filed under: tools & tool use
Tools for Trails has updated our resource library with the latest in brushing tools. These are the most commonly used Brushing Tools with tips on using them safely and effectively.
by Jim Schmid, Tools for Trails
What is trail brushing?
Brush it out! Trail brushing may seem like a small part of trail building, but it is an important step of the trail building process that can start during surveying work, to building the trail, to maintaining it years later. The term trail brushing is used to describe the process of keeping the trail corridor clear in the clearing limits from vegetation. Some areas will require consistent work, due to the type of vegetation and climate.
It’s important to perform trail maintenance and use brushing tools to protect both trail users and the land. Trail brushing keeps users safe when running, mountain biking, hiking, and other activities, especially when the users may be going at a high speed. When brushing trails, trail crews work to remove brush and branches that may have grown into the trail corridor, creating hazards. Besides removing hazards, trail brushing also helps to preserve the surrounding area by encouraging users to remain in the zone of impact.
There are a few types of tools to perform trail brushing work. When using any of these tools, be aware of your surroundings. All of these tools are sharp, and can injure if not used properly.
Weed cutters are used to clear trail corridors of succulent vegetation (grass, light brush, briars, and tree seedlings) efficiently and quickly. Weed cutters come in different forms like the grass whip, swing blade, and weed whip. These weed cutters are swung back and forth with both hands, and come in handy for pokey weeds or poisonous plants like poison ivy (though we still recommend wearing gloves and keeping covered when using these tools).
They come in an L-shaped weed whip and a triangular-shaped weed whip. The L-shape cuts grass and weeds quickly but is unstable for use on larger growth. It is better for working in more grassy areas. The triangular-shaped weed whip cuts briars and woody stems up to a half-inch in diameter and would hold up to slightly thicker and denser brush. When using the tools, you shouldn’t swing the tool higher than your side. Screws holding the serrated double-edged blade in place can work loose through use, so be sure to check them.
Sometimes, the trail brushing begins before the trail. As crews are surveying new trail routes, machetes like the Silky Nata can come in handy to clear dense vegetation. Drier climates typically won’t use these tools, but crews in humid climates may find themselves using a machete more as they survey. A slightly angled (off-vertical) stroke of the machete is more effective than a low horizontal swing. The machete shouldn’t be used to clear trailside branches as it makes crude cuts that are more obvious to trail users.
There are a few different types of axes that can be used for different jobs.
Small handheld axes like the Woodman’s Pal are small, compact hand axes that double as a machete. These are used to quick cut and hack light vegetation, but are not great for precision clearing.
Swedish safety brush axes are another small hand axe comparable to a machete that is meant for quick clearing. It has a shorter blade and longer handle, making it easier to control. These axes are good for light brushing and cuts through thinner hardwood stems.
Big axes like the pulaski are great for cutting through thick roots and chopping larger trees, but when it comes to maintaining a trail and clearing brush, these larger axes are swapped out for smaller tools that can get the job done faster and more efficiently.
Some brush is too heavy for a weed cutter, but too light for an axe. Brush hooks are a good middle ground. They are swung with both hands, like an axe, and give a powerful cut when used with a proper swinging motion. You want to keep the brush hook in front of you, and never use an overhead swing with it.
Bank blades are best used to cut brush, briar, or undergrowth. They come in different forms like the hook blade, swing blade, or bush axe. These have a long double sharp blade to cut through the thick, thorny underbrush you may encounter while performing trail maintenance.
One of the small tools that is in almost every trail crew member’s pack, pruners are great for performing trail maintenance. Pruners like the Felco F5 are used when there is lighter maintenance needed. They work well for small branches and roots.
Loppers are designed for clearing heavy vegetation from trails. Loppers have sharp blades and long handles to make fast, clean cuts through brush and thinner branches 1 to 1.5 inches in diameter.
Sometimes branches will resist, instead of twisting the handles, opt for a saw to get the ful life out of the lopper.
For thicker branches (over 1 inch in diameter) in the corridor and vegetation that is out of reach, folding hand saws and pole saws come in handy. Sometimes, a trail may have overgrown a little more, requiring some of the heavier duty tools. A small hand saw, like the Silky Pocketboy is useful for the small branches that need more precise cutting or are a little too thick for some of the other tools on this list. The thicker branches may require bigger saws.
Polesaws come in handy to clear the out-of-reach branches that may have grown into the corridor. These are useful especially when clearing trail for equestrian uses, where the ceiling is higher than it may be for other trails.
When performing trail brushing tasks, don’t pile the removed vegetation together. You should scatter it and make it look natural and hide cutting behind like plants to blend it in. The cuttings should be cast downslope when possible and left on the ground to help with natural decay.
When cutting branches, cut at the base of the trunk or the larger branch. This helps with both health of the plant, and provides a cleaner more natural aesthetic. You want to use the 3 cut method when cutting certain species of tree to help with bark tearing.
On sidehill trails, it’s typically better to cut back more vegetation on the uphill while leaving more vegetation on the downhill to help keep trail users away from the edge. On flat trails, you want to clear the same on both sides.
Trail brushing is an important part of maintenance to not only keep users safe, but to also preserve the surrounding area. Maintaining the trails by performing trail brushing tasks help prevent tread creeping which inturn can help prevent erosion, keeping our trail enjoyable for everyone.
Trail brushing tools aren’t the only tools you’ll need when building a trail. Learn more about choosing the right trail tools for the job.
Published January 2004
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