The Art of the Build: Hero's Dirt

By Danielle Caruso on September 13, 2023
9 min read

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No matter the locale, mountain bikers are chasing hero dirt throughout the spring and summer seasons. “Hero dirt,” a term coined by the biking community to describe moist, sticky soil, is the result of snow melt or a healthy downpour of rain in the area. Moisture softens the top layer of the soil enabling bike tires to maintain grip and flow for optimum traction and a ride full of hootin’ and hollerin’ all the way down.  

Bikers aren't the only folks that thrive on “hero dirt”– it’s prime time for trail building, too. Coast to coast, trail builders love moving dirt, rebuilding berms and maintaining trails with just the right amount of moisture. This practice allows the trails to sustain the frequent tread of tires throughout the summer months of play. I had the opportunity to interview Central Oregon Trail Alliance team members – Vanessa Fran, Program Coordinator, and Glenn Tomchik, Volunteer Trail Crew Leader – to learn more about the specific tools, methodologies, safety and granular building philosophies of trail building during prime time trail building season.  

Vanessa cutting down a tree while building a mountain biking trail in KUHL clothing for women

Vanessa Fron | Central Oregon Trail Alliance Program Coordinator 

COTA employee who manages behind-the-scenes work, including membership management, event planning, product ordering and all the bits and pieces to keep projects running smoothly. 

Favorite trail in Central Oregon: Stinger Trail & the Redmond trail system 

Favorite KUHL pieces for trail building: Kamila and W's Rydr™ Pant 

DC: How long have you been a trail steward? 

VF: I've been an official trail steward for just over two years now, and an unofficial trail steward my whole life. My official journey started in South Eastern Utah, where I worked on a backcountry trail crew for a year. I then moved to Central Oregon where I continued my stewardship efforts by obtaining my Wildland Fire Chainsaw Certification (S-212). Although most of my COTA efforts revolve around a computer, I still get out once to twice a week to work on trails.  

DC: What sparked your passion for trails?  

VF: As far back as my memory can recall, my grandfather would take my sister and I outside of Chicago to nearby trail systems once a month. I distinctly remember my grandfather picking up every piece of trash he saw on our hikes, which is where my trail stewardship passion stemmed from.   

DC: What aspect of trail building are you most passionate about? 

VF: One thing I’m particularly proud of is that I hold a Wildland Fire Chainsaw Certification (S-212). I absolutely love getting onto the trail to buck up down trees and clear the path for riders. It’s exhilarating to shape a trail with a few cuts in just a few minutes. This type of trail work has been known to be a “boys’ club,” but I’m here to change that stereotype. 

DC: What is your favorite tool to use while trail building? 

VF: My favorite trail building tool is a chainsaw. I know the machine inside and out, plus it gets the job done quickly and efficiently.  

DC: What is a sawyer, and why is it so important in trail building? 

VF: A sawyer is someone who is certified to wield a chainsaw for bucking and felling. This is important for trail work for multiple reasons. Chainsaws are used to cut the trail corridor to start the trail building process. Sawyers also perform continuous maintenance on trails by bucking up deadfall, felling hang ups, and remove low hanging branches. Without sawyers, this work would take hours as opposed to minutes.  

Vanessa and Glenn working on mountain biking trail while wearing KUHL clothing

DC: What inspired you to become a sawyer? 

VF: My inspiration to become a sawyer actually stemmed from my fear of chainsaws. I wanted to face my fears, so I joined a backcountry trail crew that focused on chainsaw use. I learned the ins and outs of the machine, and eventually my fear dwindled away. Seeing how far I came after one year, I wanted to push myself even further to become a certified chainsaw wielder, which I accomplished 1.5 years after the start of my journey.  

DC: What are the major safety precautions considered when felling trees? 

VF: There are numerous safety precautions to consider when sawing, including weather conditions, terrain, slope, escape path clearance, tree type, tree soundness, bystanders, etc. To me, the most important safety precaution to take when using a chainsaw is evaluating the sawyer’s mental state. Sawyers must have a sound mind and body when cutting in order to make safe, rational decisions.  

DC: What is your favorite aspect of the trail to maintain? 

VF: My favorite part of the trail to maintain is berms. With sandy soils all around Central Oregon, mitigating erosion on berms is a big challenge to overcome on almost every trail. I just learned how to inslope berms at our crew leader training sessions. This technique allows for berms to be created without adding soil to the top, but instead digging in at the bottom, which helps reduce erosion and the blowout of the berm itself. 

DC: What projects on your docket are you currently most passionate about and why? 

VF: Currently, my favorite project is working on Upper Whoops trail lead by Glenn Tomchik. Deadfall across this trail was abundant, and now the trail just needs some regular clean up.  

DC: What advice would you give to females that want to get involved in trial building?  

VF: The best way to learn is to just dive right in and learn from the life-long trail builders. All of our crew leaders are trained to lead and teach people with no prior trail building experience. The next time you want to learn about trail building and maintenance, hop on Meetup and join COTA at our next trail work event!  

Glenn picking the right tool for the job to build a mountain biking trail in KUHL clothing for me

Glenn Tomchik | Central Oregon Trail Alliance Volunteer Trail Crew Leader 

A two-year committed Volunteer Trail Crew Leader for COTA who's passionate about learning the unique characteristics of Central Oregon trails and how to build great singletrack with the experienced and beginner community.  

Favorite trail in Central Oregon: South Fork & Flagline 

Favorite KUHL pieces for trail building: Revel™ 1/4 Zip Sweater and Radikl® Pant

DC: How long have you been a trail crew leader? 

GT: I’ve worked with COTA for about 2 years now, since I first moved [to Central Oregon]. Prior to this commitment, I was trail chief for Cabin Creek XC Ski Trails, Snoqualmie Pass WA. 

DC: When did you develop such a deep passion for trails?  

GT: I helped build a new XC ski trail while in high school in western Massachusetts. The trails are still in use 40 years later. 

DC: What is your favorite tool to use while trail building? 

GT: I’m a real tool-head: Trail Boss Packable Tools (with the shovelhead made exclusively for COTA), Rogue Rhino hoe, Backslope Hard Rake (that’s three but…) 

Glenn's tools of choice for building mountain biking trails, other than KUHL clothing for men

DC: What is your favorite aspect of the trail to build, maintain and/or fix? 

GT: Digging in the dirt – I never lost my love of the sandbox. I especially like reworking turns to improve the ride and so they last longer without repairs. 

DC: What are the key safety precautions you adhere to on every trail work event? Also, what key safety gear is necessary to wear on a work day? 

GT: Keeping people out of tool swing range. I try to break up a crew into “squads” (1-3 people) and have each of the squads working at different locations on the trail. Some key safety items include sturdy work boots, long pants, gloves, helmet and eye protection. 

DC: If a new trail builder is interested in attending a trail work event, what would you teach him/her on the first day? 

GT: I try to talk with the crew and individuals to help them understand what we are doing, why we are doing it, and give them my thoughts on the most efficient way to accomplish the task.

DC: What are the most essential trail maintenance tasks needed to complete each year and throughout the season? 

Gt: I like to scout trails in the early spring before all the snow has fully melted on a given trail and rake up tree litter (pine cones, branches, and needles) as I go. While the melt/rain water is still flowing, one can see where there are drainage/erosion problems. I look at work we did the prior season to see how it is holding up and for “use damage” such as brake ruts or blown corners.  Where dirt work is needed, I set up work parties before that section of trail dries out – it can be too dry to work on beyond 1-3 weeks after snow melt. During the dry season, we can do trail work such as brushing, limbing and some drain work. When the rain returns in fall we can pick up dirt work, but that is also a very short window.  

DC: What aspects of the trail do you focus on building at your trail work parties? 

GT: I pretty much do everything, but I try to focus on identifying and correcting tread damage problems caused by water or riders. Large tree falls I leave to certified sawyers, and I leave rock work to the rock specialists. I look to find the root cause of problems: poor drainage, poor sight lines, problems with turn radius’ and banking, etc. I then use the work parties to correct those problems. 

Glenn cutting a branch while building a mountain biking trail in KUHL men's clothing

DC: What are berms and drains and why are they important to trails? 

GT: Drains are used to facilitate water to run off of the trail. We aim to keep riders away from puddles on trails which will prevent erosion damage. It can be challenging to determine the best locations for drains to get the water off the trail before erosion occurs; to deal with the trail and side slopes; and to avoid drains on turns.

Insloped and built-up berms create sloped banks on the outside of a turn. Berms are used to release water and debris down into the inside of the turn and allow the riders to take the turn faster.  Proper bank, turn radiuses, and exit angles guide the rider through the turn and set them up for the next segment of the trail. When built properly, the turns will last longer with less maintenance, are faster and more fun to ride. This is the most challenging part of the job for me, and I still have lots to learn. 

Are you interested in trail building in your community? Visit your local bike shop and inquire about how to get involved with the local trail building organization. If you're interested in trail building in Central Oregon, visit for more information! 

Please respect trail closures and posted instructions related to muddy conditions.

All photos by Javan Ward, 

Danielle Caruso
Danielle Caruso

Danielle is a South Florida native that is living, riding and building her community in Bend, Oregon. After breaking her back in Thailand in 2015, Danielle's life course shifted from pursuing hours in corporate America to logging dirt, gravel and road miles on her bike. Danielle is an active Board Member for Central Oregon Trail Alliance, a dedicated yogi, film photographer and lover of the land. Her desire to empower others around her to meet their own potential brings her great joy and willingness to serve her community.


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