This post may contain affiliate links.

Trail Maintainer Ax Training and Certification Class

Trail Maintainer Axe Training

I attended a really fantastic Ax training and certification class for trail maintainers this past Friday offered by the Appalachian Mountain Club in New Hampshire. It’s the only such course offered in the United States and teaches you how to sharpen an ax, hang an ax on a new handle, chop up downed trees blocking trails, and the safety procedures to prevent planting a razor-sharp axe in your leg or chest. It was well worth attending for the $25 class fee!

This Ax training certification class is also required for all trail maintainers, volunteers, or professional trail crew members in the White Mountain National Forest, which is also the only national forest or national park that requires it. The Whites have over 40 trail maintenance clubs and organizations that maintain the 1400+ mile trail system, so there is a tremendous need for standardized training. Over 400 students from 13 states attended the course this year, while locally, the number of ax-related injuries that occur in the White Mountains has dropped sharply.

This Ax training class is a hands-on 1-day course that begins with learning how to sharpen an ax using a mill bastard file and a sharpening stone. While I have used splitting mauls quite extensively (where you split rounds of wood along the grain), I’d had little previous experience with a chopping axe (where you cut into a tree perpendicular to the grain) as you’d find on horizontal blow-downs blocking trails. Having a very sharp axe is essential for this type of work so it makes sense that the course starts with sharpening.

Inside the Camp Dodge (AMC) Trail Tool Maintenance Shop
Inside the Camp Dodge (AMC) Trail Tool Maintenance Shop

I arrived at class with a 3.5 lb Snow and Neely Ax which I learned was a good weight for trail maintenance work and about the best steel you can expect from a modern store-bought ax. I then spent close to 2 hours sharpening it, under the watchful eyes of our instructors who provided extensive individualized instruction since we all showed up with different axes requiring different degrees of remediation. We also learned quite a bit about how to tell good ax heads that maintain an edge from mediocre ones and what to look for in a higher-quality vintage ax head if you’re lucky enough to find one in an antique store or garden sale.

After lunch, we headed off into the woods to learn proper safety procedures and to practice chopping up trees. A razor-sharp ax can be quite dangerous to use and it pays to learn the standardized safety techniques for assessing and planning cuts when removing downed trees and ax handling. For example, when a tree falls in the forest, it often takes other trees down with it creating widow makers and spring poles that you want to clear from your work area before you start to chop up a tree. Similarly, when stepping over a tree, it pays to put it down on the ground, so you don’t accidentally fall on it and lodge it in your chest or leg.

When chopping, you want to strike the tree at a 45-degree angle and alternate between the right and left sides, switching the position of your hands when you change directions. It’s a surprisingly slow and exhausting process, although I suppose you build up your stamina if you do it regularly. But you quickly understand why a shape axe is a necessary prerequisite for success.

If you’re interested in taking this class or the chain saw certification training that the AMC also offers, the classes are listed at Outdoors.org (Search on Destination: Camp Dodge) and are offered regularly throughout the year. I use a chainsaw fairly regularly to harvest firewood in the White Mountain National Forest (with a permit) and hope to attend their Chain Saw Bucking and Limbing Class as well.

About the author

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 9500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 3000 articles as the founder of SectionHiker.com, noted for its backpacking gear reviews and hiking FAQs. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip has hiked all 650+ trails in the White Mountains twice and has completed 11 rounds of the 48 peaks on the White Mountains 4000 footer list with over 575 summits in all four seasons. He is also the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. He lives in New Hampshire. Click here to subscribe to the SectionHiker newsletter.

3 comments

  1. $25 is a small price to pay to use a tool correctly. Thanks for posting the link for the classes. I am going to look into this.

  2. I may not have always used correct protocol at the time but all those cords of firewood my dad had me chop, including for our neighbors, certainly imbued me with muscle memory for the axe. From thence forward it’ll be chainsaws or hired help only until I develop axe muscle amnesia ;>?

  3. I may not have always used correct protocol at the time but all those cords of firewood my dad had me chop, including for our neighbors, certainly imbued me with muscle memory for the axe. From thence forward it’ll be chainsaws or hired help only until I develop axe muscle amnesia ;>?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Captcha loading...