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Building Roads & Trails On The Homestead

Avatar for Samantha Biggers Samantha Biggers  |  Updated: July 2, 2019
Building Roads & Trails On The Homestead

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No matter how hard times get to be, folks are still going to need to have some way of going to and from one place to another. My road and trail building experience over the years comes from moving to an 11 acre piece of property that was completely overgrown with a mixture of bittersweet, honeysuckle, multi floral rose, and a bunch of stunted sickly trees with some nice big ones looming overhead.


It has taken a decade to get to where we are today but of course all that time was not spent on roads and trails. This work was done as we needed to. Here are a few tips for roads and trails.

Beware of heavy equipment on your land.

I know that a bulldozer, backhoe, and other equipment can do a lot to cut a road or level a place but if you are a landowner it is very important to keep an eye on how things are done and what machines you can allow.

A bulldozer is what we got initially to clear a patch out so we could start to stay in a tent and then a camper. The problem was 2 hours with a bulldozer resulted in huge humps and piles of debris that took years to get rid of. Because the wood is covered in dirt, it can be very hard to get to burn.


You basically have to let it rot or pile a lot of other stuff on it and burn. You need to make sure that those you hire understand your needs and will actually follow your directions. At the same time you need to also pay attention if a contractor tells you something isn’t okay to do.

Go with the land

Roads and trails need to be planned in a way that eliminates major erosion and doesn’t do major harm to waterways. This isn’t always the easiest way but it is how it needs to be done.

It is not only an environmental issue but a maintenance one as well. If you cut a road or trail in that erodes a lot it is going to be a constant load of work.

Take a look at existing paths and roadways but don’t necessarily use them.

Years ago someone may have created a small road to get out some trees or do some other task. While this road may still be used at times it doesn’t mean it is going to make the best permanent or high use road.


Paths and roads that are in particularly wet spots can be problematic. Sometimes it can be difficult or practically impossible to dig out proper ditches that can handle water flow.

Covering over wet spots and springs is not a good idea

We have places on our property that previous generations tried to bury slow moving water and wet weather springs. While this may seem like it is working, over the years water will seep and you will have a muddy mess.

Don’t do this yourself but watch out for spots where others did over the years. You might just be better off cutting and entirely new road or moving it over just a bit.

Consider drainage and ditches

The road or trail bed itself is just the beginning. Proper drainage, slope, etc. is crucial to maintaining a usable road with minimal work and cost over the years. Slacking now will only hurt you in the future.

Ditches are no fun to dig but necessary and they also have to be cleaned out sometimes, especially if you have a lot of trees nearby or areas above you that erode some.


A road bed should slope so that water can go into ditches and be carried away. As you are digging you need to aim for a slight slope.

Rock and Gravel Size

To build a brand new road that is more than just a dirt path, you will need gravel. I will say right now that gravel is not cheap. It is heavy to transport so 25% of the cost you pay is just getting it to your site.

It is not worth it to haul small amounts of gravel in your truck if you need a lot of it for a project. It is hard on your truck and it winds up costing you more money and a lot of extra time. A big gravel truck can bring you 28,000 lbs of gravel at a time.


Large gravel is best for a first layer if you want a very solid road bed and holes to fill.

A new road bed needs large stones or ballast to form a solid base. Your dump truck driver will drive down the new road spreading it as good as he can. They go fast so they can spread it thin enough to be practical. This will need to be packed down. I suggest grabbing your truck or that of a friend and driving up and down it a bit.

Reducing cost with proper placement

Putting gravel where it is needed most can take a lot of time but it makes the most use of what they drop off. The middle of your road, where tires hardly ever go, does not necessarily need a thick layer of rock.

You can take a scraper attachment or a shovel and manipulate the stone into the “ruts” or wheel paths to get the most out it. This also gives an opportunity for filling in any larger holes. This is not easy work but if you are on a tight budget and just getting started with homesteading it is something you might want to buckle down and do.

Smaller Gravel

1 inch or smaller gravel goes on top of the ballast rock and fills in gaps and spaces. Again this will need to be packed in one way or another. For some people, this is the only other type of gravel they use. It is fine for driving most vehicles on.

Road Bond

This grade of road building material is a mixture of fine gravel and sand. It smoothes out a road and helps hold it all together. It should only be applied in places where there is a good foundation of smaller gravel otherwise it will wash or erode away faster than you would like.

Road Width

The wider the road the more work and expense. At the same time, you want it to be safe to use. If you make it on the narrow side then there is less room for error, especially on mountain sides and steep terrain. Here are some guidelines for various size vehicles. Note this is for a single lane road.

  • ATV: 4 – 5 ft
  • Utility Vehicle (Kawasaki Mule, Polaris, etc): 6 ft
  • Mid-Full Size Truck or Dump Truck: 10-12 ft

It is important to know these widths so you don’t cause yourself more work or expense than needed. Some pathways you may just want some utility access so there is no use making it 10 ft wide.


Sometimes you just have to test your new road to see where the improvements need to be. You may find that one spot needs to be a little wider in order to make a turn. This also saves you some work sometimes because you don’t go overboard on width.

Turn Outs

Most roads and trails are made to be a single lane. This means you are going to need a system for dealing with turning around or allowing another vehicle to pass. In this situation a lot of people plan on a turn out or wider spot in a road every so often.

The amount you have depends on factors like choice, how busy the road is going to be, and the lay of the land. Some landscapes may only allow for a single turn out.

The other option is just that sometimes people may need to back up quite a ways. Turn outs reduce this but in some cases access may require backing up a few hundred yards even.

Tools For Road & Trail Work

1. Mattock Truper 31638 5-Pound Cutter Mattock with Fiberglass Handle

2. Flat & Round Shovels True Temper Forged Round Point Digging Shovel

3. Chain Saws & Axes

Don’t start a big project with a cheap chainsaw. I can’t help but warn others of the dangers of something like that breaking in your hands. When Matt and I were first starting out on our property and clearing the small trees, we bought a Homelite saw and the handle came off while he was sawing. Luckily it was at the end of a cut and no harm was done.

4. Gloves

Upcycling Materials For Road Fill

While it may not look the prettiest at first, there are some building supplies and rubble that make excellent road fill for potholes or establishing a road bed. Within the last few years, my husband and I became owners of what was my grandmother’s place. The old workshop was trashed beyond repair.

The cinder block first story was build without a proper footer and just not salvageable. While we could have spent the money to dispose of all that rubble, that seemed wasteful.

At $55 per ton plus hauling it to a landfill that takes 2 hours round trip, it seems more logical to find a way to use it. We took mauls and sledge hammers and busted the cinder blocks apart, hauled them up to places where we wanted to establish a road, placed them, and then smashed them down.

On steeper sections we put some dirt on top to help lock in the fill. We got a lot of road bed established doing it this way. It was a lot of work but in our situation it made the most sense.

Bricks and any type of stone from land clearing or landscaping are other excellent options. Remember that you are probably going to be covering this with regular gravel at some point so if it looks a little rough at first, don’t worry too much about that because you are not going to be looking at it forever.

Trails and Paths

If you have a larger parcel it is going to take you some time to figure out the best placement and routes for your pathways. Often times this comes a lot faster after some buildings and other infrastructure is in place. A garden and garden shed for example is something you are going to want a path to.


Pathways can be hazardous when proper care is not taken to reduce slipperiness. Small gravel or stepping stones that have a textured pattern can be highly effective and attractive at the same time.

You can make your own stepping stones using molds and bags of ready to mix concrete. This takes some time but it is a lot more economical, especially if you want any special designs or shapes.

Poured Concrete Stone Path Molds

Concrete Stepping Garden Pathmate

WOVTE DIY Walk Maker Concrete Stepping Stone Mold Garden Lawn Pathmate Stone Mold

My father in law is a big fan of these and his house is where I first noticed them being used. These molds allow you to pour a section of concrete path that has a pretty stone work pattern. You can even use pigments to make some of the sections different colors.

Pressing leaves into the concrete makes a gorgeous pattern with no added expense. Of course you can add glass marbles, decorative tiles, etc. as long as they are outdoor grade. The molds can be reused many times. This is a good way to do a path a little at a time and get some permanent results.

Patience is key

A new road takes a lot of time and work unless you have a significant sum of money to throw at it. Starting out on fresh or neglected piece of property can be overwhelming in itself. Just remember to lay out the most important roads first and the secondary trails and roads will cover over time. Planning it out and taking your time will result in a better place at a minimal cost to you.


This is a road we are working on so we can spray our grapes using a Kawasaki Mule. First it is tilled and then scraped. The BCS Walk Behind Tractor is what we can use a on a steep slope. It has the advantage of having a lot of attachments you can buy and then use a single machine.

Roots and stumps are removed by a combination of cutting with mattocks and tilling with some saw work involved for a few. The dogs think it is a great place to run and patrol.

Sharing A Road

While some people can share a road and split maintenance without any major issues, there are instances where it just doesn’t work. If part of your road is shared then you may run into some issues with how to split the cost of maintenance.

In many cases, each household maintains a certain section but sometimes neighbors can come together and even pave a road if they pool resources.

I will say that you should never expect too much out of others when it comes to roads. Unfortunately when there are right of way agreements it can become a no man’s land in some ways. Property owners all have the right to use it but there are no set rules as to how it gets maintained if it is a private road.


This can become a real mess if one or more houses think that others need to maintain the road while they do nothing or worse yet, tear it up by going too fast or not having the right tires or vehicle for a given road.

No matter what side you are on I will say that it definitely is in the best interest of anyone on a shared road, to try to all pitch in and get the road in good shape and then have a plan for everyone to pitch in a little to maintain it.

If someone is not on board, it can actually cost them time and money. I have watched a lot of vehicles get trashed just because a neighbor doesn’t want to spend money on gravel for a road others use even if the other houses have put gravel down they they use, too! That type of attitude helps no one and is detrimental in many ways.

Have you build any roads or major pathways? Please share any tips or stories with us!

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4 Responses to “Building Roads & Trails On The Homestead”

  1. It’s good that homeowners are forewarned to carefully consider how best to use the dug up soil to their most useful advantage.

    Also, I’ve experienced the neverending laborious task of constantly cutting the thick rooted Palmetto Pines. Get a bush hog or rent one for a week or weekend. Some tasks are worth the initial sum of outlay right upfront.

  2. In Alaska, where the top soil (muskag) is 2-3’ deep and will never pack down, we ‘turn the road”. This practice requires an excavator but no purchased gravel. Remove the top soil and heap one one side. Remove the gravel underneath and set on the other. Topsoil in the ditch, then gravel on top. You’ve essentially ‘tunred’ the road using resources on site.

  3. Fighting water courses is futile. We have learned the hard way that raising the road surface at water crossings only causes water to flow towards next lowest point. If this water crossing crosses a hill at midpoint, water flows down the road, causing a rut that is considerably longer than the crossing the road itself. Large rock rubble, that allows water to flow through them to cross the road is a more permanent solution. Concrete pipe in rut will clog up, causing water flow to cross at both sides.

    Just remember – WATER FLOWS DOWNHILL – ALWAYS !!

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