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.
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.
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 it—hiking 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.