Road Maintenance on Your Dirt Road
By Hollis Walker | Oct 6, 2020
Learn about these low-tech solutions for road maintenance on your dirt road.
Most of the time, living on a country road feels almost like heaven, as John Denver sang. But when your darling dirt road turns to mud soup after a rain or your ditches overflow into your fields, living on a country road can feel more like being stuck in purgatory.
If it’s a public road you live on, you may be literally stuck — at least until the government road grader bails you out. But if you own the road or share ownership of a road with your neighbors and feel you’re forever struggling to keep it passable, take heart: There are solutions for road maintenance on your dirt road.
In some parts of the country, road improvement is no longer optional. Wildfires that scorched the West have emphasized the need for better road access for firefighting equipment; new ordinances are mandating wider roads with better turnarounds. Environmental studies show that much freshwater pollution and soil erosion is caused by unchecked runoff from dirt roads, prompting calls for improved road construction and drainage on private as well as public byways.
You may be thinking, “Right. But I can’t afford to fix the road.”
That might not be the case, according to Richard Casale, district conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, based in Capitola, California.
“There are some things that can be done to significantly improve a road and increase its longevity without having to cost an enormous amount of money,” Casale says. A believer in low-tech solutions for the average homesteader, Casale also explains that installing expensive structures like culverts can create new problems.
“It gives you a false sense of security when you put a structure in,” he says. “Every structure requires maintenance.”
How to best deal with your road depends on its original construction, soil, climate, traffic and other factors. But all roads share some common traits.
Russ Lanoie, of Conway, New Hampshire, whose business includes dirt and gravel road construction and maintenance, says problems with dirt and gravel roads can be boiled down to three principles: “Drainage. Drainage. Drainage.” Whether you have ruts, potholes, gullies, roadside erosion, cave-ins or ditches that look like lakes, the root of the problem is usually the road’s inability to handle water.
The key to good drainage is to cooperate with nature, not to battle it, according to Kevin Abbey, director of the Center for Dirt and Gravel Road Studies at Pennsylvania State University. Try to discover the natural drainage patterns of the landscape around your road and accommodate the water flow.
The most important thing to encourage proper drainage on roads located on gentle terrain is to make sure that the road has a “crown” — that it is higher at the center than at its sides — so water will drain to ditches or off onto the surrounding landscape, and not stay on the road. A crown should be 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch high for every foot of the road’s width from centerline to side, according to Lanoie. For example, a road that is 20 feet wide (10 feet from crown to either side) should have a crown 5 to 7 1/2 inches higher than the edge of the road.
A tractor or truck with a blade can be used to create or reshape a crown. Surface materials should be redistributed evenly afterward.
Instead of a crown, some roads will drain better if they’re graded to slope all to one side. Woody Colbert, former member of the Pennsylvania Conservation Commission, says a road could be side-sloped when the slope of adjacent land is moderate and water flow can be maintained over the road and into that land. Sharply curved roads often are good candidates for sloping inward, which also forces traffic to slow. Such roads require an inside ditch.
Banking a road outward is trickier, since the far edge from which water is draining will have a tendency to erode. Almost every country dweller has seen a crack in the roadside enlarge over time until a bank gives way. On suitable sites, however, out-sloped roads are generally cheaper to install, less expensive to maintain and have fewer erosion and drainage issues.
The primary outlet of drainage is usually the roadside ditch. But not all ditches are created (or maintained) equally. To handle the most water, a ditch should have a parabolic or flat bottom, not a “V” shape. Strong vegetation or a rock lining will help prevent erosion. (Tip: Use rocks the size of those left behind by storm water.) A ditch that’s constructed and operating effectively should be carrying fairly clear water that never gets closer than a foot from the roadside.
Culverts — metal, plastic or concrete pipes installed under roadbeds to channel runoff — are not always the best solution for drainage, but they are common and sometimes necessary. Unless you have heavy equipment and some expertise at road building, you’ll probably need to hire someone to install a culvert.
“Always oversize culverts,” Casale says. Sedimentation can reduce water-carrying capacity significantly, and debris can block culverts, so bigger is always better. The water will find its way beyond a culvert, and if the pipe is too small or blocked, excess flow will destroy the culvert and might wash out the roadbed.
On the downstream side of culverts, it’s important to provide some means of energy dissipation — something that will break up the force of the water, such as some large rocks — or the water you’ve channeled can destroy the roadside ditch and/or the surrounding landscape. Anything that slows the water down without blocking it entirely will help.
To prevent storm debris from blocking the upstream side of a culvert, create a debris barrier — but not at the mouth of the pipe, Casale says. If a barrier is too close to the culvert mouth, it can promote damming of debris. Instead, walk upstream from the culvert 5 or 6 feet. Drive lengths of steel pipes or fence posts into the ditch base at regular intervals across its width, the aim being to block large pieces of debris. For a 24-inch culvert, place the barriers 12 to 15 inches apart; for a 36-inch culvert, install 18 to 24 inches apart at approximately the depth of the ditch; and so on.
The best low-tech solution to cross-drainage — directing water from one side of the road to another — are what Casale calls “rolling dips.” These are wide but shallow depressions constructed across a road’s width, which naturally channel water off the road. Rolling dips should be dug 3 to 6 inches deep at an angle of 45 to 60 degrees from the centerline of the road. Lanoie recommends replacing the removed dirt or material with crushed angular stone, then adding road surfacing gravel mix atop that.
If your road is in very bad shape, you may be forced to consider rebuilding it, at least in part. Even if you hire someone to do the work, make sure they’re following advice from experts.
The base of a road should be constructed of coarse gravel with “fines” (clay and silt particles), so it drains well. Roads should be surfaced with crushed stone that is angular, so the sharp edges of the rocks compact into each other like pieces of a puzzle, helping to create a solid top layer. (Don’t use round rocks; they roll out of the roadbed.) Lanoie recommends a maximum stone size of 1 inch in diameter.
Surfacing material also needs fines to hold it together. Often aggregates typical of what you might purchase at a gravel quarry, sometimes called “base course,” are combinations of stone and fines that are ideal for building paved roads, but not so great for surfacing gravel roads.
Tests by the Center for Dirt and Gravel Road Studies have shown that a higher percentage of fines will provide a much tighter-packed gravel road and perform better than typical aggregate. A “recipe” for the center’s recommended aggregate mix is available on its website, Dirt an Gravel Roads. (Look under “Resources” for “Driving Surface Aggregate Specifications.”) When ordering gravel from the quarry, ask for more fines. Sometimes such mixes are referred to as “dirty.”
These fines are also key to problems with dusty roads. Too few fines and the aggregate doesn’t bind together, allowing the tiny particles to be kicked off the surface by fast-moving traffic. Too many fines and the same results occur, plus some very slick mud. Solving perennial problems with dusty roads may take some experimenting with the addition of surface fines.
Another solution is spreading calcium chloride powder on the road. Calcium chloride absorbs moisture from the air and thus binds the surface materials together. While calcium chloride is a definite environmental improvement over the old practice of spreading used motor oil on dirt roads, it can adversely affect the environment and in some places may be illegal to use on roads. Check with your state’s environmental department. Calcium chloride doesn’t work in arid climates.
Maintaining dirt and gravel roads isn’t easy. Still, experts say, a good gravel road is less expensive and easier to maintain than a paved one. But like everything else on a country property, roads benefit most from close attention and quick action when something goes wrong.
“In the old days, in a bad rainstorm, the farmer went out with a hoe and cut herringbones off the side of the road, so the water would go off the side instead of washing out the middle of the road,” Lanoie says. Judicious use of a shovel when trouble starts and thoughtful follow-up for permanent solutions can make living on a country road glorious once again.
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