Trail building is an integral part of being a mountain biker. Whether it’s creating a line from scratch, adding a feature or two, or simply maintaining what’s already there, every mountain biker plays their part.
In this new series of MTB trail building basics, Nikki Whiles of Trailcraft, a South Wales-based professional trail building firm that’s helped construct some of the UK’s best and most popular tracks, will offer his top tips for crafting trails.
First things first, you’re going to need the right tools for the job. If you want to head out into the woods and form your own trails or fix up your old favourites, you’ll be doing yourself a favour to take his advice on what tools work best.
When building MTB tracks, the main actions you’ll be taking are: removing top soil/soft organic matter, digging, shovelling, bench cutting (carving a flat trail into a section of sloped hillside, creating a ‘bench’ in the slope’s profile), sawing, chopping and compacting. The selection below, selected by Nikki, will get you well on your way to trail building mastery.
We’ve included some price brackets, as it’s always better to go for decent quality first time around. Shop around: DIY stores and builders’ merchants will stock versions of all the tools listed here, but Nikki prefers to go online to see the greatest selection of brands and pricing. As he puts it, ‘Digging is hard work. You don’t want to make it harder for yourself by having poor quality tools.’
Price estimate: £20-40
Use: Digging. Packing down features.
A spade is great for digging compacted ground. Make sure it’s got foot plates in order to push the spade into the ground by standing/pressing with your foot. A folding spade can be a handy, easily portable option for small builds.
‘The spade, with its pointy head, will get into the ground much better than a shovel. You need to be compacting whatever you’ve been building as much as you can. Use the back side of a spade (or shovel). There are specific tools for compacting, but the spade will work just as well. We use Fiskars Digging spades.’
Price estimate: £12-80
Use: Moving soft material. Packing down features.
If you’re building jumps, berms or other features that require a lot of material, a good shovel will help you quickly move that material around with minimum effort. Nikki uses a long-handled shovel, which is perfect for throwing earth and other soft material into place. The long handle can help save some time walking back and forth from source to feature.
‘We are big fans of the long-handle shovel. The best we’ve found is £12 from Lidl, they’ve got good steel heads on them. My business partner, Shaun, has bought shovels from all over the world to test them (one cost him £80), but he swears by the £12 Lidl version. Trouble is, they don’t often restock them.’
Price estimate: £15-30
Use: Removing branches.
Practical and lightweight, a decent quality folding saw will help ensure your trails run well at all times. Cheap alternatives sometimes saw well, but the blade or hinge/slider might break easily.
‘A folding saw is always worth having. Loads of people carry them in the backpack for fallen branches, etc.’
Price estimate: £40-60
Use: Digging roots.
A decent quality splitting axe is important. Cheaper alternatives look the part, but their low-quality heads are often useless.
‘Splitting axes or hatchets are awesome for getting stubborn roots out. You have to keep them sharp, and it’s best to clean away dirt and rocks from whatever you’re chopping to preserve the head.’
Price estimate: £3-5
Use: Transporting materials.
Sold in most supermarkets and DIY stores, these are great for moving earth, rocks and other building materials from one spot to another.
‘Ideally, you’d always get the dirt or material from near the jump or feature, but that’s not always the case. It’s not easy to wheel a wheelbarrow around the woods. Flexi Tubs cost a few quid from the supermarket and are really practical.’
Price estimate: £20-40
Use: Removing organic matter.
Nikki says one of the most important rules of building long-lasting trails is to remove the soft top layer of soil and organic matter in order to reach heavier, more easily compacted earth lower down. The hoe, with its sharpened edge, will help remove this layer as well as being a practical all-rounder for bench cutting and feature shaping.
‘This is the tool, especially for bench cutting trail. You can take off big chunks of soft organic material and it’ll slice through small roots. If I went up the woods with only two tools, they’d be the hoe and a spade. We use the Chillington Trenching Hoe and handle, they’re the best we’ve found.’
Price estimate: £20-30
Use: Bench cutting. Loosening soil. Chopping roots and stumps.
The mattock is the ‘brute’ compared to its sibling, the hoe. One side is a pick for breaking up tough ground, the other a heavy-duty slicer that’ll cut deeper into the ground than the hoe.
‘When the mattock is really good is if you’ve got a borrow-pit going – a hole you’ve dug away from the trail to get material from – you can go at it with the mattock, busting up and loosening the soil. Then you can dig it out with the spade.’
Tools you don't need
Nikki notes, ‘We don’t really mess with rakes a lot in the woods. The hoe does the same job without getting snagged in roots – it’ll slice through them. There are specific tools for compacting soil, but we only really use those when shaping BMX tracks, as they aren’t practical to take down the woods.’
In part two we will get stuck into the fundamentals of trail building, including when to dig and the basic elements of shaping and maintenance that will help you craft your first or finest ever line.
Many thanks to Nikki Whiles and TrailCraft for the help in preparing this article.
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