Trail Maintenance

By Randy Gaddo

“Happy trails to you, until we meet again.
Happy trails to you, keep smilin' until then.”
--“Happy Trails,” Dale Evans Rogers

The average person walking along a beautiful tree-lined trail in a park is probably intent on enjoying the experience, giving little thought to the hard work and maintenance it takes to keep that trail passable.


But parks and rec maintenance pros know all too well that when it comes to trails, it’s all about maintenance.

The term “trail” can mean different things to different people. There can be a trail for casual walking, competitive running, motorized use, or equestrian activities—or in many cases, combinations of two or more of these.

Trails can range from paved, asphalt paths in planned communities to rugged hiking trails. Trails can be in a dense forest, or cross an  open plain, even traverse the arid desert sands, a beach, or a mountain. They can be limited in access or very accessible for those with limited mobility

While each of these variations requires different maintenance, there are common issues.

“Every trail needs minimal maintenance, even if it’s laid out correctly and sustainably,” says John Favro, retired Regional Trails Coordinator for the U. S. Forest Service, Northern Region. He has been in the business for 40 years, and now consults nationally on trail construction and maintenance.

“I wouldn’t say any location or type of trail is more or less maintenance-intensive than any other,” notes Favro, who advocates proper construction and placement of trails to minimize maintenance. “I’d say it’s more how the trail is laid out; if a trail is placed where water can wash down without mitigating the erosion, there is going to be damage.”

While trails on mountains can wash away in heavy rain, those through low-lands can flood and be impassable with the same rain. Even a desert trail can disappear after a sand storm. Mother Nature will re-possess a trail seemingly overnight if it isn’t constantly maintained.

“There are two recurring issues in managing trails: one is natural erosion, and the other is manmade, when hikers create a ‘social’ trail by taking shortcuts from one point to another rather than staying on the designated trail,” comments Pam Young, Executive Director of Southern Conservation Trust (SCT), a non-profit that manages and protects more than 1,300 acres of land in and around Fayette County, Ga.

“In both cases, the trail has to be reworked and/or rerouted to address the issue,” Young says. “Social trails are planted with native materials to block it, while the appropriate trail is made more visible. The eroded trail must be evaluated for the source of erosion, then steps have to be taken to stop or reroute flows causing the erosion. Sometimes the trail has to be completely closed and planted with native materials; then a new trail is established where erosion will not be an issue.”

Managing Liability
Some parks and rec departments or other trail managers choose to  install signage to help manage usage and reduce maintenance, as well as provide information, directions, or regulations, but signs are not always the answer.

“Signage can carry its own liability,” Favro says. “If you have a real obvious safety issue, you should probably sign it. But users must assume certain risk when they use a trail, and if they don’t choose to take that risk, they probably shouldn’t use that particular trail.”

Favro notes that many states have enacted legislation that relieves landowners of some responsibility, and gives local organizations the ability to enact policies as to how to manage the liability.

“Liability and hazards are always a challenge,” says Young, who oversees many miles of rugged trails along streams and creeks. “The balance of user responsibility and SCT providing safe yet natural trails requires multiple efforts. In our experience, hikers are invested in the trails and tend to take care of small issues, such as branches or limbs, and regular users notify us if they see something that needs more attention.”

Young notes that SCT staff and volunteers periodically monitor trails for hazards and, when necessary, arborists or trail consultants are brought in to evaluate specific conditions. “We cannot foresee what nature may do, but with logical steps, the hope is to avoid any liability issues,” she notes.

Meanwhile, Favro maintains that proper construction and placement of trails will minimize liability.

“There are many things you can do in constructing a trail to reduce liability … don’t go right at the edge of a cliff, don’t go near a dangerous river, and plan crossings at safe areas,” he emphasizes.

Mixed Use Or Designated Trails
Another conundrum for trail managers is the challenge of multi-use trails, where more than one category of user is on the trail at the same time, for example, a hiking trail that mountain bikers want to use—and maybe horse riders as well.

“Multi-use trails can be done, but on heavily used trails where you have mixed use, you probably should consider not doing it,” says Favro, who adds that encouraging mixed use can lead to conflicts.

“There are certain things you can do in constructing multi-use trails to de-conflict opposing use,” he instructs. “For example, on a mixed bike and hiking trail, open up visibility, don’t have sharp turns, or build in natural speed bumps to slow down bike speed at key points, but still provide the challenge that mountain bikers are looking for.”

Multi-use trails can be practical and safe in appropriate locations with adequate user education, but as Young points out, not all rugged or natural trails are conducive to multi-use. “I feel that variables, such as terrain, number of users, education of users, and the overall goal of the trail are important considerations in user safety,” she explains. “Sometimes it is best to have designated trails. But either way, user education is vital to a safe, enjoyable experience.”

Finding Support
Funding for proper trail maintenance is perplexing at any time, but recent history has proven even more challenging.

“In the past five or six years, there has definitely been an impact on funding streams for trails,” Favro notes. “When funding gets tight, it’s important that trail managers and landowners get selective with their expenditures, determine what their users need, and direct their funding to the priorities.”

Building a dependable volunteer workforce can also benefit maintenance upkeep and reduce costs. “Lots of people like to do volunteer trail work, but it’s not free—you have to train them, supervise them, give them the tools and logistic support they need, and that all costs money,” Favro cautions. “You also have to recognize that you may not get the same quantity or quality of work you’d get with a paid, trained staff. It’s just part of doing the job, and you deal with it as best you can.”

Favro also suggests that the local or national industry can be supportive of trail maintenance: “Companies who produce hiking boots or other outdoor equipment might be a good source of support, and they are sometimes overlooked.”

If any PRB readers have helpful suggestions about trail maintenance, jump into the discussion by writing to me or the editor, or visit the PRB website at and share your knowledge.

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. Gaddo earned his Master’s in Public Administration, and now lives in Peachtree City, Ga. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email .