A gravel road is a type of unpaved road surfaced with gravel that has been brought to the site from a quarry or stream bed. They are common in less-developed nations, and also in the rural areas of developed nations such as Canada and the United States. In New Zealand, and other Commonwealth countries, they may be known as 'metal roads'. They may be referred to as 'dirt roads' in common speech, but that term is used more for unimproved roads with no surface material added. If well constructed and maintained, a gravel road is an all-weather road.
Compared to sealed roads, which require large machinery to work and pour concrete or to lay and smooth a bitumen-based surface, gravel roads are easy and cheap to build. However, compared to dirt roads, all-weather gravel highways are quite expensive to build, as they require front loaders, dump trucks, graders, and roadrollers to provide a base course of compacted earth or other material, sometimes macadamised, covered with one or more different layers of gravel. Graders are also used to produce a more extreme camber compared to a paved road to aid drainage, as well as to construct drainage ditches and embankments in low-lying areas. Cellular confinement systems can be used to prevent the washboarding effect.
The gravel used consists of varying amount of crushed stone, sand, and fines. Fines are silt or clay particles smaller than .075 millimetres (0.0030 in), which can act as a binder. Crushed stone is used because gravel with fractured faces will stay in place better than rounded river pebbles. A good gravel for a gravel road will have a higher percentage of fines than gravel used as a subbase for a paved road. This often causes problems if a gravel road is paved without adding sand and gravel sized stone to dilute the percentage of fines.
In Africa and parts of Asia and South America, laterite soils are used to build dirt roads. However laterite, called murram in East Africa, varies considerably in the proportion of stones (which are usually very small) to earth and sand. It ranges from a hard gravel to a softer earth embedded with small stones. Not all laterite and murram roads are therefore strictly gravel roads. Laterite and murram which contains a significant proportion of clay becomes very slippery when wet, and in the rainy season, it may be difficult even for four-wheel drive vehicles to avoid slipping off very cambered roads into the drainage ditches at the side of the road. As it dries out, such laterite can become very hard, like sun-dried bricks.
Gravel roads require much more frequent maintenance than paved roads, especially after wet periods and when accommodating increased traffic. Wheel motion shoves material to the outside (as well as in-between travelled lanes), leading to rutting, reduced water-runoff, and eventual road destruction if unchecked. As long as the process is interrupted early enough, simple re-grading is sufficient, with material being pushed back into shape.
Segments of gravel roads on grades also rut easily as a result of flowing water. When grading or building the road, waterbars are used to direct water off the road. As an alternative method, humps can be formed in the gravel along the road to impede water flow, thereby reducing rutting.
Another problem with gravel roads is washboarding — the formation of corrugations across the surface at right angles to the direction of travel. They can become severe enough to cause vibration in vehicles so that bolts loosen or cracks form in components. Grading removes the corrugations, and reconstruction with careful choice of good quality gravel can help prevent them reforming. Additionally, installing a cellular confinement system will prevent the washboard-like corrugations from occurring.
Gravel roads are often found in cold climates because they are less vulnerable to freeze / thaw damage than asphalt roads. The inferior surface of gravel is not an issue if the road is covered by snow and ice for extended periods.
Although well-constructed and graded gravel roads are suitable for speeds of up to 100 km/h (60 mph), driving on them requires far more attention to variations of the surface and it is easier to lose control than on a paved road. In addition to potholes, ruts and loose stony or sandy ridges at the edges or in the middle of the road, problems associated with driving on gravel roads include:
A 'Forest Service Road' is a type of rudimentary access road, built by the United States Forest Service to access remote undeveloped areas. These roads are built mainly for the purposes of the logging industry and forest management workers, although in some cases they are also used for backcountry recreation access.
Typically, a high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicle is required to travel effectively on a road, especially where large potholes and/or waterbars are present. Switchbacks are employed to make the road passable through steep terrain.
Logging roads are constructed to provide access to the forest for logging and other forest management operations. They are commonly narrow, winding, and unpaved, but main haul roads can be widened, straightened or paved if traffic volume warrants it.
The choice of road design standards is a trade off between construction costs and haul costs (which the road is designed to reduce). A road that serves only a few stands will be used by relatively few trucks over its lifetime, so it makes sense to save construction costs with a narrow, winding, unpaved road that adds to the time (and haul costs) of these few trips. A main haul road serving a large area however will be used by many trucks each day, and each trip will be shorter(saving time and money) if the road is straighter and wider, with a smoother surface.
Logging trucks are generally given right of way. In areas where this practice is regulated (or is supposed to be) non-highway roads with heavy logging traffic may be "radio-controlled", which is to say a CB radio on board any vehicle on the road is advised for safety reasons.