Runner Stretching Leg And Preparing For Running

Keepin’ It Wild: When to Pound Pavement to Avoid Imposing Trail Damage

BY Patrick Smith

If you run trail, you've seen it. The widening of a path to avoid a mud puddle or an offshoot that cuts off a corner. Trail damage is devastating and there are simple choices you can make to reduce it.

You’ve probably noticed, the great trail rush of 2020 has brought a lot of new traffic to your favorite off-tarmac haunts. And while it is nice to see more people pushing back against the sedentary lifestyle, the greater numbers also bring the risk of trail damage which consumes resources that could be spent making new clay corridors. In hopes of seeing our volunteer hours, and trail donations go toward cutting new trail instead of maintenance, I called up my local shovel wielding trail wizard and asked for some of his hard-earned knowledge.

Kevin Joell is the founder of Sierra Trail Works, a professional trail building company, and a local firefighter. Through local trail advocacy groups and the Eastern Sierra Trails Coalition, He has been the man behind the curtain for design, permitting, construction, and maintenance for many of the loam lines, chunder chains, and soil sinews of the Reno/Tahoe area. It’s fire season here so we got right to the point.

PS: When are trails most vulnerable to damage? In other words, when should athletes keep it on the hard surfaces?

KJ: In general, damage is mostly caused when the dirt is wet enough to be soft.

PS: What kind of damage are we talking about?

KJ: Damage from tires, feet, or hooves sinking in and creating ruts or people going around wet areas causing widening, or braiding, of the trail. 

PS: Should all levels of wetness or softness be avoided?

KJ: Not all. When the dirt is just damp or moist, that is the prime time to get on the tread to smooth and compact it. Wheels are usually best for this process.

PS: What about the opposite? Are there ever times where dryness makes the trail fragile?

KJ: High clay soils, like what we have in the lower elevations of the Eastern Sierra, really won’t suffer any damage when super dry. Silty or sandy soils on the other hand will get to a point where they loosen, slough, and blow away.

PS: What about when trails have just been cut in? Any precautions there?

KJ: New trails are usually sensitive until the first winter. Soil moisture and compaction when they were built play a big part in how impacted they will be by early traffic. In most soils, traffic along the new tread is usually helpful to help the tread “cure.” But the trail can be more easily damaged by sliding or skidding during that time. A well-built trail, designed to shed water to minimize puddles and soft soggy spots, will stand up well the first season. Then that just leaves the time when the dirt is saturated wet when damage can occur.

PS: Are there any other care tips that trail users can follow to make their trail dollars go further?

KJ: Yes. Keep the curves and the steps in the trails. Small dips and rises, or hard features spanning the trail, slow and spread the flow of water during spring melts and downpours. When users straighten out the trail by bypassing the rises, or dig out large rocks or logs, it turns the trail into a long water chute that catches, concentrates, and speeds upslope runoff. The trail becomes a gutter and will erode quickly and eat up resources for repair that otherwise could be spent adding new trails that help reduce the congestion.

In Conclusion…

So if you want more trails to spread out the hordes, keep it on the tarmac when the trail is likely to be saturated and soggy. This way, fewer trail dollars and crew time will be diverted by maintenance and repair. And when you’re enjoying the ochre avenues, stick to the curves and enjoy the features. After all, if you’re out there to log miles, why make any short cuts?

Want to do more to grow local trails? Volunteering and donations are the lifeblood of trail efforts. This time and money can qualify builders for matching funds that literally multiply each hour and dollar to go even further. Find a local trail group and volunteer or donate today. This can be as easy as attending a fundraiser party. US-based athletes can search or IMBA directories, worldwide listings are available through PinkBike’s directories. So get out there, enjoy the dirt, but please do your part to help keep it healthy and erosion-free.

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About Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is a Training Peaks Level 2 Coach licensed through USA Cycling. He offers consultations, fully customized training plans, and prewritten training plans you can purchase through the TrainingPeaks plans store. You can learn more at his TrainingPeaks coaching page, his website, or by reaching out.