Tearing into that surface, when you've paid so much for gravel and waited so patiently for everything to pack down, will be scary at first; but trust me — this approach will produce a better, smoother drive.
Work each half of the road, always remembering to grade uphill. Then, once you've cut down all the bumps, turn the blade so that it will drag, rather than cut, and angle it to pull material into the center of the roadway. In other words, turn the blade 180 degrees from its original position, plus one adjustment stop. And again, slope the blade slightly so that it will touch the outermost edge of the drive just before it contacts the middle.
Drag each side of the road several times, still working toward the uphill. In places where, in the previous step, you cut the top from a goodsized bump, windrows of gravel will have been left by the square-running blade; be sure to catch these piles and move them to the center. It usually takes me two such passes to stir things up and get the gravel redistributed to my satisfaction.
Of course, by pulling the gravel to the middle of the road with the angle and slope of the blade, you'll create a crown. There's some disagreement about the need for crown on a road, but in my experience, a surface with a modest hogback sheds running water to the sides more quickly, and thus reduces down-the-road erosion. Besides, the center of the drive makes a good place to store any excess gravel that you scrape up. It sure beats leaving the crushed rock to spread slowly outward into adjacent pasture, forest or lawn.
I leave a crown of no more than 1 foot, total. The best rule is this: The steeper the road, the more crown required to shed water to the sides. Drives on a flat terrain require very little crown ... just enough to keep them from puddling up.
If pulling gravel to the middle has created too high a ridge or a big, loose gravel pile running down the spine of the road, a single swipe with the blade in its reversed, non cutting position should sweep the right amount of material back into the tracks where wheels will run. For this operation, set the blade perpendicular to the drive and crank the adjuster on the hitch arm until the blade runs level.
If the road you're determined to improve happens to be an old one — well packed or badly damaged — you may need to wire a few concrete blocks to the blade's frame to increase the tool's weight and thus its cutting and dragging power. Never attempt to accomplish this by having someone ride on the blade; the practice can be lethal! And if you do add weight, do so cautiously, or you may force the blade into the road's substructure. If you're moving anything as big as your fist, you're into road building, not maintenance.
The best time to tackle a road-blading job is shortly after an inch or so of rain has fallen. Then, the dust won't bother you; gauging your progress will be much easier because you'll be able to see the darker, damp gravel from beneath the surface as it is scraped up; and most important, the material will quickly pack in place from the weight of traffic, rather than slither away on a lubricating film of dry dust.
If your road crosses water, a special note of caution is in order. Obviously, it's necessary to provide enough space beneath the roadway for flooding water and to keep that stream's passageway (such as a culvert pipe or the area under a bridge) cleared out. Not quite so apparent, however, is the need to keep the waterway on the downstream side of the crossing free of debris. Gravel, leaves and branches are likely to collect in the eddies that form below a pipe or pier. And that swirling water can do damage there in short order.
Preventing Potholes and More
To keep ruts, bumps and dips from forming in your road in the first place, exercise two simple rules:
Speed makes vehicles bounce on their springs, which again lightens the load on the wheels on the "up" bounce, ultimately creating the dreaded washboard effect so familiar to drivers and owners of rural byways. And any unladen pickup truck will spin its wheels on even the slightest hill, thus digging a bone-rattling series of trenches and sending precious gravel flying every which way.
Actually, maintaining a gravel road — even a tortuous half-mile stretch like mine — doesn't require time so much as it does common sense and regular loving care. I spend an average of about one hour per month keeping my drive in reasonable shape. During an unusually wet spring or fall, I might have to double that to prevent things from getting out of hand.
I figure the effort is well worth it. By putting in just a little bit of tile and work, you can enjoy your country road and avoid having to pay the local well-to-do dozer artist over and over again!