Professional Trail Builders Association Conference

Last week I escaped from the now “snowy” Idaho and took a beautiful ‘red-eye’ flight to the east coast to attend the Professional Trail Builders Association conference in Asheville, NC.  The conference consists of 3 days of seminars with optional workshops on either end of that.  I had decided to take a two-day ‘Rock Armoring & Trail Tread Hardening’ workshop on the front end and a three-day ‘Mechanized Trail Building’ workshop on the back end.  In total, it was going to be 8 full days of trail building nirvana with many of the best trail builders in the country sharing their tips and expertise.  I was stoked, to say the least!

The Rock Armoring & Trail Tread Hardening workshop started on Sunday morning.  We met at the conference center and did a brief classroom introduction before heading out into the field to look at a few examples of trails that had been reinforced using the techniques we were about to learn.  The idea is simple, use rocks to reinforce the trail tread and also to keep trail users on the tread.  All too often, especially in Sun Valley it seems, trail users will go around anything in the trail that is a ‘bump’.  Whether it’s a rock, root, or other small obstacle, they will simply go around it causing the tread to widen and break down.  Of course, the land agencies see this and interpret it as users wanting perfectly smooth trails.  The land agencies try to accommodate these users and give them ‘smooth’ trails, and then the users complain that the land agencies are ‘dumbing down’ the trails.  I’ll stop here before I get too far off on the tangent of how frustrating every user group is to deal with (especially my own!), but you get the point.  We learned how to use large rocks, known as ‘gargoyles’, to prevent this behavior.

Gargoyle backed up by a 'derailleur remover'...message - stay left

Gargoyle backed up by a 'derailleur remover'...message - stay left

Another common problem we have in our area is in the spring when trails are thawing out and are about 80% dry and 20% still very muddy and fragile.  It’s difficult to keep users off the trails when they’re like this.  A solution that I’m hoping to try is to ‘armor’ the tread in those problem areas so that, even if they’re still wet, they’re at least not fragile and won’t be damaged by user traffic.

Appalachian 'armoring' has proven very effective on this steep and often wet section of trail.

Rock armoring is also a great technique to use on steep trail sections that are not easily re-aligned.  The beauty of this is that the trail can keep it’s steep character (which many users interpret as ‘technical’) while addressing the erosion and sustainability issues inherent with steeper trails.  We looked at a section of trail that had been armored 8 yrs ago.  The trail section averages 25% grade and the steepest sections are 35%.  In a period of 8 years on a very heavily used trail, this section of armoring showed almost no signs of wear.  I’d call that a success!

Woody watches as a rider descends this 8 yr. old 30%+ section of armored trail.

The trail section we worked on in the workshop was a 200′ long section of badly eroded trail that used to be a logging road.  The average grade was 20% and the approaching section of trail was fast & straight while the bottom of the section was a limited visibility junction with another trail.  In addition to armoring the trail, we also had to address the issue of speed, both coming into it and approaching the junction at the bottom.

Rock Armoring project 'Before'

Our workshop consisted of approximately 10 students, 2 highly skilled equipment operators (for moving the heavy stuff) and several more support and safety personnel.  It made for a tight working environment and I was thoroughly impressed with the finesse of the equipment operators and the overall safety and skill of everyone involved.

Shrimper (the most lighthearted and supremely skilled operator) placing a keystone

We worked for 10 hours Sunday and 11 hours Monday completing the project.  We built in ‘chokes’, gargoyles, used ‘keystones’, and used armoring techniques such as ‘flagstoning’ and ‘pitching’.  it was great to learn the differences in all of the techniques and see how you could pull it all together.  In the end, we tied our section in beautifully with the Road to Trail conversion happening above and provided a finished product that we were all proud of.  In total, we created a beautiful new 1300′ section of sweet single track in two days.  It was really fun.

...and 'After'

Of course, the real test came when we brought out all of the equipment that had been working on the Road to Trail conversion above.  It included several pieces of mechanized equipment, but the “big daddy” of them all was the 8,000 lb SWECO.  If anything is going to “call you out” on shoddy armoring, this would be it.  Thankfully, our trail passed the test!

The Ultimate Test - bringing the SWECO out on the newly armored trail

Tuesday through Thursday were spent in the seminar portion of the conference.  There were seminars ranging from trail building success stories in other USFS districts, to using social media for advocacy, to building sustainable and durable trails in wet environments, and many many more.  I took 15 pages of notes and it’ll take me a while to digest everything that I was trying to pack into my overwhelmed little brain!

The last 3 days were spend in the field participating in the ‘Mechanized Trail Building’ workshop.  We had machines ranging from a SWECO 450, to excavators, to a walk-behind skid steerer.  Personally, I was the most interested in the mini-excavator and the SWECO.  The excavator is readily available as a rental and the SWECO is the most productive trail building machine out there, especially for where we live.  Each machine has it’s nuances and limitations.  The excavator has the lightest footprint, but is also the “tippiest” and is much more difficult to operate efficiently thus requiring the greatest level of muscle memory to operate smoothly.  The SWECO, on the other hand, is relatively intuitive to operate but has by far the greatest capability to produce a ‘mess’ in a hurry.  The SWECO has so much power that you can quickly and easily find yourself moving 3 times the material that you need to and producing a trail tread that is nowhere close to what you were going for.  That being said, it was by far my favorite machine to operate.  In two days, we roughed in a 1 mile section of trail.  Admittedly, most of that production was done by the instructors, but the students were eager to help out, even though we were about 5% as fast as the experienced operators.  In the end, it was a great opportunity to become familiar with the various tools available for trail building.  I’m now trying to figure out what equipment would work best where we live and how to find some money to buy a piece, or two!

Benchin ain't easy.....unless your Steve in a SWECO!

In the end, the PTBA conference proved to be about 10o times better than I anticipated.  I knew I liked Asheville, but I really fell in love with the place on this trip.  It’s a beautiful small city with lots of flavor and history.  There are abundant recreational opportunities and great breweries and restaurants seem to be everywhere you look.  I’d say this place has a higher per capita ‘coolness factor’ than anyplace I’ve been.  When you can have a local brewery, a wig store, a costume shop, a head shop, and the freshest Indian cuisine all within a block of each other, that’s my kind of place.  To top it off, I was fortunate enough to reconnect with a close friend from college who now lives in Asheville and meet a great new friend or two at the conference.  We spent a couple of evenings touring around the city and experiencing the uniqueness of Asheville.  All in all, it was a very special experience for me and I’m already looking forward to attending the next one in 2013.

Now, back to Virginia for a few days with my family, and then out to St. George Utah for the True Grit 50 this weekend.  I’ll fly into SLC and hook up with Mike H. and the Club Ride Van for a quick trip to the desert.  In light of the 4 ft. of snow we’ve gotten in Idaho while I’ve been gone, I’m really in no hurry to get back!

The highlight of the whole trip for me will be going for a ride with my dad this afternoon.  The man has rebounded incredibly from 1 year ago and is super stoked to get back on his bike this summer.  I don’t have the words to express how happy that makes me.

Daddy-O gives the Black Cat a test drive.



~ by ketchumgreg on March 24, 2011.

3 Responses to “Professional Trail Builders Association Conference”

  1. This is such a rad post! i just tweeted it 🙂!/SIDIAmerica

  2. I am a Trail Supervisor at Natural Bridge State Park in Kentucky and would love information on some of the sustainable practices that you use.\

    • Hi Doug-
      Somehow I’m just now seeing your inquiry (not the most tech savvy on this end!). Anyway, the best source for sustainable trail building practices is the International Mountain Bike Association. Check them out at and look under the “Resources” tab.

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