Trail builder's blues- Mtbr.com
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  1. #1
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    Trail builder's blues

    I am looking for some advice/wisdom on how to not get burned out on a trail project.

    Back story: 5 years ago I was approached about building a trail on some land owned by our City via the Park and Recreation department. I did the scouting, created a proposal and finally got the final blessing and started cutting trail in March 2018. It is ~115 acres in a suburban environment.

    Who I am: I am a volunteer and have cut my trail building teeth on other local trails over the past 20 years. I have opened new sections of trail and led work days but this is the 1st time I’ve been “In charge” of an entire trail project.

    Current status: we are ~3 miles in and there is a lot of interest and activity around the trail. I have a couple of volunteer partners but I lost my main partner in crime who shared my big picture perspective last winter. (He moved) The goal is at least 5 miles when complete.

    I feel like a project manager working for a company trying to get results but I have no real authority or leverage over people (aka firing them), not to mention no paycheck .

    You never realize how much there is to deal with until you experience it. Here’s the list of things off the top of my head.

    1) keeping it a good MTB trail
    2) keeping it multi skill level friendly
    3) protecting the city’s liability (within reason of course) and maintaining their trust in me(us)
    4) keeping motivated volunteers focused on the priorities without alienating them
    5) keeping the build standard high
    6) keeping the big picture of the entire trail system in focus
    7) preventing people with their own agenda from going rogue without alienating them
    8) acquiring materials and tools.

    Thankfully monetary support has been fairly easy to get from the local MTB crowd. People will pay when they have guilt for not helping. The City is becoming more supportive, trailhead kiosk (s) will be in the budget for next year and they just bought trail marking signs

    I do get help from some people but when those people don’t share the big picture and aren't really willing to take on any responsibility it’s not the kind of help I really need.

    I’m struggling to not get burned out right now.

  2. #2
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    Inexperienced volunteers are very difficult to work with. You need to have very specific tasks for them to complete. Often times a paid crew will spend half a day un-doing what the volunteers did on the last volunteer day.

    Things they can't **** up too bad....
    Building small bridges with guidance. Bench cutting with guidance. Moving rocks.

    My experience has been that people think they know how to build trail because they ride trail. The trail you're building...for the city, publicized, in their neighborhood, is exactly the kind of project they all want to get in on. None of them want to pay dues doing the grunt work, they all want to build some cool feature that's going to show everyone how skilled and creative they are. All these usually suck.

    This type of project should be focused on community participation. Communicate with land managers about the rogue feature creating and lower your expectations on this trail. Get it in and riding. Let folks do what they will on trail days, and go back and fix it later. You can always use the excuse that the town made you do it. Getting people out to build as volunteers is not 100 percent about efficient and useful work. It might not even be 50 percent about that. Over time, *some* people will realize how inane their little rogue projects were and start to contribute in more meaningful ways. Some will never get it, thin you're a dick for "Telling them what to do" and the only work they will ever do on their own is to un-do your work. You'll never reach these folks, so be happy they are there, fix their stupid trail and move on.

    Private land with carefully selected helpers is where you want to be, but doing what you're doing can be a doorway to access to more land and more leeway.

    Anyone who has done what you are doing has so many stories that are usually hilarious. The sad reality is most riders don't know what it takes to make good trail.

  3. #3
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    For me it’s just a matter of contextual framing.

    Got to talking about this last year with the trail boss on a shuttle in Oregon and his take was “it doesn’t matter, it’s just dirt”.

    I still think about that. Even more so these days. I’m not sure there’s anything on a trail that can’t be fixed or that’s worth fighting over.

  4. #4
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    I have hand dug, mostly solo, 14.5 miles of trail in super rocky / hard clod 100% clay dirt that annually gets DESTROYED by cows which I then reshape every year. I also weedwhack the entire system 2-3x a year due to emerging vegetation and thistle, all seemingly on different growth schedules and timelines. I can identify My wife calls my trail "my mistress".

    While I am currently riding a super stoke with new stuff, I went through a "blah phase" about 2 months ago. What helped?

    - Ride more for fun.

    - Ride other trails other than the one you're building.

    - Buy an e-bike. No not joking. After digging all day you will be too tired to ride usually. An ebike allows you to build and ride in the same day which keeps the stoke high!

    - Approach the trail in chunks aka how to eat an elephant. Celebrate success when you finish a section, don't focus on the fact "the whole thing" isn't done.

    - And here was the single thing that did the most for my stoke. I built the LowTow Loop. It's a short 0.3 mile section. Its out of the cows access. I knew I could knock it out in a few days of hard work. I did it pretty much solo so that I could make "my vision" be the end result. I tricked it out with how I wanted to ride it. I gave it rollers, berms, gap jumps, used pavers on a G-out turn berm.

    It has only been existence 1.5 months (first dig 07APR) and it is closing in on 700 rides and that's just by people using Strava. Reality is it's probably close to if not over 1,000 rides. It's HUGELY popular and gets raved on by pretty much everyone.

    I think LowTow made people take a step back and go, if this is the future of the trail system, sign me up. It helped other people who help dig align to a vision that they know and like from LowTow.

    So I guess long story short: Pick a small loop that can be lapped. Think of your vision for this new "gold standard section" and how that will sell your idea for the entire trail system. Go frickin build it. Pull out all the bells and whistles. Tweak, fine tune, shape, carve, ride, re-ride, shape, carve, trick out. Add jumps, add BERM berms, add rollers, add chutes / rock features, anything that will make people freakin stoked when they ride it.

    Let people know that loop is done. Encourage them to ride it. Ask for feedback. Maybe act a little bit like a hype-man. Yeah, its cheesy, but people can't help from getting stoked when they are around other that are stoked!

    Promise them the moon, and deliver in small loops:

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  5. #5
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    Good to know I'm not alone in this misery. A lot of wisdom here and I think my key take-away is ride my frickin bike!!! Between working on the trail and health issues the second time I’ve ever put wheels on the trail was about a month ago. I've let trail building overtake riding...not good.

    Unfortunately, due to our location and topography some of things mentioned here don't apply boooooo! Our trail building strategy is make it flow the best you can around the wet spots and use what little natural topography we have for features. We're essentially building in a swap.

    Because of the lack of natural features the desire to build cool stuff out of wood is strong. I get it, but I also believe that if I went to the city wanting to build wooden features at this point they’d laugh at me.

    FEEDBACK PLEASE My philosophy about building wood structures:
    #1 get the trail opened up (might be completely open or at least enough open to consider the remaining trail another phase for the future)
    #2 maintain it to prove ourselves in it for the long haul
    #3 get the city comfortable with it being there (maybe combined with #2)
    #4 ramp up our efforts to build “the cool stuff”
    Logical? Am I on track?

  6. #6
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    I have a trail with no volunteers and no funding. It's tempting to get mission oriented, but it just burns you out. Hard enough just to keep it cleared. You just have to budget X number of hours and don't worry about what doesn't get done. If others step up that's great, if they don't it's not your problem. I've also found it helps to take 3 months off from it every year.

  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by papkec View Post
    I've let trail building overtake riding...not good.



    FEEDBACK PLEASE My philosophy about building wood structures:
    #1 get the trail opened up (might be completely open or at least enough open to consider the remaining trail another phase for the future)
    #2 maintain it to prove ourselves in it for the long haul
    #3 get the city comfortable with it being there (maybe combined with #2)
    #4 ramp up our efforts to build “the cool stuff”
    Logical? Am I on track?
    I don't know, I build more than I ride, as a volunteer, and I love it.

    Good list, but my opinion is don't do the wood-thing. In a wetland, PT lumber is toxic, and will only become garbage that needs to be hauled out MUCH sooner than you think. Build features out of dirt.....and don't build a castle in the swamp.

    Impress folks with your work, and get access to better land. Remember, a lot of "Finish Work" that has nothing to do with how the trail rides matter a lot to town managers who probably don't ride. Limbing and cutting back shrubs.. Disposing of organic refuse out of sight, hiding borrow pits and any impact or evidence of construction efforts so that everything but the trail tread is naturalized. Open up a small view or sight line of interest. Make a silly bench or two. Seems dumb, but I've watched to Oooos and Ahhhs over that crap on some pretty mediocre trails.

  8. #8
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    Judging by the rapidity that trail re-routes get created and worn in under heavy traffic, what I would do is mark out the path, do some basic land clearing, and tell people to just go ride it or try to ride it. Sure, there will be parts that are un-rideable but it's a work in progress and you'll get to those in the coming months. Break the trail up into sections, say 200 yards. Rank them in order of priority. Attack each section in order and improve the trail until it's where you want it.

    First iteration: marking and clearing.
    Second iteration: make trail ride-able to expert skill level
    Third iteration: add B lines and clean up errant re-routes.

  9. #9
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    Quote Originally Posted by TylerVernon View Post
    First iteration: marking and clearing.
    Second iteration: make trail ride-able to expert skill level
    Third iteration: add B lines and clean up errant re-routes.
    To my surprise I am finding a lot of people have the "make what you have open perfect before opening more trail" mentality. Even people who claim to have trail building experience. I have learned that you can work a trail forever and never achieve "perfection"; this is why there is always trail work to do. Open it, get wheels on it and move on. Come back to see what needs work after some wheels have been on it.

  10. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by DaveVt View Post
    Good list, but my opinion is don't do the wood-thing. In a wetland, PT lumber is toxic, and will only become garbage that needs to be hauled out MUCH sooner than you think. Build features out of dirt.....and don't build a castle in the swamp.
    We have some bog bridging that has held up surprisingly well in our area so there is some hope for building with wood but I do agree with your point; dirt and rocks last forever. We have a wet area to cross and are looking at a boardwalk to do so. We have come back to the park and rec manager with a plan to add some fill and minor retaining wall and a couple of small bridges instead of an entire boardwalk and she's doesn't like the idea because we have not done a wetland study on the area and the word "fill" is a cuss word in wetlands. Building with dirt sounds great until someone brings up something like this... Ugh!

  11. #11
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    Quote Originally Posted by papkec View Post
    To my surprise I am finding a lot of people have the "make what you have open perfect before opening more trail" mentality. Even people who claim to have trail building experience. I have learned that you can work a trail forever and never achieve "perfection"; this is why there is always trail work to do. Open it, get wheels on it and move on. Come back to see what needs work after some wheels have been on it.
    I have run into this as well. But perfect trails are less enjoyable so why would they even want that.

  12. #12
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    I personally try to get as much sloppy mileage as I can.

    As far as volunteers you need to advertise, be consistent, and reward people with what you can. For example naming rights to sections or features. One trail in my area every rock has a story and a name, that is fun for the builders.

    You need to constantly recruit builders and make sure they are having fun. Over time you will have a dedicated core group. You dont need authority, you need to develop leadership which is fundamentally influence.

    the one power you do have is to ask people not to come back to help, so you can fire people.

  13. #13
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    To the OP: You say money isn't the problem. Is there enough to hire some professional help?

    Managing volunteers: I agree with the previous answers. Look for tasks that can be performed with minimal supervision. Weed cutting, brush clearing, raking off duff. Small repairs can sometimes be divided up for separate small work parties. When it comes time to actually cut into the dirt for new trail, limit the number of participants. Explain exactly what you want to accomplish. Getting people to remove top soil and cut a wide bench is a major undertaking. Don't be afraid to redirect people who stray off task. If they want to argue, back away and fix the problem later. Keep the work day short, and bring food and beverages for a post-work gathering. Some tasks are better done solo if you are spending more time persuading than working.

    Wood features: My last choice. They fail eventually (as does all trail), leaving behind a potentially hazardous pile of trash that screams "Sue me!" But sometimes there is no reasonable alternative.

    Monitor your energy level religiously. If you allow yourself to become exhausted for too much of the work season, you will burn out. Taking a day away is difficult when there is always too much that needs doing, but if you fail to balance your life, it will catch up with you.

    Good luck, and thanks for your efforts!

  14. #14
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    Try having blitz builds versus working daily on the trail.
    Ride one day a week for every day of trail work
    Go ride other trail networks to add ideas and fuel to your trail building
    Build some fun features.
    Consider renting a machine and busting through a section of trail.
    Don't shoot for perfection, in time the trail will improve with use and maintenance.

    ... as to the "rogue builders", good luck with that, even if you confront them it may not change a thing. Give these folks something to build, get them into flagging/layout with you, use examples of other trails they know to guide design. These folks got the energy you're lacking, so use them, but you may need to temper your vision to accommodate the visions of others.
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