Digging and maintaining mountain bike trails properly requires an arsenal of specialized instruments, and a trusty mule or e-bike to lug them deep into the forest. Some modern builders purchase dirt bikes, or electric bikes to help carry the load. Regardless of who or what is lugging the steel heads and four- to six-foot-long wooden handles around, trail tools are cumbersome and awkward to transport. Once you add enough water and food for a dig day to your supply list you may need extra volunteers just to carry things.
Bellingham, Washington, resident, Bill Hasenjaeger, has been building trail for the majority of his life, and his keen engineering sense drove him to create a better method to bring strong tools deeper into the forest. Instead of designing another transportation method, Hasenjaeger looked at the tools themselves. He knew that there must be a way to make them far more packable while maintaining the strength necessary to pry rocks and dig in clay.
His solution, in short, includes a lightweight, collapsible 3- or 4-piece handle that can be attached to all of the necessary tool heads that builders need. The tools break down small enough to fit into a backpack and are crafted in Bellingham with a robust structure designed to last for years. We recently caught up with Hasenjaeger to learn more about the how and why of his ground-breaking tool company.
What sparked your interest in creating trail tools?
I’ve been a trail builder since my teenage years in the late 60’s, building trails to ride motos in Southern California when I was 12, building trails in the southern Sierra mountains when I was 16 and into my 20’s, helping create trails and race routes in the Mojave desert, and so on. I switched to mountain bikes around 2001 and discovered the intrinsic mountain bike trail work ethic and fell in love with it. I liked riding my bike to trail work projects. Didn’t like carrying a long-handled tool with me on the bike much though. Ever ridden with a weed whacker across the handlebars? I don’t recommend it.
I’m a manufacturing engineer by trade, and apprenticed in a machine shop from my teenage years into my early 20’s, and finished up working on really innovative and large-scale projects and critical components for companies like Boeing and GE. I started building my own packable trail tools after discovering there really wasn’t anything else usable available.
What makes Bellingham the right place for your business?
Well, not to brag-up our place too much, but Bellingham is the perfect geography for all kinds of outdoor recreation, including mountain biking. The outdoor culture, especially trail-oriented activities like mountain biking, hiking, and horseback riding is solid. And the temperate climate allows [for] those activities all year round.
From a manufacturing business perspective, we’ve got Seattle close to the south, and Vancouver, BC about the same distance to the north. Both places have great manufacturing and commerce infrastructure that our business definitely benefits from. Plus Western Washington University and Bellingham Technical College are in town, and both have good engineering and technology courses that attract people from around the nation and world. So we have a good technical human resource generator right in town too. All that fosters an especially good environment for our business.
Oh, and did I mention there are 15 or so small independent brewpubs in Bellingham’s city limits? Not bad for a town of 85,000 or so. It’s important to have a variety of good places to relax after a long day playing and working on trails, and making trail tools.
Are most Trail Boss tools purchased by mountain bikers, hikers, dirt bike riders, or other trail users?
We started out in 2012 focused on packable tools for mountain bikers, for a couple of reasons: 1) Mountain bikers have a very strong trail work ethic and see building and maintaining trails as an integral part of the activity, 2) It’s very difficult (and dangerous) to bike (vs hike) to a work-site while carrying a long-handled tool.
However, since our initial start, we now reach outside the mountain biking world to more general trail building and stewardship groups. And some dirt bike groups have also discovered us, including public agencies who use moto-mounted trail crews to reach deeper into back-country trail networks.
How many people work for Trail Boss tools?
Not very many. Not enough. There are three of us and like all small businesses, we all do a wide variety of things. I don’t like the term “passion business” much. We think Trail Boss is a real business with a real future making products that our customers love. We all work hard to make the best quality product we can, do it at a modest and sustainable profit, and hope to be in it for the long haul.
How long have you been in the trail tools game, and what did you do prior?
I started Trail Boss in 2012, as a weekend side project while working a real money-paying job. I’ve been a life-long, nearly 40 years long, manufacturing engineer. Prior to that, I worked for seven years as a machinist, starting as a teenager while still in high school. I’ve had some very fortunate opportunities during my life visiting and working with a wide variety of manufacturing companies small and large all over the world. There are a lot of smart people out there in all kinds of domains who are pretty fun to work with.
How did you come upon the idea for your compact design?
After trying a couple of different ideas I hit on the 3-piece coupling style that we currently use. I refined it through a couple of prototypes and some field testing. Thanks for noticing its compact nature, which was one of the goals: make it as slim as possible while still being strong enough to handle the pounding of trail work.
Do you work with any trail associations or government organizations?
Yes, several. Some internationally. One of the most exciting ones was connecting with a company in Australia who resells our tools to the government’s hotshot fire crews. We’ve been working with them for nearly 4 years now.
Our business has transitioned over the past 7 years or so from selling exclusively to dedicated trail volunteer individuals to now about half our sales are to public and private trail organizations.
Can you describe, in laymen’s terms, the process of creating a full Trail Boss toolset?
A Trail Boss is two distinct components: 1) The handle and its pieces and, 2) The various heads attaching to it. The handle is the heart of the Trail Boss and is an assembly of the machined couplings on each end (or on one end of a grip handle), and the tube in between. The couplings are epoxy bonded to the tube. The bonding is a fairly sophisticated process and most of the technique comes from aerospace.
The heads are a combination of our machined coupling mounted to either our own-made steel blade or a commercially sourced steel tool head. For example, we make our own McLeod and stiff rake blades, but we buy our “grubbing” heads from Missouri-based Rogue tool company. They have been great partners from the beginning, very supportive of our efforts, a little shout-out to Phyllis and Mary for all their help over the years.
What are a couple of things that only trail builders understand about mountain biking?
Ha, good question. I’ve been asked that one in reverse before. Since I am also involved in mountain bike trail advocacy, a pretty common misunderstanding in the non-biking trail user world is that mountain bikes cause more trail and environmental damage than other non-motorized forms of trail use. 10+ years ago there wasn’t much data to support either side of that argument. But today, thanks to several others, bona fide scientific studies show that mountain biking has no more trail impact than hiking, and possibly even less, partly due to the rolling effect of wheels vs. the foot-fall impact of walking. Also foot-traffic tends to naturally widen trail tread because of walkers’ tendency to want to walk 2 or 3 or 4 abreast. Where bike riders tend to ride in a single-file line, more widely spread apart.
Trail builders also understand the differences between a hiking trail and a good mountain bike trail. Generally a bike-oriented trail tends to meander, vs a hiking trail taking a more direct line (often not the best line for trail maintenance purposes). But many other differences are very subtle. For example, the difference between a “good” biking turn and a “bad” one can be just a couple of feet difference in the alignment of the turn with the trail’s entrance and exit to the turn. A “good” turn is one where the bike’s momentum is more-or-less constant through the turn, where as a “bad” one may force the rider to abruptly change speed and/or direction mid-turn.
In addition to being light, packable, and made in the USA, what is special about your tools?
The big feature is the ability to have multiple heads with one handle. We have 16 different tool heads now, and keep adding more. That modularity allows someone to buy one handle with one head initially. Then months, even sometimes a year or two later they can add another different head as their work conditions or preferences change, or as we add new heads. Or as they have a bit more money. We’ve learned over the years that dedicated trail builders have a wide range of very specific wants and needs when it comes to their tools.
Another more subtle advantage is the ability to change handle lengths. For example, it may be desirable to have a longer handle when using a McLeod or rake to do some debris clearing on an existing trail section. Then the builder can easily remove a section, attach a Rogue head and bench a section of new trail on a side-hill, where a shorter handle is more ergonomically effective. The same effect happens with the saw head. Use a shorter handle to saw a larger limb or tree trunk across the trail. Use the full-length handle to reach into a tree to get at higher drooping branches.
[Also] I’m pretty sure it’s among the most expensive long-handled tools ever made, but that’s probably related to the fact that there’s never been a packable tool that holds up the rigors of trail work. And I’m pretty sure there’s not anything as packable specifically focused on trail building. We’ve seen some fire tools with 36” handles and a couple of fire-type heads (Pulaski, fire swatter, etc), and variations of the venerable army shovel. But we wanted to make the functional equivalent of long-handled trail work tools. Something that is usable all day long, durable, and has the functionality of the same tools you’d toss in the back of your truck for a day of trail work.
So I guess the unique thing about Trail Boss is that it’s just as functional as any long-handled tool, but: fits in a backpack, is light enough to take on a ride (and have fun riding), has a wide variety of real tool heads that can do serious work in many conditions and locations around the world, and is durable enough to do real hard trail work all day long. And it lasts for years.
Trail Boss is like the trail builder’s Leatherman – Once you’ve owned one, you’ll feel naked just to leave your house without it! Fanie Kok, Soil Searching
What is your most prized customer feedback story?
Ah, it’s difficult to pick one (i.e. “who’s your favorite child?”). The ones I like the most tend to be those where our customer is happy with their decision to buy a Trail Boss. Sometimes we hear that years after their purchase, which is even better. Maybe the next category of favorites are those we hear about how customers are now reaching trail sections that have been ignored for years and they can finally get them working well and maintained.
Here’s a quote from a couple of weeks ago that I really like. He bought his tools in 2015.
“These tools are a game changer, I was very excited when I had heard about your product. I’m the course manager for the Cascade Cream Puff 100, two 50-mile laps, 35 miles of trail. These make getting the course ready much less difficult. I can carry tools in my pack and ride the course in one shot, no shuttling tools around.
How has starting or running this business changed your life?
The best part of this adventure is our customers and the various groups of trail people I get to hang around with. And doing it is my “job”. Woo Hoo! For me a “business trade show” is heading out to the woods where there’s no cell reception, and camping, working and playing with my customers. And I get to design and make stuff to support doing it. It’s truly been a lifestyle change for me, in a very good, very healthy way.
If you could only pack one tool on the trail, which would you choose and why?
I don’t really know, because I don’t have to pack just one tool on the trail any more. See what I did there? Ha!
My go-to is still the McLeod. I like the one we make because the blade is very durable (made from a very high-quality, hardened steel), sharpened well on one side, and is narrower than the standard McLeod. That narrow width, besides being way more packable, is a lot more versatile to work with than the traditional wide version.
What do you see as the future for Trail Boss?
We are looking around at other outdoor industry segments where we can fill a gap with this tool platform. The Trail Boss is now a well proven, well-established hand tool in a fairly small and unique segment. Fortunately, it is a technically challenging segment where the product has to perform well or die. We’ve managed to perform well over the years, and I think Trail Boss’ durability and functionality is fairly well proven too. And I think mainly that good performance is due to our continuous improvement of the product and processes, driven by paying attention to our customers and adjusting to meet their needs quickly.
We’ve recently added two new products: a packable Rock Bar and the Sherpa, a packable wheelbarrow that uses Trail Boss handles. We’re pretty excited to see how the Sherpa does since that could move us in a couple of other different directions too.
But so far, our plans are to continue building and supporting our products in the trail building world, and then using the well-proven Trail Boss tool platform to deliberately step into other places where a strong, lightweight, durable and compact hand tool kit fills a need.
You can check out the tools and ordering process on the Trail Boss website.