Why You Should Give Back as a Trail Crew Volunteer
This year, I decided to give back to the Pacific Crest Trail. Not with a donation, and not with trail magic — but with sweat, sore muscles, and a smile (most of the time). I lived and breathed caring for the trail from April until mid-September of 2017. Our 6 member crew (plus our super awesome PCTA trails advisor) constructed a completely new section in the northern Sierra Nevada region, repaired fire-ravaged trail tread, and built countless walls and steps out of boulders. The reward of seeing a completed or repaired section of trail is truly awesome. I think you should consider becoming a volunteer for the following reasons:
Gain New Perspectives
All summer, I watched doe-eyed hikers trot their way to Canada, and thought about my thru-hikes of previous years, on the AT (’15) and the PCT (’16). I also thought about how people, including myself, often took the trail for granted. The Pacific Crest Trail (or any trail) is not just a magical path through the mountains, but a cohesive effort from many different agencies to maintain and protect the lands we all enjoy. Working on the trail completely changed my attitude as a hiker. No longer do I just consider myself a thru-hiker, but I am also a steward of the wilderness.
Seeing the trail from thru-hiker vs. trail worker perspective helped me to look at my hiking in a different light. I more readily recognize and appreciate a well-built stretch of trail, and the hard work it took to complete it. It is common to spend an entire eight hour day (sometimes more) constructing a single retaining wall with multiple tiers, and there are vivid memories of chiseling out a rocky mountain side for two or three days in a row. Often, we worked without shade, in the desert heat surpassing 100 degrees F. Even so, I enjoyed every second. In the moment, it can be brutally challenging, but I crave the feeling of pushing through physically uncomfortable circumstances. Most importantly, I miss the bond with my crew, and the fun we had making such a difference to the hiking community. Hopefully, you would find similar valuable sentiments by partaking in this immensely challenging and rewarding work.
Be Considerate of Others (An LNT Principle)
I was a bit surprised to learn that past thru-hikers volunteering for trail work is not very common. To me, volunteering seemed to be something I owed to the trail. It gave me months of enjoyment and memories, so I felt it deserved some love in return. I would urge any aspiring thru-hikers, or past thru-hikers to do the same. We all enjoy the trails we hike, and it is unfair to expect everyone else to continue to upkeep them while we blaze through them. Thru-hikers might spend months on the trail, but we don’t own the trail more than anyone else. It isn’t their responsibility to clean up our mess, whether it be a frivolous fire pit, toilet paper, or damaged switchbacks. Being considerate of other trail users – a key Leave No Trace principle – is one that should not be forgotten. Don’t be a (total) dirtbag.
It doesn’t take months of volunteering to realize the benefit it has on our wilderness areas. I know time is scarce for many, but I challenge you to get out and give it a shot, perhaps for a day on a local trail near your home.
Here are some resources to help get you started with volunteering:
The Pacific Crest Trail Association has programs for volunteers, and offers the FREE Trail Skills College program in certain regions on the PCT. Listed here are regional volunteer trail crew groups along the trail, along with their contact information.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has 31 trail maintainence clubs along the AT, and offers a multitude of volunteer opportunities. Here are a few places to check out: Smoky Mountain Hiking Club (NC), Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club (VA), Green Mountain Club (VT). Also, take a look at these six trail crew opportunities with the ATC, operating in various regions along the AT.
Joining a conservation corps can lead to extended terms of volunteering. This is the route I chose, through American Conservation Experience, as an AmeriCorps member.
Don’t forget to check with local organizations in your region. Local universities may provide opportunities for volunteering through outdoors clubs.
It is my contention that participation in trail maintenance activities among hikers would lead to a more environmentally conscious community. Think about a trail you have hiked – any trail. Is it worth it to you to keep it maintained? Have you enjoyed a long-distance hike, or smaller hikes? If so, I urge you to volunteer. Learn LNT, and hold yourself and others accountable by actively practicing it. If you do volunteer, spread the word. The hiking community is growing, so let’s all work together to keep our beloved trails pristine.
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