How to Build a Trail: The Key Steps to Take

Did you know that 34 million Americans went hiking in 2013? Trails are more popular than ever because they get people outside and active.

Three common activities on a trail include hiking, backpacking, or mountain biking.

Are you trying to create a trail in your community? Nothing is stopping you from getting started.

Below we've compiled some key steps for how to build a trail, including the equipment needed, finding the right location, building trail features, and more.

What Equipment Do I Need to Make a Trail?

Building a trail is hard work. Some trails are formed naturally by flowing water or animal activity, but if you're making one from scratch, you'll need the right tools.

Here are some suggested tools for trail work

  • Saw 
  • Pick or hoe for grubbing
  • Shovels for transferring materials
  • Sledgehammer
  • Dirt Rakes
  • Clinometer
  • Rock Bars

This is a list of commonly used trail items, but you may need more or less depending on the tract of land you're working on. 

Browse our tool cache to find all the items you'll need to build a trail. 

One of the most important items to bring with you is safety equipment (helmets, goggles, or protective footwear) and a first aid kit.

How to Build a Trail: Step One, Find Your Location

From mountain biking to walking, trails serve multiple purposes. The first step should be asking yourself what you want to do with it? 

Your local mountain biking community can be a great resource. It's also a good idea to brainstorm trail features and make a list, so you don't forget. 

Before starting any project, research who the land belongs to. If you own the land, that's perfect. Otherwise, don't do a thing until you get permission.

The International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) has a resource hub with informative articles and links for trail builders.  

You'll also want to study the topography of the land and note any natural features (large rocks or platforms) that can be incorporated into your design.

Are you building a walking trail? You have the option of sticking with the extreme landscape (like for mountain biking) or to scale it back with a more leisurely path.

It all depends on who is going to use the trail. 

Avoid building a trail on wetlands, buffer areas besides bodies of water, or places where threatened species live.

What Should I Do With Trees or Brush?

When selecting your trail location, try to find a place where nature has done some of the work for you. That way, you don't have to clear as much.

It shouldn't be hard to find an open space in the forest yearning to be made into a trail. Include visually-appealing elements, if possible. 

Use some of the tools we listed above to clear out brush, trees, or prepare the forest floor. 

How much should you clear? This depends on what your trail is being designed for. Mountain biking trails can be narrow, but you'll want to widen the distance for shared-used (hiking in groups).

Trail builders recommend designing your line to go around large trees or rocks. Remember, the idea is not to disturb nature.

If it's entirely unavoidable, remove the item and use a digging tool to take out any stumps. 

The tread of your trail should be smooth to walk on and free of exposed roots. Some trails are surfaced with gravel. 

What material you use depends on the local environment and what people are using it for. 

Pay Close Attention to Your Trail's Slope

The shape and slope of your landscape can affect future maintenance.

Your goal should be to build a sustainable trail. But what does that mean exactly?

The National Park Service defines a sustainable trail as: 

  • Supports recreation today and tomorrow
  • Minimal impact on nearby ecosystems
  • Leaves soil and plants intact (but may require some pruning or removal)
  • Doesn’t harm wildlife
  • Requires a minimal amount of maintenance

You want to preserve your trail for the long-term.

Water erosion will destroy your trail if you aren't careful. Builders recommend using a device called a clinometer to measure the angle of a side slope and compare it to the grade of your trail.

The half rule states that a trail grade shouldn't exceed half the grade of the side slope the trail is traversing. For example, if a side slope has a grade of 30%, your trail should be no more than 15%. 

Building Trail Features Like Bridges or Berms

One thing you should do is form your trail into a loop and create at least one destination for hikers. This gives them a goal to strive for and can showcase your trail's natural beauty. 

The only feature you may need to build for a walking path is a small bridge to go over water or unsecured ground. 

If your trail is for mountain biking, there are many Technical Trail Features (TTF) that you can set up. 

Consider setting up some of these TTFs: 

  • A-Frame wooden plank
  • Berms 
  • Jumps or gap jumps
  • Drops
  • Ladder bridge
  • Pump track
  • Rock garden
  • Teeter totter

There are many options to choose from. Many of these features can be created naturally without having to be a skilled carpenter. 

Another thing to keep in mind is that some of these features can be very dangerous, so make sure your riders have appropriate helmets or pads for safety. 

Mountain biking is inherently dangerous, but there's no need to take unnecessary risks. 

Get Started on Your Trail Today

We've provided you with some tips on how to build a trail. Now we want to see what you come up with!

Don't forget to research the land beforehand. Strive to make your trail sustainable, so it lasts and doesn't disrupt the local ecosystem.

Want more information on how to make a trail or the tools you'll need? Tools for Trails is here to help! Contact us now.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published