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Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook

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Specialized trail tools can help make your trail work more enjoyable.


  • Your most important tool is your brain--use it.

  • Always use proper personal protective equipment, such as hardhats, gloves, and safety glasses. Make sure a job hazard analysis has been approved and a safety plan is being followed.

  • Select the right tool for the job. Carefully inspect each tool. Make sure the handles are sound, smooth, and straight, and that the heads are tight.

  • Pace yourself. Take rest breaks, drink plenty of water, and keep your mind on your work. Crewmembers should trade off on work tasks 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.

  • 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 meters (10 feet) 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 work site, lay tools on the uphill side of the trail with the business end farthest uphill. Make sure the handles are far enough off the edge of the trail so they are not a tripping hazard. Never sink double-bit axes, McLeods, Pulaskis, mattocks, or similar tools into tree trunks, stumps, or the ground where the exposed portion of the tool will present a hazard.

Tools for Measuring

Clinometers--A clinometer, called a clino by trail workers, is a simple, yet useful, instrument for measuring grades. Most clinometers have two scales, one indicating percent of slope, the other showing degrees. Percent slope, the relationship between rise or drop over a horizontal distance, is the most commonly used measure. Percent readings are found on the right hand side of the scale. 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 meters (100 feet) long with 3 meters (10 feet) of difference in elevation would be a 10-percent grade. A 100-percent grade represents 45 degrees.

Traditionalists often prefer an Abney level to a clinometer. They are easier to see through and there are no measurements to read.

Global Positioning Systems (GPS)--Most trail surveyors are using GPS receivers 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 locating trails.

Tape Measures--Get a tape measure with metric units. Mark off commonly used measurements on your tool handles. Know the length of your feet, arms, fingers, and other rulers that are always handy on the trail. Calibrate the length of your pace over a known course so you can easily estimate longer distances.

Tools for Sawing

Bow Saws--These saws are useful for clearing small downfall and for limbing. They consist of a tubular steel frame that accepts replaceable blades. The blades can be removed by loosening a wing nut or releasing a throw clamp.

Drawing of a bow saw.

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

Crosscut Saws--Symmetric crosscut saws, those designed for a sawyer at either end, follow two basic patterns. Felling crosscuts 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 leaves room for sawyers to get wedges into the cut quickly. Bucking crosscuts have straight backs and are heavier and stiffer than felling saws. Bucking saws are recommended for most trail work because they are more versatile.

Drawings of a felling crosscut saw and a bucking crosscut saw.

Bucking saws also are available as asymmetric saws, with a handle at one end that can be used by a single sawyer.

Cover the blades with sections of rubber-lined firehose slit lengthwise. Velcro fasteners make these guards easy to put on and take off. 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. Don't leave a wet guard on a saw.

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

Warren Miller's classic, the "Crosscut Saw Manual" (revised 2003), provides information on sharpening techniques. David E. Michael's "Saws That Sing: A Guide To Using Crosscut Saws" (2004) tells you everything else you will need to know. Both are available from the Federal Highway Administration's Recreational Trails Web site:

A saw's teeth are needle sharp. 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.

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.

Drawing of a folding pruning saw.

Tools for Chopping

Axes--Axes are of two basic types: single or double bit. Double-bit axes have two symmetrically opposed cutting edges. One edge is maintained at razor sharpness. The other edge usually is somewhat duller, because it is used when chopping around rocks or dirt. Mark the duller edge with a spot of paint.

Drawings of a double-bit ax and a single-bit ax.

Before chopping with an ax, check for adequate clearance for your swing. Remove any underbrush and overhanging branches that might interfere. 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 where to stand 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 millimeters (6 inches) of the axhead. 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.

Proficiency with axes requires practice. Inexperienced users and dull axes can cause serious accidents. In general, the force of the swing is not as important as accurate placement. Always chop away from your body. Stand where 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.

"An Ax to Grind-A Practical Ax Manual" (Weisgerber and Vachowski 1999) is a good reference.

Tools for Grubbing

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.

Drawing of a combi tool.

Fire Rakes (Council Tools)--The fire rake is another fire tool widely used for trail work, especially in the East.

Drawing of a fire rake.

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

Drawings of an adze hoe, grub hoe, and hazel hoe.

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 also may be used to cut roots or remove small stumps. With the edge of the tool, you can tamp dirt and loose rocks or smooth a new tread.

Drawings of a pick mattock and a cutter mattock.

A pick mattock can be used to pry rocks without fear of breaking a handle. Two people working with pick mattocks may not need to carry rock bars.

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

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 when material from the backslope sloughs onto the trail. A McLeod is essential for compacting tread and is helpful for checking outslope. If you hate leaving a bolt impression in your compacted tread, remove the bolt that secures the toolhead and weld the head to the mounting plate. McLeods are inefficient in rocky or unusually brushy areas.

Drawing of a mcleod tool.

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

Drawing of a pick

Work the pick as you would the hoe on a Pulaski with short, deliberate, downward strokes. Avoid raising the pick overhead while swinging. Always wear safety goggles while using a pick to protect yourself from flying rock chips.

Use a grinder or mill bastard file to sharpen the pointed tip to a 3-millimeter (1/8-inch) square. When sharpening the chisel tip, maintain the factory bevel.

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

Drawing of a pulaski.

When using the hoe end of a Pulaski, 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 protect yourself from flying chips of rock and dirt.

Carry the Pulaski at your side. Grip the handle firmly near and point the ax end away from your body and down.

Sharpen the cutting edge of the Pulaski's ax as you would any other ax. When sharpening the Pulaski's hoe end, maintain the existing inside edge bevel. Never sharpen the top of the hoe.

Stump Grinders--If you have lots of stumps to remove, consider buying or renting a gasoline-powered stump grinder. These portable grinders are powered by a chain saw motor and have carbide teeth that can be sharpened or replaced. They grind through a stump in much less time and with a whole lot less frustration than would be needed to dig the stump out.

Photo of a stump grinder.
Stump grinder

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Updated: 4/14/2014
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