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7 Signs Your Trail is in Trouble & What to Do About it

Recognize the common ways healthy trails deteriorate and how you can help.

Could your favorite trail's health be failing? If it were, would you recognize the symptoms and know what specific actions to take? 

Whether due to neglect, poor construction, abuse or simply normal use over time, all trails need constant vigilance, maintenance and funding to remain open and sustainable. With a little practice, you can develop “trail eyes” and be part of the solution. 

Read on for seven signs your trail is in trouble and solution-oriented tips.

30353815421_f69c9d1fac_z.jpgA healthy Goat Creek Trail in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Photo by Elliot Townsend.

1

 Trail braiding

What it is: It's not pretty when your trail becomes braided, turning into multiple trails. 

Why it happens: Trail braiding occurs when trail users try to avoid an obstacle, like a muddy spot, or perhaps lack the skill or confidence to advance on the established trail. Over time, with more visitors repeating this behavior, the trail splits into several smaller trails.

trail braiding on coyote wall by wta.jpgTrail braiding on a user-created trail at Coyote Wall in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Someone has tried to prevent further damage by placing a large rock and branch at the beginning of two of the rogue trails. WTA photo.

Why it’s a problem: Trail braiding kills vegetation, causes erosion, introduces non-native plants and adds enormously to trail maintenance costs.

Solution: Stay on the trail and encourage others to do the same. If it’s a muddy spot, just go through ithiking boots are meant to handle messy conditions. If rocks block your stride, kick them to the downhill side if it’s safe—not if it’s a steep slope with switchbacks, as rocks will roll, and could seriously hurt someone below you. If you can find one, place a dead branch across the rogue trail.

2

Cut Switchback

What it is: A cut switchback is the term for a “shortcut” on a switchback, due to errant trail users.

Why it happens: Trail users wanting to save a few steps cut the corner off of a switchback, destroying vegetation and the integrity of a carefully constructed trail feature. 

sauk mtn cut switchback by TrailMarmot.jpegCut switchback on Sauk Mountain, public land in the North Cascades managed by Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Photo by TrailMarmot.

Why it’s a problem: Cut switchbacks don’t just ruin the aesthetic of a hillside; they destroy vegetation and cause erosion. The erosion becomes even worse when rainfall flows downhill, through the cuts.

Solution: Prevention is key; don’t cut corners on switchbacks. If someone in your crew doesn't know, set a good example and talk about why cutting across switchbacks damages trails and causes erosion.

3

Poor drainage

What it is: Presents as puddles, pooling water or rivulets.

Why it happens: Debris can build up and block the drainage path of water. Sometimes a drainage problem happens because the trail was poorly designed. Soil displacement and compaction from ongoing use can worsen the problem as rainfall or snowmelt collects in sunken treads.

Puddles on Mt. Rainier by Simone Nelson.jpgPuddles at Mount Rainier National Park, public land managed by the National Park Service. Photo by Simone Nelson.

Why it’s a problem: Wet, muddy areas on the trail can lead hikers into trail braiding behavior, which leads to more erosion. People sidestepping puddles widen the trail and enlarge the puddle.

Solution: Get your boots dirty and go through or hop over the water. Go around the muck if you can do it without leaving the trail. If you see where fallen branches are blocking drainage, use a pole to flip them up and out of the trail and to the downhill side (That can be kind of a fun game, doing it without breaking stride). Persistent and serious trail drainage problems need to be addressed by installing drainage features designed to divert water.

4

 Heavy Brush

What it is: When branches scrape your clothing and vegetation obscures the path ahead, that's overgrowth, or heavy brush.

Why it happens: Unless a trail is “brushed,” or the vegetation on the sides cut back regularly, it will return to nature.

brushing heavy brush by holly weiler.jpg
A WTA volunteer helps rescue a trail completely obscured by brush in northeast Washington. Photo by Holly Weiler.

Why it’s a problem: Lack of regular brushing can lead to vegetation-filled berms forming on the outer edge of a trail, trapping water and causing erosion. When heavy brush comes into the trail from the uphill side, trail users travel closer to the other edge, causing trails to creep downhill.

Solution: Join or support your local trail work party, which will supply brush trimmers, loppers and other tools, and make a day of it. This tip is a little more pro-level: Some experienced hikers and trail runners carry a small folding saw and cut branches to make passage easier. They may even remove small trees that have fallen across the trail.

If you try this, be careful, and be sure not to leave stobs. Stobs are ends of a branches that didn't get cut close enough to the tree. When they stick out, they can rip clothing, or at worst, impale passing trail users. 

5

Trail Creep

What it is: You may notice that one side of the trail disappears off the outside edge.

Why it happens: Slough (pronounced “sluff”) is soil or debris that gradually slides downhill into the trail, narrowing the tread (the part of the trail you walk on). Trail creep occurs for a few reasons: when hikers adjust downhill to avoid slough, if not enough slough was removed when the trail was constructed, or when heavy brush grows on one side of the trail. 

trail tread creep shedroof divide by holly weiler.jpgTrail or tread creep on the Shedroof Divide Trail in the Salmo-Priest Wilderness Area, public land managed by the Colville National Forest. Photo by Holly Weiler.

Why it’s a problem: Trail creep is bad for trail sustainability and can be dangerous if the trail is pushed so far to the edge of a ridge that users risk falling. In some cases, a creeping trail can widen to the point of inviting unauthorized motorized users, which requires expensive trail reconstruction.

What you can do: Regular brushing is the cheapest way of preventing trail creep. Even with a trail maintenance crew, removing slough is difficult work.  Some crews prevent trail creep by installing guide rocks, as long as they don’t impede water drainage.

6

Trenching

What it is: You feel like you’re hiking in the bottom half of a pipe.

Why it happens: Trenching often occurs across a flat area. The footsteps of hundreds of trail users wear down the tread of a trail faster than you might think, compacting the soil and creating a sort of funnel for water to run down, compounding the problem.

spider meadow trenching by jdk610.jpegTrenching in Spider Meadow, public land in the Central Cascades managed by the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Photo by jdk610.

Why it’s a problem: Trenches get really mucky and become streams in rainstorms, fostering erosion of the soil. Trenching can tempt hikers to walk alongside the trail, rather than on it, which creates trail braiding. 

What you can do: Keep hiking in the trench. As unpleasant as that might seem, it’s the best way to avoid destructive trail braiding and worse erosion. Depending on the terrain, trail crews can fill in trenches with crushed rocks and soil.

7

Downfall

What it is: Downed trees that have fallen across the trail.

Why it happens: Rot weakens trees over time and eventually they fall over. Wind storms can also cause trees to topple, especially if they’re old or diseased. Fire can sometimes damage trees enough that they'll fall over.

Shedroof divide by holly weiler.jpgDownfall on the Shedroof Divide Trail, Salmo-Priest Wilderness. Wilderness areas offer unique opportunities for trail crews to use a wide variety of traditional tools and skills. Photo by Holly Weiler. 

Why it’s a problem: Dead and fallen trees are important to wildlife and vital to forest health, but if trees aren’t cleared when they fall across trails, trail braiding and erosion can occur from hikers seeking a way around them. A trail obstructed by downed trees could be at risk for being lost altogether if the downfall is bad enough to discourage use of the trail.

What you can do: Stay on the trail whenever possible to avoid trampling vegetation and beginning a rogue trail. Note approximately where the downfall is on the trail, and when you write your trip report, be sure to mention where the obstacles are. 


4 Ways to Help Save a Suffering Trail

  • Volunteer for a trail work party. Guided by expert WTA crew leaders, you'll have fun fixing issues that can transform a problem trail into a hiker's dream.
  • Flag the trail problem in your trip report. Thousands of hikers aren't the only ones reading and benefiting from your trip reports! Land managers and WTA staff read them too, scanning for issues that require attention. When you come across any of the seven symptoms of a trail in trouble, identify it in your report with details like, "There's a lot of heavy brush between miles 4 and 5," or include a GPS pin for that downed tree that's blocking the trail.
  • Attend a public meeting. Most of us have opinions, but few of us show up when we're invited to provide input when it matters most. As a hiker, your participation at a meeting is highly valued when decisions are being made. Receive notice about public meetings by signing up at the appropriate land manager's website. You can also sign up for WTA's Trail Action Network, an email list that notifies you of important opportunities to speak up for public lands and trails. 
  • Become a member of WTA, the nation's largest state-based hiking nonprofit organization. Your gift supports maintenance, advocacy and education programs that protect and preserve trails.

Comments

ejain on 7 Signs Your Trail is in Trouble & What to Do About it

What's this "GPS pin" feature you are mentioning?

Posted by:


ejain on Jan 13, 2018 09:14 PM

Crystal Gartner on 7 Signs Your Trail is in Trouble & What to Do About it

Hi ejain, thanks for the excellent question.

If you use a GPS program while you hike, such as the Gaia GPS or Strava apps, you can record the course of your hike, or store its "track." If you run into an obstacle along the way, you can mark a waypoint by dropping a pin, a feature within the program. Usually, when you create a waypoint, you have the option to title it and add a description right there on the spot, indicating the kind of obstacle you're marking and any important details.

You can then copy and paste the latitude and longitude of the waypoint, or pin, into your trip report, describing what the obstacle is. But the most efficient way to do it would probably be to include a link to the entire track in your trip report, because it already includes the pin and details about the obstacle.

Posted by:


HikerUp4Wilderness on Jan 15, 2018 01:21 PM

ejain on 7 Signs Your Trail is in Trouble & What to Do About it

Thanks; I already link to a photo album full of geotagged photos, though I'm not sure anyone would ever notice...

Posted by:


ejain on Jan 15, 2018 05:06 PM

Crystal Gartner on 7 Signs Your Trail is in Trouble & What to Do About it

ejain, you bring up a good point. Anna Roth, WTA's Hiking Content Manager, offers the following advice...

"Most people can/will write the problems they encounter into the text of the trip report. If they have a track with geotagged locations of trail maintenance issues, they can include the link to wherever they uploaded the track in the trip report, too. But it's better/easier for the trail maintenance team to see information if it's just on WTA's site, so another solution that works is taking a screenshot of the track and uploading it as one of their trip report photos, though that's a lot of extra steps for a trip reporter."

"The best practice for most people is to write a trip report that includes rough estimates of where the issues are, and, if they have it, include a link to their track with the waypoints for where the trail maintenance issues are."

ejain, you are one of our star trip reporters, so I hope this is helpful.

Posted by:


HikerUp4Wilderness on Jan 16, 2018 09:08 AM

ejain on 7 Signs Your Trail is in Trouble & What to Do About it

Good to know, always glad to learn how to make my trip reports more useful!

Posted by:


ejain on Jan 16, 2018 10:24 PM

scottsemans on 7 Signs Your Trail is in Trouble & What to Do About it

In addition to a hiking pole for flicking sticks or whacking back soft vegetation, and a folding saw for cutting, you can carry a small garden trowel - for clearing drainage ditches - and a pair of garden pruners for cutting blackberries, salmonberry, or other trail intruders. Carhartt pants are my favorite for hiking because they have a knife pocket for the folding saw, a hammer loop for the trowel, and reenforced knees. You can get a belt-clip leather scabbard from Felco for your pruners. With these four tools ranged in easy reach you become a mini maintenance machine as you hike.

Posted by:


scottsemans on Jan 17, 2018 09:35 AM