Leaf Blowing

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?

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.