Even the slackest of slackpackers can still find a pocket to stow at least one of these tools.
Even the slackest of slackpackers can still find a pocket to stow at least one of these tools. (Mount Rainier National Park/Flickr)
Gear Guy

What’s the Best Packable Trail-Building Tool?

I work on trails to help my local mountaineering club. Is there anything light enough to carry along in my backpack?

Even the slackest of slackpackers can still find a pocket to stow at least one of these tools.
Bob Parks

Trail maintenance is basically the most fun you can have with a bow saw. But in the past, finding tools light enough to pack in was a tall order. With more people hiking and biking to the work sites, new ultralight designs have finally made the job easier.

While the Forest Service has developed good heavy tools for large-scale trail building, if your goals are more modest, you can get the same work done with the newer, lightweight tools. One of our testers has recently built a one-mile trail through heavy brush and blowdowns with the help of neighbors and landowners. During regular trail runs, he straps a lightweight backpack on with a saw or lopper inside.

The key is finding lightweight tools that fit in the pack. After the jump, we present some new trail tools from a visionary machinist from Washington State, as well as some old standbys.

Silva Ranger CL

The Silva Ranger Cl
The Silva Ranger Cl (Courtesy Silva)

If you’re serious about trail design, it’s important to measure the steepness of a proposed route with a clinometer like the Silva Ranger. According to one of the most knowledgeable trail building organizations, the International Mountain Biking Association, you should route a trail so that it’s always less than half as steep as the hillside, and never more than a ten percent grade.

To build our local trail, we start by using offline topo maps on Backcountry Navigator, paying attention to the spacing of contour lines to rough out the trail. Then we walked the area using a clinometer to nail down the route.

You use the Silva Ranger by holding the long side against the terrain you want to measure, and reading the black clinometer needle on the face. Grade appears on the inner dial as a percent.

Sound like fun? Build your own clinometer.

Weight: 2.4 ounces

McLeod Head

McLeod Head
McLeod Head (Courtesy Trail Insight )

Trail Insight started in 2012 when machinist and avid mountain biker Bill Hasenjaeger wanted to improve trails in Bellingham, Washington, while on a ride. Finding no lightweight tools up to the job, he made his own.

The McLeod is a classic known to anyone who’s worked in trail restoration or fire fighting, and it was created over a century ago by Forest Service ranger Malcolm McLeod. The sharp, flat side cuts small branches, severs roots, and levels the treadway. The toothed side clears out sticks, leaves, and brush.

Hasenjaeger’s take on the tool is 48 inches long and breaks down into four structural fiberglass segments at just 12-inches long, and screws onto the hardened-steel McLeod head. All the pieces are hand-fabricated in Hasenjaeger’s warehouse.

Weight: 4.25 pounds
$245 ($25 shipping in the US)

Trail Blazer Sawvivor Saw

Trail Blazer Sawvivor Saw
Trail Blazer Sawvivor Saw (Courtesy Trail Blazer)

In building our trail, we brought the Trail Blazer along with us on runs. Each time we went out, we removed a blowdown or two from our new trail. It has all the power of a common bow saw, but collapses down to 3 by 15 inches in your pack. And at 9.5 ounces, it was never a burden to carry. We also liked the comfy foam handle and the fact that the blade was easy to replace with parts online when it got dull.

Good safety tip from the California Parks Department: When using a bow saw, cut branches as close to a trunk as possible. Otherwise, they tend to wiggle throw the saw toward your hand.

Weight: 9.5 ounces