Access points using trails and roads are critical for any large property. You don't want your vehicle scratched or swatted by branches while on horseback or ATV.
Clearing trails is a regular yet seasonal activity. Selecting the tools matters. In this tutorial, you'll learn how to clear trails in the woods by hand. Let's get started:
How To Clear Trails On Small Farm or Homestead (YouTube, 42:27)
The best way to train in trail clearing is to do conservation projects. Join your local naturalist group or the park service on trails in your area. You'll have a great experience.
These groups will help you learn low-impact ways to design trails as well as how to maintain them. Too many trails are erosion disasters waiting to happen. Trail design and clearing are more than blazing through the woods.
Six Steps To Make All Trail Clearing Jobs Easy
Start with the conservation of energy. Most teams will only clear a few miles of trails a day. Take your time, follow these steps, and you'll have more productive hours.
Trail clearing can be a fun social activity. It can also be dangerous dealing with sharp tools. Safety is the number one priority when trail clearing.
- Clean, Sharpen, and Check Tools. Before starting trail clearing, ensure tools are in good working order. Charge batteries, sharpen blades, and have enough fuel.
- A dull tool is more dangerous than a sharp one. Sharpen regularly as you make progress on the trail.
- Be prepared to repair or replace tools that may break. An extra axe and shovel handle are helpful.
- There isn't one tool for trail clearing; you may need a cart to carry it all. Pack a mule, bring an ATV, or practice on an access point.
- Map and mark trails in advance. Do this with water-soluble marketing paint on the ground or ring trees. To ring a tree means to paint a line around the tree.
- Painting a line around the tree can be seen from any direction. You'll be able to see other painted trees along the trail.
- Use color and number of rings to identify your trail segment. Two orange rings may be a property boundary, and one green a trail.
- Work from your vehicle. Cutting a small walking trail from your vehicle down the trail gives you direction. Go out eight vehicle lengths, then work your way back.
- Start by removing small trees, shrubs, and branches. Don't worry about dropping trees. Thin out the trail line.
- Maintain a line of site with the trail markings and vehicles. Only clear as wide as necessary to walk out.
- Drop all small materials on the ground, and cut them into long straight pieces. Don't waste time cutting firewood on site.
- Widen trails back to the vehicle. Move along both sides of the walking path to open up the trail. Drop larger trees into the broader path behind you.
- Dropping trees into a wider path puts the trunk closer to the vehicle. With the wide trunk near your vehicle, you can drag out logs.
- Debranch any large trees while in the path, cutting them into 8′ to 12′ long sections. Cut out the bends.
- Taking logs back to process as firewood is more time effective than trail-cutting. Avoid cutting down millable logs.
- Place logs out of the way on the trail for the return trip of the vehicle. Filling up a vehicle as you leave means a lighter vehicle.
- Move your vehicle to next trail marker. Whether your vehicle is a truck, ATV, or cart, creep up the trail as it becomes clear. Minimize unproductive walking time.
- The ideal trail will let you drive through from start to finish.
- If you don't finish the trail, cut a turnaround. Plan this as you mark the trail.
- Pick up long on the return trip or with larger equipment.
- Clean tools, then put them away. Start where you began with clean, sharp tools. It's not as necessary to sharpen them before you put them away, but that's up to you. Safe storage of fuels.
- REPEAT (Next season.)
These steps assume you are working on existing trails. If you are cutting new trails, geography, slope, and other design are necessary.
Design factors change if you are clearing on foot or with a full-size truck. When we teach this in person, we start on paper. Planning trails start with contour maps and satellite images.
You may have existing roads, trails, and access points. You may be clearing a trail down a fence line. These steps work in both these cases without modification.
How Miles of Trail Can You Clear In A Day Depends On These Factors
You can clear miles of a trail using this method. For trail maintenance with non-profits, volunteers will do steps 1-3 with minimal supervision.
Be sure to push for a realistic distance with your crew. The distance you can cover in a day depends on your skill set and trail-clearing equipment.
By hand, a two to a four-foot hiking trail in dense forest coverage could take 8 hours for one mile. You spend more time marking hiking trails in a mature forest than cutting them.
In dense underbrush, a forest mulcher clears miles of wide tails daily. Each trail is eight to thirteen feet wide. Trails were already marked; it was one operator and a spotter.
The forest mulcher cleared seven miles of trail in two days or 16 hours of operation. Some trails were twenty-one feet wide. Hand maintenance and a riding lawn mower keep these trails clear today.
You don't have to clear all your trails in one season. Even a 25-acre property can have five miles of trails. The bigger the property, the wider you want those trails, especially for agriculture.
The more consistent you are with maintenance, the easier the trail clearing becomes. Some trails only need to be checked after storms or before hunting season.
Remember, the very best way to keep trails clear is to enjoy them.
Remember Safety When Handling Trail Clearing Equipment
If you clear with a crew, there will be a lot of blades swinging around. Make sure you wear the right eye, ear, and head protection.
When using chainsaws, you want chaps with helmets and face shields. Even when using hand tools, use them the right way to prevent injury.
If you haven't taken a chainsaw safety class, consider signing up soon. You'll gain impressive skills and won't as likely cut your leg off.
One time I stuck a billhook in my shin. It sheered off a branch and when through my jeans and leather boot. It is a weird feeling to have something pointy stuck in your bone.
I've seen volunteers drop overhead branches on each other. More than a few people step on rakes. Even with proper training and supervision, someone will get hurt.
During service projects, name who can use power tools. Park service or adults will handle chainsaws and vehicles to follow steps 4-5. Have a first aid kit and radios on hand at all times.
When placing logs on risers, use levers to lift and roll. Wear still-toe boots, and avoid lifting logs over your head. Keeping logs off the ground means they can dry while waiting for removal.
In other cases, the logs become material for erosion control or crossings. No need to haul out branches and brush. Use these to create a wildlife habitat or to decompose on the ground.
How Clear Should A Trail Be On Your Homestead or Small Farm?
The key is your trail is easy to walk or push a cart. For properties I manage, the goal is accessibility by an outdoor electric wheelchair.
If a compact power wheelchair can make the trail, it is then easy for young kids and grandparents alike. Accessibility with a mountain bike and trailer is desirable too.
This trail will be four feet wide and tend to stay on contour, with gradual slopes up or down. Trail height needs to be eight to twelve feet. Trails will not go up or down slopes.
In the case of hiking trails to run temporary small livestock fencing, you can have a trail two feet wide. Height clearance only needs to be a few feet above the fence.
Some trails for hiking are only 4′ wide, with another 4′ on either side thinned. The main path may have mulch, but it only has trail markers. Over time these trails may widen for emergency vehicles only.
My forestry mulching videos are about trails for ATVs and fencing. My goal is 8′ wide for hiking, 13′ wide for one-way traffic, and 21′ feet wide for bidirectional traffic.
This doesn't mean I'll have trucks racing around the woods. It's about opening up the woods to support native grasses, a grazing edge, and Shepherd's Hut.
The wider your trail, the lower branches that will grow back. You can flail mow or bush hog when you have a wide trail with grass. Conservation biologists recommended 21′ to 32′ wide trails to support grazing animals.
A comprehensive trail allows more sunlight to reach the forest floor. Broader is better for establishing native grasses, silvopasture, or want horse riding trails. Your design depends on the property you manage.
Riding mechanical equipment like forest mulchers and tractors seems more straightforward. Yet, trail-clearing equipment is overkill when you perform regular maintenance. Natural trails aren't healthy when manicured.
A more holistic approach is to cut well-designed four-foot wide trails in a grid. Then run goats down them. Those goats will widen that trail and produce meat even if on a tether. Seasonal maintenance by hand is all you'll need.
Always To Have Clear Trails In The Woods With A simple seasonal rotation
What do you want from your trail system? It's not extra work, arduous labor, and frustration. Start with excellent hiking trails; this approach to trail clearing is flexible.
Regular trail maintenance makes hiking, biking, ATV, and horseback riding more enjoyable. Some roads will double as fire breaks. Many roads are access points and farm tracks.
Starting with walking paths and expanding them for vehicles is a good long-term plan. What about wide wildlife corridors? Upfront planning is critical to ensure your trail supports future potential uses.
While this method is energy efficient, there are better ways that are less manual. In future tutorials, we'll clear trails with goats and grazing patterns. I've also done videos on trail clearing for hunting.
With these skills, you'll get more from your land while protecting your habitat. Write with your questions about homestead and land maintenance. Happy trails.
If you want to get more from your small farm, homestead, or estate, … Justin Hitt is a Permaculture Design Consultant with more than two decades of experience with organic gardening. He teaches the practical application of critical thinking, entrepreneurial ecology, and homestead management. Practical insights for practitioners, estate owners, and homesteaders. To see if his insights are right for you, join our free newsletter.