Kensington, Maryland, August 10, 2017 — Everything on the internet is accurate, right? Heard of fake news? Surprise, surprise, there’s fake news in the hiking world too.
More kindly, everyone has an opinion even if it’s outdated or inconsistent with policies and practices needed to preserve and maintain our nation’s national tail system. Unfortunately, the outdated, the uninformed and those who don’t believe in rules love to troll. What’s a person to do who’s looking for sound advice and best practices?
This is a serious problem for the AT in particular. It’s the nation’s busiest hiking trail with an estimated 3 million annual visits. Long distance hiking numbers are compounding at a rate slightly higher than 10 percent per year. The more people who get it right equals less trash, damage, erosion, and a more courteous and contented community overall.
A while back a few of us associated with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy decided to empanel a group of experts who could offer evenhanded and nonbiased advice on Facebook where we created the A.T. Expert Advice page.
What follows is the last Expert Advice post authored by yours truly. It expands a lot on the trail maintenance education we’ve offered there and a bit on what’s been written here.
We’ve written a lot in this space about trail maintenance – how to volunteer to maintain the trail; and even a short piece on a light weight maintenance kit. But we’ve never said anything about the specialized tools, the vocabulary, and the names and purpose of the structures the maintainers create to preserve and protect the trail, and to help improve your hiking experience. So here’s a sneak peak.
A ridgerunner documents a blowdown for inclusion in her weekly report.
The purpose of most trail work is to control erosion and to keep the pathway open. Water must be slowed and eventually drained from the treadway. Blowndown trees must be cut, and the weeds and branches trimmed and pruned.
Loppers, clippers, string trimmers and swing blades keep the weeds down and the branches cut back.
Blowdowns are pretty obvious. In wilderness areas where motors are forbidden, crosscut saws/axes and muscle power git ‘er done. The wedges keep the kerf from closing and binding the saw in place. Elsewhere chainsaws make the bucking go a lot faster.
Sawyers are specially certified and the ATC issues them special PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) including helmets, hearing protection, face screens and goggles in addition to Kevlar chaps to protect their lower extremities from kickback. For safety reasons, sawyers must have a swamper (helper) with them when using their chainsaw. Crosscut sawyers appreciate swampers spare muscles.
Most of the tools used for trail work have special names, usually that of their inventor. Many were originally designed to help fight forest fires.
The McLoed is a combination large hoe and rake. It is known as the Swiss Army Knife of trail tools for its universal utility. It digs, rakes, tamps and smooths.
The Pulaski is a combination axe and adz used for chopping roots and blowdowns, and for digging.
The Rogue Hoe is a heavy and very sharp smaller hoe, sometimes with a combination rake, used for side-hilling – a technique where the maintainder digs into the up-hill bank to bring down dirt to level and or widen the treadway.
The pick-mattox is a cobination pick and adz most commonly employed to dig and help lever rocks.
Other frequently used tools include garden variety shovels and spades; the rock bar used to pry out large stones, canvas straps used to drag large boulders and grip hoists for mechanical advantage. Five gallon plastic buckets move loose dirt and small stones.
The two most common structures on the trail are check dams and waterbars. Check dams are rocks or logs placed perpendicular to the trail. Their job is to slow the water down, especially where the terrain does not permit the water to be drained.
The waterbar, rock or log, is dug in at a 45 degree angle to the trail and designed to drain water off the treadway and into the woods.
Occasionally hikers encounter raised trailbeds called turnpikes. These sometimes have lateral drains (ditches) on one side or the other. These tend to be constructed where springs turn the treadway into mud soup.
Everybody has climbed stone or log steps. These are built on slopes for hiker safety and to prevent severe erosion. They’re usually made with the materials at hand – from about as far away as the maintainers can carry the rocks. When necessary, rock drills, wedges and feathers split rock where needed. The best example of this work is on the AT at Bear Mountain, NY.
In most places, volunteer overseers individually maintain discrete sections of the trail, usually a mile or so but sometimes much more. When overseers encounter something they can’t handle, they request support from a local trail crew that may have more experience, muscle and tools. Alternatively, some of the smaller clubs maintain on a crew basis only.
So, that’s a tiny look behind the curtain.