The joys of trail work

Aaron works to clip back encroaching brush on the Jefferson Lake trail

It’s been a long time coming

Since 2005, I’ve hiked nearly 10,000 miles. This year alone, I’ve racked up 700 miles in about 440 hours, and the year isn’t over yet. When I get back from my hikes, I happily scroll through photos, do some journaling, talk up my experience with others and bask in the reset I received from nature. Despite doing this on repeat for years and years, I haven’t spent too much thought into what I have to offer back to nature. The transaction is almost entirely one-sided.

That is, until recently. I’ve always been trail-work curious. But I have also been quick to come up with dozens of reasons not to participate. Mostly, by the time I was able to get out on a hike, I felt like I needed it for myself as a break from being around people, to do what I wanted to do and not to do more work while also conjuring up more social energy. I was making all these judgments, of course, without any first-hand experience.

Besides, in an average year I was spending several hundreds of hours on trails. If I dedicated just five percent of that time to trail work, that would cover a work party or two each year.

Doing the thing

With this in mind, I finally began looking for ways to give back. I started by doing trailhead ambassador work, which I absolutely loved. Then, I picked up an independent monitoring project for ONDA, where I got to visit one area twice a year on my own timeline, gathering data and reporting back. Then, I dipped my toes into trail maintenance and building. And that’s the real heart of this story.

When I’m out on a hike, I spend almost zero time thinking about what it took to build and maintain the trail I’m walking on. It’s easy to get annoyed if there’s a tree down, brush overhangs the trail or a section is clogged with water and debris. But trails aren’t gifts of nature; they’re built by humans and managed over time. It requires regular work from staff and volunteers to keep a trail passable. I don’t mind if a trail isn’t perfectly free of obstacles, but many people do. And some people require trails to be meticulously maintained for access. All of this requires lots of time and labor.

At this point, I’ve spent less than 100 hours working specifically on trail projects, so I still feel very new. However in this short time, I’ve learned a lot. I found out that trail volunteers are really special people. They’re hard workers, fun to hang out with, happy to chat (or not) and share a passion for being outside. I’ve met so many amazing people since I’ve started volunteering on trail crews that I can’t believe I didn’t start doing this sooner. In addition, trail work demands a wide array of skills, so I’ve been learning how to use certain tools and gain a greater understanding about why trails are built the way they are.

In sum, as a trail volunteer, you get a solid workout, spend time outside, develop a deep sense of connection with place, learn new skills and meet great people. How cool is that?

Putting up fence to keep cattle out of sensitive habitat

Cultivating a practice of service

Someone I met recently taught me a new acronym: STP, or “same ten people.” As in, it’s the same ten people in any community who are the only ones who get stuff done. Everyone else is content complaining, wondering why an ambiguous “they” aren’t doing anything about <insert issue here>. That really struck me. I’ve been one of the complainers for a very long time. So how does one get involved? How does one change the culture in a community to get more than the usual folks to show up and get work done?

For me, thinking about my relationship with the outdoors as being more reciprocal instead of one-sided has helped. Looking at my end of year stats showed me that I actually do have the time. And then feeling the benefits of participating has made a big impact, too. But I’ve been thinking about how much more impactful it would be if a much larger percent of hikers played a role in the building, maintenance and advocacy for trails. It would benefit not only the individual participating, but also the greater hiking community.

I’ve developed a decision-making tool to see where and how you might want to get involved with trails in your community. It’s based on your current access to the following resources: time, money and physical ability. It assumes that you are a person who uses trails in some capacity and that you have some interest in getting involved.

If you have:

Time but no money or physical ability: Time is a valuable resource. You can offer up your time to be an advocate for trails. Find a local trail organization and volunteer to write letters, make phone calls, post to social media, attend events and rally others to support! You could volunteer for a position on a committee that makes decisions related to trails and the outdoors.

Physical ability but no time and no money: Just keep hiking. Don’t feel obligated to offer up what you don’t have. Enjoy the trails, go outside to reap the mental and physical health benefits. Know that if/when you have greater access to resources, you’ll be able to contribute some funds or labor to the places you love. If you really want something to do, consider adding a trash bag and/or gloves to your daypack so you can pick up trash on your next hike.

Money but no time or physical ability : You’ve got just enough time to drop a check in the mail or make a recurring donation to your favorite local trail group!

Time and physical ability but no money : Sign up for some trail work! Choose a project on a favorite trail or find a new place to explore. You might start easy with a light brushing project or trash cleanup. Over time you might develop enough interest to get trained in using saws and other equipment to do the heavy-duty work. Most organizations offer projects that appeal to a range of physical abilities and interests. If you’re not sure, reach out to the coordinator and they’ll help you find a good match.

Money and physical ability but no time: It only takes a minute to send off a donation. If time is an unchangeable barrier, you can leave it at that. If you can find some time, you might be able to volunteer an hour or two at a local park or creatively integrate trail work with something else you already want to do, like spend time with your kids or organize a team-building event with your staff.

Time and money but no physical ability: If trail work is not for you, there are plenty of ways to get involved! You can volunteer in advocacy, donate to trail organizations, recruit friends to the cause and share trail work info on social media. Or hey, you can provide food, water or other support to active trail volunteers.

Time, money and physical ability: You’ve got loads of options. You can volunteer on singular trail projects, commit to an adopt-a-trail program, donate on a one-time or recurring basis and/or rally people in your community to join you.

Picking up trash is a gateway activity to harder trail work ?

I’d love your feedback on this decision matrix, especially if there’s something important I overlooked.

Since I’m taking a hiatus from work and we’re spending so much time on public lands right now, I’m making a concerted effort to volunteer, donate and connect with trail advocacy organizations wherever we travel. So far I’ve had incredible experiences with ONDA (Oregon Natural Desert Association) and SECT (Save Our East Cascades Trails). I currently follow several southwest trail organizations on social media. When we make it to Arizona and New Mexico this fall, I’ll know where to go to find opportunities.

Learn more or get involved

If you don’t see any links relevant to your area, do a search for “trail volunteer <place>”

American Hiking Society: helps protect access to trails and the outdoors and organizes volunteer vacations

Discover Your Forest: is the non-profit partner of the Deschutes National Forest, offering many ways to give back

National Park Service: provides opportunities to volunteer in education, maintenance, wildlife monitoring and more

Trailkeepers of Oregon: coordinates trail work and advocacy opportunities across Oregon

Washington Trails Association: has so many ways to get involved, plus tons of resources for recreation across the state of Washington

Disguising a confusing user trail in the Badlands

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