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By Lucy Higgins • August 15, 2023

Think “trail maintenance” and what comes to mind? If that rings up images of excavators, conservation corps teams, and large town budgets, it doesn’t have to. While more resources mean, well, more resources, there are plenty of sustainable and approachable ways to maintain and improve upon hiking, biking, and running trails without breaking the bank and while including environmentally sustainable practices. Here are a few ways to impactfully engage and improve upon trails. 

  1. Keep an Eye Out

This one is a win-win. There’s no easier way to stay up to date on trail maintenance than actually being on the trail. Lace up the kicks and get eyes on the trail—undertaking routine trail inspections will be helpful in catching issues like erosion, general wear, and potential safety hazards before they spiral into larger problems. Early intervention is cost effective, and it also makes for projects that smaller groups and individuals can tackle.

  1.   Minimize Repairs

When it comes time to make the inevitable repairs all trails require, consider designing trail modernization to include features that minimize erosion and water accumulation. What natural drainage already exists? How do the contours of the landscape lend themselves to trail construction? Questions like these on the onset of repairs can save years of trying to mitigate the same problem over and over. At this stage, it may be worth consulting experts familiar with the region, such as local trail builders, conservation groups, or land managers. 

Should a trail acquire a significant amount of erosion or environmental damage, this may be a good time to temporarily or permanently decommission it. This allows the trail to rehabilitate naturally, and presents trail builders with the opportunity to focus on more sustainable route creation.

Albert Dera / Unsplash
  1. Look out for Mother Earth

The need for sustainable measures extends beyond the wallet. Understanding water and vegetation management not only makes for better trails, it conserves the surrounding ecosystem. Properly installed water bars, swales, and other erosion control efforts make for dry feet; they also prevent soil erosion, which in turn promotes healthy vegetation and wildlife. 

In your regular trail inspections, consider the surrounding vegetation. What needs to be trimmed or managed? Are there downed trees that can be removed by hand, or during an afternoon with a chainsaw? Clear sightlines make for safe and enjoyable trails—no one wants a stick in their eye—and minor upkeep over time and across many hands makes for light work. It’s also a good time to get familiar with your ecosystem. Take note if there is an uptick in invasive or native species, old growth forest near the trail, or unique wildlife sightings. Insights like these can be hugely helpful for conservation commissions and land managers to protect and conserve the land on which your trail is on.

  1. Educate 

The more others know about responsible trail use, the less likely they’ll be to inflict damage on the surrounding ecosystem and the trail itself. Consider how signage, access points, and trailheads can all work together to minimize disturbing the greater environment, while creating a more seamless user experience. 

There’s no better way to increase education than through hands-on experience: a volunteer trail maintenance day can help build a sense of responsibility and investment. Trail alliances and conservation groups likely already have these set up—if so, help them by spreading the world to your own network. If not, reach out to get one started.