Trail Stewardship in the Modern Environment

Changes in our climate are exacerbating hikers' impact on trail erosion, and are contributing to the frequency and ferocity of storms, forest fires, blowdowns, and other destructive natural forces. Simply put, increasing traffic on the trail is outpacing our ability to maintain it, given the environmental conditions we face today.

“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks,” said John Muir, the famous Scottish-American naturalist and advocate for wilderness preservation. As a lifelong hiker and career trail man, the memories, friendships, and opportunities the trail has provided to me over the years are an invaluable gift, one that may only be reciprocated through stewardship.

As hikers, it is our duty to serve and protect the trail for current and future generations. This has always been our mission, but it has never been more urgent or more important than now, when changes in our climate are exacerbating hikers’ impact on trail erosion, and are contributing to the frequency and ferocity of storms, forest fires, blowdowns, and other destructive natural forces. Simply put, increasing traffic on the trail is outpacing our ability to maintain it, given the environmental conditions we face today.

Perhaps ironically, it is our enthusiasm for the trail that is our greatest challenge to preserving it. According to reports from Baxter State Park officials, the number of hikers arriving at the northern terminus on Katahdin is doubling every four years. Appalachian Trail campsites have become so crowded that some traditional pit toilets are filling up in just a single season. Traffic is so heavy that trail crews doing maintenance work are interrupted, on average, every 10 minutes by hikers during peak summer months.

This heavy traffic sets the stage for water, with its most damaging effects, to degrade the trail surface. In turn, more severe storms mean more water. Instead of seeping into the forest floor, the water runs downhill or creates small ponds in the trail. Water running downslope is a dynamic process that rapidly washes away soil to create trenches lined with slippery rocks which, if left unchecked, can grow into deep trenches up and down the mountainside.

Prior to the 1970s, this damage was considered normal. Today, natural erosion aggravated by the shifting climate and increased hiker traffic transforms small trail puddles into devastating mud wallows, which widen even further as hikers search for a path around them.

The truth is that I have never been more excited to see so many new faces on the trail. After all, they are the next generation of hikers, maintainers, ridge runners, overseers, and trail leaders; without them, our work could not continue. At the same time, however, we face a real risk of “loving the trail to death” unless we each embrace the principles of trail stewardship and do our part.

What Trail Stewardship Means

According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), trail stewardship (or management) “encompasses the on-the-ground stewardship performed by volunteers and agency partners to maintain the Trail, its structures, and its natural and cultural resources.” This includes:

  • Keeping the footpath clear of natural overgrowth and blowdowns;
  • Building and relocating sections of the footpath;
  • Building and repairing shelters and other structures; and
  • Caring for overnight sites.

As the national Appalachian Trail organization, ATC coordinates this work with 31 trail-maintaining clubs, including the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, and provides training, helps to set policies and protocols, recruits and manages volunteers for trail crews, and provides funding and other assistance.

Since the 1970s, trail crews in all the New England states have worked to repair or eliminate the damage caused by water on hiking trails. Though Maine is home to just 13 percent of the Appalachian Trail, it has the largest backlog of reconstruction work, from rebuilding problem trails and replacing deteriorated facilities to installing tread improvements and much more.

What Trail Stewardship Looks Like

The most important goal in trail maintenance is removing running water from the trail. The common solution for this is a structure called a “waterbar.” Waterbars are similar to culverts, but are open on top. They are built on a diagonal in order to divert the running water off the trail. Some waterbars are wood, but today, most are made of stone for greater longevity.

Since waterbars tend to fill with silt, they must be cleared out frequently. Building waterbars with a steep pitch helps alleviate some of this problem. Waterbars are generally retrofit structures built on trails that are essentially too steep to begin with.

Another approach to removing running water on eroding trail, particularly for steep areas, is to redesign the trail onto lesser grades. Many of the trails in the Northeast have “fall line” trails, which are sections exceeding 35 percent slope (35 vertical feet per 100 horizontal feet) and which usually experience erosion issues. Relocating the trail to a route that meanders back and forth across the slope, bringing the trail grade down between 8 percent to 10 percent, greatly reduces erosion issues.

When relocating a trail, it is also possible to out-slope the trail, that is, to slope it to one side, to promote dispersed drainage. While these techniques do not eliminate the kind of heavy rock work required for turns or corners, they can eliminate about 90 percent of heavy work that is needed.

Trail hardening is also an effective strategy, and involves using stone or gravel to make a durable surface for the trail. Stone steps are built on slopes where there is a history of erosion damage, created by placing 400- to 600-pound rocks in a stairway fashion. Most of these staircases are built on short, steep places, though some 3/4-mile staircases have been built in the last 25 years.

Improving wet or muddy areas involves placing a wood, stone, or gravel structure along the trail. The most traditional approach has been to place cedar planks on cross logs to make a modestly elevated chain of wooden bridges above the mud. While effective in the short-term, trail maintainers must strive to take the long-view perspective; in this case, as wood decays it must be replaced on a 10- to 20-year cycle. Also, a single bridge site can consume all the best trees over time.

Step stones are more common today. Stones with a flat top are set into tapered holes. A step surface of about 15 inches is preferred. Stones should be placed 5 inches apart along the trail. In areas where rocks are scarce, there is a special technique called “the Burrito,” in which geotextiles (permeable fabrics designed to increase soil stability and aid in drainage) are used to make gravel-filled tubes running down the length of the trail. “The Burrito” is then thoroughly buried to hide the synthetic material and prevent its exposure to sunlight, which can degrade the material over time.

Turnpikes or causeways can be built across wet areas with or without geotextiles. Combining several methods, such as building stone steps between waterbars that are installed on 100-foot spacing, can be an effective method for controlling erosion in particularly problematic areas.

How You Can Be a Trail Steward

Join a trail maintenance club in your area. Membership is essential to a strong and effective trail maintenance program, especially with today’s hiker traffic placing added strain on already aging facilities and footpaths. There is a role for everyone, regardless of ability and experience.

Volunteer at least once per season. As non-profit organizations, most clubs typically have limited resources and depend upon volunteer maintainers to adopt sections of a trail. A quick Internet search for “trail maintenance club [ENTER YOUR STATE]” should lead you to an existing club in your area. If you’re feeling adventurous, the American Hiking Society also has a “Volunteer Vacation” tool that can help you find volunteer opportunities with maintenance clubs across the country.

If joining a work trip isn’t feasible, consider making a financial donation. Trail crew projects typically cost several thousand dollars per week to complete. Most clubs rely on various types of funding, including donations, government grants, membership dues, and others.

At the very least, when you are hiking, have a maintainer’s mindset. Avoid hiking during spring or wet seasons, when extra footsteps can cause more damage to the trail. Also, try to avoid hiking in areas known to have extensive natural resource damage.

Finally, don’t be a stranger! Maine Appalachian Trail Club welcomes volunteers of all ages, experience levels, and abilities. Drop us a line at, follow us on Facebook, and if you’re up to it, join us on the AT next season. Happy trails!

Photo: David Anderson