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I hike a few trails in the lower Appalachians which are very infrequently traveled. Maintenance when it happens, is performed by hikers. I much prefer to just clear smaller blowdowns as I come to them than to make an entire separate trip.

What is the best carry tool for minor trail maintenance on a hike? Axe, machete, folding saw...etc.

(By minor, I mean small, less than 4" diameter branches, not log clearing)

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I'd think something like amazon.com/Gerber-22-41576-Gator-Machete-Sheath/dp/B000Q9BBZI would work well, but I've never used mine in the wilderness. –  whatsisname Dec 6 '12 at 17:23
    
@whats: That looks like a toy. From the picture, it looks anything that can cut you can get with a small pair of clippers. –  Olin Lathrop Dec 7 '12 at 1:39
    
@Olin a machete serves a different purpose I believe. From your answer I think you're used to hardwood forests, where a machete doesn't do much good, but they can be very quick for soft, fast growing shoots and vines that would take a lot longer to clear one at a time with a clipper. Although now that I look at link that looks like a pretty poor machete. –  Mr.Wizard Dec 7 '12 at 13:09
    
@Mr.W: I saw the serrated edge in the picture and took it to be a saw. I didn't even notice it was billed as a machete until you mentioned it and I went back and looked. You are right, my experience is in temperate forests and I've never used a machete and I've never seen one used by anyone else in many hours of trail work here in New England with many groups. As a saw, that thing looks like a toy, but I have no opinion on its machete aspect. –  Olin Lathrop Dec 8 '12 at 13:28

2 Answers 2

up vote 10 down vote accepted

I do deliberate trail maintenence regularly, and unfortunately what you can do is severly limited if you want to do it casually while only carrying something small.

There is no set of tools you can reasonably carry, even if you go out only for that purpose, that will cover more than maybe 3/4 of the problems you find. My preferred weapons for deliberate trail maintenence are work gloves with leather palm and palm-side of the fingers, a bow saw, and a small pair of clippers. The clippers are the kind you can work with one hand. This is a tradeoff, but gives you good coverage for most problems up to where a chainsaw would be needed.

The problem with bringing more than one tool is that you constantly have to keep switching the tool you are using, and therefore have to put the other tool where you can find it again and won't forget it. The bow saw is relatively light and easily carried in one hand. I don't want something in the other hand, else I'd always have to put it down when using the bow saw. That's why I bring a small pair of clippers so I can keep them in a back pocket.

A bow saw is probably the single best tool. You may be surprised what you can cut with it. White pines (Pinus strobus, the easiest trees to cut here in New England) up to 6 inches can be handled. Oaks and harder wood up to 4 inches without too much trouble, and 6 inches if you're willing to spend some time and put some effort into it. That means multiple cuts to make a notch, probably from both sides. With a pine, in contrast, you make a small cut on one side, 1/3 of the way thru from the other, and then just push it over. Downed limbs is more work but the same sizes can eventually be handled.

Other useful tools are a long pair of loppers, the kind it takes both hands to operate. However, if you've got one of those, you really can't do much else. This only makes sense therefore if you're in a group. Me with bow saw and small clippers, one person with large clippers, and one with a chain saw is a pretty good team. You can get more fancy, in some cases by adding someone with a rake or something that can rearrange dirt in the right conditions, but in the general case I'd rather have a fourth person have just "bare hands" (with good work gloves on, or course). A good part of the time you're just breaking things off with your hands, moving logs out of the way, or are dragging something off the trail that was just cut.

For me at least, I rather either go out to work on the trail or to hike. Each would significantly impact the other, so it's more trouble than it's worth in my opinion. I also regularly do trail work, so I don't feel bad at all about just going out and hiking and leaving the maintenence to someone else occasionally.

If you really want to do some maintenence while hiking without carrying much or taking much time, you're going to have to realize up front you're only going to fix a small part of the problems you encounter. I can see three levels of "casual" trail maintenence while the main point of the outing was just hiking. In order of seriousness:

  1. Bare hands. Wear a good pair of work gloves and do what you can. This has the advantage that you don't have to carry extra tools, you're always "ready", and you do a lot without even stopping. If you've never done trail work, you'll probably be surprised how much you can actually accomplish with "bare hands", suitably gloved so you don't think twice about grabbing a rough piece of wood hard and yanking and throwing it. A whole bunch of maintenence is simply clearing relatively small stuff that has broken off trees and fallen onto the trail. Remember that when dragging larger branches, drag them trunk-end first else they get hung up on everything. Think of them sortof as one-way ratchets.

  2. Add small clippers to the work gloves. You'll probably keep the clippers in the pocket and do bare hands things most of the time, but sometimes clippers are just what you need to deal with encroaching branches. Two rules to remember:

    If in doubt, cut it out!

    Inexperienced trail maintainers tend to cut branches right at the edge of the trail. Think about it. Trees grow, which is why the branch is now over the trail in the first place. Are you going to come every week and trim the branches back? I didn't think so. Think a few years out. If the branches from a 30 foot tree 3 feet from the trail are getting in the way now, think what will happen as soon as you leave after trimming them. If the tree is only 3 feet from the trail, cut the whole branch right at the trunk and you won't have that problem again. If it's a 10 foot tree, lose the whole tree. Problem permanently solved. Don't be timid. The trail is a small path thru big woods. Cutting branches back to 10 feet instead of the 5 foot trail width isn't going to hurt the forest, but it will keep the trail clear another two years longer, at least from that tree.

    Never put a small hand tool on the ground

    You may be tempted to put a tool down "just for a minute" while you use a different tool or drag off a branch or something. Don't. Put it in your pocket. Sooner or later you're going to forget to pick it up. When you come back to look for it, you'll suddenly realize how small the tool and how big the woods are. Unless you remember exactly where you put it (and you won't), it's gone.

    I've even "lost" my bow saw for a while a few times, and that's much bigger than a small pair of clippers. I can't put the bow saw in my pocket, but I do have to get it out of my hands regularly. I make a special discipline out of deliberately putting it in the middle of the trail a bit further in the direction I will be going. That way, it's easier to find because the trail is presumably more clear, and if I forget I'll more likely notice it when continuing on.

  3. The last level of causal trail work while otherwise hiking is one of those folding saws. They are actually pretty crappy saws and nowhere near as effective as a bow saw, but they do work and will be the only way to cut something too big or tough for small clippers. That would be a white pine maybe 3/4 inch in diamter or something harder 1/2 inch.

Anything more effective than these three levels requires a more serious commitment to maintenence such that I wouldn't call it hiking anymore.

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Great answer. I'd like to add one thing: bring eye protection! –  Mr.Wizard Dec 7 '12 at 13:03
    
@Mr.W: I've done a lot of trail work, and have never seen anyone wear eye protection. I wear glasses most of the time, so that gives me some protection I suppose, but my purpose in wearing them is to see better. In wet weather, I wear contacts when doing trail work. I have never felt I needed deliberate eye protection. –  Olin Lathrop Dec 7 '12 at 22:36
    
You wear glasses and that is likely protection enough. I sometimes wear lenses while hiking so that I don't have to worry about stray twigs. To each his own I suppose. –  Mr.Wizard Dec 7 '12 at 22:46
    
@OlinLathrop -- Thank you. I too have found folding bow saws to be "crappy" and for some reason just had not considered carrying a trusty old full bowsaw (I own a couple). But they don't weight much and this is a great answer. –  Russell Steen Dec 9 '12 at 19:00
    
@Russell: Bow saws are definitely more effective than those little folding saws, but I wouldn't want to take a bow saw if I mostly wanted to hike and maybe do a little casual maintenence. The folding saw can be folded and stowed, but a bow saw is a fairly large item, even if light for its size and capabilities. –  Olin Lathrop Dec 9 '12 at 20:09

For general all-purpose cutting this saw has proven to be the most dependable, versatile, and reliable I have worked with.*

It cuts through dead and live wood, and I have chewed through a trees at 18" and beyond. It is light, and the JS blade (with hardened teeth) is the longest lasting. The blade is replaceable for different hardness woods.

For more serious trail maintenance check out the venerable pulaski for a good combo of cutting and grubbing out drainage issues. (Though tackling that level of maintenance should probably be done with the blessing and supervision of relevant land managers.)


*I spent several years leading work crews removing invasive trees in the back-country, and have tried just about every hand saw available on the market through weeks of constant use. I am not in any way related to Bahco.

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Have you tried Silky and ARS saws? –  Mr.Wizard Dec 7 '12 at 19:12
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@Lbell - Thank you. This is exactly the kind of recommendation I was looking for. –  Russell Steen Dec 9 '12 at 18:58

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