TRAIL MAINTENANCE IN THE WHITE MOUNTAINS
The White Mountains region of New Hampshire has more than 1,500 miles of trails, and they are all in need of routine maintenance. With this many miles of trail, this is no small feat. A strong network of volunteers is essential for adopting and maintaining nearly every one of these miles.
The task of maintaining these trails is split between two of the three districts of the White Mountain branch of the U.S. Forest Service (Pemi and Saco Districts) as well as several outdoors-focused nonprofit agencies that work closely with the U.S. Forest Service. You can adopt a trail directly through the U.S. Forest Service, or you can do it through one of these nonprofit agencies.
Adopting a trail is usually an immensely enjoyable and rewarding experience. Many hikers will find great satisfaction in participating in this form of community service.
Why should I adopt a trail?
There are many agencies involved in trail maintenance, and most of the agencies always have a need and room for more volunteers. Click on any of the links below to visit the trail maintenance web-pages of the following agencies:
The WMNF has its own Adopt-A-Trail program, which is managed by two separate individual ranger district offices (Pemigewasset & Saco)
Appalachian Mountain Club (the "AMC")
There are many trail work volunteer opportunities with the AMC. They offer one-day, weekend, and week-long trail work trips. Many additional work trips are organized by the individual local chapters of the club – there are links to chapter websites on the main AMC site. Those who want to make a larger commitment can check out the AMC Adopt-A-Trail program, in which you take over basic maintenance responsibilities for a specific trail. This involves a minimum for three work trips per year.
Wonalancet Outdoor Club (the "WODC")
The WODC tends to the trails in the Sandwich Range and organizes several work trips each year. The club has its own Adopt-A-Trail program.
Randolph Mountain Club (the "RMC")
The RMC runs several volunteer work trips each year on the Northern Presidentials and Crescent Range.
Belknap Range Trail Tenders ("BRATT")
This group maintains trails southwest of Lake Winnipesaukee, including trails in and around Mt. Major
Maine Appalachian Trail Club (the "MATC")
The MATC maintains trails in and around the Appalachian Trail in Maine, including western Maine, which abuts the White Mountains.
Chatham Trails Association (the "CTA")
The CTA maintains many trails in the Evans Notch area.
Cohos Trail Association (also the "CTA")
The Cohos Trail Association maintains various trails along the 162-mile length of the trail from Crawford Notch State Park north to the Canadian border. The club has its own Adopt-A-Trail program.
Lakes Region Conservation Trust (the "LRCT")
The LRCT maintains over 22,000 acres of conserved lands and 90 miles of trails in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. The club has its own Adopt-A-Trail program.
Chocorua Lake Conservancy
The CMC sponsors volunteer work trips each spring on their trails on Mount Chocorua and Mount Paugus. At present the club does not have its own website, but information may be found on the website of the Chocorua Lake Conservancy.
Dartmouth Outing Club (the "DOC")
The DOC maintains trails on Mt. Moosilauke and on the A.T. south to Hanover, NH. It has an Adopt-a-Trail program open to all, whether or not you are affiliated with Dartmouth College.
Shelburne Trails Club
The STC conducts volunteer work trips on its trails in the Shelburne area. At present the club does not have its own website, but information may be found on its Facebook page.
Squam Lakes Association
The SLA maintains trails around Squam Lake and in the western Sandwich Range. They have their own Adopt-a-Trail program.
Waterville Valley Athletic & Improvement Association ("WVAIA")
The WVAIA runs several volunteer work trips each year on Waterville Valley trails and is in the process of establishing an Adopt-a-Trail program.
This volunteer trail maintenance organization works on major projects throughout New Hampshire, often in partnership with other clubs.
Note - I would like to give special thanks to Steve Smith (owner of the excellent Mountain Wanderer bookstore in Lincoln, New Hampshire) for his assistance with this section of this page. Steve originally developed this information for the "Trail Clubs" exhibition at the Museum of the White Mountains at Plymouth State University (which runs through March 2016).
THE REQUIREMENTS OF BASIC TRAIL MAINTENANCE
When you adopt a trail, you are most likely going to be responsible for doing "Level 1" trail work. "Level 1" trail work includes the following basic tasks:
The following tools are generally considered essential for basic "Level 1" trail work:
Leather gloves are probably the best type of gloves for trail maintenance. You will want to wear gloves to (a) protect your hands from sharp blades and (b) to prevent blisters. If you use padded leather gloves, this can help you avoid wrist pain at the end of the day.
Hiking boots (and not hiking shoes) are highly recommended since you are probably going to get a bit muddy while you clean drainages/waterbars. Some people will wear gaiters to help prevent mud/debris from getting inside of boots or shoes.
Folding saws or pruning saws are useful for not only clearing brush, but also for clearing minor blowdowns. You can cut much more with a folding or pruning saw than you can with a pair of loppers; however, there is a point where a tree will be too thick for a folding or pruning saw, and therefore you must upgrade to using a bow saw or Sven® saw. Fiskars folding saws are probably the cheapest and easiest to find, but other brands have higher-quality (i.e. Stihl folding or pruning saws).
Loppers are generally much preferred over a hand pruner because loppers are essentially just longer versions of hand pruners. Loppers come in various sizes, but most trail maintainers will use a small or medium-sized lopper that will cut brush and trees up to 1-1/2 or 1-3/4 inches in diameter. Fiskars® manufacturers a telescoping lopper, but it is a bit heavy to carry compared to single-sized loppers; however, it can come in handy when you need to reach high to cut a hanging tree branch. Most trail maintainers prefer bypass loppers over anvil loppers because nicks in the metal are inevitable and the bypass loppers typically handle them better than anvil loppers.
A quality bow saw or Sven® saw will generally cut a tree about half its blade length. In other words, if you have a 16" saw, you can usually cut trees up to 8" in diameter. Trail maintainers love the Sven® brand saws (especially the longer 21-inch version) because they perform well (generally as good as a bow saw) and fold up nicely into your pack.
A hazel hoe or Rogue® hoe is generally much preferred over a fire rake for creating or maintaining waterbars and drainage, since a hoe can dig faster and also move dirt faster than a fire rake can. However, fire rakes are significantly better at moving piles of leaves. So, if you have a group of people helping with maintenance, it is often wise to bring both a fire rake and some sort of hoe. A Rogue® hoe is essentially a hazel hoe, but it has a pick on the other end
Paint must be supplied by the agency you are adopting through. There are very strict requirements on blazing, and the paint brand and hue/color that is currently in use is very specific.
Most agencies will provide you with the basic tools you need for Level 1 trail work. For example, the U.S. Forest Service has several tool caches that you can check tools in-and-out of, and these caches typically contain hazel hoes, bow saws, fire rakes, loppers and helmets (but not folding saws, Sven saws, Rogue Hoes, backpacks, boots or gloves). However, once you start trail maintenance, you may naturally find yourself desiring to purchase your own tools (especially since they are tax-deductible if you "itemize" on your IRS federal taxes).
The following tools are sometimes used for "Level 1" trail work trail maintenance:
Lawn rakes or garden rakes are great for removing leaves from a waterbar before you use a hoe to clear it out. A fire rake is also great at moving leaves, so you generally don't need to bring both a lawn or garden rake and a fire rake.
Weed whips / swizzle sticks / weed whackers can be helpful if your trail is overgrown with low brush (i.e. raspberries, blackberry plants, ferns, etc.). These tools don't work as well on heavier brush, unfortunately (i.e. sticker bushes and the incredibly-widespread hobble bush).
Mattocks can be very useful for side-hilling and grading the surfaces of trails. They are also good for breaking up packed sediment in drainages, although a hazel-hoe or Rogue® hoe can do this very well too.
Pulaskis combine an axe and an adze in one head. The pulaski can be used to both dig soil and chop wood.
Shovels have many purposes, including creating or digging out existing waterbars. If you use a shovel, make sure it is a sharp, round-ended, long handled one.
Adzes are helpful for cleaning water bars, but have a very similar purpose to hazel hoes and Rogue® hoes.
Pole saws have the same function as a folding saw, but they have a telescoping pole that will allow you to reach much higher above your head. Pole saws are generally only needed on backcountry ski trails, which are maintained more feet above the ground than standard hiking trails.
Swedish Brush Axes can be helpful for clearing heavily overgrown trails.
Tools That Require Additional Training/Certification
The following tools are often used for "level 1" trail maintenance, but you will likely need to obtain additional training and/or certification before doing so. Chainsaw training in particular can be extensive (the U.S. Forest Service requires a 2 or 3 day workshop before you can use a chainsaw).
U.S. FOREST SERVICE CONTACT PERSONS
Pemi District - Bruce Richards (firstname.lastname@example.org; Volunteer Coordinator)
Saco District - Cristin Bailey (email@example.com; Trails Manager)
CURRENT LIST OF ORPHANED TRAILS
The current list of orphaned trails maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club can be found here > link
To obtain the current list of orphaned trails maintained by the U.S. Forest Service, you'll need to contact the Volunteer Coordinator or Trails Manager at either the Pemi District Office or the Saco District Office. As of 2016, neither district currently publishes their current orphaned list on the official USFS website). However, the Volunteer Coordinator or Trails Manager will sometimes post orphaned trails to social media, including Facebook hiking-related groups and websites like www.vftt.org.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
How many times should I maintain my trail per year?
Most trails need maintenance two or three times per year. At an absolute minimum, every trail needs at least one maintenance trip. Most of the agencies that have an Adopt-A-Trail program will require or expect you to do complete at least two maintenance trips per year - one in the spring after the winter thaw (when you will likely clear some blowdowns) and one in the fall before winter sets in.
If you are adopting a trail that has been "orphaned" or hasn't received any trail maintenance over the last few seasons, it may take some extra effort (and a few extra days) to get the trail into good enough condition so that you only need to maintain it two or three times per year.
Most agencies will require you to file (usually via email) a "work report" after each completed maintenance trip. The first report you prepare will take some time to complete, but make sure to use the first one as a template for future maintenance trips.
How long does it take to maintain a trail?
It depends. There are many factors that determine how much time it will take to maintain your trail, including the total mileage, the steepness/elevation gain, how overgrown it is, how many people are helping you, and how many waterbars/drainages the trail has. If your trail has many waterbars/drainages, it will likely require a fair amount of time and effort to clean/maintain them on each trip.
I maintain the Coppermine Trail, which is a nearly flat 5.0-mile round-trip trail with about 15-18 waterbars. It takes four people about five hours to complete all "Level I" trail duties. This is done two times per year, equating to a total of about 40 "worked hours" per year. If we socialized less and didn't take many breaks, we could probably reduce the total worked hours per year to about 32 or 35 hours.
If I adopt a trail, am I legally obligated to maintain the trail?
No, it is perfectly OK to resign from your adopted trail at any point in time. Some people also change their adopted trail from time to time (i.e. to transition from a harder trail to an easier trail as you get older or find it difficult to recruit people to help you).
Should you start your trail maintenance at the beginning or end of the trail?
Experienced trail maintainers will generally encourage you to hike to the end of your trail and work backwards. This will allow you to gauge the overall level of work that will be needed for the day. If you start at the beginning, you risk burning yourself out before you reach the end (in which case, the end of the trail is likely to be partially or fully neglected). That being said, it can be very difficult and require some serious discipline to keep hiking to the end while passing things that clearly need work!
How do I receive training?
Each agency that is involved in trail maintenance either has their own trail maintenance training, or they will send their members/volunteers to attend U.S. Forest Service training. Training is generally required every 3 years, and can actually be quite fun since you will meet other trail maintainers. Training involves a mix of classroom/field lessons, and includes a few hours actually spent maintaining a trail that needs work.
Each agency is required to send one member to the official U.S. Forest Service trainings every three years (for example, a member of the Wonalancet Outdoor Club must attend training every 3 years and bring the knowledge back and share it with the entire club.
Both the Pemi and Saco Ranger Districts of the U.S. Forest Service hold annual trail maintenance trainings (called "Skills Days"). Each of these districts typically has 2-3 day trainings per year that you can select from (they are typically held in the spring or early summer, and are usually on weekends but sometimes held on Fridays).
Can I do trail maintenance on my own, without becoming an adopter or attending training?
NO! You must officially adopt a trail before you can legally maintain it. Training is also critical for understanding which tools to use as well as to learn the current standards in trail maintenance, as set by the U.S. Forest Service.
Can friends and family help me maintain my trail?
Most agencies will allow you to assemble a team of family and friends to help you with trail maintenance. The U.S. Forest Service unofficially allows this, but take note that the liability/accident policy that the official trail adopter is covered by will not apply to friends and family.
How can I encourage people to help me maintain my trail?
It can take some creative coercion to convince people to join you. You can try posting online (i.e. Meetup Groups, the 4000-Footers of NH group on Facebook, etc.). Don't laugh, but I am able to recruit people by promising them Polly's Pancake Parlor before each maintenance trip (a legendary breakfast place that most people love).
After someone does trail maintenance once and realizes how enjoyable and rewarding it is, it is usually easy to get them to help again (tip: try to turn it into an annual tradition by doing it the same weekends each year).
What is the standard for height & width of a properly maintained trail?
Generally speaking, four (4) feet wide and eight (8) feet tall is the standard. However, if your trail is heavily used by cross-country or downhill skiers in winter, you may want to inquire with the U.S. Forest Service if the height and width should be more than this. Extremely popular tourist-type trails will also often have a width that is greater than 4 feet wide.
If I buy my own tools, are they tax-deductible? How about the drive/mileage to the trailhead - is that tax deductible?
If you "itemize" your taxes (in other words, your IRS 1040 tax return includes a Schedule A), then you can include the cost of the tools you purchase for trail maintenance and also the mileage for driving to and from the trailhead (see the IRS website for the latest "charity" mileage rate) as charitable deductions.
What's better for waterbars/drainages - a fire rake or a hazel/rogue hoe?
A hoe is far better than a fire rake for maintaining or clearing waterbars and drainage. A two-sided Rogue® hoe is perhaps the best tool.
What are the rules and requirements of using a chainsaw, cross-cut saw, or ax?
Most agencies require additional training and/or certification before you can use a chainsaw, cross-cut saw, or ax on your adopted trail.
Can I get paid anything for my volunteer trail maintenance?
No, think of trail maintenance as community service =). However, if you complete 16 hours per year with the U.S. Forest Service, they will provide you with an annual White Mountains National Forest Parking pass. In addition, keep in mind that driving ("mileage") to and from your trailhead can be tax-deductible if you itemize on your IRS federal tax return.
What are the exact tools you personally use for trail maintenance?
Rogue Hoe, model 55A
Fiskars 7" Folding Saw
Fiskars 25" PowerGear Lopper (bypass loppers)
Fire Rake (sometimes used; Rogue Hoe is preferred most of the time)
Sven Folding Saw 21"
MORE INFORMATION ON TRAIL MAINTENANCE IN THE WHITE MOUNTAINS
The best book on the subject of trail maintenance is easily the AMC's Complete Guide to Trail Building and Maintenance, which is currently in its 4th edition (2008).
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