Author’s note: Trail poachers may interpret parts of this story to be an indictment of their douche-baggery. Just so we’re all on the same page – that would be the correct interpretation.
I’ve seen all sorts of articles and pamphlets about trail building. However, I’ve not seen a single word about organizing the work parties that result in that trail building.
I have quite a bit of experience in this area – some of it bad – and have learned a few things over the years. Because my career is beginning to wind down, I thought you might find this information useful at some point in the future. If you have questions or comments, feel free to post them or to contact me via email.
I’ve discovered that many people are interested in being involved with trail building – provided you give them the opportunity. Most don’t have the time, skill, or energy to organize things, but they are willing to donate physical labor if you set something up. Don’t kid yourself about this – someone has to step up and handle the organization.
In the past six years, we have consistently drawn 70 or more volunteers to our builds. In four instances (Growlers ’14, Growlers ’15, Growlers ’17, and Coldwater ’14) we have had 100+. This doesn’t happen by accident.
I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear me say that people don’t like to waste their time. We draw big numbers because we have things dialed. At the end of the day, people feel like it was worth it to come out because they accomplished something.
Waste people’s time and you will pay in reduced numbers. I know of several situations where a single, poorly-planned work party put at least a three-year dent in a group’s recruitment efforts.
Bottom line? Don’t underestimate what can happen when you screw up.
Consider this – If you have 60 people at your work party, every minute you expend eating doughnuts and BS-ing equates to one hour of lost time. Hang around in the parking lot for 20 minutes and you’ve given away 20 hours of trail work. That’s why we save talking and socializing for the after-party.
Advance Planning – If you wait until the last minute to plan and publicize your work party, you will make things very difficult for yourself.
People are busy. There are all kinds of potential conflicts with other events. That’s why I try to set up the dates for our work parties several months in advance when possible. Once that’s done, I publicize them gradually at first – with information about what we are trying to accomplish and why it’s important – and then more frequently as we get closer.
At Growlers, we usually build in the winter for several reasons: (1) the timber companies open a gate for six weeks in November and December and this gives us a chance to haul tools and crew to the more remote work sites; (2) the dirt work sets up rapidly when the soil is wet; (3) there are fewer conflicts with races, vacations, etc.
Before you set the date, ask yourself this: Who are the people I need to be there the most? Send them a message. Propose several dates. Whichever date gets the best response is what you go with.
Yep, I screw up some times, but I do my best to provide complete details – repeatedly. This includes where to meet (when 100 people are coming to a work party, meeting at a single location is not realistic), who’s going to manage the parking lot, what tools to bring based on the crew you’re on, cell phone numbers of crew leaders in the event someone is running late, what to expect in terms of weather and clothing, how to get to the after-party, and much more.
We typically work on private land, but if you are building trail on state or federal land, the game is obviously much different. In those cases, it is imperative to contact the agency rep as far in advance as possible and maintain contact throughout the process.
Project Scope – Take some time to think about what you are biting off. If you are pretty sure you’re only going to have a handful of volunteers, don’t start a project that’s going to take 5 to 10 years to complete. People want to see their work come to fruition (read: wheels on trail) so the project has to be manageable. Conversely, if you think you can get big numbers, go for a big project. Never have a small scope of work for a large group of people.
Recruitment – I’m old, which is part of the reason I have a broad network of biking contacts. This gives us a huge advantage. Don’t bullshit yourself: it all comes down to relationships. I’ve seen people who are fantastic trail workers but can’t draw volunteers for a work party. You have to know people.
Because you have to be able to get in touch with people, you will need to build a contact base. As you can probably guess, this doesn’t get done the week before a work party.
I typically use two approaches to spread the word – (1) emails and Facebook posts addressed to a broad audience; (2) specific messages targeting individuals; we call this “tapping on shoulders.”
If we aren’t getting sufficient response, I begin “inviting” people with personal emails. These are very effective. What you’ll find is that getting one person on board often leads to that person recruiting others.
Although there are exceptions, most crews are not recruited in groups; they are recruited one person at a time.
Crew Chiefs – When our work parties involved only a handful of people, it was easy for me to supervise things. These days, we routinely have 75+ volunteers, with a high of 130 in 2014. It’s not possible for one person to deal with this on his own.
Some of your friends can manage people; some can’t. It’s important to be able to recognize the difference.
I select crew chiefs well in advance of the work party – all the way back to when I’m setting the date. I let them know what the scope of work is going to be and ask for their feedback. Once they’re on board, I communicate with them weekly as the work party approaches to go through the details so that we can be as efficient as possible.
I tend to match crew chiefs to their skillsets, i.e. I assign people who are uniquely qualified to deal with DH flow, extreme benching, big dirt projects, bridge-building, etc.
In the past few years I’ve put more effort into recruiting crew chiefs, not only to get younger people involved but also to give them more responsibility so that they will be equipped to handle work party organization in the future.
Crew chiefs enjoy having the opportunity to put their own spin on the trail builds. In fact, I tell them to make their section memorable by giving it a few personal twists.
Once you get things broken down into who’s-going-to-handle-what and let the crew leaders know your general expectations, it’s time to get out of the way. Either you trust them or you don’t. The last thing you want to do is micro-manage. It just pisses people off. Make things as clear as possible and then let them do their thing.
Recon – This can’t be stressed enough. It typically takes us six to eight walk-throughs to get the proposed line clearly flagged. If you have GPS and can set an end-point, this really helps when you’re trying to work toward it to map out a trail. Once the basic route is established, I invite the crew chiefs to examine the line and adjust the ribbons as they see fit.
You are asking way too much if you expect your crew chiefs to show up at the work site for the first time on the day of the build and instantly recognize what is needed. It’s just not an efficient way to proceed. That’s why recon is essential.
One of our recent work parties illustrated what can happen when crew chiefs haven’t come out in advance. Because of the impending gate closure at Growlers, we had only two weeks to put a work party together following our annual Mega-Build. This meant the crew chiefs were not able to do recon. As a result, there was confusion about where specific sections began, where the line was, etc. It was no one’s fault, but it served as a reminder of why it’s so important for crew chiefs to be involved at an early stage.
Everyone has their own build style, but several things highlight mine. First, I try to avoid water and deep ravines whenever possible because they are incredibly labor-intensive. Second, when I get DH I try to play it out for as long as possible. We sometimes include technical features, but typically avoid these if building them will disrupt the flow. If jumps are included, we always have go-rounds or the jumps must be roll-able.
We have a rule-of-thumb at Growlers: unless 65 percent of the people who ride here will use the line, we don’t build it. There are exceptions to this – particularly when an individual or small group is constructing a trail that fits their personal tastes – but we never ask people to get involved in a big build unless the new trail is for our entire community.
Water crossings can be complicated. Obviously, if you are working on public land you need to conform to their dictates. If you have some leeway in what you can do, you need to plan for it. We typically cut all abutments, stringers, and top deck for our bridges in advance and haul the materials in so that they’re staged and ready for assembly on the build day. When we were working at the Castle Rock Bike Park, we perfected this technique.
The Pre-Build – One of the most successful things we’ve done at Growlers in the past few years is to have a pre-build day. We’ve been scheduling this on a Sunday and the big build on a Saturday. Doing so gives more people a chance to get involved.
The Pre-Build, which we refer to as the Chainsaw Massacre, usually draws 25 to 35 people. There are three goals: (1) cut out the entire line; (2) have crew chiefs familiarize themselves with their sections; and (3) begin dirt work if time allows.
If the line is completely limbed in advance, all focus can be on dirt work at the big build. I can’t stress enough how much this improves the flow.
I try to make sure crew chiefs do not have to run a saw or get involved in limb pick-up at the pre-build. Their focus is on walking the line several times and marking out where they want their dirt work done. As a result, on the day of the big build, they are able to drop crew off at various locations and provide them with specific instructions.
Following the Chainsaw Massacre, I touch bases with all crew chiefs to find out how many people they’ll need and what tools they want their guys to bring.
Cancellations – We don’t cancel because of inclement weather unless it’s something that could pose a danger to the crew: (1) high wind in a forested area or (2) ice.
Rescheduling is simply too complicated. Even when we know some people won’t show if the weather is harsh, we move forward as planned. Just do the best you can do. Starting over is simply too difficult.
Build Day – Most of this stuff should be taken care of in advance, but here are a few things pertaining to the day of the build that deserve emphasis.
If you have a lot of people, try to have them meet in different spots so they can quickly sort themselves into crews. I’ve even gone so far as to give crew chiefs large numbers they can hold up or put on their windshields as a way to direct people to the right places.
I publish cell numbers for the crew chiefs so people can let them know if they are not coming or if they are running late. There will always be a few dickheads who fall into the don’t-call-don’t-show category. Invariably, they will be the people with the least ownership. I usually have the crew chiefs give an extra 5 to 10 minutes before they take off.
You can avoid problems by not putting the majority of people you are least connected with on the same crew. Your main guys won’t cancel unless there’s a family emergency, so balance the crews with some of your most loyal people and some of those you are least familiar with. That way, you won’t end up with one group that is missing 50 to 70 percent of its people
Having the crew chiefs lead their guys directly to the work sites is important. Don’t expect people to wander through the woods and find things on their own.
We aren’t big on thinking when the build day arrives. If you and the crew chiefs have walked the line multiple times and made what you consider to be the best decisions, the last thing you need is somebody showing up and telling you that the ribbon needs to be moved. We want strong backs and weak minds. Grab a dirt tool, say Moo, and start digging.
I’m not big on bikes at work parties unless riding in is absolutely necessary. Here’s why – (1) it’s a work party, not a ride; the two are not to be confused; (2) if you can drive close to where you’ll be working, this allows people to wear heavy boots, big coats, and warm gloves and transport multiple tools; they’ll also be near their rigs if they need to get food or extra clothing.
Try to keep your crew chiefs free to supervise. If the crew is three to five people, that’s different, but if the crew chief has 25 folks working on six berms over a third of a mile, it’s far more important for him or her to check the work and make sure it’s being done right than it is to pick up a shovel.
Always plan what you will do if crews finish early. Be sure the crew chiefs know whether they are to connect with and help out another crew, go back and add berms, or take on a smaller project nearby if time permits. We almost always kick ass, so we have learned to have more stuff ready for the crews to hit once they complete their initial jobs. This cannot be busy work.
Set a time when you’re going to be out of the woods and stick to it. Have your crew chiefs let everyone know how much they appreciate the hard work, encourage people to attend the after-party, and provide directions as needed.
I know not everyone thinks this way, but we actually enjoy building trail – even in shitty weather. It’s a chance to meet new people, connect with friends, and accomplish something that will add to the trail system. Stress to your crew chiefs that their number-one job is to do what they can to make sure people have a good time. Laugh a little. Provide encouragement. This is the way you build a community.
The Party – Whenever possible, do what you can to put together an after-party, even if it doesn’t amount to much more than having a beer together. Not only does this make people feel appreciated, it brings everybody together to share the vibe.
In many instances, we’ll have multiple crews working miles apart. If not for the after-party, they’d never have an opportunity to connect. Try to get around to as many people as possible at the after-party. A handshake and a word of appreciation go a long way.
We have connections with a lot of folks, so we are often able to solicit raffle prizes for the after-party. Our volunteers really appreciate this.
Recognize Your Crew – Most people don’t care about notoriety, but they do like to know that you are aware of their efforts. You can handle this in several ways.
First, take photos and put together a story that you publish as widely as possible. Either list every volunteer’s name in the story or provide a link to a full list.
Second, as a way to say thanks, I always offer guide services to any volunteer who would like to come to Growlers for a ride.
Third, while this is more complicated, we also host events that have been oddly linked to our work parties. In fact, even though Growlers Gulch Racing is not an official organization, we’ve put on as many as five events in a single year. These have included Super Ds, time trials, climbing championships, endurance races, and our annual party-on-wheels known as the Tour de Gulch.
We do it for fun, but the events have a far greater impact than I originally anticipated. This is because we don’t have a monetary entry fee. The only way in is if you have done trail work, preferably at Growlers, the Castle Rock Bike Park, SHIFT, or Coldwater, although we gladly make exceptions for people who are actively involved in their home systems.
We also give free passes to kids and friends of friends who make special requests. I’ve even given a few passes based on promises of future trail work. I have a serious case of CRS, but I always remember IOUs for trail work.
Set the Bar – This applies much more to leadership in general than to trailbuilding, but if you decide you want to be the big dog understand what it’s going to require.
I’ve worked on trail for 25 years, but in the past six I’ve averaged more than 100 hours per year. I’m never going to put myself in a position where people can say that I’m asking them to sacrifice more than I’m willing to sacrifice myself.
Several years ago, a prominent mountain biking organization ran into a problem with this. One of their people in a leadership position thought his role was to provide big ideas and then have others execute the plan.
Just so we’re clear on this – any time somebody says something like,What you guys need to do . . ., this is a Fuck-you-and-the-horse-you-rode-in-on situation.
Needless to say, all this guy did was cause dissension and make the real trail workers long to butcher him with a Rogue Hoe.
Final Word – Our events have a strange, cult-like appeal. As you know, mountain bikers aren’t especially intelligent. Tell them they get to come to Growlers to destroy themselves in a monsoon for six hours, and they think you’ve done them a great favor. Maybe this is why the events are shockingly popular.
If you’re looking for OBRA points and course marshals, you’re in the wrong place. Our stuff is all about pride and having fun, although you might be surprised to see how many strong riders show up.
Hosting the events has been a real eye-opener. I’ve had people who are genuinely pissed off because they can’t get in (because they haven’t done trail work here or anywhere else). This falls under a special heading: too fucking bad.
It doesn’t compute for me, but they seem to think that because they are skilled riders, their presence would lend celebrity status to our events. As I’ve said before, No one gives a shit that you were seventh at the big cyclo-cross race in Ass-Crack, Idaho, in 2012. Get over yourself.
It’s actually been a good way of making a point. The news has gotten around, and it’s the same message we’re all responsible for spreading – If you ride, you are responsible for building and maintaining trail. When people have buy-in, you are well on your way to building a community.