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Brushing a Trail While You Hike

March 14, 2018

By Patrick Keavney, Crew Leader, Trailkeepers of Oregon


A lot of us see trails that rarely get a good brushing as we’re out hiking. At a recent TKO fundraiser, a hiker asked me the best way to trim the brush encroaching the trail. My wife Elaine and I have a lot of experience at that. We work with local land managers and lead work crews to maintain trails east of Portland from the Clackamas River to Mt. Hood and the Columbia Gorge. We try to brush the most heavily-used trails one or two times a year. When we brush an existing trail corridor, we clear six feet wide and eight feet high. If the trail is shared with horses, we clear eight feet wide and ten feet high. Obviously, you need special tools to clear that way. But any hiker can do a good job at brushing using a simple hand trimmer and a folding saw / pruner that easily tucks into a side pocket.

Not every well intentioned hiker does an adequate job of brushing a trail. Last spring we were scouting the Latourell Falls Trail in the Gorge for an upcoming work project. Someone had gone ahead of us, trimming brush at the trail edge, leaving the trimmings for all to see. So, what do we like to see instead? First of all, no evidence of our work. Anything we remove is taken off of the trail and scattered so that hikers do not notice it. Dead piles of brush are unsightly. If you are only cutting an occasional branch, throw it like a spear with the cut end furthest from the trail. Downhill is easiest.

A pruning saw is cutting a branch off close to the trunk of the tree.

An incorrectly cut branch, leaving a staub. (Photo by Elaine Keavney)

Branches need to be cut at the trunk of the tree, flush with the bark, so short sticks can’t poke us later. Large branches can be cut below the “shoulder” of the limb. Try to cut shrubs and brush back about two feet from the trail edge. Again, disperse what you cut so it can’t be seen.

People ask me what I do about young trees growing on the trail edge. If they are within the six-foot trail corridor, I usually pull them out. The few I leave will always be on the downhill side of the trail. As they grow, they force hikers to walk closer to the trail hinge—the uphill edge of the trail, which is where we want to encourage everyone to hike. My brushing is always more aggressive on the uphill side of the trail than on the downhill side.

The trunk of a tree with bright patches where two branches have been freshly cut off.

The trunk of the tree with the staubs cut off. The lower cut shows the shoulder of the branch. (Photo by Elaine Keavney)

If I find a log across the trail too large to remove without a crosscut saw, I try to saw off enough branches to make it easy for hikers to climb over. (I have too often torn my clothing on partly broken-off branch ends!) Later, as the bark breaks off, those branches, once cut flush, becomes “staubs” two or three inches long—and then it’s time to trim again.

The trunk of a tree with the decaying remains of branches that had been cut off several inches from the trunk.

The correct saw placement on the branch, close against the tree. (Photo by Elaine Keavney)

Keep in mind that if you go into the woods intending to work on the trail, you should first seek permission from the local land manager. We sign liability release forms every time we lead a trail crew, as do all the volunteers.

If you do find a trail that needs a lot of work, post it on the Oregon Hikers “Trail Rx” Forum or notify the land manager. We rely on you, the hikers, to let us know where there are problems. Then we scout the area so we know how to plan the work party and know the types of tools we will need.






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