A Day in the Life of a Trail Maintainer

Have you ever wondered how the trail you’re hiking on was created? Or the trail maintenance involved to keep it accessible?

Imagine this: It’s 6:00 am and the sun has barely risen. The frosted tips on the blades of grass have turned into drops of morning dew. The symphony of birds increases with each day. Spring is on its way and the Appalachian Conservation Corps. is approaching the end of its Winter trail maintenance season.

The brisk morning air greets crew members as they sleepily stumble across the campground and pile into the communal canvas tent for breakfast. The amalgamation of warm bodies mixed with the residual heat from the camp stove is inviting. A modest serving of instant oatmeal with a fresh cup of Folgers instant coffee is on the menu. After packing sandwiches, chips, and fruit for lunch, the crew hops into the work van and sets out by 7:00 am.

Though the work varies per project, the crew is always equipped with knowledge and tools, ready for anything.

Crew 705 at the end of chainsaw certification training.

My role with A.C.C. as a staff leader is working with crew members to teach them skills like trail maintanance and operating chainsaws.

This season my crew, #705, is a saw crew with 4 members and 2 leaders. We are a standard 6-person crew that works 9 days “on hitch” and has 5 days “off hitch”. Our schedule is unique, paying homage to our environmental forefathers, the Civilian Conservation Corps. Crews camp on-site or adjacent to the work zone, often on state and national forest lands.

Overall, A.C.C. is committed to improving and protecting natural resources through trail maintenance, tree plantings, invasive plant species removal, wildfire prevention, and disaster relief. From February to May we worked with the U.S. Forest Service and the Maryland Forest Service to maintain trails and recreation areas originally developed in the 1930’s by the CCC. We’ve worked in Green Ridge State Forest, George Washington National Forest, and Savage River State Forest, to name a few (Massawomeck and Mohican lands)

Crew members sitting at a mountain overlook in George Washington National Forest.

Learning to operate chainsaws was a brand-new experience for crew members.

Previously in March, the crew completed Wilderness First Aid training. Additionally, we were certified as trained chainsaw operators, otherwise known as sawyers. Chainsaw certifications are only valid with a current CPR/First-Aid certification and understanding how to react in a medical emergency is not a light undertaking. Generally, the crew does a stretch circle and talks about safety tips to remember throughout the day.

A crew member uses a leaf blower to clear the trail corridor.

In addition to forestry management and corridor clearing, saw crews are sometimes offered more traditional trail maintenance projects. Reinforcing drainage areas with rocks and crushed gravel is common. Finely grooming the trail for minor imperfections, like holes left by the vacated rootballs of a freshly fallen tree, is sometimes on the list of objectives too. These tasks are physically demanding but thoroughly rewarding. It is such a unique experience when a trail user comes through, right as you finish up for the day.

Why do we do this?

Though it may seem strange, utilizing our machinery plays a major role in implementing Leave No Trace principles. Creating a sustainable, durable walking surface, known as tread, is essential for a longstanding pathway. Finely tuning the construction of the tread with a specific downward slope is necessary to ensure water runs off the trail.

Clearing blowdowns and hazard trees, and reducing vegetation from the tread increases accessibility and ensures hikers stay on the designated path, reducing land erosion. A detour around a fallen tree on a highly trafficked trail can cause the soil to turn bare and trampled vegetation will cease to grow. Using brush cutters is essential for clearing pathways blocked by thickets of thorns. Something as simple as staying on the trail may not seem like a major contribution to protecting the environment, but every effort makes a difference.

Creating an inviting walking surface in turn creates a significant barrier of protection to the surrounding lands. 

Staff Leader removes a “hang up” leaning across the trail.

It takes a special dedication to work in an outdoor environment, in addition to living “in the field”. Simple luxuries are not taken for granted and a deeper appreciation for a simpler way of life is often found during these experiences.

I often compare this job field with the CCC, noting how much of our lives we dedicate to creating and improving natural recreation areas. For better and for worse, crew members run the gauntlet of experiences.

Several times this season we formed “lightning position” in the middle of the night, meaning we had to sit in the work van for an hour or so until the lightning passed. Other times crews walked significant distances down rural roads to utilize pit toilets. Obtaining potable water can sometimes be a chore, forcing us to drive several miles to the nearest park headquarters. Sometimes we use filters to purify non-potable sources. Showers are generally not to be expected so proper hygiene can sometimes require crafty thinking when bodies of water are not nearby.

Winter and Spring crews will generally encounter snow, hail, and below-freezing temperatures while Summer and Fall crews face the opposite; sun exposure, humidity, bugs, poisonous plants, and venomous snakes are more consistent. My crew worked tirelessly through inclement weather to complete objectives, all because of their passion for protecting natural environments. Trail systems are such a special thing to me personally and getting to educate the future generation of environmental conservationists while building a bigger trail community is truly a joy.

Crew members use a “haul-all” to carry rocks for a newly installed drain.

Though social media may often glamorize picturesque backpacking experiences and grand scenic overlooks, crew members attest to the hard work required to maintain our trail systems.

Lugging around chainsaws, brush cutters, med-kits, water, fuel, and lunch proves to be anti-ultralight, regardless of efforts. I believe every one of my crew members pushed themselves beyond what they thought was capable at the beginning of the season. Together, we removed approximately 200 blowdowns throughout 50 miles of trails. From the weekend volunteers to the fully employed land management agencies I often work beside, I appreciate every single one of you who puts into improving and maintaining our beautiful lands.

Happy trails.

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Comments 5

  • Theresa Fanelli : May 14th

    Fantastic article. Should be read in every high school. College conservation majors would benefit also.

  • Arnoldo None Broussard : May 14th

    How do I apply for a trail maintenance person position

    • Bobby Wood : May 14th

      I’m interested in trail maintenance position I’m certified chainsaw operator and also arborist I’m ready for a career on the trails thank you

      • Bones : Jun 2nd

        Applicants interested in environmental conservation jobs should check out Conservation Legacy:

        Otherwise I’d recommend checking out Federal Jobs with Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, or National Park Service. Specifically, you should look into jobs in the Maintenance Technician/Worker fields. Good luck!


  • Mike 'Mizman' Misiaszek : May 15th



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