Building Trails Through the Forest: How and Why

Here at Hansen Woodlands Farm, we have 40 acres of mostly undeveloped forestland.

As we moved forward with our forest management plan, two of our goals were to improve the health of our entire forest and improve access to our entire property... the answer? Building trails.

Be Prepared for Trail-Building

While the end-result of your work will be an amazing trail through your forest, before you jump into the project you should be fully aware of the hard work it will take to build the trail -- especially if your property is heavily wooded, includes water bodies, and has an uneven terrain.

Trail-building is NOT a weekend project.

Before You Begin Building Your Trail(s)

There are a few things to consider before you start building your trail.

First, decide on the purpose for your trail. Is the trail going to be purely recreational or be multi-purpose? Are you wanting a hiking trail, or access for ATVs -- or even for logging. Do you want to a "strictly business" trail that goes from one point to the other efficiently, or a trail that meanders through the forest?

Second, survey the area where you plan to build the trail, examining natural elements that will either enhance or hamper trail-building. For example, if you have a stream on the property, you'll not only want to determine the best point for which to build a bridge to cross it, but also focus on ways to avoid soil erosion near the stream. Also, if you have some steep hills, you'll mostly likely want to consider creating a switchback or two rather than a direct trail up the hill.

I've found that looking at an aerial view of the area is a helpful starting point, but nothing beats actually walking your property and mapping out the final elements of the trail as you walk it, noting ways you can move the trail to protect or enhance elements of the forest.

My personal philosophy is to NOT remove any healthy, mature tree in building our trails. I will remove saplings and junk trees, but I have yet had to cut down a healthy tree in my trail-building. For our trail-building, no chain saws are required.

On one of our trails, there is a lot of downed forest debris. Luckily, most of it is rotted, so removing it has been fairly easy. A chain saw may be required to help clear larger trees already on the ground.


I find the actual building of the trails enjoyable. Yes, it is dirty and hard work. But, seeing your vision unfold in your forest as you build the trail -- and then actually walking it once it's completed -- is extremely fulfilling.

In terms of the tools of our trail-building, we have basically used shovels, pruning shears, and a tractor. We remove and prune smaller vegetation, use the shovel for removing rocks and returning debris back into the forest, and the tractor for both initial clearing and for trail maintenance (using the bush hog attachment).

We don't have any streams or wetlands on our property, so there is no need for bridge-building, but if we did, we could construct a trail bridge in the same manner we built our back deck -- with pilings on both sides of the stream, a solid framing, and cedar decking.

Finally, we envision most of our trails to be chipped -- using the chips we create from our forest thinning projects. (Our tractor also has a PTO chipper attachment.) Some trails may remain bare -- or naturally covered in pine needles or seeded with native grasses. For trails closer to your house, you may prefer adding gravel or river rocks for a prettier appearance -- and some added protection against wildfires.

Trail-Building Photos

We have chronicled the development of our Grassy Meadow Trail, which is located in the completely undeveloped Phase 2 of our Forest Management Plan. This trail will serve multiple purposes -- for both forest management and recreational purposes. Go to the Grassy Meadow Trail.

Additional Trail-Building Resources

This article is just a quick overview of our process for building trails. You can find additional resources here:

Best Books:
  • Common Sense Forestry. A great book for anyone who owns woodlands.
  • Lightly on the Land: The SCA Trail Building And Maintenance Manual.
  • Best Websites:
  • How to Build Trails, from


    Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information on key silviculture and forestry terms by going to our A Forestry, Forest Practices, Silviculture Glossary for Beginning Foresters.


    Hansen Woodland Farm Founder Dr. Randall Hansen Authored by Hansen Woodland Farm owner, Dr. Randall Hansen. Besides a passion for forestry, Dr. Hansen is also founder of Quintessential Careers, the Web's most comprehensive career site, as well as CEO of, a network of sites with expert advice, tools, and resources to empower people to improve their lives. Visit his personal Website or check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.

    Hansen Woodland Farm sign