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Wetland Trail Design and Construction

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Structures Requiring Foundations - (continued)

Special Site Considerations

A trail in a spruce bog requires adapting wetland construction techniques to the site. The most applicable technique is the bog bridge on bents. However, unlike construction in most wetlands, the location of each pile will have to be adjusted in the field to avoid roots.

Although the upper layer of soil is organic, the underlying soil may not be. Dig test holes along the proposed route to determine whether end-bearing piles, friction piles, or a combination of both is the best technique.

The spacing between piers will vary, as will the angle of the bents to the trail centerline. Some of the tread planks will be shorter than normal, and others will be longer. Starting with tread planks that are twice the normal length will permit cutting short pieces to fit one location, leaving longer pieces for use elsewhere (figure 42).

Image of a bog bridge on piles
Figure 42-A bog bridge on a pile foundation. Protecting
tree roots in a spruce bog requires careful placement of sleepers and piles.

Although this technique is described for northern spruce bogs, it may also have application in cypress swamps in the South-eastern United States and elsewhere.

If beaver are a problem, wrap piles with hardware cloth and staple it into place. The hardware cloth discourages beavers from chewing through the piles, timbers, or logs used in construction (figure 43). Old beaver ponds present something of a problem in bog bridge construction, especially in mountainous areas. The original soil may have been of glacial origin and capable of supporting end-bearing piles. However, beaver dams trap silt, which drops to the bottom of their ponds. While end-bearing piles may work well in some locations in such ponds, friction piles are needed elsewhere. When concrete end-bearing piles were used at one pond, some settled 1 to 2 feet in 5 years. After 10 years, all concrete end-bearing piles had to be replaced with log friction piles (figure 44).

Image of a hardware cloth
Figure 43-Hardware cloth stapled
around piles helps discourage beavers.

Photo of example settling piles
Figure 44-Know your soil conditions. Concrete end-bearing
piles settle 1 to 2 feet here, and had to be replaced with these log friction piles.


Puncheon are essentially short-span footbridges or a series of connected short- span footbridges. The term puncheon means different things to different people. Puncheon on the Appalachian Trail is not the same as puncheon built in the Cascades, Rocky Mountains, or Sierras. Puncheon built in easily accessible areas may not be the same as that built in the backcountry. Puncheon can be used where the soil is wet but does not contain enough water to seriously hamper trail work. The one thing common to all puncheon construction is the use of sleepers or sills.

Type 1 Puncheon

On the Appalachian Trail, 3- to 6-foot-long logs are commonly used for the sleepers or sills. The sleepers are notched to receive one or two tread logs and then placed in a shallow trench. The tread logs are hewn, split, or sawn, roughly in half, to provide a level plane for the walking surface or tread. The tread logs are spiked or pinned in the notch of the sleepers (figure 45).

Image of a puncheon
Figure 45-A rustic type of puncheon with stringers and tread logs.

If the area to be crossed is longer than the logs available for the tread, the puncheon can be built as a series of connecting sections. Hiking any distance on single-tread-log puncheon can be unnerving because the hiker is looking down to avoid stepping off the tread. This is especially true if there is quite a drop from the tread to the ground or water below. Two tread logs placed side by side on longer sleepers will help. For two-tread-log construction, the inside face of each log should be hewn or sawn to butt closely to the adjacent log. A narrow gap between the two logs will help drain water, snow, and ice from the tread. This will reduce the chances of a slippery tread and delay rotting.

Two or three small spacers can be nailed to the inside face of one of the logs to control the width of this gap. The spacers can be short, straight lengths of 2- to 4-inch- diameter branches or wood scraps, hewn flat on opposite sides to provide a piece of wood about 1 inch thick.

Type 2 Puncheon

In the Western States, puncheon uses log sleepers placed in a manner similar to that used on the Appalachian Trail. The sleepers are a few feet longer, however, and the space between them is spanned by two or three log stringers, or beams, spaced 1 to 3 feet apart (figure 46). The tread is made from 6- to 12-inch-diameter split logs, 4 to 6 feet long, or split planks. The split face becomes the tread. The bottom of the tread half-log is notched to rest on the stringer log, and the tread is spiked in place. If three stringers are used, do not spike the tread logs to the center stringer. The top of the three stringers will probably not be at the same height. Use a long carpenter's or mason's level to quickly determine the height of each stringer in relation to the others. Ideally the tread should be level from one side to the other. Handtools normally used in the field for construction make it difficult to get the tread perfectly level. Adjusting the depth of each notch, as needed, will allow for variations in stringer height. Shims under the decking also help to level the structure from side to side.

Image of a puncheon with stringers and decking
Figure 46-A second type of puncheon with stringers and decking.

Half logs can be placed with their split sides facing up as a tread. Smaller half logs are placed split side facing down resting on the stringer and butted tightly against the tread log. These logs serve as brace logs, preventing the tread logs from wobbling. Succeeding tread log are butted snugly against the brace logs (figure 47).

Image of a rustic tread
Figure 47-Rustic tread or decking made from half logs (logs cut in half lengthwise).

If large logs are available, tread plank can be sawn from the logs, producing a number of pieces of plank of varying widths from one log. An Alaskan sawmill can be used at the site to produce planks with a uniform thickness. With this plank, there should be little-if any-need to notch or shim the stringers.

Excessive cross slope will make the surface very slippery. The meaning of excessive will vary, depending on the climate expected when the trail is being used. In a dry climate, the cross slope should not exceed ½ inch per foot of tread width; in a wet climate, or where snow, ice, or frost can be expected, the cross slope should be no more than one-eighth to ¼ inch per foot of tread width. If the trail leading to the puncheon is wet, no matter what the season, hikers will track mud onto the tread, making it slippery throughout the year.

Type 3 Puncheon

The third type of puncheon also uses sleepers to support the structure, but the material is sawn timber or lumber, which should be treated with wood preservative (figure 48). This construction is popular at more accessible sites where materials are easier to transport. The longevity of treated wood and the environmental consequences and labor of cutting trees onsite make the use of sawn, treated timbers increasingly popular at remote sites as well. Helicopters, packstock, all- terrain vehicles, and workers carry in the materials.

Image of a preservative-treated puncheon
Figure 48-A third type of puncheon. This type of puncheon is
constructed from preservative-treated timbers. The nailer bolted to the inside of each
stringer helps keep the stringers from rotting by concentrating screw holes and
associated rot in the easily replaced nailers instead of the stringers.

The sleepers can be either 6- by 6- or 8- by 8-inch-square timbers placed as previously described. Two or three stringers rest on the sleepers and may be toenailed to the sleepers and bolted or nailed to the stringer in the next span. The stringers may also be attached to the sleepers with steel angles and extended (cantilevered) a short distance beyond the sleepers.

The size of the stringers is determined by the maximum weight they can be expected to support, which may be the snow load in snow country. For foot trails, usually the size of the stringers is calculated to support a weight of 100 pounds per square foot, the maximum weight expected for trail users standing on one section of trail. Heavier, wider puncheon is needed for horse and mule traffic.

On foot trails, the tread is often 2 by 6, 2 by 8, or 2 by 10 lumber nailed to the stringers. When three stringers are used, do not nail to the center stringer. The nails work their way out and pose a tripping hazard. The stringers are the most expensive and most difficult items to bring to the site. Do everything you can to extend their useful life; usually this means keeping them dry.

The tread will need replacement more frequently than any other portion of this type of puncheon. In some areas the wood tread will require replacement every 7 to 10 years. After three or four replacements of the tread, the top of the stringers will show signs of rot and wear. Water from runoff and condensation will follow the nails down into the wood, and repeated nailing in the same vicinity will soften the wood. To avoid this, a nailing board (nailer) of 2 by 4s or 2 by 6s can be nailed to the top or side of the stringer. A better solution is to bolt rough-sawn 2 by 4s or 3 by 4s to the side of the stringer with carriage or machine bolts. The bolts can be 2½ to 4 feet apart. The tread is nailed to the nailer instead of the stringer. Eventually, the nailer will require replacement, but the nailer is much easier to replace than the stringers. Esthetically, it is better to attach the nailers to the inside face of the stringers.

Puncheon Summary

The type 1 and 2 puncheon do not represent sustainable design. They damage the resource if onsite trees are cut to provide construction materials. Offsite timber materials may be from more sustainable commercial sources. The type 3 puncheon meets the criteria for sustainable design because the material used is more easily renewed. Although the tread may require replacement in 7 to 10 years, the heavy stringers have a much longer life expectancy.

All three types of puncheon are raised high enough above the ground to provide little interference with the movement of flood-water. The tread width of types 2 and 3 puncheon may affect the growth of plants under the tread.

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Updated: 4/14/2014
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