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  1. #1
    Happy, in the woods.
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    Leaves, moisture control & tread durability

    At a local trail where I work I've been experimenting with leaf and debris removal as way to help control moisture and thus the durability of the tread. I haven't done any scientific studies yet, but so far it seems that getting leafy debris off the trial lets the surface of the trail dry faster.

    The other day I helped some friends with work on a another trial in the area. We rebenched a section of trail and as I was ready to move on they were all "wait, we have to put leaves back on the trail". Not wanting to be the contrarian on another's turf I sheepishly asked why. They said the leaves help absorb the water that would otherwise be absorbed into the trail surface. This is the exact opposite of what I've experienced, yet I didn't say anything because I didn't want to alienate anyone and they seemed so sure of this fact that disputing it would be as laughable as telling them the world was flat.

    What's your take on this situation?
    Abba Zaba, you my only friend....

  2. #2
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    When I first started helping with trailwork I thought removing leaves and other debris was stupid. Now ten years later I think it is one of the most important things we do. Your friends are correct, leaves do absorb water.That keeps the trail wet,like a wet blanket. We have a couple of trails that we will rake one year and not the next, the trail tread is in better shape when it has been raked. IMBA has a great book on trail building and I am sure this topic is in the book.
    Now go and tell your friends there world if flat.

  3. #3
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    Kind of a Catch 22 situation here. Most of the ground is gravel and the summers are very dry. A little organic material on the trail in late spring and summer helps to keep the track from getting too loose. Fall & winter is very wet and the leaves are very slick and turn to mud.
    We also have trails in heavy canopy as well as clear cuts. The trails in the trees will stay wet after months of no rain and the clear cut trails will dry out completely in a few hours of sunshine.

    So, I'll rake off a trail in the fall after the major leaf fall and then try to leave small debris on in the spring.

  4. #4
    Happy, in the woods.
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    I couldn't be certain I read it in the imba book, so that's why I didn't say anything earlier. But when I got home the other day the first place I looked for a reference was in the trails solutions book. Might have missed it, but I didn't see anything in there on this topic.

    Our soils here have very little gravel and are primarily clay. The drier I can keep the tread surface the better. I've raked in the past, and it took me days and days of effort (with a few blisters on the hands) to clear the trail. The other day I borrowed a huge 65cc commercial grade backpack style blower and cleared almost 6 miles of trail by my self. I could roll a football sized rock off the trail with that thing. no kidding. Those backpack blowers are awesome!
    Abba Zaba, you my only friend....

  5. #5
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    our trails are primarily sand. we let the leaves and pine straw stay and let it break down. it does help with erosion when we get torrential rains, which is every day in the summer. the only time we rake a trail is when it's new.
    I'm never gonna be a Rock Star

  6. #6
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    +1 Back pack leaf blower

    Our trails are mostly in hardwood forest and some pine plantation. We blow the leaves off everything. Definitely helps the trails dry out and stay defined for riders. We haven't used a rake in 6 years,

    The only spots we don't blow are two sandy areas (we also believe the additional organic matter helps trail surface).

    One person can clear about 4 miles in less than 2 hours. We set up shuttles, carry sig bottles of gas, and are able to clear about 13 miles of trail in a morning (4 people).

    The Green Bay folks gave us a great tip on back pack blowers, they work great for "building" trail. The first person through a new section is the one carrying the blower. As the other poster said, they can move rocks. The blowers also clears wrist sized branches and the layer of decomposing leaves off the ground. Greatly speeds up the process.

    With the exception of sandy soil, I agree with the OP on leaves.

  7. #7
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    Never tried a backpack blower. I'm going to guess the home version doesn't cut it and I need an industrial version.

  8. #8
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    Most of our trails are sandy and we leave the leaves to break down into organic matter to help the soil retain moisture and build structure.

    However, we have a trail that is on a clay loam and that benefits from blowing the leaves off because without the leaves we get many benefits:

    1. The trail dries out quicker after a rainy or wet spell.
    2. the drains don't clog up as quickly.
    3. The muck and mire is reduced because when leaves break down they turn into composted organic matter.

    The same stuff we need to remove when building a new trail is the same stuff leaf litter becomes, creating a soft mushy absorbent trail surface. During a heavy rain the organic duff runs down the trail and settles into the berms and low spots creating black mucky spots.

    Mineral soil is what you want for trails, it compacts and stays firm while also shedding water.

    Organic soil is what you want for flower beds, it's soft and friable, which allows the roots to spread out and flourish while also retaining moisture for growth.
    Michael Vitti
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  9. #9
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    I just spent the whole day blowing leaves off of bike trails.

    The dirt is mostly heavy clay with lots and lots of rocks. It definitely dries faster when clear of leaves.

    Due to the mature forest over most of the park, there is very little undergrowth. It's hard to find the trail in daylight. The trail isn't rideable at night with leaf cover. I know the trail very well, and I can't stay on it.

    This time of year, any after work ride is going to be a night ride.

    Walt

  10. #10
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    Yeah, back pack leaf blowers work, but being able to ride a bike while blowing leaves off the trail is even better!



    D

  11. #11
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    And my experience with leaves on the trail is that they hold moisture and prevent the trail from drying. I don't have experience in all climates and with all soil types, so my experience is certainly biased.

    I have noticed in WI that when I blew the leaves off the trails as much as possible before the snow fell that the trails seemed to dry out more quickly after snow melt.

    Disclaimer: YMMV.

    D

  12. #12
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    Amen on the leaf Blower been doing trail work and maintence for 10 yrs A commercial leaf blower was the first thing I bought, great for building new trail... blow it off the sun starts working too dry it up and other riders spot the trail quicker .. too pack it down...

  13. #13
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    blower

    Quote Originally Posted by Trail Ninja
    Never tried a backpack blower. I'm going to guess the home version doesn't cut it and I need an industrial version.
    For blowing leaves, any back pack blower will work fine. For building trail, get the most powerful you can afford.

  14. #14
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    Definitely with clay soils, leaf cover spells trouble.

    On sandy stuff in MI, the deciduous leaves just tended to blow away or get crushed by bike tires.

    Here in E. TX, it's mostly pine straw. I've spent most of my time here inside the past 8months and out in the prairies before that. So I haven't been able to see how the annual cycle works on trails covered with pine straw. It's been nothing terribly obvious when I've been out riding, for sure. But there's not nearly the huge influx of leaves down here, anyway. Even my sweetgum (the only large deciduous tree in my wooded lot) is still mostly green.

  15. #15
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    Dburatti,you magnificent BASTARD!!!

  16. #16
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    Quote Originally Posted by dburatti
    Yeah, back pack leaf blowers work, but being able to ride a bike while blowing leaves off the trail is even better!



    D
    My son is now trying to figure out how to do that with chainsaws. He'll do it too. He built a Trebuchet that will lob a lazyboy chair across the highway when he was 12.

  17. #17
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    we have lots of pine straw and live oak leaves. they get super slippery when they are dry. when they are wet the break down faster and supplement the bare sand. both trees dump their leaves/needles twice a year, once in the fall and again in the spring. there are lots of bigger leafed oaks on my other trail. they make the trail disappear so i have to either rake it or ride it a bunch.

    what part of east texas? i'm in nw florida so we share a lot of the same terrain and soils.
    I'm never gonna be a Rock Star

  18. #18
    the mountian is within
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    When i used to maintain a 5mi trail-i left the leaves on all winter(WVa hills)then on April 1st or so-would walk the loop with a big bamboo leaf rake and do all that were left. I though it would keep the freeze/thaw cycle from making ruts. Heavy rainfall comes all spring-and this seemed to help this system. But-not many folks rode in the wintertime.So im not sure what works. I will do some sample sections of different grades this winter to check.Always fun in the woods!
    Bz
    i own a bikeshop in WV thetruewheelwv.com

  19. #19
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    In my opinion its not the freeze-thawa cycle that makes ruts, but tire compression on a soft tread surface or skidding/spinning out while heavy braking or climbing caused by a lack of traction, which in part is caused by moisture (or wet leaves) creating a slick surface. Granted, surface heave due to freezing will loosen the surface to some extent, but if the tread is drier or well compacted before the freeze sets in the heaving force will be diminished.

    In areas of erosion concern do you think the leaves retard sedimentation of the runoff during the spring rains?
    Abba Zaba, you my only friend....

  20. #20
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    Leaves? What are leaves? That's certainly not an issue at all in Western Colorado. Sounds like backpack blowers are quite the ticket in deciduous environments, though.

  21. #21
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    Quote Originally Posted by Megashnauzer
    we have lots of pine straw and live oak leaves. they get super slippery when they are dry. when they are wet the break down faster and supplement the bare sand. both trees dump their leaves/needles twice a year, once in the fall and again in the spring. there are lots of bigger leafed oaks on my other trail. they make the trail disappear so i have to either rake it or ride it a bunch.

    what part of east texas? i'm in nw florida so we share a lot of the same terrain and soils.
    Little town called Nacogdoches. We don't really have wild live oaks...we're too far north, but cultivated ones will grow if given lots of TLC when young. We get other species of oaks, few of which are evergreen, but the area is very much pine plantation and timber stuff, so it's almost entirely pine straw on the trails I ride.

    In my opinion its not the freeze-thawa cycle that makes ruts, but tire compression on a soft tread surface or skidding/spinning out while heavy braking or climbing caused by a lack of traction, which in part is caused by moisture (or wet leaves) creating a slick surface. Granted, surface heave due to freezing will loosen the surface to some extent, but if the tread is drier or well compacted before the freeze sets in the heaving force will be diminished.

    In areas of erosion concern do you think the leaves retard sedimentation of the runoff during the spring rains?
    I've seen heavily compressed soil heave 2-3" in ONE freeze event. Heaving definitely loosens the soil. Riding on that when frozen isn't a problem...but once that ice thaws you've got a problem.

    Leaves will retard sedimentation somewhat, but their other effects to a trail - namely, holding moisture - outweigh the benefits. And areas where I've had erosion concern don't tend to hold leaves, either. The water washes the leaves, and the soil, to the bottom of the hill.

  22. #22
    The Voice of Reason
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    my cousin lives there and my mom lives in colmesneil. i spent many summers in that region. that area is ripe for some trails with all the forests. my cousin was looking to get her kids into some kind of outdoor activity and since i'm into mtb she looked into it. i guess there wasn't much in the area because they took up golf.
    I'm never gonna be a Rock Star

  23. #23
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    Quote Originally Posted by Megashnauzer
    my cousin lives there and my mom lives in colmesneil. i spent many summers in that region. that area is ripe for some trails with all the forests. my cousin was looking to get her kids into some kind of outdoor activity and since i'm into mtb she looked into it. i guess there wasn't much in the area because they took up golf.
    There are trails here, but they're mostly not publicized much. Kit McConnico in Lufkin and Tyler SP in Tyler get press. But I've been learning of legal places to ride in the national forests. They're out there.

  24. #24
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    Here in southeastern Indiana we have found that it is generally better to have the leaves on the trails.
    The main reason is the high number of freeze/thaw days we experience. During the winter months here, the temp usually gets just below freezing at night. So you ride early in the morning on frozen trails. But once the sun comes out and the temp gets above freezing the trail turns to a peanut butter texture....The leaves tend to moderate this problem, either keeping the ground from freezing in the first place, or blocking the sun enough to give riders another hour or so of riding time.

  25. #25
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    Leaves do a wonderful job of clogging up drains. Get 'em off the trail!

  26. #26
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    Quote Originally Posted by Guyfry
    Here in southeastern Indiana we have found that it is generally better to have the leaves on the trails.
    The main reason is the high number of freeze/thaw days we experience. During the winter months here, the temp usually gets just below freezing at night. So you ride early in the morning on frozen trails. But once the sun comes out and the temp gets above freezing the trail turns to a peanut butter texture....The leaves tend to moderate this problem, either keeping the ground from freezing in the first place, or blocking the sun enough to give riders another hour or so of riding time.
    Yeah, but during that time in limbo when it's still frozen but the ice on the leaves start to thaw. Yikes, that's some scary riding conditions right there. I cut my teeth riding in the region and went down more than enough times in situations like that to know not to ride on half-frozen wet leaves. More treacherous than frozen lakes, IMO.

  27. #27
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    RE: the mounted blower.

    [QUOTE=dburatti]Yeah, back pack leaf blowers work, but being able to ride a bike while blowing leaves off the trail is even better!

    Is that a purchased touring rack or handcrafted? Does it work well? That is a clever and exciting idea.
    Charlie

  28. #28
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    i <3 leafblower
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  29. #29
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    Quote Originally Posted by cjohnson
    Quote Originally Posted by dburatti
    Yeah, back pack leaf blowers work, but being able to ride a bike while blowing leaves off the trail is even better!
    Is that a purchased touring rack or handcrafted? Does it work well? That is a clever and exciting idea.
    Charlie
    That was built by one of engineers at Trek, and it does work well on dry leaves. Wet leaves and needles require a slower bike speed.

    D

  30. #30
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    I just used a super duper high powered blower today and cleared 12 miles solo(it took one gallon of gas, by the way. For a team of volunteers to show up and rake as much as what I did alone would have burned more gas than that. That's something to consider if you believe removing leaves is necessary for your trails and you're thinking about playing the carbon footprint card against these things). I will never rake again- blowers are awesome; especially in the Northern Hardwood forests where removing leaves reaps big benefits in the quality of the trail. Pointed at a steep angle towards the ground, this sucker would blast out drainage too. The only downside to removal of organics(leaves) from the tread in this part of the world is creating more potential for splash erosion(happens during heavy rains). On that note, If the grade of the trail is no good(too steep for too long with no drainage), leaves on the trail won't stop the scouring erosion that is inevitable. Proof? consider hiking trails with poor grades. No one is purposely removing the leaves and erosion still occurs. Dburatti- I was ready to mod this blower so I could ride n' blow, but being that it was a rental, I refrained. If I end up getting one, that will amusing to rig up. I'll post pictures. Looking at the blower on that TREK, I'd be surprised if it was powerful enough to deal with the really deep holes. Cool idea though.
    Cheers,
    Matt

  31. #31
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    Quote Originally Posted by vtvirga
    Dburatti- I was ready to mod this blower so I could ride n' blow, but being that it was a rental, I refrained. If I end up getting one, that will amusing to rig up. I'll post pictures. Looking at the blower on that TREK, I'd be surprised if it was powerful enough to deal with the really deep holes. Cool idea though.
    Cheers,
    Matt
    I don't have any deep holes on the trails I build and maintain, so I can't address that issue. I can say that it doesn't clear the backside of rollers very well, but that's okay with me.

    D

  32. #32
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    So the main benefit of blowing off the trails is helping them dry out?

    A hypothetical. Say you had a really high traffic trail, the kind where keeping people of it in the wet would be impossible. Would getting the leaf litter off of the trail help mitigate the damage?

    Second hypothetical. Lower traffic trail. Mostly locals. Not enough people to abuse it when wet. Is there really any point to removing leaf litter then?

    Could there be any benefits from letting leaf litter stay on the ground?
    "Bikes aren't fast--people are fast. Bikes are overpriced. It's an important distinction."---BikeSnob NYC

  33. #33
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    GrantB

    I maintain some high traffic trails. I've been finding that clearing leaves keeps people on the mineral soil where the trails were built to drain well. When leaves are on the trail there seem to be areas where there's trail braiding occuing and that could cause some issues down the line.

    I'm beginning to lean to the get the leaves off the trail camp. If your trails were built with sustainability in mind and to shed water, then having leaves keeps the water on the trail. This could lead to some muddy/wet spots that would otherwise have self drained and been fine. Or the leaves begin to collect sediment, create berms, and create wet spots.

  34. #34
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    Quote Originally Posted by GrantB
    So the main benefit of blowing off the trails is helping them dry out?

    A hypothetical. Say you had a really high traffic trail, the kind where keeping people of it in the wet would be impossible. Would getting the leaf litter off of the trail help mitigate the damage?

    Second hypothetical. Lower traffic trail. Mostly locals. Not enough people to abuse it when wet. Is there really any point to removing leaf litter then?

    Could there be any benefits from letting leaf litter stay on the ground?
    There are certain soil types that are loose and some amount organic isn't a bad thing. In the PNW (and a lot of other places), the organic acts as a giant sponge. Not only does it soak up the water, dries out much slower and often clogs up drains. Getting it off speeds up the drying process, helps with drainage and speeds up the trail.

    Regardless of traffic, I vote to get it off.

    EB

  35. #35
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    i was so looking forward to trying a leaf blower on the trails today but the home depot either didn't have any to rent or doesn't rent them. i couldn't get a straight answer. i ended up raking about 1.5 miles and got 2 blisters.
    I'm never gonna be a Rock Star

  36. #36
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    Quote Originally Posted by Megashnauzer
    i was so looking forward to trying a leaf blower on the trails today but the home depot either didn't have any to rent or doesn't rent them. i couldn't get a straight answer. i ended up raking about 1.5 miles and got 2 blisters.
    been there, done that.....glad I went ahead and bought a blower

  37. #37
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    backpack or handheld?
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  38. #38
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    Quote Originally Posted by Megashnauzer
    backpack or handheld?
    If you can afford it, get a backpack blower. If you're blowing a lot of trail a handheld one will make your arm tired.

  39. #39
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    If you are going to spring for a backpack blower, get a Stihl BR600, $450, 4 cycle low emission, the baddest backpack on the planet. I could not believe what that thing would move. It will clear a 3 ft path as fast as you can walk. We find the trails dry out way faster if you get the leaves off, also makes for safer riding when you can see the roots and rocks.

  40. #40
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    I have been raking leaves for years on our trails. The blower idea is killer, especially the mounted version!
    In the downieville area it gets pretty dusty on the more used trails and some organics help minimize that. I also dress my fresh bench by raking leaves/pineneedles backover cut shoulders also to create a finished look and if I am winterizing a fresh trail I cover the fresh disturbed trail. My machinery is 3ft wide and covering either edge narrows the trail up to be more sporty. I think it cuts down on erosion that can happen on fresh cuts and helps the trail compact. Spring finds me with a leaf rake though pollishing the winter fall off.

  41. #41
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    Ha ha, where I live (west), a leaf blower might come in handy for styling your hair, but you won't get much off the trail. Clay soil-probably best to get em off. Dry clay is bomber. Looser soil may benefit from some organic matter to help bind it. In fact the new IMBA book recommends that. Leaves may help protect loose soil from raindrop impact and they act as mini sediment catchers. Hence the straw scattered on fresh cutbanks, etc.

  42. #42
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    Quote Originally Posted by bpressnall
    Looser soil may benefit from some organic matter to help bind it. In fact the new IMBA book recommends that. Leaves may help protect loose soil from raindrop impact and they act as mini sediment catchers. Hence the straw scattered on fresh cutbanks, etc.
    Yes, leaf litter & other detritus can help on the back slope and down hill side where the spoils are in many ways, e.g. help define the new tread, anchor the loose soil from falling rain and some sheet flow of water, and act as compost to encourage growth of plants to further stabilize the off tread areas.

    Leaves on the trail usually are best removed by blower or rake.

    D

  43. #43
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    The leaf blowing I did this year got several favorable comments from trail users. It added about a month of riding this year. We had an unusually dry and warm November. Besides allowing the trail to dry faster after rain, I could see the trail using my lights, something that's not feasible when they're leaf covered.

    That being said, the soil around here is mostly clay. The trails that do have more sand dry much faster and probably benefit from having leaf litter pounded into them.

    Walt

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