Labor of Love

“A trail is never quite done--it is ongoing,” says Jim Tomlin, volunteer hiking trail District Manager for Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) Great North Mountain division. “Nature is always trying to reclaim it, always taking it back.”

The main purpose of the PATC, established in 1927, is to carry this battle against nature ever forward. The battleground is nearly 1,000 miles of hiking trails, 34 shelters and 32 cabins in Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia, including 240 miles of the Appalachian Trail, in National Parks, National Forests, state lands, county lands and private lands. It’s a huge, expensive undertaking, which is why it’s only possible with the help of volunteers.

“National, state and local budgets are so badly slashed, trail maintenance has to be done by volunteers. Parks find it very difficult to devote the time to maintaining all of their trails. Shenandoah National Park, for example, does maintain its horse trails and visitor high-use trails, but volunteers preserve the remaining trails. People don’t realize this,” says Tomlin.

A favorite joke among the volunteers is that, at the end of a long day--muddy, tired, and bedraggled-- they say, “No one could ever pay us enough to do this work!”

Volunteer Trail Maintenance--One Model

Because of the immense geography they cover, the PATC has broken its maintenance duties into small sections and off-loaded the day-to-day responsibilities to local trail clubs. Under this structure, the local trail clubs take care of a specific segment of trail.

To provide guidance, advice and continuity, PATC Trail Overseers regularly visit the trail to evaluate its condition and help prioritize maintenance actions to be executed by the local club. If a problem crops up that is beyond the skills of the local club, the PATC can call in one of its 12 Trail Crews, trained to tackle more involved one-time tasks (building new trails, building rock steps using traditional tools, etc.).

According to Tomlin, some Trail Overseers are meticulous and visit the trail every couple of weeks. Others go a few times a year. “In my opinion, the trail should be visited at least six times a year to keep it stable,” says Tomlin, “and if you have big wind or forest fire, then a huge amount of work has to be done. Ice storms are particularly bad.”

Volunteer trail maintenance within PATC has several layered components:

1. Local trail clubs manage day-to-day maintenance.

2. 12 Trail Crews tackle more involved or difficult one-time tasks.

3. 500 individual Trail Overseers are responsible for a .1-mile- to 6-mile segment of a trail.

4. 30 Volunteer District Managers oversee the Overseers and Trail Crews, and work with land managers for the public and private lands on which PATC maintains trails.

5. A Volunteer Supervisor of Trails coordinates the District Managers, makes policy decisions, negotiates agreements, does long-term planning, and is the person to whom all the volunteers report.

6. A paid staff person works full-time doing everything from keeping tools sharp and inventoried, to filling out data forms, producing reports, and doing a zillion other things to ensure it all keeps running well.

To keep everything running smoothly (and safely), the PATC works to constantly educate its members, providing them with training (workshops and written material) on trail maintenance basics, including safe equipment use and personal safety considerations (season-appropriate clothing, potable water supply, personal protective equipment, lifting techniques, etc.). For some activities, it requires First Aid and CPR certification.

Typically, trail maintenance equipment belongs to the local trail club and is kept either in the main tool room or in tool caches strategically located within the trail system. The type of equipment stocked varies. Typical items include blazing equipment, such as paint, brushes, buckets and thinner; clipping and weeding equipment, such as loppers, swing blades, power weeders and small saws; blowdown-removal equipment, such as bow saws, crosscut saws and chainsaws; and erosion-control equipment, such as pick or cutter mattocks, sledge hammers, Pulaskis, fire rakes, McLeods and shovels.

Get ‘Er Done

Trail Overseers are responsible for all routine maintenance tasks on their trail section. Those tasks include vegetation control, weeding and trimming, maintenance of blazes and trail signs, erosion control, removal of obstacles such as fallen trees that block the trail and removal of trash and debris.

Early in the spring when they can get out, Trail Overseers assess what havoc winter has wrought. To help set up a customized maintenance plan, they have access to trail inventory information, such as mileage of each trail section, location and number of erosion-control mechanisms, trail identification numbers, management information, average grade of the section and the Wilderness status of the trail (power tools are prohibited on trails with Wilderness designation).

Different types of trails require different types of maintenance. Hike-only trails, generally speaking, are easier to maintain than multi-use trails, but both feature one common enemy--flowing water. Crew Chiefs and Trail Overseers spend most of their time working to design water-aversion barriers (which mountain bikers and equestrians hate), and solve erosion problems. When they’re not fighting water issues, they’re cutting back encroaching weeds and brush--the hardest trail maintenance job of all.

In any event, with a plan and schedule in place, volunteers--some local, some not--sign up for trail maintenance duty. Often, the crew is made up of retired folks (they seem to have the most time). Experienced Trail Overseers and Crew Chiefs know that a big part of their job will be matching each member of the volunteer army with a task they can handle and still make progress on the overall “to do” list.

This is not as easy as it sounds. Often Trail Overseers and Crew Chiefs have no idea who will really show up to work, when they’ll show up, how long they’ll stay and, in many cases, what skill set they possess. It’s quite the juggling act, but somehow, someway, everything manages to get done, and the people who benefit the most--trail users--never really know that is happening.

Building Your Volunteer Base

Thousands upon thousands of volunteers dedicate hours of their time to keep the local trails looking and feeling good--for many it’s a true labor of love. Deep personal relationships evolve between volunteers and their trail. For many, the trail becomes a living, breathing thing--an intimate communion with nature.

Bonds also develop between volunteers.

As Tomlin says, “After a few times, the (trail maintenance) outing becomes a social event. People come from all over the world—Americans, Africans, Europeans, Asians. It is a joy to be with all these people. Maintenance of trails seems to be of universal human interest. At the end of the day, you can look at a section of trail that was badly eroded or impassible, and it looks really nice. It’s very satisfying.”

To hook into this web of volunteer labor, contact local hiking or recreation clubs and offer them the opportunity to adopt your trail.

As Tomlin says, “In all the park and volunteer relationships I’ve seen, it’s been a huge benefit for both sides. The park director benefits from free labor to get work done, and the club benefits because the members are doing something they love to do. It’s a win-win situation.”

Judith Harroun-Lord is a freelance writer as well as technical writer and editor in the Washington, D.C.. metropolitan area. You can reach her via e-mail at