Maintenance Management Systems for Trails

Trails work on federal lands is planned through a maintenance management system.

by Lois Bachensky, USDA Forest Service

A maintenance management system provides the framework to plan, prioritize, schedule, and track maintenance work by:

  1. Setting specific maintenance goals and standards for levels of service.
  2. Developing the necessary maintenance programs which will provide those levels of service.
  3. Executing those programs using the most efficient combination of resources.
  4. Controlling and evaluating the effectiveness of the work in relation to the desired level of service.
  5. Furnishing cost data from which budgets can be built.


The first step in implementing a Maintenance Management System is to determine its scope. Identify trails to include in the system and the sources of information needed to implement the system.

Information Requirements

Trail plans, trail system maps and inventories, trail logs, traffic count information and condition surveys are valuable sources of information for developing maintenance management systems.

Trail Logs

Logs provide an inventory of the physical features on or adjacent to the trail, located in miles or increments from the beginning of the trail. The log should be updated when inventoried features are modified, replaced, removed or when other features are added. Trail logs are useful in the development of the maintenance budget and in determining the total dollar amount needed to fully maintain the trail system. By comparing the needed funds to available funds, you can determine the amount of work that must be deferred.

Logs are also useful when performing maintenance work by contract. If kept current, logs may be used to prepare documentation for contract packages, and show the location of structures and other features which require maintenance. Trail logs may be completed in conjunction with condition surveys. Information gathered for the logs may be directly entered on a trail log or the pertinent information may be entered into a tape recorder as the trail is hiked and later typed and filed on a trail log.

Maintenance Levels

Assign maintenance levels to trails based on criteria such as amount of use, potential to affect resources, safety considerations, etc. Once maintenance levels are established, they should be reviewed and updated annually.

When assigning maintenance levels, give higher priority to trails where use is significant. Use traffic counters to collect and record traffic volume data. This data collection should proceed on a continuing basis to provide needed information for planning, developing, monitoring, and confirming maintenance levels.

Maintenance Activities

Determine what maintenance activities will be tracked and the detail required. For example, activities may be tracked by a broad category such as by maintenance level. This would lump all the specific work activities and specific costs for these activities (such as cleaning waterbars, rebuilding dips, replacing tread, etc.) under the one broad activity, the maintenance level. In addition to cost tracking of this general maintenance level, specific activities may be tracked to aid in the preparation of contract estimates or to compare in-house costs to contract costs for certain activities.

Maintenance Standards

Maintenance standards should be established to document work requirements to meet the acceptable physical standard, or the acceptable end product for a maintenance level, or for a particular activity. The maintenance standard is met when all the work activities listed on the standard are completed.

photo credit: Liam Keegan
Palisades Shore Trail, NJ

Palisades Shore Trail, NJ

Condition Surveys

Condition surveys should be performed on trails on which maintenance needs are anticipated. This may include trails in areas that historically have high maintenance needs due to steep grades, bad soils, drainage problems, etc. Also, special emphasis should be given to higher maintenance level trails on which problems are anticipated.

The trail condition survey documents the condition of an entire trail and it may include an explanation of the work required to bring the trail to standard. A condition survey format is shown for optional use.

Maintenance Prescription

As part of the condition survey or as a separate document, a "prescription" is written to show the work that is required to bring the trail to standard and the associated cost. The maintenance needs identified in the prescription should be prioritized and used in the development of the annual maintenance plan.

Developing Maintenance Plans

The following describes an optional method for preparation of a 5 year maintenance plan.

a. The person responsible for maintenance determines the following for each trail: (1) A maintenance level, (2) A base maintenance year, and (3) A maintenance frequency based on the expected trail use over the 5-year period. For example, a maintenance frequency of three would mean the trail is to be maintained once every three years.

After all information is collected, combine the individual plans to see if the annual maintenance plans for the 5-year period relate to the expected annual funding, and to assure that the movement of personnel and equipment from trail to trail is reasonable. Adjust the plan as necessary. When finalized, input the information from the forms into a computer system or a paper format. The resulting report will be the 5-year maintenance plan.

b. An annual maintenance plan may be developed from the 5-year plan by generating a computer or paper report which lists the trails to be maintained in any given year.

c. Prepare a trail maintenance work plan for the approaching season. Various formats for the maintenance plan may be developed. At a minimum, the plan must identify cost estimates, funding sources, and the party responsible for performing the work on the trails.

d. Use the annual maintenance plan to estimate costs for the required work and determine the funding needs for the next budget period.

Deferred Maintenance Plan

Develop a plan for the accomplishment of deferred maintenance. The plan should indicate the items of deferred maintenance, the estimated cost of the work, and the anticipated year of accomplishment. It should be balanced, to the extent possible, to accomplish a percentage of the deferred maintenance annually.


Document the work that will be performed within the field season. Documentation of work schedules is important (1) to ensure high priority work is accomplished first, (2) to determine if all required work is being accomplished on time and (3) to provide a documented history of maintenance scheduling for future maintenance managers.

Develop your own format to suit your particular needs. To authorize scheduled work, use formal or informal methods. Use of crew day cards may be used to assign required work to the maintenance crew or contractors and report accomplishments. The card contains information on the crew and equipment assigned, the period of work, location and project identification and a list of the work to be accomplished on a particular trail.

Monitoring and Evaluation

Following a field review of the completed work, a necessary part of the management is a system of work reporting and evaluation. The maintenance management system provides a way to document maintenance costs. It may be most efficient to report the accomplished work on the same document that the work was authorized. For example, if the crew day card was used, the same card may be used to report accomplishments and establish associated costs.

About the Author

To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.

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