From Thru-Hiker to Volunteer: How to Give Back

Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail makes you very thankful for the volunteers who maintain it. All it takes is a stretch of trail with very full privies and neglected shelters, faded blazes that make the path hard to find or eroded terrain to make you appreciate the sections that are well maintained.

After finishing my hike, I knew I wanted to start volunteering right away. What I didn’t know was where to start, and finding the appropriate clubs and people to contact was overwhelming and complicated. Luckily, I live very close to the ATC headquarters in Harpers Ferry and just stopped by to talk to the staff, but most people who love the trail don’t have that luxury.

I worked with Laurie Potteiger, information services manager with the ATC, to put together a resource to break down volunteer opportunities and help other hikers give back to the trail they love.

If you live in a trail state:

  • Search for volunteer opportunities with trail clubs near you.
  • Contact trail clubs near you directly and ask how you can help. Most have trail crews that do trail maintenance nearby. In my experience, they are very excited to get thru-hikers on board.
  • Contact the nearest ATC regional office. Each office employs former thru-hikers who understand your connection to the A.T. and want to help you give back.

If you live far from the trail:

  • ATC trail crews go into the backcountry to do trail work for five-day stretches from May to October. All expenses are paid for crew members and you don’t need experience, but the work is hard. If you and a bunch of your hiker friends want to help out, spots for up to 10 people can be reserved and there are crews that do work around the same time as Trail Days to make scheduling easier. Contact Kathryn “Dinosaur” Herndon (GA-ME 2006) for more information.
  • Check out Jennifer Williams’ awesome experience on two trail crews in the Smokies here and here.

The ATC also always needs volunteers at the visitors center in Harpers Ferry (contact Laurie for more information) and at the museum in Pine Grove Furnace State Park (contact Joe Harold for more information).

A few weeks ago, I volunteered to work with the PATC’s Cadillac Crew doing trail work at and around the Blackburn Trail Center in northern Virginia. We installed steel poles on a forest service road to prevent ATVs and dirt bikes from riding on the trail. It was a great first volunteer experience—just being around other people who also love the AT helped me cope with being off the trail. So stayed tuned for more volunteer stories in the future!

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