Trailbuilding Behind the Scenes: Our Three Favorite Machine Tools

Tue, Dec 31, 2019

Every profession has a set of tools to help get the job done, and trailbuilding is no exception. When it comes to creating great trails, both hand tools and machines are important, but it’s the skillful use of machines that makes trail projects happen more efficiently and typically results in a higher quality end product. In this article, we delve into our three favorite trailbuilding machines and why we love them.

“Economics is the number one factor driving machine use in trailbuilding because we can build trails for our clients and the community at a lower cost and faster,” said Chad Irey, President of Dirt Artisans. “And machines enable us to construct better trails which withstand higher levels of impact vs. building only with hand tools.”

Exactly what equipment we choose to use in making a new trail always depends on the job at hand and the terrain in which it’s occurring. The skill of each machine operator is also essential.

“It’s not just about what tools you have; you have to know how to use them,” said Irey. “It’s easy to get in a trail dozer and make a big mess, but all the details matter - like good preparation, proper operation and thorough cleanup.”

Tool #1: Excavator

Our favorite trailbuilding tool is useful in all aspects of trail construction. To a well trained operator, an excavator is like an extension of their arm with a hoe in hand.

“You can reach out and pick things up and then move them around, just like you would with your arm and hand,” said Irey. “We also put clamps on the end of the bucket, which are for grabbing in a way that is similar to pinching together your thumb and fingers.”

The first time an excavator comes in handy during trailbuilding is for clearing debris - such as deadfall and organic materials - from the trail corridor. Doing so minimizes hand work, thereby reducing project labor costs.

Just as its name suggests, it’s also good for excavating the trail tread. “We’re not just skimming the mineral soil off the surface, but we’re getting down into the subsoil,” said Irey. “We basically flip the tread to bring the subsoil to the surface because it dries up faster and holds up better. At the same time, we’re using the excavator to start shaping the trail.”

Toward the end of the trailbuliding process, when it comes time to finish shaping the trail to ensure proper water management or add mountain-bike specific trail features like berms and inslopes, the excavator is essential. We use it to fill in holes, level off bumps and even compact the newly shaped trail surface.

Putting a HELAC, which is an articulating head, on the end of the excavators just before the bucket makes them even more productive because it lets the bucket tilt left or right. Irey estimates that HELACs reduce necessary handwork by 50%.

Dirt Artisans typically runs two excavators in tandem with one operator on each. The first does the rough cut and rough shaping while the second does the finishing. Because an excavator’s first cuts need to be completed as cleanly as possible, the lead operator typically requires about as much time as the trailing operator so that both move ultimately along at approximately the same speed. When done well, use of the first excavator speeds up the work of the second one and the project overall.

Perhaps the only downside to excavators is the challenge of acquiring the skills to operate them well. “The learning curve to getting comfortable and efficient in using an excavator is steep,” said Irey. “Keep in mind, we’re not running them on level ground; we’re walking them along a mountain side with steep side slopes and over rocks. To get comfortable, good and safe operating one takes a long time, but once you can do that, you’re using the best trailbuilding machine available.”

Tool #2: Trail dozer

A trail dozer is a lot like a bulldozer used in road construction, but smaller. It’s only four feet wide and eight feet long and weighs about 10,000 pounds. With 100 horsepower, it’s great for pushing things around, removing the mineral layer of soil and shaping the trail tread.

“Excavators are like bread and butter while trail dozers are like the icing on a cake,” said Irey. “At three to five times faster than an excavator, trail dozers let us get up the road quickly and save wear and tear on the excavators.”

So why not use trail dozers all the time? It turns out that they are not suitable for terrain with super steep side slopes or in very wet terrain, especially if the trail specification calls for a skinny trail. Trail dozers, which tend to make a bigger mess during construction, are not as articulate as excavators, which do a more precise job.

“The trail dozer is most efficient in less steep terrain when a client specs a wider trail that’s built for more trail passes per day. If you can only have one tool, you bring your excavator, but the dozer is nice to have,” said Irey. “When we do use both, we put our trail dozer out front for clearing and shaping and getting the trail to 60-70%, then we finish it off with our excavators. In the end, the finished trail looks the same, but we keep costs lower and get done faster, thus saving our clients time and money on their projects.”

Tool #3: Trucks

Far less glamorous yet just as important are the trucks used to move trailbuilding equipment around.

“I had no idea when I started Dirt Artisans that I would get so into researching truck weights and capacities,” said Irey. “Our two trucks and trailers allow us to efficiently get our trailbuilding equipment, fuel and our people to, from and between project sites. We’ve invested in modern trucks with cleaner burning diesel engines for safety and warranty reasons.”

While technically any half-ton truck can get the job done, Dirt Artisans has opted for larger trucks with higher capacities that allow for the pulling of tandem dual gooseneck trailers rated up to 24,000 pounds.

“Yes, we could just hire trucks as needed, but having our own has been a good, strategic business decision that lets us move equipment on our schedule to best suit the logistics of our projects,” said Irey. “When you hire someone to move your equipment, you not only have to pay the driver to do it, but you have to be there anyway to give explicit instructions such as where to load and unload.

Read a related article all about our Three Favorite Hand Tools.