The Dust-Up: Trail Work Should Be an Act of Selfishness, Not Sacrifice


The Dust-Up: Trail Work Should Be an Act of Selfishness, Not Sacrifice

Welcome to the debut installment of The Dust-Up. This will be a semi-regular platform for Radavist editors and contributors to make bold, sometimes controversial claims about cycling. A way to challenge long-held assumptions that deserve a second look. Sometimes they will be global issues with important far-reaching consequences, other times they will shed light on little nerdy corners of our world that don’t get enough attention. We’re starting somewhere in the middle with Travis Engel’s explanation of why being thanked for doing trail work kinda rubs him the wrong way.

I rode for over two decades without ever doing any real trail work. I guess I did build a ladder bridge in 2005, but every mountain biker was building ladder bridges in 2005. Beyond that, next to nada. Not until three years ago would I call any of my trail work “real.” It started when I was recovering from a broken leg, and trimming back overgrown trails was just a low-impact excuse to get into the mountains. A hiker noticed my work and connected with me on Strava. Over the following five months, he showed me what’s possible when two people have a high standard and a little patience. We restored almost three miles of dense brush-snorkeling into my favorite descent in all of California.

Later, I joined a trail organization called The Lowelifes, who were restoring a 10-mile brush snorkel. That project showed me what’s possible when dozens of people have standards, patience, and a robust nonprofit. I banked over 250 volunteer hours with that nonprofit in 2022. On work days, passers by would sometimes recognize the Lowelifes stickers on our hard hats and express their thanks for what we’d accomplished. And at some point, a response started popping into my head that at once reflects my faith in every human’s potential for good, and also makes me sound like a total asshole:

“I’m not doing this for you.”

So, let me explain. I do value the gratitude I receive from other trail users. It enriches the rewards of our work to know that, if we do a good job, hundreds of people will benefit for years to come. But I am not exaggerating when I say that has absolutely nothing to do with why I do trail work. I do it because I like nice trails. I do it for myself.

That’s not true of everyone. Maybe others are out here for the same reasons some people assist the unhoused or volunteer legal representation. We have plenty of volunteers with the Lowelifes who don’t ever plan on using the specific trail we may be working on. They’re just giving back to the collective good of the forest, doing something they can be proud of, and spending time with good people in a good place. But I understand why that’s not enough for most people.  This doesn’t have to be a saintly mission. It can be just like any other hard work we do for our own benefit. Like organizing the garage or putting in extra office hours to have a stress-free vacation. And if most trail users could imagine seeing it that way, maybe they wouldn’t just join in, they would enjoy joining in. That’s why, when people thank me, though I don’t dare use the “I’m not doing this for you” line, I do get an overwhelming urge to try and make this case. To explain that I am no more generous than they are. I want to connect the dots between their appreciation for the trail, and their appreciation for the work. If I could just hot-wire peoples’ gratitude, maybe I could put them in the same self-motivating feedback loop I’m in. I know I’m not alone in this approach. It happens to be universal among one particular type of cyclist: Dirt jumpers.


I used to be a dirt jumper. At least until October 20th, 2019. That’s the date I suffered that broken leg I mentioned above. I shattered my tibia on the tricky right hip after the corkscrew berm, but that’s another story. Before then, 250 hours a year of “volunteer work” probably wouldn’t have been a stretch. And there were at least three other guys at our ever-growing spot putting up those same numbers. It’s what you do. “No dig, no ride,” as the saying goes. That’s not just a rule for visitors. It’s a reminder that we wouldn’t have jumps (BMXers actually call them “trails,” but I’ll stick with “jumps” to avoid confusion) unless we put in the work. Rightly, nobody considers this to be selfless in the way they might consider traditional trailwork to be selfless. Maybe because there’s a lot of exclusivity in the dirt-jump scene. Many spots are even chained up to ensure that a local is always there during a session to keep an eye on things. But the spirit of most jumps is that any newcomer can ride as long as they have the skills and offer to pitch in. There’s an understanding, especially at higher levels, that everyone was brought up with a no-dig-no-ride ethos. So, a visitor might thank us for letting them ride, but they wouldn’t thank us for the work we do. They know we don’t do it for them.

That’s why, as soon as I got off my crutches and promised* to give up on dirt jumping, I found myself looking at mountain-bike trail work the same way. It helps that, in the San Gabriel Mountains, some of the most remote (read: best) trails are no-dig-no-ride by default. Meaning, they’re so neglected in parts that they require hundreds, in some extreme cases thousands of hours to sustainably meet their potential. It’s a constant battle against chaparral, fires, and the fastest-eroding mountains on the planet. Even though we’re 10 miles from Los Angeles, there just aren’t enough volunteers to keep up.

And with that, I suppose I’ve let slip why I’m so desperate for people to see this issue from my perspective: We need help. Again, the work is rewarding, but I absolutely would rather be riding. I know how it feels to have limited free time, and I’m just a gig worker with no kids. But we’re all here for the stoke. And if your stoke is ever interrupted by a rut or a slide or a punishing tunnel of thorny overgrowth, that very same stoke can be channeled towards fixing it. Find your local trail organization. They may be cyclists. They may be hikers. They may be equestrians. Whoever it is, many hands make light work. Push for work that will address your needs. Maintain high standards. Have patience. And above all, be selfish. You’re doing this for you.