A treatise on the construction of shake trail in the Wilderness

Note: I wrote this piece in 2012 as part of an effort at chronicling and detailing my experience with techniques for trail construction

After two weeks’ time and construction of roughly 600 feet of shake covered trail, what follows is a compilation of ideas, tips, and findings to facilitate the continuation of the ongoing reconstruction effort in the wilderness.

The construction project and photos of were taken within the Petersburg Creek Wilderness Area of southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.

1.  Notes on the terrain and environment of Petersburg Creek Wilderness

The overall lay of the trail as it follows along the lake and then downstream with the creek is flat with slight rolling increases and decreases in elevation and occasional abrupt crossings of drainage’s. The soils are markedly sandy and provide a good working material to dig into; low lying areas in the forest are deep and workable, the wetness of areas corresponds to the ability of the water to drain out.  Closer to the water in grassy areas the marsh is easily manipulated and drains well when attention is paid to not blocking drainage’s with construction. The forest consists of primarily of hemlock with a smaller percentage of spruce, mostly larger old growth trees. Cedar is virtually non-existent.  Sand for material use can be readily found around upturned root wads.  

2. On non-structured sections of trail

With the compact sturdier nature of the soil and limited impact due to low use, well drained and covered areas of the trail need little to no attention other than brushing and maintain their state as a primitive path.  Of these non-structured areas of trail, improvements can be made to bolster their effectiveness and life. In slightly muddier areas, all that may be needed is a layer of punk (crushed up rotted tree debris) scattered and stomped into the muddy or eroding sections to add to the trail and help with drainage building up the tread.

In other areas where structures are not necessary but the trail could use work, for example areas in need of being built up that lead off or onto structures or areas where old planks were taken off of, as well as in establishing new trail (reroutes), a tiered system of material addition can be implemented. Starting on the muddy or bare trail surface, and a thicker layer of found sandy soil material, 2-3 inches, then on top of and worked into that, add a good layer of punk, then a thinner covering of sandy soil. On top of that, add a covering of reveg to the entire trail, and finish by sprinkling a light amount of sand on top of that to establish the center footpath for the trail. This method worked very well on a rerouted section, and adding the reveg, which acts as a sponge and glue, held the trail together. The result is trail that looks like the primitive footpath that has been there for years, and holds up to the high impact of trail workers stomping on it multiple times every day on the way to work.

Part of reroute that where large roots and earth was removed, then trail rebuild with sand, punk, and re-veg.
Trail where a treated board was removed and trail built up leading into a structure

3. On Red Cedar Shakes

The structures built with and the use of red cedar shakes defines the new aesthetic of the trail. After initial implementation, the overall impression on using shakes as tread material is good. The rough split side faced up and used as tread by decking, along with the great variety of appearance due to knots, lends to a good primitive aesthetic that is well suited to the wilderness setting. Furthermore, the shakes take very well to manipulation and customization by hatchets or axes.

Facing board after manipulation to roughen machined edges, lends towards a better primitive feel
Here a hatchet was used to carve out for drainage where the shake was bowled and collecting water.

Face cuts in Wilderness:

For the first piece of decking after a step up, a face cut must be made to create the angled cut  (the face board it overlaps is in line with the shakes leading up to it.

To cut a face cut such as the one above, sketch desired angle to cut, then use a saw for curf cuts, finish by knocking out and smoothing down with sharp axe or hatchet

Shakes, cont; Adjustments to the decking across the structures and especially at the transitions lends to a very organic movement to the trail; more gentle curving reflects the lay of the land rather than the straight pointing vectors of long stretches of plank it is replacing in many locations.

4. On Primary Structures, Part I: buried “Puncheon”

The predominate use of shakes is in “puncheon” which adds stable, lasting tread to low lying wet areas with relatively little change in grade. Here the top rough section of the shake is the only visible feature of the structure. Best employed in areas that require more than just material fill to properly drain or support trail. Along the trail these areas are typically populated by skunk cabbage and are wet or muddy even in times without rain. In these locations the trail was constructed by channeling out for two stringers of spruce or hemlock to be buried in ¾ the way or fully, with shakes then nailed on top, four 60 d nails per shake. Pre-drilling decking was found to be unnecessary, the shakes take well to nailing and don’t split. It is wise to cut the vegetation out in a manner and keep it so that it may be easily reapplied to edge in the shakes.    

In wetter areas along the lake where rising levels or ice could cause the puncheon to dislodge and move, vertical stakes should be added to the sides of logs on the ends.

In areas where the grade is increasing slightly more than a gently sloped series of puncheon allows, a step up method can be employed that gains elevation by notching flat the underside of the front of the stringers for around 6” and nailing them onto the last shake of the preceding structure.

5. Primary Structures, Part II: Raised Stringer “Puncheon”

In areas where the trail must cover drainage’s, pits, ravines, messy root holes, the trail can be quickly established by building raised stringer “puncheon” which can seamlessly be integrated with buried puncheon before and after it, while maintaining the wilderness aesthetic garnered by the use of shakes as decking. Here 3” x 8” x 12” boards can be used for stringers, turned on their side for strength (the 3” side makes contact with the sills) and decked (include gaps for drainage). 2” x 12” x 3’ boards nailed together make the best sills.

Raised Puncheon integrated seamlessly with buried

Always have at least two boards nailed together for the sills to provide the necessary support and lasting stability. Greater spans than 12’ can be achieved by laminating boards together, in effect creating 6” x 8” beams to your desired length. 18’ is an easy to achieve length for this, cutting one 12 foot board in half and use it as the opposite ends on either side of the laminate, nailing them prodigiously. The diagram below, not to a scale, shows the laminate method of making stringers, and in relation to the sills. Nailing stringers to sills involved toe-nailing, nailing a small piece of 3″x 8″ between the stringers, and nailing through the stringers into that, as well as “L” brackets.  

The Petersburg Creek project had rough cut 3″x 8″ lumber available, in situations without said materials, log work would replace stringers and sills, preferably good cedar wood.


  • Pulaski’s- essential for grubbing, cutting out turf, chopping roots, everything.
  • Hammers
    • Single Jack 3 lb hammers- for nailing puncheon
    • 6lb hammer, 10” handle
    • Sledges for pounding in stakes
    • 24 oz framing handles for deconstruction purposes.
  • Crowbars- deconstruction of existing structures.
  • Shovels- pointed fire shovels, for trenching for logs/ digging water bars and moving material
  • McClouds- occasional use for peeling back vegetation, moving material.
  • Levels
    • 24- 32” levels for rough leveling tree stringers to one another, and for dimensional lumber sills and stringers
    • Line levels, line for leveling sills of raised sections across their span
  • Brace and bit- where drilling may be necessary for 60d nails, use a 5/16” spade bit. Have vise grips to help with untightening them and WD-40 to lubricate them.
  • Hatchets/ small axes- for finishing work on the shakes and forming/ taking material off the stringers as well as notches. Estwing’s Camp Hatchet is a good model for this.
  • Saws
    • Pruning Saws- Silky type 7” and 14” saws proved the most effective for working with the log stringers, felling trees, cutting stakes and even dimensional boards
    • Larger 4 foot crosscut single buck Disston Saw- Good to have in camp for cutting dimensional boards on sawbucks
    • 3” carpenter single buck saw- good for cutting logs and dimensional lumber in the field, but hard to keep sharp and easily mistreated, not great for long term construction. Stick with Silky’s.
  • Loppers/ hand pruners- for clearing brush around sites, nipping roots.  
  • Framing Square- for aligning decking square to the stringers.
  • Double-bit axe- for clearing, chopping logs clearing corridor or use in trail.
  • Any assorted sockets/ wrenches if deconstruction of structures involving hardware is involved. Most bolts tend to be ¾” heads and nuts.

Published by Jim Wilson

An avid hiker and outdoor enthusiast, I settled in Oregon after years of working on hiking trails in Southeast Alaska with the USFS and exploring the Pacific Northwest and rest of the country in the offseason.

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