Skip to content U.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway AdministrationU.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway Administration
Office of Planning, Environment, & Realty (HEP)

Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook

USDA Forest Service logo   Back | Next Forest Service Technology & Development logo


Many specialized trail tools can make your trail experience either enjoyable or miserable, depending on whether you have the right tool at the right time and know how to use it. Here are some basics; check the references for more detailed information.

Right up front, here are some key rules:

  • Your most important tool is your brain--use it.
  • Always use proper personal protective equipment like hardhats, gloves, and safety glasses. Make sure a job hazard analysis has been approved and a safety plan is being followed. Select the right tools for the job. Carefully inspect them before you use them. Make sure handles are sound, smooth, and straight, and heads are tight.
  • Pace yourself. Take rest breaks, and keep your mind on your work. Trade off on tools occasionally for relief from repetitive stresses.
  • Keep cutting tools sharp. A dull tool makes your work harder and more dangerous.
  • Before you start, clear away any brush or limbs that might catch a swinging tool unexpectedly.
  • Posture is important. Stand comfortably in balance. Adjust your stance and tool grip continually to prevent slipping and to avoid glancing blows. Be especially careful when working in wet, slippery conditions.
  • Be thinking about the consequences of every move. If you are working with a rock or log, think ahead so you are not standing in the wrong place when it moves. Be ready to toss your tool aside and jump free. Avoid cutting toward any part of your body, and watch out for your coworkers. Use skill, not brute force.
  • When carrying, loading, or storing a cutting tool, cover the blade with a sheath to protect both the sharp edge and yourself. In vehicles, make sure tools are fastened down.
  • Maintain at least 3 m (10 ft) between workers as a safe operating distance when using individual chopping and cutting tools.
  • Carry sharp tools at your downhill side. Grasp the handle at about the balance point with the sharpened blade forward and down. If you fall, throw the tool clear.
  • At the job site, lay tools temporarily against a stump or downed log with blades directed away from passing workers. Never sink double bit axes, Pulaskis, mattocks, or similar double-edged tools into the ground or in stumps where they become dangerous obstacles.

Tools for Measuring

Clinometers. A clinometer is a simple, yet very useful, instrument for measuring grades. Most clinometers have two scales, one indicating percent of slope, the other showing degrees. Percent slope, the relationship between the amount of elevational rise or drop over a horizontal distance, is the most commonly used measure. Don't confuse percent and degree readings. It is easy to do! Expressed as an equation:

Percent of Grade = Rise/Run x 100 percent

A section of trail 30 m (100 ft) long with 3 m (10 ft) of elevational difference would be a 10-percent grade.

Tape Measures. Get a tape measure that has metric units. Another good idea is to mark off commonly used measurements on your tools. Know the length of your feet, arms, fingers, and other handy rulers as a ready reference on the trail. Calibrate the length of your pace over a known course so you can easily estimate longer distances.

Global Positioning Systems. Quite a few trail surveyors are finding GPS to be the hot ticket for accurate trail location, inventory, and contract preparation. Real-time correction is no longer necessary, and prices have fallen. GPS is becoming the norm for a lot of trail location work.

Tools for Sawing

Crosscut Saws. Crosscut saws may be asymmetric or symmetric. Asymmetric crosscut saws require only one sawyer. They are heavier so they can be pushed and pulled without buckling. Most asymmetric saws are bucking saws. Symmetric crosscut saws, those designed for a sawyer at either end, follow two basic patterns. Felling cross-cuts are light, flexible, and have concave backs that conform easily to the arc of the cut and the sawyer's arm. The narrowed distance between the teeth and back helps sawyers wedge the cut quickly. Bucking crosscuts have straight backs and are heavier and stiffer than felling saws.

Image of a felling crosscut saw.
Image of a bucking crosscut saw.

When carrying a saw, lay it flat across one shoulder with a guard covering the teeth. The teeth need to face away from the neck. You can also tie the saw into a narrow V (not a sharp C, for carrying. Don't store it this way.

Use blade guards made of sections of rubber-lined firehose slit lengthwise. Velcro fasteners facilitate removal. Don't leave a wet guard on a saw.

A sharp crosscut is a pleasure to operate, but a dull or incorrectly filed saw is a source of endless frustration, hence its reputation as a misery whip. Never sharpen without a saw vise and knowledge. Field sharpening ruins crosscut saws.

To prevent tree sap from binding the crosscut blade in the cut, lightly lubricate the blade with citrus-based solvent. Kerosene is no longer recommended because it is highly flammable and is a health hazard if it is absorbed through the skin, or inhaled. Lightly coat the blade with the light machine oil to prevent rust.

For more information, Warren Miller's classic, The Crosscut Saw Manual (revised 1988) is available from the Missoula Technology and Development Center.

Bow Saws. Bow saws are useful for clearing small downfall and for limbing. They consist of a tubular steel frame designed to accept replaceable blades. The blades detach by loosening a wing nut or releasing a throw clamp.

Image of a bow saw.

The teeth are needle sharp, so wear gloves when sawing and keep your hands clear of the cut and the blade. Carry bow saws by your side with the blade pointed down. Cover the blade with plastic blade guards or small diameter fire hose secured with Velcro fasteners. Always carry spare parts and plenty of replacement blades.

Chain Saws. A chain saw will make short work of your cutting tasks--but it is not for wilderness use. Specialized instruction and certification is required, so make sure you have it before operating a chain saw.

Pruning Saws. Pruning saws are useful for limbing, some brushing, and removing small downfall, especially where space is limited and cutting is difficult. Folding pruning saws are handy.

Image of a folding pruning saw.

Tools for Chopping

Axes. Axes are of two basic types--single or double bit. Single-bit axes have one cutting edge opposite a flat face. Double-bit axes have two symmetrically opposed cutting edges. One edge is maintained at razor sharpness and the other is usually somewhat duller as a result of chopping around rocks or dirt. Mark the duller edge with a spot of paint.

Image of single and double bit axes.

Before chopping, check for adequate swing clearance. Remove underbrush and overhanging branches that might interfere with your swing. Be sure your footing is stable and secure. Chop only when you are clear of other workers.

Stand comfortably with your weight evenly distributed and both feet planted shoulder-width apart. Measure the correct distance to stand from the cut by holding the handle near the end and stretching your arms out toward the cut. You should be able to touch the blade to the cut.

Begin chopping by sliding your forward hand within 150 mm (6 in) of the head. As you swing, your forward hand slides back down the handle to the other hand. Just after impact, give the handle a slight twist to pop severed wood out of the cut.

Image measuring the logs diameter and comparing it to the cut.

Proficiency with axes requires practice. Inexperienced users with dull axes may cause serious accidents. In general, the force of the swing is not as important as accurate placement. Always chop away from your body. Stand so a glancing blow will not strike you. If you must cut toward yourself, "choke up" on the handle with both hands and use short swings for more control.

Tools for Grubbing

Pulaskis. The Pulaski combines an ax and a grub hoe into one multipurpose firefighting tool. It isn't as good as a hoe or mattock for grubbing, nor as good as an ax for chopping. It is a popular trail tool because it is widely available and easier to carry than single-purpose tools.

Image of a Pulaski head.

When using the hoe end, stand bent at the waist with your back straight and parallel to the ground, knees flexed, and one foot slightly forward. Hold the handle with both hands so the head is at an angle to your body, and use short, smooth, shallow swings. Let the hoe hit the ground on its corner. Use the ax end to chop large roots after the dirt has been cleared by the hoe. Always wear safety goggles while grubbing to guard against flying chips of rock and dirt.

Carry the Pulaski at your side; grip the handle firmly near the head, and point the ax end away from your body and down. Sharpen the cutting edge like an ax. When sharpening the hoe, maintain the existing inside edge bevel. Never sharpen the top of the hoe.

Combination Tools. The combination or combi tool is basically a military entrenching tool on a long handle, developed for firefighting. It serves as a light-duty shovel and scraper.

Image of a Combination  tool.

McLeods. The McLeod combines a heavy-duty rake with a large, sturdy hoe. McLeods work well for constructing trails through light soils and vegetation or for reestablishing tread along sloughed side cuts. They are inefficient in rocky or unusually brushy areas.

Image of a McLeod.

Fire Rake (Council Tool). The fire rake is another fire tool used widely for tread work, especially in the East.

Picks. Pick heads have a pointed tip for breaking hard rock by forcing a natural seam. They also have a chisel tip for breaking softer materials.

Image of a Pick.

Work the pick like a Pulaski hoe with short, deliberate, downward strokes. Avoid raising the pick overhead while swinging. Always wear safety goggles while using a pick to guard against flying rock chips.

Use a grinder or mill bastard file to sharpen pointed tips to 3-mm (1¦8-inch) squares. When sharpening chisel tips, maintain the factory bevel.

Mattocks. The pick mattock is often recommended as the standard tool for trail work. For many applications, it is much better than a Pulaski. It has a pointed tip for breaking rocks and a grubbing blade for working softer materials. The grubbing blade may also be used to cut roots or remove small stumps. Moreover, with the edge of the tool, you can tamp dirt and loose rocks or smooth a new tread.

Image of Pick and Cutter Mattock heads.

Maintain good cutting edges on mattocks. Sharpen grubbing blades to maintain a 35° edge bevel on the underside. Sharpen pick ends like you would a pick, and maintain factory bevels on cutter blades.

Hoes. Use an adze hoe, grub hoe, or hazel hoe to break sod clumps when constructing new trail or leveling an existing trail tread. These hoes are also useful in heavy duff. They generally work better than a Pulaski.

Image of an Adze hoe
Image of a Grub hoe
Image of a Hazel hoe

USDA Forest Service logo Top

Back | Next

Table of Contents
Forest Service Technology & Development logo
Updated: 4/14/2014
HEP Home Planning Environment Real Estate
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000