MWBA Trail work 101

What to expect if you’re new to trail work with MWBA

MWBA stewards our local trails in many ways, but the lion’s share of our work is maintaining and improving them. Once a month or more we visit one of the trails under our stewardship to brush back overgrowth, repair failing tread, and sustainably improve sections of natural surface trail. We have lots of tools, experienced trail bosses, and knowledge to share, but it is the enthusiastic involvement and love of nature from all our volunteers that gets the work done. All are welcome to join us, especially those who are new to trail work! Read on for some basics about what to expect and how to prepare for the big day.

Before you leave the house:

  • Hydrate! Drink plenty of water, starting as early as the day before the trail work event.
  • Know where you are going. Many of the places we meet are out of cell range, so check the route before leaving.
  • PPE is required!
    • Long-sleeved shirt and pants
    • Sturdy footwear
    • Eye protection 
    • Gloves
  • Bring snacks and plenty of WATER, at least 16 ounces per hour. Bring more if it’s hot and don’t forget to drink it!
  • Sunscreen
  • a change of clothes, you WILL get dirty and you may stumble into poison oak

Meeting at the trailhead:

As mentioned above, check the route to the posted meet location before you leave the house and make arrangements with friends beforehand that are specific and definite. You may not be able to call each other once up in the mountains. Parking anywhere with amenities (trash cans and restrooms) in the Angeles National Forest requires an Adventure Pass. If you don’t have one MWBA will provide a day pass for your dashboard. Parking is often limited so please carpool if you can. Once you’re at the spot look for our green banner and a motley crowd of green-clad volunteers munching on donuts and bananas, and when you see us come say hi! 

Trailhead meetup

  • We’ll ask you to fill out a few forms that are mandatory for participation. You can save a moment by printing out and signing MWBA’s insurance waiver before you come. 
  • In addition to the written Job Hazard Analysis we have you sign, there will be a short all-hands meeting where we discuss safety best practices, review the tools we’ll be working with, and identify which leaders have radios and first aid kits.
  • We will also give a basic overview of the project scope for the day and potentially break up into smaller crews. Your crew leader will be your contact out on the trail; they’re the person who will explain the specific goals for your group, teach you trail maintenance standards and techniques, and answer any questions you may have. They should have a radio and a first aid kit.
  • Finally, we’ll take a group photo. Yeah, it’ll probably show up on social media, but it also helps the trail bosses keep track of our volunteers both out on the trail and in our paperwork. Last chance for those donuts!

The work:

When all the forms are signed and all the donuts eaten, we’ll head out to the work site(s). Sometimes we drive, sometimes we hike in, and sometimes we bike to the site. The Eventbrite registration will always mention how we’ll be traveling to the work site, and if you should bring a bike!

Once we get to the work site, you will reconnect with your crew leader.

We will start you out with some straightforward basics and will never ask you to do anything outside of your comfort zone. We are super extra mega happy to teach you foundational knowledge: What’s a natural surface trail? What features make it sustainable? What damages trails, and how can we prevent that from happening? Who are the trail users and what do they require from a properly-maintained trail? We’ve got the answers to these questions and so many more, and we hope to inspire you to come back, learn more, and progress your involvement. Point of fact: all of our crew leaders, trail bosses, and board directors started out as first-time volunteers too. 

  • Brushing: Every flora is in a life or death battle with every other tree, brush, vine, and weed in the forest simply for access to a beam of sunlight. So the open air of a trail corridor is prime real estate for plant encroachment. We cut back new growth aggressively within the trail corridor – paying special attention to poky, prickly, and poisonous plants – in the hopes that we won’t have to come back to cut it again for a good long while. Our crew leaders will show you how to properly  use hand tools like loppers, hedgers, and hand saws to pare back encroaching plants to open the trail corridor and improve sight lines. MWBA also has an array of powered brushing tools that we use as often as fire danger levels allow. 
  • Swamping: Good brushing leaves plenty of cuttings in its wake. A swamper follows someone brushing the trail and helps gather and dispose of the cuttings out of sight. Sturdy rakes and the mighty McLeod are the swamper’s tools of choice.
  • Tread work: Basic tread work can involve widening the trail tread (the part we walk and ride on) by removing slough from the uphill edge and berms from the downhill edge, or repairing water damage (ruts). “Outsloping” is a word that you’ll hear a ton as well, as a properly graded trail will allow water to continue down the hillside in a sheet instead of catching it and forming a rut. MWBA tackles more complicated projects like rock armoring, drainage construction (knicks, rolling grade dips, and grade reversals), retaining walls, and re-routes, so while you may start out brushing or just scraping tread there is definitely room to grow. 

Ask questions! Don’t forget to drink water even if you don’t feel thirsty, and rest in the shade as often as you need to feel good. If you injure yourself, immediately stop working and alert your trail crew leader. But most of all, have fun! Get some dirt on you! We’ll work for a few hours getting as much accomplished as we can, and somewhere between noon and 1pm your crew leader will wrap things up and start herding everyone back to where we parked the cars. Make sure you pack out everything you brought, tools, packs, snack wrappers, etc. Leave no trace!

The day is not over:

We’re tired, sweaty, covered in dirt, and ready for some lunch! When we get back to the trailhead please turn in your tools, hard hat, and gloves to the trail boss. Don’t leave yet though, because a bountiful spread is undoubtedly nearby! If we’re not eating where we parked then the lunch spot will likely be the closest public park.

We take our volunteer lunches very seriously and we firmly believe one of the best ways to show you know how much we appreciate your help is by providing you with a good meal after a long sweaty day. You will never walk away from an MWBA Trail work day feeling hungry.

But food is not the only perk of staying around for lunch! MWBA has a secretive trove of rare adventure prizes we are eager to distribute far and wide to our volunteers, and once the ravenous consumption of lunch winds down we’ll hand some of those bonus treats out. And that’s it! Top to bottom, pretty much exactly what you can expect on an MWBA volunteer trail work day. But don’t take my word for it, come out and see!

Uh now what?

After you work on a trail, there’s really only one thing to do next: Ride it.

Or hike it. Or run it. Get out there and enjoy the fruits of your labor! TBH, there is absolutely nothing as satisfying as riding a section of trail you’ve worked on. Beyond pure enjoyment, you can also train your critical eye on the other trails you use and start noticing where and why failures occur and what might be done to make a trail more sustainable. You will also start seeing where other trail stewards have left their mark, though the best work is always nearly invisible. Like a Magic Eye puzzle, once it clicks you’ll start looking at trails you thought you knew in a whole new way. 

So much so that it may be difficult to wait for MWBA’s next big volunteer day! If that’s the case, we’ve got good news for you: MWBA often does smaller “strike force” days between our big weekend days to tend to immediate needs on the trails we steward, and there are other orgs working in the Angeles National Forest (and San Gabriel Mountains National Monument) like the Lowelifes Respectable Citizens Club. MWBA generally coordinates with LRCC so our trail work days don’t conflict, and our advanced Sawyer teams work together regularly during saw season.  Still reading? Ask your crew lead or trail boss about getting more involved!

Finally, make sure you find us on our socials media and follow us on Eventbrite for all the latest on our next volunteer trail work event. Thank you so much for volunteering, we’ll see you on a trail!