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Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook


Why write another trail construction and maintenance guide? Good question. Since publication of the first edition of the "Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook" in 1996, several excellent books about trail construction and maintenance have been published by the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), the Student Conservation Association (SCA), and the Appalachian Mountain Club, among others. At the same time, this notebook has remained popular, especially because of its pocket size and its wide availability through a partnership between the Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Federal Highway Administration's Recreational Trails Program.

Based on helpful critiques of our earlier edition, we made numerous changes to reflect the latest thinking about constructing and maintaining trails. Much remains from the original edition.

True to our original intent, the Missoula Technology and Development Center (MTDC) has again pulled together basic trail construction and maintenance information, presented it in an easy-to-understand fashion, and oriented it to the needs of the trail worker. To keep the notebook's size manageable, we did not cover tasks such as detailed planning, environmental analysis, or inventory and monitoring. We've tried to make sure the notebook is consistent with current Forest Service policies and direction, but it is a practical guide for trail work, not a policy document. We worked to keep the notebook small and readable so it would end up in the packs of trail crew workers instead of under a table leg.

We have included many great references with more detailed information. Many of the Forest Service handbooks and manuals are now available to the general public on the Internet at:

Official direction for the USDA Forest Service can be found in:

  • Trails Management Handbook (FSH 2309.18)
  • Forest Service Standard Specifications for Construction and Maintenance of Trails (EM-7720-103)
  • Sign and Poster Guidelines for the Forest Service (EM-7100-15).
  • Forest Service Health and Safety Code Handbook (FSH 6709.11)
  • Bridges and Structures (FSM 7722 and FSM 7736)

National trail information can be found at: (Available only to Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management employees).

Of special interest are:

  • Trail assessment and condition surveys (TRACS). TRACS is the nationally recommended system for conducting field inventory and condition surveys.

On the TRACS page you will find:

  • Trail management objectives (TMOs). These objectives are used to establish the trail standard before the condition survey is conducted.

  • TRACS data dictionary. This dictionary standardizes terminology for trail features.

  • Trail Fundamentals.

On the Trail Fundamentals page you will find:

  • Trail class matrix. This matrix provides definitions for the five national trail classes applicable to all National Forest System trails.

New references include "Trail Solutions: IMBA's Guide to Building Sweet Singletrack" (International Mountain Bicycling Association 2004) and a companion DVD, "Building Mountain Bike Trails: Sustainable Singletrack" (Davies and Outka-Perkins 2006), which show how to plan, design, and build fun, sustainable trails. "Natural Surface Trails by Design" (Parker 2004) explores the art of trail design and layout. Other new references include a comprehensive book on restoration, "Wilderness and Backcountry Site Restoration Guide" (Therrell and others 2006) as well as the "Accessibility Guidebook for Outdoor Recreation and Trails" (Zeller and others 2006).

There are many regional differences in trail building and maintenance techniques, tools, and terminology. The TRACS data dictionary is an attempt to standardize trail terminology. We hope you aren't offended if your favorite technique has been left out or called a funny name.

Little about trail work is "new." Our culture, though, has forgotten a lot about trails. When we attempt our first trail project, most of us know very little about water and dirt.

Do it Your Way

You might not do things the way they are described in this notebook—that's cool! Understanding why things are done a certain way is at least as important as doing them a certain way. If you know why something is happening, you'll figure out a way to solve the problem. Soak up the core concepts. Experiment and keep track of the results. Be curious. Add new techniques and tactics to your bag of tricks. Get dirty and HAVE FUN!


Metrication lives! Standard International (SI) units of measurement (metric) are used throughout the text, followed by roughly equivalent English measurements in parentheses. A handy conversion chart on the inside back cover can help the metrically challenged make conversions.

One other word on measurements. Most crews don't haul measuring tapes around to measure things. A really handy way of keeping track of commonly used measures is to mark them on tool handles. For example, if the typical tread for your project is supposed to be 600 millimeters (24 inches), mark 600 millimeters on your tool handle.

The Job of the Trail Crew

The most important thing in trail work is your personal well-being and safety. Are you fit? Do you know your limitations? Do you have the skills you need?

Your personal gear, clothing, and safety equipment are important. Let's start with your feet. Trail work can take you into rough country. Cut-resistant or leather nonskid boots, at least 200 millimeters (8 inches) high, offer the best support and ankle protection. They are required by the Forest Service if you are using cutting, chopping, or digging tools. Steel-toed boots are a good choice when working with rock. Ankle-high hiking boots are okay for some trail work. Sneakers or tennis shoes do not give enough support and protection. Be aware of regional differences. In southeastern Alaska, for example, rubber boots are the norm for most trail work.

Pants give more protection than shorts from cuts and scrapes, insects, and sunburn. Long-sleeved shirts are best for the same reasons. Bring your foul-weather gear. You won't forget work gloves more than once. Drinking water, lip moisturizer, sunscreen, sunglasses, insect repellent, and personal medications round out the list of personal items for your pack.

Hardhats are an agency requirement for many types of trail work, especially when swinging tools, working under the canopy of trees, or when there is any chance of being hit on the head. Other safety gear includes eye protection for any type of cutting or rock work, hearing protection near power equipment (85 dB or louder), and dust masks for some types of rock work and in extremely dusty conditions. Don't start the job unless you are properly equipped. Take a look at the Forest Service Health and Safety Code Handbook (FSH 6709.11) for some good information that could save your life.

Your crew will need a first aid kit. At least one person needs to be certified to give first aid and perform CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation). The project leader and involved employees will prepare a job hazard analysis that includes:

  • An itinerary (planned route of travel, destination, estimated time of departure/arrival)
  • The names of the employees on the crew
  • Specific work hazards and abatement actions
  • An emergency evacuation plan

Hold safety briefings before work begins and whenever conditions change significantly.

Setting Priorities

Priorities depend on many factors. Are you laying out and designing a new trail? If you are, start with good planning and a sustainable design to minimize future maintenance.

Are you assessing an older trail that may not be in the most ideal place? How much maintenance is too much? When do you decide to reroute sections?

The Sustainable Solution

  • Outsloped tread
  • Sustainable grades
  • Frequent grade reversals
  • Erosion resistance
  • Path that traverses along the sideslope
  • Provision for sheet flow of runoff
  • Positive user experiences
  • Low maintenance

This equals = The rolling contour trail

If you're designing a new trail, make sure it will be sustainable (figure 1). What does that mean? Sustainability means creating and maintaining trails that are going to be here for a long time. Trails with tread that won't be eroded away by water and use. Trails that won't affect water quality or the natural ecosystem. Trails that meet the needs of the intended users and provide a positive user experience. Trails that do no harm to the natural environment.

Photo of a trail on a sloped hill.
Figure 1—A rolling contour trail resists erosion.

You need teachers and experience to learn how to lay out and design sustainable trails. Learn from the best. Shop around, talk to other trail builders, check out their work. Attend trail building sessions in your area or have a group of experienced trail builders, such as an IMBA Trail Care Crew ( visit your area. Learn, learn, learn. You want people to come off your trail saying, "Wow—that was great! Let's do it again."

The trail crew's task is to keep water off the tread and keep the users on it. The best trail maintainers are those with trail eye, the ability to anticipate physical and social threats to trail integrity and to head off problems.

Because there will always be more work to do than people or time to do it, how do you decide what to do? It's important to:

  • Monitor trail conditions closely.
  • Decide what can be accomplished as basic maintenance.
  • Determine what can be deferred.
  • Identify the areas that will need major work.

Trail triage will help you spend your maintenance dollars wisely.

Trail Triage

  1. Correct truly unsafe situations. As examples, repair impassable washouts along a cliff and remove blowdown from a steep section of a trail used by packstock.

  2. Correct problems that are causing significant trail damage, such as erosion.

  3. Restore the trail to the planned design standard. The ease of finding and traveling the trail should match the design specifications for the recreational setting and target users. Actions can range from simply adding reassurance markers along a trail to a full-blown reroute of poorly designed sections of eroded trail.

Whatever the priority, maintain the trail when the need is first noticed to prevent more severe and costly damage later.