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Trail Building Tools

A wide variety of tools are available to layout, construct, and maintain trails. Some of the most commonly used tools and tips on using the tool safely and effectively are presented. This page is divided into nine sections. Click the link to find what you are looking for.
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Tool Safety

The following should be covered with crew members before the start of any trail work.

Proper use begins with a good grip. Wet or muddy gloves may cause a tool to slip from your hands, striking you or someone near you.

Watch out for people around you. When chopping or brushing, be aware of any people in the surrounding area. The combined length of your arm and tool could reach a person working near you. Also, be aware of trail users. Often a user may try to pass right into your back swing. If you see someone coming, stop work, notify your co-workers and wait for them to pass.

Make sure you have a clear area in which to swing. Watch out for overhead or side hazards. A hazard is anything that could interfere with the complete swing of your tool, and knock it from your hands or down onto any part of your body. Keep your tool in front of you at all times. You should never need to swing your tool over your head.

Be alert for hazardous footing. Make sure you have a firm, balanced, and comfortable stance before starting your work. Clear limbs, sticks, loose rocks, or other debris from your footing area. Particularly with striking tools—make sure your feet are spaced well away from your target area.

Choose the right tool for the job. The wrong tool can make you work in an awkward stance, which will wear you out.

Make sure your tool is sharp. A dull tool that bounces or glances off of what it was attempting to cut can be very dangerous. A sharp tool will cut faster and be less tiring.

Carry the tool properly. Always carry tools in your hands and down at your side on the downhill side of the trail. Use blade guards whenever possible. Never carry tools over your shoulder.

Travel safely. Stay at least 10 feet apart on the hike in and out from the work site—space yourselves along the trail.

Have the right personal protective devices. Along with wearing long pants, long-sleeve shirts, and work boots, crewmembers should have available hardhats, gloves, and safety glasses.

Overview text courtesy of Jim Schmid and American Trails, with modifications by Portland Parks & Recreation. More resources are online at

Safety Tools

First Aid Kit

A standard first aid kit should contain the basic components to handle minor incidents (blisters, splinters, small cuts, etc.) that may occur during a workday.


Work gloves are necessary to grip tools as well as to protect the hands from blisters, thorny brush, poison oak or ivy, or any other minor scratches associated with trail work.

Safety Glasses

Safety glasses should be worn when working with picks in rock or hardened material, or anywhere flying debris is present. Also required when using power tools.

Hard Hat

Protective headgear (hard hats) are used where there is a danger of falling debris from above the work area (tree canopy or falling rocks), or where one crew may be working above another, such as near a switchback.


Sturdy shoes or boots are preferred due to the rugged terrain associated with trail work. They are necessary to protect the feet from glancing tools, and provide good footing when working.


All workers should carry adequate water supplies, and crew leaders should carry extra water. Workers should minimize or stop work if there is not an adequate supply of drinking water at the worksite.

Pruning Tools

Loppers (Lopping Shears/Pruning Shears)

Loppers are designed for clearing heavy vegetation from trails. With their long handles, a sturdy pair of loppers has the mechanical advantage to cut cleanly through all sorts of brush and branches (most cut limbs of 1 to 1¾ inches in diameter). If you have a choice, select heavy-duty loppers with fiberglass or metal handles. Cutting heads are either the sliding-blade-and-hook type (known as bypass) or the anvil type. Some have simple pivot actions, while others have compound or gear-driven actions for increased cutting power. Do not try to twist the handles when biting into a resistant branch. This can bend the blade and ruin a pair of loppers quickly. If the loppers can’t cut the branch, use a hand saw. Carry loppers with the jaws pointed down and away from you or strap them against the back of a pack.

Safety tip: Carry loppers with hand around both handles.

Hand Pruner

Handier and lighter to carry than a lopper when only minor pruning is needed. Used to cut small branches encroaching on the trail. Also useful for cutting protruding roots that are tripping hazards. Mostly used for trail maintenance.

Safety tip: Can be carried in hand while hiking to clip small branches as encountered.

Razor-Tooth Saw (Protooth Saw)

These saws have an extra thick, extra wide razor-tooth blade for rigidity and are used to cut limbs encroaching on the trail, cutting small trees or shrubs at the base, and removing small to medium sized windfalls. They come in a wide variety of sizes and tooth patterns.

Safety tip: With their extra sharp teeth the saw should be kept in a sheath when not in use.

Folding Pruning Saw

A handy tool that is easy to carry, folding saws are a smaller alternative to the razor-tooth saw, with the ability to get into tighter places. They are useful for limbing, some brushing, and removing small downfall. There is a vast array of blade lengths and styles. Some have replaceable or interchangeable blades.

Safety tip: Make sure blade is locked in open position before using.

Grubbing and Raking Tools


Developed to grub and chop duff during forest fires, the Pulaski combines an axe bit with an adze-shaped grub hoe on a 36 inch wood or fiberglass handle. It is preferred by many trail crews for loosening dirt, cutting through roots, or grubbing brush because it is widely available and easier to carry than single-purpose tools. Unlike grub hoes or mattocks the Pulaski is a sharp-edged tool, and should not be used in rocky soil. With the bit and adze keenly honed, a Pulaski is an excellent woodworking tool for shaping the notches and joints of turnpikes, bridges, and other timber projects. A sharpened Pulaski should be marked to discourage anyone from mistakenly dulling a Pulaski meant for timber work by using it for digging.

Safety tip: Work with Pulaski in front of you. Never swing above shoulder level.

Hoes (Grub Hoe/Adze Hoe/Hazel Hoe)

Grub hoes of various weights are available and are good for building and repairing trail tread. They usually come with a 34 inch handle and a six-inch-wide blade set at an “adze angle” and are maintained and used like a mattock. Grub hoes are not usually sharpened.

Safety tip: The handle can be removed for ease in packing.

Pick Mattock

A pick mattock is a heavy, sturdy grubbing tool with an adze blade that can be used as a hoe for digging in hard ground. The other blade is a pick for breaking or prying small rocks (sometimes the other blade is ax, a cutting mattock, but the pick mattock is more useful for most trail work). Pick mattocks may be purchased with head weights ranging from three to six pounds. For heavy work, use at least a five-pound head. Handles are generally 36 inches long, a good length for almost all trail work. The head should tighten on the handle as the mattock is swung, but sometimes it loosens and slides down the handle. To keep the head in place, put a small sheet-metal screw into the handle just below the head.

Safety tip: The handle can be removed for ease in packing.


The McLeod, with its large hoe like blade on one side and tined blade on the other, is a forest fire tool common in America’s western mountain ranges. It was originally intended for raking fire lines with the teeth and for cutting branches and sod with the sharpened hoe edge. The McLeod is useful for removing slough and berm from a trail and tamping or compacting tread. It can also be used to shape a trail’s backslope. Because of its shape, the McLeod is an awkward tool to transport and store. Carry it with the tines pointing toward the ground, ideally with a sheath over the cutting edge.

Safety tip: Stand the McLeod on its head instead of flat on the ground when you need to put it aside while working.

Digging and Tamping Tools

Digging-Tamping Bar

A digging-tamping bar is about the same length as a rock bar but much lighter. It has a small blade at one end for loosening compacted or rocky soil and a flattened end for tamping. They work great for digging postholes and tamping the soil around a post once it is set. Some moving of rock can also be done using this bar, although it is not quite as rugged as a rock bar.

Safety tip: Not for use in moving large rock or logs.


Shovels are available in various blade shapes and handle lengths. Fire shovels and round-point shovels are most common for trail work and are used to move loosened dirt, dig holes and trenches, and remove weeds. They can also be used for cleaning culvert outlets and diversion ditches. There are two kinds good for trail work. The long-handle shovel, best for digging holes, is generally 48 inches in length. The D-handle shovel, best for moving soil or digging in confined spaces, is generally 27 inches in length. Shovels can also be used to smooth trail tread. By bracing the shovel handle against the inside of your knee as you scrape the tread, you may be able to accomplish the work by using the strength of your legs rather than the muscles of your arms and back. The most common injuries when using a shovel are back injuries. Bending from the knees instead of the waist will help prevent injury.

Safety tip: Shovels shouldn’t be used as a lever to pry rocks.

Hauling Tools


A wheelbarrow can be used to haul materials and tools to a work site as well as moving rock and dirt. Most wheelbarrows have a metal box and frame, wood or aluminum handles, and solid rubber or pneumatic tires. Pneumatic-tired wheelbarrows are recommended because you can adjust the tire inflation to roll easily on uneven terrain. Lift a loaded wheelbarrow with your legs, not with your back. Several light loads will be easier and safer to manage than one large one. Another option is to use a two-wheeled cart. They have better balance and can often carry heavier loads—however, they require wider space to maneuver.

Safety tip: Do not overload. Stay behind handles, not between them.

Survey, Layout, and Measuring Tools


Clinometers are used by trail designers during trail layout to read the percent of grade between two points. It has a floating scale internally from which a grade is measured. A clinometer cannot be set to a fixed grade. Hold the clinometer to your eye and with both eyes open, sight parallel with the ground (upslope or downslope) to a target (stick or someone your own height), aiming at a point on the target that is equal to the height of your eye above the ground. Read directly from the percent scale. Percent slope is the relationship between the amount of elevational rise or drop over a horizontal distance. Expressed as an equation: Percent of Grade = Rise/Run x 100 percent. A section of trail 100 feet long with 10 feet of elevation difference would be a 10 percent grade.

Tip: Both eyes must be kept open when sighting through the clinometer.

Flagging (Ribbon/Wire Flag)

Flagging (roll of ribbon or wire flag) comes in a variety of colors and shapes. Flagging is used as a way of highlighting an area for trail alignment, construction, or maintenance. Ribbon or flag color should be chosen so that it is easily identifiable, and does not blend in with the surrounding terrain. All flagging materials should be removed once the areas work is completed.

Tip: Keep in mind that flagging will deteriorate in the elements.

Measuring Wheel

The measuring wheel is used to measure distance on the trail. It records the revolutions of a wheel and hence the distance traveled by a wheel on a trail or land surface. Measuring wheels can be used to measure distance for guidebook descriptions and also noted in survey or assessment forms to pinpoint the location of work to be done along the trail.

Tip: Be sure counter is set to zero before staring out.

Tool Repair and Sharpening

Tool handles crack and break all the time. Any tool that has a damaged handle should be condemned from use until a replacement is installed. The same is true for tools whose head is loose or cutting edge is broken. Serious injury can result from tools that need a new handle or have a broken head. Be sure your tools are in good shape before use.


A 10- to 12-inch flat mill or flat single-cut bastard file is the simplest tool for shaping a bevel or giving a blade a fast edge. Because of the tooth design, files cut in only the forward direction. Dragging on the backstroke quickly dulls the file. If the file becomes clogged with filings, clean it with a wire brush or file card.

Safety tip: Make sure you file has a knuckle guard and a handle. It's also a good idea to wear gloves.

Materials for Trail Construction 


Ballast – ¾”-1 ½” clean crushed stone:  This material is useful for a variety of armoring and fill needs. Seasonally muddy and/or eroded areas can be raised and hardened by adding crushed rock in this size class then compacting the tread. This varied size, angular rock should be capped with a finer aggregate to create a durable tread. When fill is needed, behind retaining walls or for tread depressions, add ballast to raise tread to desired height.  Avoid adding too much fill without compacting – after 3-4” compact the fill before adding more. Cap with aggregate and compact. 

This size aggregate is not available at all landscape suppliers.  It is carried by Best Buy Landscape Supply, 2200 NW Cornelius Pass Rd.Hillsboro, OR 97124.

Aggregate - ¾” minus:  This material is used for tread hardening and surfacing.  This small, angular rock compacts well to create a smooth, durable tread surface.  Mix with mineral soil on trails with grades over 10% and compact.  Mixing with mineral soil is not necessary on flatter trails, as the fines in the aggregate help the surface lock together on its own.  Lay down at depths of 2”-4”, expecting a slight amount of settling and compaction after the trail is opened for use.  

Can be found at most landscaping or rock suppliers.

Surface Aggregate: ¼” minus:  This material is best used to cap tread for a uniform surface, with plenty of fines material to mix and bind with native soil and other soil amendments.  It is not recommended for use as fill material or for surfacing on trails with grades greater than 10%.  Make sure that it is mixed and compacted with other surface materials for best results.  

Can be found at most landscaping or rock suppliers.