Who is Supposed to Maintain Hiking and Backpacking Trails?

It’s easy to take it for granted that the path will be clear and the footing will be steady when you’re on a nature trail. There are trails for hiking, biking, and backpacking all over the country, and it’s hard to imagine the kind of manpower that’s needed to create and maintain all these paths. So who is really responsible for this task?

Depending on where they’re located, hiking and backpacking trails are maintained by park employees, volunteer groups, and/or government programs. Travelers can also do their part to maintain trails by staying on the path and cleaning up after themselves. 

Trails exist to provide a safe and scenic hiking path. They’re exposed to the forces of nature and a lot of foot traffic, so they can become worn down and eroded over time. Below we’ll explore some of the reasons why trails need to be maintained, who is in charge of this task, and some ways you can help out on your next hike!

Why Is Trail Maintenance Important?

Trail maintenance helps prevent erosion and preserves the paths for future users. If these paths were left to the forces of nature, they would quickly become overgrown, unstable, and unsafe. There are several natural and manmade problems that can ruin trails. Some of these include:

  • Widening Trails
  • Puddling and Wet Spots
  • Tripping Hazards
  • Compromised Trail Markers
  • Litter
  • Trail Blockages
  • Erosion from Landslides, Windstorms, or Foot Traffic
  • Overgrown Weeds, Trees, and Grasses

If any of these problems get out of control, the trails can become dangerous and difficult to use. It’s important to maintain them so that everyone can continue to enjoy them safely. 

Who Maintains Trails?

As we mentioned above, there are several people and organizations who may be in charge of trail creation and maintenance. Every trail is different, and the physical location generally determines who takes care of it. 

For example, government employees typically take care of trails that are located in state and national parks. We’ll cover each of the main caretaker types below. 

Park Rangers And Employees

Many large parks, forests, and wildlife preserves have a rotation of employees on their payroll. Some of these may be seasonal, while others work throughout the entire year. 

Park rangers might be employed at a variety of parks, whether it’s at the national, state, or county level. Rangers are in charge of keeping the parks accessible, safe, and healthy. They have a variety of responsibilities including maintaining park facilities, educating tourists, and enforcing park policies. 

They have a broad range of responsibilities, which sometimes includes trail maintenance. This is a big job for their limited manpower though, so other park employees help out as necessary.  

Volunteer Organizations

A lot of parks, hikes, and trails are too big for a limited staff to take care of. That’s where volunteer groups come in handy! These conservation-minded individuals are essential to trail preservation. 

Many groups have organized over the years, and they cover a variety of locations and trails. Even small local hiking and walking trails are sometimes maintained by volunteer groups. Their responsibilities vary depending on the season and trail design, but they can help pick up trash, install/replace trail markers, remove blockages in the path, and keep the trail boundaries clearly defined. 

You don’t need many qualifications except for a base level of physical fitness, an enthusiasm for conservation, and enough free time to walk the paths. Anyone can be a steward of the natural world!

If you’re interested in joining a volunteer group, you should explore the different organizations in this article. Many of them are location-specific, so you’ll need to join a group that’s within a realistic traveling distance. Some organizations, such as the American Hiking Society or the National Park Service, are nation-wide and are accessible to anyone who’s interested. 

Local, State, and Federal Governments

Government agencies and offices also deploy personnel, funds, and aid toward hiking and backpacking trails. Park rangers may be employed by the government as well, so they can fall under this category too. 

National parks and state parks are mostly covered by government agencies and employees. So if you’re enjoying a hike in Yellowstone or Yosemite, you probably have the federal government to thank for those beautiful trails! 

Private Businesses

Some businesses and local employers may have a vested interest in maintaining the nearby nature trails as well. If they are an environmentally-focused brand, they may want to preserve the nearby trails and provide support for their maintenance. 

Although most business executives and employees aren’t directly involved with trail cleanup, they may provide support, publicity, and funding for these projects. The Adopt A Trail Program is used by many public and private businesses. 

How You Can Help Maintain Trails

Lots of different people are responsible for creating, repairing, and maintaining nature trails. Even though help can come from a lot of sources, there are thousands of trails spanning this country. It’s hard for any organization to keep up with them, regardless of the amount of money, time, and volunteers they have. 

Luckily, anyone who travels on these paths can do their part to maintain them. 

Pack it In, Pack it Out

One of the big rules of hiking is “Leave no trace”. This means that you’re responsible for any trash or items that you bring with you. If you bring it on the trail, it’s your duty to bring it back. Don’t litter or leave anyitems behind. 

Stay On the Trail (No Shortcuts!)

Sometimes it’s tempting to skip the endless switchbacks and just cut straight up the hill. This can be dangerous for you and for the structure of the trail. Stay on the path as much as possible and don’t try to forge new paths. You could cause erosion and even landslides!

Remove Blockages (If Possible)

If you run into a major block in the path, do your best to move it out of the way. Felled branches, lost camping equipment, and other debris could make it harder for other hikers to pass by. Carefully move it off to the side of the trail, but don’t toss it down an incline. 

If the blockage is too big to deal with, such as a felled tree or a large boulder, report it to the authorities and don’t try to get rid of it by yourself. 

Report Large Problems

If you run into a major blockage, see dangerous wildlife near the path, or notice unsafe behavior from your fellow hikers, you may need to report it to the trail managers. Some problems are too big to deal with by yourself, and these organizations exist for a reason! Call on their help if you need it. 

Trail maintenance is important, but it’s possible for anyone to make a difference. If everyone does their own small share to help out, it will be much easy to make the trails safer and more beautiful. 

Final Thoughts

Trail maintenance is important, and lots of people make it happen. Even though it’s a big job, it’s possible for anyone to make a difference. If everyone does their own small share to help out, it will be much easy to make the trails safer and more beautiful.

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Geoff Southworth

I am a California native and I enjoy all the outdoors has to offer. My latest adventures have been taking the family camping, hiking and surfing.

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