Building Hiking Trails

Building hiking trails is a fun process.  When I was a kid I remember going on walks at all the nearby state parks and I remember thinking that it would be cool to have my own trail.  Well today I finally do! With a lot of hard work I have cut a trail all the way through the 1.1 mile overgrown railroad bed that I own that spans a total of over 8.5 acres.

Acquiring Land For Building Hiking Trails

The first step to building hiking trails is acquiring the land.  It doesn’t take as much land as you think to make a decent trail.  On a five acre square plot of land it is possible to make a trail well over a mile long by snaking it around.  The best hiking trails are on the property you already own that you can go to right outside the back door. I purchased an adjoining 8.5 acres of land to my house for a total of $6,500 across two purchases.  The land had been abandoned by the railroad in the 1980s and since then the forest had taken back much of the trail.

Making A Plan For Building Hiking Trails

It’s important to walk down the area you want to build a trail on before getting started to properly assess how long its going to be, what hazards there are and the best path to build for a trail that works with nature.  I think it is important to remove as little of nature as possible when building hiking trails, so the path should be designed to go around obstacles and not through them.

I got lucky in building my trail because it was an active railway for about 100 years.  The railroad sold off the property about 30 years ago, and I was able to purchase it from the original buyer.  Since this property is a straight line 66′ wide by 6000′ long, the path of the trail was pretty much already chosen for me. There are a few spots where I divert the trail off of the rail path due to several downed trees and for a bridge that is out.


Tools For Building Hiking Trails:

  • Weed Whip
  • Hand Pruning Saw
  • Lopping Shears
  • Lawn Mower
  • Chainsaw (Use Sparringly)

I built my hiking trail is a series of passes.  On the first pass I would go through with the lopping shears and a handsaw and clear the small branches and thorn bushes growing into the trail. I work about 100 feet at a time then I go on to the next pass, this way I keep moving my tools with me in succession.  Ideally you can find a person or two to assist with building a hiking trail, then the work would go a lot faster. I try to cut the least amount possible. When I do cut branches from trees, the goal is to cut the branch at the side of the tree. This allows the tree to heal easier.

On the second pass I would come through with the weed whip.  This thing is great for clearing out underbrush.  It will also chop through thorns and small diameter trees and branches fairly easily.

On the third pass I come through with the chainsaw.  I use this on trees that had fallen across the path.  I do not fully chop up all the fallen trees because of the time involved. The reason I break this up into 3 passes is so that nothing is in the way as I am working with the chainsaw. I clear at least a 5′ wide path on the hiking trail but not much more.  occasionally I will process the top side of a fallen tree and leave the bulk of the trunk off to one side. To make sharpening my chainsaw blades easier, I recently switched over my bar and chain to the Oregon Power Sharp self sharpening system, which so far has given me a longer life on my chain and keeps my chain sharp and working fast. With large branches I drag them out to the sides of the property and make sure that the branches are touching the ground to help with decomposition.  I also place the cut end away from the trail, so it doesn’t look like I just went through with a chainsaw.

On the fourth and final pass I take my lawnmower through the hiking trail.  This step is optional, but keeps the path from needing to be maintained for a longer period of time. I destroyed my lawnmower by putting it through this abuse. Thankfully it was on its last legs anyways.  Standard lawnmowers are made for grass, and not thick brush.   In all honestly, if you want a truly clean trail that is easy to maintain a brush moweris the way to go.

These things cost around $2,000 new, but hold their value very well. I have seen people selling these that are 10 years old for 75% of what they cost new.  At any rate, most of these push brush hogs that are essentially lawn mowers on steroids will cut through brush up to 8 feet in height and saplings up to 2″ in diameter.  These things are monsters and make quick work of overgrown brush.  A 24″ deck brush mower can clear 2/3 of an acre in an hour, Which equates to a 48″ wide trail 7,250 feet long, or 1.37 miles in 1 hour!  A brush mower would be great for maintaining and opening a trail every year.  I spent north of 100 hours clearing my trail before I learned about a brush mower being an option (and I destroyed my lawn mower in the process).





Building Bridges On Your Hiking Trail:

I happen to be lucky enough to have water features on my trail.  There are 5 locations where creeks intersect my trail and all of these locations have railroad bridges over them.  Two of those bridges are concrete culverts and need no additional work. 2 of the 3 wooden bridges are passable and I just need to replace a few boards here and there.

For a bridge on your hiking trail that isn’t very high off of the ground it isn’t necessary to build railings. a simple foot bridge made of 2 4X4s with decking across the top will be more than sufficient. I had some scrap wood lying around and built my bridge with that.  I used 2 12′ long 2X8 boards and used 1″ planks cut into 3′ wide treads for the bridge deck.  I also hammered some posts into the creek bed and attached them to the center of the bridge for added strength.  I protected these posts from raging water by putting concrete blocks in front of them.


Maintaining The Hiking Trails You Have Built

Trails like to be used. The more traffic on them the better.  Without frequent use the undergrowth of the forest will start popping up quickly. About once a month I go through the trails with a weed whip and pruning sheers. At the start of each year I will go through with a chainsaw and cut up anything that has fallen in the path. Going forward I plan on either renting a brush mower once a year, or possibly buying one.

Have you built hiking trails before?

John C. started Action Economics in 2013 as a way to gain more knowledge on personal financial planning and to share that knowledge with others. Action Economics focuses on paying off the house, reducing taxes, and building wealth. John is the author of the book For My Children's Children: A Practical Guide For Building Generational Wealth.

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