How the AT Works: What DOES a Maintainer Do?

More thoughts about the Them that’s Us.

In Bronze.

In Bronze.

Everyone knows they “keep the trail open”. But in the deep woods ‘open’ might mean something completely different than a hillside in southern New England densely packed with mountain laurel. And what about on balds in Tennessee, or above the treeline in New Hampshire? Let’s find out more about how these backcountry ‘stagehands’ approach their work and how they affect the Trail Experience at its most basic level.

Working to a Standard

Different Trail Clubs (there are 31 of them) approach trail maintenance in different ways. In some, the club fields teams of volunteers that work a particular section at a scheduled time as a group. In other clubs, individual maintainers (also called adopters) are responsible for specific sections of the treadway.  In still other places, Ridgerunners perform basic maintenance as they travel from campsite to campsite.  No matter the organizational methodology, all are expected to keep the Trail up to a standard all season long.

What is that Standard? ATC says:

“The Trail shall be kept clear of vegetation and obstructions that unnecessarily impede foot travel. It shall be cleared to such a width and height that a hiker with a pack can walk the Trail without undue difficulty.”

Well…I can think of many moments where I felt the difficulty was definitely “undue”…but let’s not confuse the terrain and natural conditions of the Trail with what a maintainer actually works on.

How Open is Open?

As they go about their work we ask our maintainers to imagine carrying a 4ft x 8ft sheet of plywood down the trail. That’s how much to trim brush and branches back from the footpath. This is clearly a much bigger passage than is needed for an average hiker, even our non-ultralite brothers and sisters. In theory, you could walk down the Trail with outstretched arms and not contact any brush.

Trail clearance profile.  Source: Birchard & Proudman; Appalachian Trail Design, Construction and Mainenance

Trail clearance profile. Source: Birchard & Proudman; Appalachian Trail Design, Construction and Mainenance

I can think of very few places I’ve been where that’s actually the case, but we do want to create a passageway that works well in all conditions. For example when it’s raining, smaller branches and brush will hang much lower than when they are dry. If a maintainer cuts a pathway just wide enough for a hiker, then you experience the “car wash” effect from pushing past wet, droopy branches to get down the trail. A fairly wide cut also helps for winter conditions when there may be a couple of feet of snow on the trail, too (even though we don’t officially maintain for winter use). Most maintainers exercise good judgement, and adapt to actual conditions on their sections and create an easily passable, but not over-groomed pathway.  The myth that “hikers keep it open, just by walking on it” is just that.  Even on a trail as busy as the A.T., brush and branches grow onto the treadway.  Some eager ones can grow a foot in a week in the springtime.

A Winter Trail?

The blaze may be blue, but this is what winter can look like on the AT.

The blaze may be blue, but this is what winter can look like on the AT.

As mentioned above, the A.T. is managed as a three-season trail. That is, the standards to which it is designed and maintained aren’t really intended to make the trail passable in the winter. Blazes are white, routes are often on ridgetops, and overnight shelters are exposed to the weather. Even though hikers are on the Trail 365 days a year, we don’t maintain it in the winter or for winter conditions. Sometimes even finding the footpath can be a challenge (looking for trimmed branches on trailside brush and trees is a good technique).

Branches and brush are clipped  all the way back to the main trunk or larger branch–or right to the ground. Leaving stubs of branches along the sides of the trail just provides opportunities to snag gear and hiker parts. Plus it looks like crap. I often tell maintainers to imagine they are night-hiking their section, and to prune it appropriately.

Tools of the Trade

Pulaski.  Photo, Wikipedia

Pulaski. Photo, Wikipedia

Loppers (these are my favorites).  Photo: Fiskars

Loppers (these are my favorites). Photo: Fiskars

Most trail maintaining can be done with a few simple hand tools–a pruning saw, loppers, maybe an axe for larger downed limbs or small trees. A heavy digging tool like a pick-mattock or pulaski is useful for clearing drainage structures. When larger trees or parts of trees fall onto the trail, power tools may be deployed–except in designated Wilderness Areas, where only hand tools are permitted. Most downed trees (“blowdowns”) can be cleared with hand tools, but a chainsaw is often much quicker–despite the effort to lug in the saw, fuel, oil, spare parts and protective gear. In areas that have suffered extensive wind or ice damage, a chainsaw pretty much indispensable (think New Jersey after Irene).

Pruning Saw (when loppers aren't enough)

Pruning Saw (when loppers aren’t enough). Photo, QuickSaw

Operating a chainsaw on the Trail is highly regulated. Volunteers must undertake and pass a two-day training course taught by certified instructors, and renew their training every three years. Proper safety equipment must be worn. Perhaps surprisingly, some of the greatest potential for injury is not from the saw itself, but from the sudden and unexpected movement of the tree or branch being cut. A tree that is no longer in its natural position likely has hidden stresses (called binds) that can suddenly release when parts are cut free (or at the very least, completely jam the saw in the cut). Learning to read these binds takes training and experience, and every situation is unique.

Sometimes you really need a chainsaw.  Photo,

Sometimes you really need a chainsaw. Photo,

For instance, if you are hiking in Massachusetts north of October Mountain Shelter, you may see a tree trunk standing with the top of the tree cut cleanly off about 10 feet above the ground. I didn’t climb up there to cut it. The tree was uprooted and laying across the trail about waist high. After making a cut through the trunk, the part still attached to the ground by strong, flexible roots–relieved of the weight of the rest of the tree by the cut–swung right back into it’s vertical position with a very substantial ‘thunk” rather than dropping to the ground as one might expect.

Chainsaw recertification class

Chainsaw recertification class

Stuff Keeps Growin’

More common than blowdowns are brush and grasses that grow into the path, seeking the sunlight that the Trail opens in the canopy. In many places, such as forests where beech and birch trees are common, one can see places where the maintainer has cut the same sprouts again and again over the years. In other areas, fast growing brush like raspberries or multiflora rose requires 2-3 visits a year to keep that 4ft wide path cleared.

Cornfield, Mass

Near Shays’ Rebellion Monument, Mass

In open fields, regular mowing of the trail is required, often once a month in wet summers. In more mature forests, brushing is not required so frequently, as the tree canopy has shaded out much of the undergrowth. In the “krumholtz” near the summits of the northern mountains, growth is slow but dense, forming a “green hallway” instead of a tunnel–to the point where cut limbs and branches need to be dragged elsewhere or thrown up on top of the densely packed vegetation.

Another task maintainers perform is to keep the various drainage structures free of dirt and debris. The most common, called “water bars”, are diagonal trenches across the trail backed up by rocks or logs. These divert water running down the trail off to the side before it builds up enough speed to erode the treadway. You can step on, over or in them–but walking around them will just render them useless as water diversion devices–it just shifts the trail to the side and the thing needs to be rebuilt even wider.

Soft soil, heavy traffic.  Boots McFarland (

Soft soil, heavy traffic. Boots McFarland (

However, even the best drained trail will be degraded by heavy hiker traffic. While rock is pretty impervious, not all soil types are able to take the pounding of literally thousands of feet, despite “hardening” efforts by generations of trail crews. Wet areas are also a very common challenge, and will be explored more fully in an upcoming post.

Blazes Matter

Near Upper Goose Pond, Mass

Near Upper Goose Pond, Mass

Keeping the vegetation cut back is not all there is, though. As you know, the Trail is marked by white, 2” x 6” rectangular blazes, usually by painting them onto trees adjacent to the footpath. A balance must be struck between providing enough information to keep hikers from wandering off the footpath and blazing so many trees that it degrades the sense of “wildness” many hikers are seeking. In most areas, the footpath is a clearly visible, well-trodden path along the forest floor or open field. In other areas, however blazing can be crucially important, especially at road and stream crossings, open summits and junctions with other trails. Maintainers are instructed to blaze frequently enough to give a hiker confidence that she is on the A.T., but not blaze more than is necessary.  At trouble spots like those described above, more frequent “confirming” blazes are painted. In winter, all bets are off, snow stuck to trees can easily obscure blazes, and deep snowpack can mean looking for blazes at knee level instead of head level. This past month, on my own maintaining section, I wandered right off the Trail where it made a slight bend. I’ll consider adding another blaze in that area in the spring.

Blazes should be neatly painted with crisp, straight edges to make them easier to distinguish from natural shapes in the forest (ever been momentarily fooled by a patch of lichen on a tree?). It makes me grumpy to see sloppy blazing, and I hate seeing blazes on rocks (except for the one at the Springer plaque). If there are no trees available, posts can be installed or rock cairns constructed….oops, that was a bit of my OCD breaking through–I’ll try to restrain myself going forward…  A maintainer should take pride in his work. His efforts should rise to the idea that a trail as iconic as the A.T. is only as good as its weakest section. I encourage maintainers to think like hikers, that they should imagine hiking their section for the first time, even ‘tho it might be their 100th time out. Fortunately, most maintainers do hike, and perform their duties with that in mind.

Near Shaker Campsite, Mass.

Near Shaker Campsite, Mass.

Despite the best efforts of maintainers, hikers do lose their way–even with reasonably good blazing. Hiking along, our minds wander, or we end up looking at the spot 6ft in front of us for hours on end. Sometimes that crucial blaze is missed and we come back to reality to find ourselves not on the Trail. On rare occasions, there may be several apparent pathways a hiker could take without a blaze in sight and you have to give it your best shot. Look for the path most taken.

It’s Fun, not Rocket Science

Finally, trail volunteers are not everywhere all the time, and they are humans. They have lives that can sometimes take precedence over their trail duties. Some clubs only have resources to visit sections once a season, or communications break down between club and maintainer. If you have difficulties with blazing, brush, blowdowns, or other physical trail elements, please DO report them. Sometimes it’s the only way a club knows there is an issue. You can do this via ATC or the local club (in Mass, our contact info is in every shelter register). AND, if you live near the Trail, or visit it often, consider joining your local Trail Club.

Thanks for reading!  Cosmo

Check out the other posts in our How the Appalachian Trail Works series

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