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Maintenance Of The Appalachian Trail

Maintenance Of

Photo By GATC Member Stewart Holt

This page will be used to provide information concerning how the trail is maintained, and to encourage others to become involved with maintaining this national treasure.

Brawny and I have done hundreds of hours of trail work on the AT in Georgia. However, the information that follows here consists solely of my opinions; I am not speaking for the Appalachian Trail Conference, the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club, or any other organization.

Most trail work is done by volunteers in 31 affiliated trail clubs, and these volunteers are the heart and soul of the Appalachian Trail. They maintain not only the nearly 2,200 miles of the AT, but also hundreds of miles of side trails. The side trails provide access to shelters, water, campgrounds, roads and other hiking destinations. The AT experience would not exist as we know it without the side trails.

More than 4,200 men and women contribute more than 182,000 hours of their free time each year to maintain the AT and side trails. Volunteers who go on club sponsored work trips usually are provided tools and equipment. However, the volunteers who take responsbility for maintaining their "own" trail section must provide (at their own expense) tools, supplies, paint (for blazes), paint brushes, other equipment and transportation to and from the trail.

Despite the hard work involved, I feel that being entrusted with caring for a portion of the most popular hiking trail in the world is an honor and a privilege. Without the volunteer workers, the trail would cease to exist as we know it in 3 - 5 years

Trail work is more demanding, difficult and dangerous than is commonly thought. Bruises, sprains, poison ivy rashes, bee stings, insect bites, cuts and scrapes are common. In addition, more serious injuries sometimes happen. It is not unusual for maintainers who do trail work on a regular basis for long periods of time to have had injuries that required a doctor's visit or a trip to the emergency room.

Trail maintenance can include the following:

Painting blazes - If you have spent any time at all on the trail, you have noticed the rectangular, 2 x 6 inch white blazes that mark the route of the trail. It can take about a half hour to properly paint one blaze. After the location and tree are selected, the tree bark must be smoothed lightly with finely grained sandaper. A 2 x 6 inch template is then placed on the tree, and a pen or marker is used to make the outline of the blaze. The template is then removed, and the first of several layers of white, high-gloss enamel paint are applied. After the paint dries, the edges and corners are squared using a straight edge and a scraper. Blazes must be repainted every 2 - 3 years. Double white blazes (one on top of the other) are used to indicate abrupt turns or a potentially confusing route just ahead. Side trails are marked with blue blazes.

Weeding - If weeds are not cut in late spring or early summer, the trail will be overgrown by late summer. Most weed cutting is done with a swing blade (remember the movie "Cool Hand Luke"?), and it is hot, hard and demanding work. Disturbing an underground hornets' nest or a rattlesnake with a swing blade is an experience that will never be forgotten. When weeding, volunteers often must put on protective clothing and stand in thick poison ivy growth while cutting it away from the treadway. In heavy growth years, weeds normally must be cut at least twice. A section of trail approximately 1 mile in length that has heavy weed growth can take a full day to cut. In some areas, power tools may be used, but in wilderness areas, only hand tools can be utilized. A maintainer who cuts weeds all day and returns home without multiple bee stings and a poison ivy rash is fortunate indeed.

Lopping - Lopping is cutting branches, briars, vines and brush from the path of the trail. It is usually done with small hand clippers or pruning shears. It must be done at least twice per year. Lopping a one mile section of trail that is badly overgrown can take a full day or more.

Blowdown Removal - Blowdowns are trees that fall across the trail. Small ones can be removed with bow saws and small folding saws. However, the larger ones are usually removed with chainsaws in non-wilderness areas and with crosscut saws in wilderness areas. A device called a grip hoist is also used. It is a type of manually operated winch system. Blowdown removal can be dangerous and very labor intensive. Volunteers must be certified by the US Forest Service before they can operate a chainsaw in a national forest. A large blowdown in a wilderness area can take 8 - 10 people a half day to clear. Several hundred (if not several thousand) trees fall across the trail every year. The trail in Georgia was devastated by Hurricane Opal several years ago. Literally thousands of trees were down and blocking the trail. Many people (including me) thought that the trail would be closed for months and would never be the same. However, most of the trees were removed within 6 weeks. Today, the only reminders of the devastation are the many large, uprooted trees lying within sight of the treadway.

Installing Steps - Steps are made of either stone or wood and are installed when the terrain is very steep. They help control erosion by slowing down the flow of water on the trail, and they make the uphills and downhills a bit easier to hike. Some of the rocks used for stone steps weigh 60 - 100 pounds, and logs used for wood steps can weigh about the same. Usually, volunteers manually carry them to where they are needed. A long, steep section of trail can need 20 - 30 steps (or more).

Installing & Maintaining Drainage Structures - These structures (usually called water bars) help get water off the trail to control erosion. They are usually down-sloping shallow trenches angling away from the trail. A small "dam" of partially buried rocks or a log is made across the trail at the proper angle and water then flows into the trench and off the trail. On steep sections, it is not unusual to see drainage structures every 100 feet. Each structure can take over 2 hours to construct, and the rocks or log must be manually carried to the site by the volunteers. In addition, each structure must be cleaned out several times per year.

Treadway Repairs - Erosion, heavy traffic, damage from fallen trees, hikers walking around roots, rocks and vegetation, and poor trail engineering done previously can all result in damage to the treadway. When the footing gets treacherous for any reason, the treadway must be repaired. This can require many buckets full of dirt to be transported to where they are needed, and then there is lots of digging, "re-engineering", and removing rocks and roots as they are encountered. Occasionally, the repaired section of trail will be supported with rock or log cribbing to stablize the treadway. This amounts to building a supporting wall underneath the edge of the trail.

Treadway Relocation - Occasionally, a section of trail must be abandoned, and a new section built. This is some of the most labor intensive work that is done on the trail. It is usually done by groups of volunteers who have several days of hard work to donate. A "relo" can be 100 ft. in length, or several miles.

Rock & Root Removal - Rocks wash onto the trail on a regular basis and should be removed. Other rocks that are naturally embedded in the treadway can be a hazard to navigation and need to be removed. The trail can also erode under roots that grow laterally across the trail, causing the root to be exposed in a kind of half-moon shape and creating a dangerous "toe grabber". Rock and root removal is one reason why a trail maintainer always has something to do.

Shelter & Privy Construction & Repairs - New shelters are built on a regular basis, and the construction crew is usually a group involving volunteers from several different organizations. Most shelters also have a privy. In addition to new construction, existing shelters and privies must be maintained on a regular basis. For shelters, this work can include new floors or roofs. If the privy has a pit, the pit must also be relocated every few years, and occasionally repairs must also be made to the privy itself.

Litter Removal - Thoughtless hikers can leave all manner of trash behind, including soiled tissues, broken glass, cotton clothing and sleeping bags, plastic sheeting, metal fuel canisters, all manner of food and cooking gear and jagged cans, etc. Fire-rings at shelters often become small trash dumps, and any trash that won't burn (such as aluminum foil and cans) must be packed out. The strangest thing I've packed out so far is the hood ornament from a 1956 Pontiac.

How to get involved:

The maintaining clubs can always use additional help. If you have found a section of trail that needs work, instead of complaining, why not get involved and help? If you'd like to volunteer, use the link below at the Appalachian Trail Conference to see the geographic area of responsibility for each club. Contact information (e-mail address, postal address, phone number) is also furnished for each club.

Despite the hardships and the bumps, bruises and scrapes that go along with it, trail work is very rewarding. It provides a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment uncommon in today's hectic, fast moving and noisy world. The comaraderie of working with others who share our love for the trail and the outdoors is also very special and worthwhile. A maintainer I know once said that the time we spend doing trail work is not deducted from our lives. Maybe he's on to something.

AT Maintaining Clubs