Clear the Way- Trail Building 101

Clear the Way- Trail Building 101

Have you ever thought about how a trail is actually created? When I first began hiking, I was far too consumed with my natural surroundings to consider the work put in to design and construct a trail. Then I spent a Sunday morning rerouting the Fiery Gizzard Trail with Team Green Adventures, and my outlook on hiking trails was changed forever.

Hiking trails do not just appear out of thin air. They are created with in-depth forethought and are paved by nature lovers abound. Designing a trail requires proper vision with the most sustainable route in mind. Think long-term. How can we design a trail so it can be used for the next 50+ years, with the minimal amount of maintenance needed to keep it safe and functional?

Fortunately, you don’t have to be an expert to build a sustainable trail. But if you’re a beginner with minimal experience like me, we’ve put together some basic terminology and helpful tips to get you started:


  • Pick Mattock– the most basic trail building tool, which is useful in digging, chopping, loosening the ground and breaking up rocks.
  • McLeod– a very popular tool used to remove leaves, organic matter, or roots from the ground
  • Fire Rake– Similar to a McLeod but not as versatile; has a few sharp triangle teeth used to clear the trail of small brush and weeds
  • Pulaski–  useful in cutting roots, small bushes, and breaking up dirt
  • Loppers– long handled pruners used to cut small branches or roots
  • Grubbing Hoe– this tool is used to remove tree roots in the trail corridor and is also useful in clearing leaf matter around large rocks


  • Trail Tread– the walking surface of the trail. Trail treads are inevitably damaged by foot traffic or by water, which erodes the soil and creates muddiness. A trail tread should slope 3 to 5 percent toward the down hill side to allow water to run off without eroding the trail
  • Duff– leaf litter and organic material that covers the ground
  • Mineral Soil– the soil revealed once the duff is removed, which is used to create a stable trail tread
  • Out Slope– the down hill side of the trail tread
  • Back Slope– the up hill side of the trail tread
  • Crib Wall– a retaining wall built on trails to reduce erosion and stabilize the soil
  • Switchback– rather than going straight, a switchback trail zig-zags to protect the hill and trail from excessive erosion, or to change elevation when the side slope is too steep to create a climbing turn


  1. Remove the duff- Sustainable trails cannot be built on duff, which will lead to water collection and erosion, thereby increasing the need for future maintenance.
  2. Cut into the side of the hill- Cut the trail into the side of a slope so that the tread is level and fully supported by the existing soil. When clearing away rocks and duff, remember to put the rocks uphill (for future use) and the duff downhill (to get it out of the way)
  3. Rock work- Build steps using locally available stone. When constructing stairs, start from the bottom up, and overlap the front end of the higher stone 4 to 6 inches over the step below. Rocks should typically be 5-8 inches thick. Use smaller rocks to stabilize larger wobbling stones.
  4. Cribbing- When a slope is too steep to hold the dirt naturally without erosion, a crib wall can be built on the downhill edge of a trail to hold back gravel and mineral soil. Construct crib walls so that they are wide at the bottom and lean back slightly toward the trail.


Even the most sustainable trail can use some TLC. That’s why thousands of people across the nation volunteer on a regular basis to construct and maintain hiking trails. Don’t worry about experience or hiking knowledge. Just show up with a positive, ready-to-work attitude and you can experience the satisfaction only trail building provides

Team Green Adventures has worked with the Cumberland Trail Conference and South Cumberland State Park (Fiery Gizzard Trail). There are several local trails who also regularly seek out volunteers to help create new trail or maintain existing trail, including Long Hunter State Park, Warner Park, Radnor Lake State Park, and the Natchez Trace Parkway. Do you know of other parks in Tennessee who regularly need volunteers for the purpose of trail building? Mention them below in our comments section!

-Melanie Placke (Team Green Spring Intern 2016)

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