Trail Clearing
March 24, 2017 version

Click pictures to supersize.

Trail clearing and trail maintenance are integral elements in the life of a dirt bike trail rider.

Trail clearing involves removing downfall and other debris from the trail. Anyone can do trail clearing. Organize a ride, carry tools, and clear the trail. Cut and remove wood and throw rocks and other debris off the trail. This activity is best done in the spring, just after the snow melts.

Trail maintenance is quite another thing, since it involves ground disturbing activities. Trail maintenance involves repairing the trail tread, installing waterbars, building levees (turnpikes) and bridges over water, and other activities that restore the trail. Typically, the USFS regulates trail maintenance (it's in the regulations). The best way to do this activity is through trail projects that the USFS oversees. They also provide technical expertise so the right thing gets done. Contact the USFS in your area and tell them you want to do a trail maintenance project.

The rest of this writeup is about my philosophy and practice of trail clearing.

Why should you do trail clearing? Well, if you don't clear trails, who will? The USFS often does not have enough time or money to schedule trail clearing of all trails, so often only major trails get attention. This leads to some unhappy results. You go for a ride and end up thrashing through the bush to get around major trail blockages. This usually happens far from the popular trails, so it's usually a long way back, riding over and around many obstacles.

Once you begin to clear trails, you begin to feel ownership of the trails and pride in a job well done. This often leads to more careful riding, so as not to destroy 'your' trails that you spent all spring working on. TREAD Lightly takes on new meaning ;-)

Tools of the trade include handsaws, chainsaws, machetes, and hatchets. I've tried many varieties of each over the years, and prefer to leave the machetes and hatchets at home.

Handy tools - handsaws

Top saw - Corona Professional 13" razor tooth pruning saw, about $20 at WalMart and HomeDepot; replacement blades $16 at Forestry Suppliers (800-647-5368). This is the premier handsaw for clearing face-slappers, small finger-size saplings, and brush. It even works well on branches up to four inches or so. Non-folding design makes it awkward to carry unless you fabricate a custom holster. A well-designed holster makes it easy to draw and replace. My holster is made of plastic; the offset-tooth blade will rip materials such as canvas.

Other saws, left to right -

Hand chainsaw - not very useful for trail work, but a good emergency tool. Carry one at all times and don't let a down tree ruin your ride.

Corona 10 1/2" pruning saw with wingnut blade lock and wooden handle, about $12 at WalMart and HomeDepot. Cheap but usable. Non-offset teeth limit effectiveness.

TrueValue 10" pruning saw with lock open/closed button and wooden handle, about $16 at TrueValue. Offset teeth cut quickly.

Snobunje 8" saw with lock open/closed thumb tab, about $24 at snowmobile dealers. Offset teeth cut quickly. Plastic handle doesn't split like wood.


I found a cheap (under $8) saw similar to the Corona Professional in the sporting goods/camping section at WalMart. It comes with a plastic holster and has a very wicked-looking blade. The holster has small rollers to facilitate saw removal and re-holstering.
After I used this saw on a few rides, I found it to be rather good - not as good as my all-time favorite Corona Professional 13", but considering the price, it's hard to pass it up.

2012 update - A buddy found a very good folding saw that's easy to use and has a great blade - the Corona Clipper 10". I found it for $18.50 on Amazon. It sells for about $20 now - still an outstanding deal. Amazon also sells other sizes in this line and I picked up one of the 8" saws and carry it while hiking to clear face slappers.

Any of the folding handsaws can be carried in a fanny pack or hydration pack. Easier yet - mount a short length of 3.00-21 inner tube (closed at the bottom) high on the front forks or behind the headlight. Slide the handsaw into the open top. Close up the open top a bit with a pop-rivet so the saw doesn't bounce out, but still comes out readily when you pull it out.

Not shown - small folding pruning saws with blades less than 9". Easy to carry (fanny pack, slide into boot top, etc) but the short blades are generally too flexible for anything but the smallest of branches.

Trail clearing buddy - chainsaw

You really need to carry and use a chainsaw to get the normal winter downfall off the trail. There's no easier way to get the big stuff off of the trail.

Here's a Stihl 026 with a 16" bar mounted on my bike. This saw can handle almost anything you'll find on the trail.

Usually only one rider in a group needs to carry a chainsaw. Other riders carry handsaws. Riders leap-frog past downfall and clear face-slappers as it is encountered. One or two riders stay with the sawyer (the guy with the chainsaw) and pick logs off the trail as they are cut. Regrouping now and then and switching between pickers and hand cutters provides variety in the work. A work crew of 4 to 6 is a good size. Any more, and it gets too crowded. Any less, and it's too hard  ;-)


Chainsaws can be carried several ways: on a backboard, in a backpack, on a fork-mounted chainsaw carrier, or on the seat behind you. My preferred method is on the seat. I mounted a small piece of hard rubber backed with a piece of vinyl on the rear of the seat. I attached heavy duty rubber straps to my bike frame, two on each side of the seat and about even with the front edge of the chainsaw pad. The free-end hooks are covered with plastic tubing to protect the frame.

Straps are fastened over the chainsaw in a particular order; first the right side straps, one through the front handle and one outside. (View is to the rear, so sides are reversed.) This arrangement helps prevent the chainsaw from pivoting forward or backward.

The left side straps go over the top. I use four straps to allow me to ride fairly quickly and not worry about the chainsaw coming off. Plus, if a strap breaks, there are three backups (it happened twice in 15 years). Once I'm at the work area, I don't use two of the straps, but tie them up behind the saw.

I used to carry a blade cover as a safety item, but it often fell off, and it slows down the whole operation of getting the saw into play. Now, I just take care to keep my legs and body clear. The blade does not stick out so far as to be a problem, except on very tight trails. A little body english will get you around most close trees.

I always carry the following tools in an old sock: a wedge, a tool to adjust the chain tension, and a tooth brush to clean sawdust from the filter and around the tank openings when refueling. I carry a small screwdriver in my belt pouch for adjusting the chainsaw carb. Sometimes I carry a spare chain (in an old sock). I also carry a small plastic bottle of pre-mixed fuel and a small plastic bottle of oil for the long clearing rides.

I found a very tough pair of Mechanix gloves at an auto supply store for about $20. These wear better than riding gloves and are cheaper.

The USFS has started requiring chainsaw operators to carry a small fire extinguisher when fire conditions worsen. So now I always carry a small fire extinguisher.