Trail Maintenance

Over the years I have done a lot of trail maintenance and restoration work and would like to pass on a few tips. On St. John there are a lot of nasty vines (catch and keep) and poisonous bushes (Christmas bush) so it is a good idea to wear a pair of leather gloves. If you are allergic to things like poison ivy at home, watch out for Christmas bush and be careful not to touch it. There are also wasps called Jack Spaniards that make their nests on slender branches that hang in more open places like trails. They aren’t belligerent but will sting you if you blunder along and stick your head in their nest. You will encounter them sooner or later, especially if you are on a poorly maintained trail. I have mostly limited my work to clearing brush from the trails and haven’t done much trail bed improvement. On St. John, most of the trails follow old Danish roads and they have a well designed foundation. Unless you have a washout problem, it is best not to dig up the soil and get a washout started. Water bars are a good idea if washouts are a problem

Tools of the Trade 7inchsaw

For clearing brush and small trees I have found the Corona 7inch Folding Saw to be superb and better than any others I have tried. It is a pull saw and if you try to cut while pushing the saw through the wood, you will bend the blade and need to replace it. Buy a spare blade or two. 

Corona-AL-6511-LoppersA good pair of light weight loppers such as the Corona AL 6511 Bypass Lopper is the tool for the smaller stuff. Don’t buy a big heavy pair of loppers and think you can easily cut “Trees up to 2.5” as advertised. You will get tired just lugging the damn thing around. The folding saw works much better for the bigger stuff.

On St. John a machete is a must for cutting vines and extracting brush that you have cut from its friends and the vines that hold everything together. A good machete is hard to find. Some are too heavy and others are too hard to sharpen with a file. You must keep a machete really sharp. A dull machete doesn’t cut brush very well but it will bounce off and cut your body parts very nicely. Bring a file and sharpen the blade regularly. I found my machete lying on the side of the road on St. John, many years ago. There is a learning curve to using a machete and it is a dangerous tool. Be careful and keep it sharp!

When I first started clearing trails on St. John I talked with the head of the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park. He said “If you don’t spray, you are just getting exercise”. He was right. I have used the products he recommended and are used by The Friends.  I have found that Garlon 4 herbicide works very well on cut stumps. You don’t have to spray the whole area, just the top and side of the stump. The tree or bush won’t grow back. Grass and small things that grow up can obscure the trail and are dangerous because the hide holes, rocks, and other obstacles that can trip a hiker up or cause falls and sprained ankles. Roundup Pro or Razor Pro work well when sprayed on the leaves of actively growing vegetation. Follow the instructions that come with the product and don’t over spray. More is not always better and you are usually trying to maintain a trail and not create a parking lot.

Below are photos of a lot that was selectively cut here in NH. The lot was cut in early March of year one and the first photo was taken in late June of that year. The second photo was taken a year later.

Stumps in June Stumps One Year Later

As you can see, the stumps have a big root system that fuels rapid re-growth. If the stumps had been sprayed with Garlon 4, the trees would not have grown back.  Both Garlon and Roundup are used by the NPS on St. John.

You can read a couple of articles on the subject at and

If you are against the use of herbicide on moral grounds, be prepared to clear your trail on a regular basis.

Some Basic Rules

  1. Cut stumps off near the ground. A tall stump will trip you up and can impale you if you fall on it. Don’t cut the stump on a sharp angle and leave a spear sticking up. Preliminary clearing with a machete will leave many of these dangerous stakes and you have to get down on your knees and saw them off at ground level.
  2. If you cut a limb off a tree, cut it close to the trunk and be careful not to let the branch tear the bark of the tree when it falls off. Saw up part way through the branch from below and then finish by sawing down from the top. Loppers won’t cause this problem as often.
  3. Pick up any debris you have cut and drag it off the trail, preferably out of sight.
  4. Don’t make a hiking trail into a highway. Usually, if you can walk with your arms outstretched, it is more than wide enough. You will have to go off the trail and remove any trees that are hanging into the trail. Don’t just cut the top off a bush or tree that is hanging into the trail. The stub end will get someone in the eye and the bush will grow back in no time.
  5. Plants require sunlight to grow. If possible, do not remove the canopy of vegetation overhanging a trail. Keeping your trail in the shade will make the enemy grow more slowly and will make your life easier.

Power Tools Day-on-the-trail

A chain saw may be very useful for dealing with large fallen trees that are across a trail or removing a dead tree that poses a hazard. You can do this with a big bow saw but it is a lot of work. Tree work is a dangerous business and may best be left to someone with more experience.

A weed whacker with a nylon cord cutter is good for cutting grass and weeds that are growing up in the trail. Again, if you don’t spray, you will have to come back on a regular basis. Weed whackers kick up a lot of flying debris so you need eye protection at a minimum and a face guard isn’t a bad idea.

If you do much trail maintenance, there will be many days that you will be hot and tired. Most hikers won’t notice that the trail has been cleared and assume it was always like this. Your reward will be personal satisfaction.