ATV Trail Maintenance – Constructing Small Bridges

Most ATV riders love to zoom along the trail, power slide around corners, catch a little air on hills, and climb over rocks or logs in the trail. I have to admit, it’s fun to do all of these things; to blast from one obstacle to another, putting my ATV all terrain tires to the test, without a care in the world.

Until a few years ago, I always rode carefree. Not anymore. Now, each time I fire up my four wheeler and prepare for a wilderness adventure, I strap on a shovel, a pick, or a chainsaw just in case I see a trail maintenance need along the way. As part of my job, I have a little responsibility for upkeep along our local trails, so I try to do what I can each time I ride. However, the biggest contribution is by those people who spend the entire summer working a full-time job taking care of ATV trails. My hat is off to them, because it is very strenuous work.

Stream Crossings

Throughout the West, ATV trails cross hundreds of streams, thousands of times; and each crossing requires trail planners to answer the question, “Do we go over it or through it?” As for me, I love to splash my Maxxis Bighorn tires through water, but it isn’t always the best thing to do. Some considerations that go into this decision relate to bank erosion, habitat, water quality, depth and width of the stream, safety of crossing, and whether or not it’s in a sensitive area like a wetland.

Once the decision is made, a work crew is assigned the job and efforts begin in earnest. In our area, work crews consist of a combination of employees from of the United States Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Utah State Parks, and most important of all, volunteers.

At first glance it may seem unusual to have so many partners getting together for trail maintenance, but the teamwork and combined effort on the Paiute Trail has served as a model for trail planners throughout the nation. It works when everyone pulls together.

Small Bridges Go Unnoticed but are Important to Trail Safety and Upkeep

As you jet along the trail on a first-rate set of quad tires, you can feel the quality of the treadway beneath you, and when a small bridge is built properly, you’ll never even feel a difference between it and the trail. That’s the kind of workmanship our crews shoot for each time they build a bridge.

If work crews don’t take time to construct quality bridges, they can deteriorate over time and become a safety hazard. Not to mention the potential damage to your 4 wheeler tires or the machine itself.

Another important reason to build sturdy bridges in the correct locations is to protect the natural environment. Each time an ATV rides through a stream it erodes the bank, releases small amounts of mud and silt downstream, and generally contributes to an unsightly scar on the landscape. Bridges put an end to all of that.

Constructing Small Bridges for ATV Use

Now that a location is determined and a crew assigned, the terrain, location, and trail type will dictate the best type of bridge to build.

In most cases the bridge location is remote and all materials will have to be carried to the area on the back on an ATV or in a trailer pulled behind one. Either way, crews must be sure their ATV tires and trailer tires are in good shape to handle the heavy loads.

In most cases, bridges are constructed with heavy beams topped with a sturdy deck. Here’s a quick lesson in bridge building.

Step 1  Level the ground on each side of the stream and pack the soil to establish solid footings.

Step 2  Place sturdy logs or beams across the stream and level them. The beams then need to be secured in place. This is most often done in backcountry locations by driving several pieces of rebar (usually 5-6 feet long) through a pre-drilled hole in the crossbeam and deep into the ground. It’s hard work but it does the job very well.

Step 3  Add stabilizers to the cross beams and secure everything in place over the stream.

Step 4  Construct a deck over the beams that will stand up to the weight of ATVs or side-by-side machines for many years to come. In the example pictures shown, the crew used a pre-assembled deck and securely fastened it to the bridge beams.

Step 5  Though it may not always be necessary, it’s a good idea to challenge a set of ATV tires to climb up onto the elevated deck and test it for strength. It’s always important to find weaknesses in construction before the job is completed to make any necessary adjustments.

Step 6  Backfill both approaches to the bridge with heavy rock so that the ground won’t settle. Using rock will also keep rainwater from pooling up and creating a large mud hole at the entrance to the bridge.

Step 7  Cover the rocks with topsoil that is native to the area and blends in with the rest of the trail. If this step is done carefully, riders will never see or feel the transition from trail to bridge.


Although many of us don’t give much thought to trail maintenance, it takes a lot of work and expense to keep ATV trails in good shape. The small bridge shown in these pictures took a crew of several workers nearly a week to complete. Remember all materials had to be carried in; all tools as well. There were no power tools, no electricity, and no heavy equipment to move rocks.

The next time you go riding, take a moment to recognize the hard work that it takes to keep the trails you love in such wonderful condition.

Ryan Richards

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