11 Must-Have Trail Building Tools

It almost sounds ridiculous to think of building a trail as an engineering project, let alone one requiring specialized tools. After all, stories tell us that London sprang up along animal trails through the forests and fields of England.

A quick aerial view of the streets of London will remind you why trail building tools (and planning) are needed to make good trails.

The National Parks Service has a long heritage of trail building techniques stretching back to their founding. Some of the trails built before the first World War still find use today. 

Certainly, maintenance helps, but good design, and the right tools, will help you build something that lasts. 

Essential Trail Building Tools

This list avoids hybrid tools. They are great when you are low on space or working with a tight budget but no hybrid is better than it’s individual components when it comes down to it.

1. Mattock

The first tool you need carries the most versatility in function while maintaining a simple form. 

The mattock, aka pickaxe, digs, scoops, pushes, loosens, and breaks. They also cheat a bit in versatility by coming in variable sizes. You want a pick blade that is an optimal size for the ground you work with. 

It needs to be heavy enough to chip away at the tough ground but not so heavy it clubs into rocks, chipping away at your blade suddenly.

The design functions best when the pick is used to break up some ground and the scoop is used to move the loose soil. 

2. Spade

For large scale digging projects in uneven or unknown soil, you turn to the spade next. A spade differs from a shovel by its pointed edge and footplates for leverage.

Spades make quick work of going down because the point offers penetration and the footplates give you power. You can dig around rocks both large and small to move them out of the way.

What you don’t want to use a spade for is moving piles of dirt. For that other tools work faster with less frustration.

3. Hoe

Hoes, like mattocks, come in a variety of sizes that work through different soil densities. For an idea on sizes and shapes available click here. A hoe offers some of the same functions as a mattock but is easier to work with and lighter.

When you need to cut and edge, chope through mixed roots and soil, or smooth out a trail, a hoe gets the job done. 

4. Splitting Axe

These tools are a must for working through roots and removing smaller trees.

Hatchets lack the oomph from their smaller handles. Mauls do more crushing than cutting.

A solid splitting axe needs to be kept sharp. You’ll also want to find them with well-anchored heads. This is where the axe head is bound fully, not jammed onto the handle like a post. Those come loose with repeated blunt blows into the ground.

5. Chainsaw

The most mechanized tool in this list actually gets used for its original purpose of cutting wood (instead of vaguely scaring horror film victims).

For large trees, and especially tall ones with heavy upper branches, a chainsaw is safer and more efficient than an axe. Whenever you are dealing with standing brush too thick to be pulled clear or hacked through, the chainsaw cuts through the impasse. 

6. Star Drill or Rock Bar

This one’s a bit of cheat since these are two different tools. They both perform the same function: rock removal.

Not all trails deal with heavy rocks and need a dedicated tool. However, the ones that do need them to work well.

A star drill is a slightly pointed x shaped bar that is hammered into a rock to split it. This is great for immovable rocks or complete rock layers.

A rock bar pries loose large rocks for removal. A rock bar also makes quicker work of stumps and some logs. 

7. Flexible Tub

Some of the debris, rocks, and earth being pulled out to make the trail will be used to build up other portions. Some will need to be removed altogether.

A flexible tub works better than a bag for general-purpose removal. Wheelbarrows can’t navigate through choppy terrain and bags are easy to puncture. 

A tub provides a lot of utility and reusability. They get heavy, expect two people on a lift and carry out. 

8. Sandvik

Clearing brush and smaller branches is a must to form and maintain a trail.

The classic machete has been a go-to for years. The Sandvik is essentially a machete with a longer handle. This makes it more wieldy and gives more oomph to a swing. 

Pricier than a machete but one of the best trail clearing tools you’ll find.

9. Macleod

Okay, there was a mention of no hybrids. The Macleod isn’t a hybrid, it’s a fine-tuned collection of uses.

The wide teeth of this ‘trial rake’ make it excellent for sifting and smoothing. The broad head can be used to pack down terrain. Finally, the wide top finds use as an impromptu hacking tool or for squaring up a corner.

10. Shovel

You dig down with a spade, you build up with a shovel. Shovels make fast work of piles of removed earth. That includes putting it into tubs for removal or building into jumps, hills, or reinforced walls.

Shovels also find double duty in packing and smoothing when needed. 

11. Flagging Ribbon

You can’t expect to build a trail in a day. You also can’t afford to get lost in the forest amongst the trees.

To avoid people hitting your freshly minted trail too early and to keep yourself on-track to finish it, you need flagging ribbon aka flagging tape.

These colorful bits of marking line keep the trail on the inside and everything else out. Consider using different colors to help designate lower and higher areas to assist a build team.

Try it Now

There are more trail building tools out there, some with limited and specialized functions. In some areas, it’s possible to use automation and machinery to speed it along.  That said, nothing beats hand-hewn trails for offering recreation but retaining natural features.

For more ideas about shaping and beautifying your world, visit us again right here.