Leaf it Be?

Few things spark controversy among trail maintenance organizations like broaching the subject of blowing leaves off hiking and mountain biking trails. As predictable as the change of seasons, each Autumn I can count on various Facebook feeds, chat rooms and discussions over beers at the local brewery turning to should you or shouldn’t you blow leaves off the trails. My initial answer to the question is definitive, “It depends.”

Leaf Blowing

The Pros

Arkansas gets a pretty heavy-duty leaf fall each year from pine in the lower elevations of the southern part of the state to the various oak, birch, hickory, and walnut as well as others of the highlands. Blowing the leaves off the trails can create an easy to see the trail through the woods making it harder to get lost. It exposes roots and rocks that could be trip hazards to hikers and trail runners and allow mountain bikers to more easily navigate better lines and ride faster. These are generally short-lived benefits particularly if blowing is done earlier in the season before all the leaves have fallen. Either way, it’s generally not necessary on a well-trafficked trail as the processing of hiking and cycling tends to pack them down and move them although to a less severe degree.

The Cons

  • Blowing leaves can leave a trail “unprotected” as this video from New Jersey illustrates very well. While Arkansas does not have as intense a Winter as New Jersey, I’m sure most cold weather trail users in Arkansas have seen the issues with “frost heave” on the trails as seen in the video.

  • Another issue is that under dry conditions, most backpack blowers are capable of not only removing the leaves from the trail but also precious dirt that lies between rocks and roots. By removing this fine dirt the leaf blowing inadvertently exposes more of the rock and roots above the dirt level (in actuality, dropping the dirt level while leaving the rocks and roots). This creates a rougher trail by further degrading it.
  • Finally, under moderate rainfall, leaves protect the trail from direct water giving the time for the dirt under the leaves to gradually absorb much of the water before it can run down the trail creating ruts and mud holes.

So What’s the Answer?

Well, it depends. Occasionally blowing leaves off the trail is not a horrible thing. I’m a proponent of doing it for events like trail runs where hidden obstacles can be dangerous, but even in these occasions, it may be time to talk to the event organizer if there might be a better time for doing the event. Maybe even blowing the leaves back on the trail when the event is over is appropriate.

Here are some tips if you are going to do some leaf blowing

  • Remember that if you are going to blow the trail do not leave a wall of leaves along the edge of the trail, this can cause water to channel on the trail and degrade it through erosion.
  • Don’t try to get every, single leaf off the trail, get enough off to expose hazards, but those new backpack blowers are strong and if you point it in the dirt, it will move the dirt.
  • Only blow those areas where it is really necessary. A hard pack dirt section of trail lacking rock and root hazards doesn’t need the blowing.
  • Don’t blow during dry conditions. When the dirt is dry, it’s lighter and thus more prone to flying away with the leaves. A good rule of thumb is if any counties in your area are under a burn ban, don’t blow trails. (probably a good idea to keep the use of gas-powered equipment out of burn ban areas, too) Check for local burn bans here.

My final word would be to assess the trail needs, put aside your own riding or running comfort for the long-term sustainability of the trail. Ask yourself if what you are doing is for the benefit of the trail. Are you sacrificing years of riding great trail for a couple of months of clean, highly visible trail? Should you leaf blow the trail, well, it depends.

 

Comments

  1. While I agree with not blowing when it too dry, that would be the one ofonly time. Leaves are organic matter and not a suitable trail surface, they will compost and leave a slick surface in the spring, almost as bad as putting logs in a mud hole. Unless you have very rocky trails and want something to hold them together. Frost heave will be greater in organic soils a you should consider reroute and not depend to have leaves protect your trails. The clay we have drys much better without the leaves holding moisture in. The soil you’re concerned about losing by blowing is most likely organic, something you don’t want on a trail. All the pictures I’ve seen of frost heave and it erosion have been in organic soil and poor trail design. You should fix the problem, not cover it up.

  2. Bert Turner says:

    The mantra of trail maintenance is to keep people on the trail and keep water off of it. Layers of leaves on the trail don’t help either of these two tenets. Leaves hold water on the trail. Hikers, runners, and bikers who don’t want to step in water or mud, or don’t want to get mud in their bike’s expensive derailleur systems, either wait until a trail is completely dry (the right thing to do, but not likely) or go around the wet areas. The more they go around wet areas the wider the trail becomes and the more erosion occurs. Additionally, some of the leaves tend to bunch up on the lower side of the trail creating a berm which turns the trail into a ditch–leading to more erosion as water starts running down the trail. The best thing to do is to maintain a trail to its design specifications with the appropriate out slope, back slope, and tread width so the water will sheet off the trail. If you do that, trails will dry much faster and you will be able to get out there and enjoy nature without injuring it. There are numerous trail construction and maintenance resources out there from IMBA, USFS, the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Student Conservation Association, and many others. To the best of my knowledge, none of them say “build or maintain a trail that will stay wet longer.” Enjoy the great trail system we have in Arkansas and set aside a little time to put some sweat equity into maintaining trails so future generations will be able to enjoy them as well.

    • Joe Jacobs says:

      Bert, as an avid hiker, mountain biker and trail builder who lives preaches the tenets of sustainable trails, I find your initial assumption off. I don’t believe leaves “hold water” on the trail. Instead, they allow sheeting that doesn’t move dirt from the trail. I will guarantee that 200+ mph winds applied directly to the trail will remove dirt from between roots and rocks, I’ve also never seen this recommended by IMBA, USFS, the Appalachian Mountain Club, or the Student Conservation Association. I will even predict that if the new trails at Burns Park, which are currently nice and smooth, are blown on a regular basis, within a few years they will look exactly like the rest of the rock garden of trails at Burns Park. I recently rode Boyle Park. Someone had blown off about half the trail. Leaves were piled on the sides where they will channel water down the trail. On the sections not blown, the trail tread was protected. Since the trail is getting ridden on a regular basis it was still easy to follow. There was absolutely no need to degrade the trail by exposing the dirt to the elements and the wind from a backpack blower.

      I do believe that there are times when blowing trail is necessary but only sections where trail degradation is kept to a minimum, for doing initial leaf removal for trail building, and when done properly as spelled out in the article. I’d love to convince all trail stewards of this.

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