Geartrade - Dirty Deeds: Why Trail Volunteering is Awesome
With National Trails Day happening this weekend (June 3, 2023), volunteering at a trail work day is one of the most important things you can do to preserve the outdoor experience for yourself and others. And chances are good that somebody in your area is hosting a work day soon, where you can give back to the trails that give us so much. Especially in mountainous regions, June is a perfect time for many trails to get a tune-up, cleanup, and a haircut after the inevitable erosion and overgrowth that come with the changing of the seasons.
Whether you’re a hiker, mountain biker, trail runner, backpacker, or professional dog walker, trails are a major part of every outdoorsy person’s life. Trails provide us with happiness, exercise, meditation, and transportation, often all at the same time. We’d call them the coolest thing since sliced bread, but trails have been around for millions of years—long before humans came into the picture and started cooking and/or slicing things.
While the first trails were naturally carved out by Mama Nature and early tetrapods, the ones we get to enjoy nowadays require considerably more effort to plan, build, and maintain. Overall, this is a good thing—modern trail design accounts for things like erosion, sustainability, and accessibility for all types of trail users. But since parks departments and trail advocacy organizations aren’t typically rolling in money, they often rely on volunteers to help out with trail cleanup, construction, and maintenance. That’s where you come in!
Never been to a trail work day before, and not sure what to expect? We’ve got you covered, with some helpful tips on how to get involved, what to bring, and how to have a great day volunteering.
HOW DO I FIND VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITIES?
If you’re lucky enough to live somewhere with lots of trails, there’s a solid chance there are multiple local organizations dedicated to stewardship and maintenance. With this being the 21st century and all, most of them are on the major social media platforms. Check their feeds and timelines for info about upcoming trail work days, or just reach out directly. (If you’re not sure who’s responsible for a certain trail, you can often find out using apps or websites like Trailforks.)
However, if you’re having trouble tracking down who’s responsible for your favorite trails, your local parks departments or land management offices can be a great resource. They’ll be more than happy to point you in the right direction for any upcoming volunteer opportunities, and can sometimes even help you organize your own trail-cleanup event for you and a handful of friends.
WHAT SHOULD I BRING?
When it comes to preparing what you’ll need to bring with you, a good rule of thumb is to treat a trail work day like you would an all-day hike, with a few extras. That means a backpack with multiple liters of water, snacks, and sunscreen are all absolute musts. Insect repellent is also a great idea if you’ll be working during bug season. As for the extras, you’ll definitely want to bring a good pair of work gloves, ideally some that will protect your hands if you’re pulling weeds or trimming thorny bushes.
Check with the organization that’s hosting the workday to see if it’d be helpful to bring any of your own tools. Loppers, shovels, and rakes will almost always be put to good use when it comes to tuning up trails and trimming any encroaching branches or brush. (If you do bring tools, make sure they’re clearly marked as yours to avoid any confusion as to who brought what!)
WHAT SHOULD I WEAR?
In keeping with the aforementioned rule of thumb, dressing like you’re going for a rugged all-day hike in the sun is your best bet. Long pants and sleeves are advisable to keep the UV rays, thorns, and bugs off your skin, and you’ll be happiest if you skip wearing cotton in favor of something more moisture-wicking and stretchy (this goes double for socks and undies). A wide-brimmed hat will keep the sun from taking its toll over the course of a long day—plus, you can tip it to people like an Old West cowboy upon receiving “thank you”s from trail users who wander past the worksite.
As for footwear, closed-toed hiking shoes are the way to go. It can be tempting to wear your favorite pair of Chacos if you’ll be working in warm weather, but for bushwhacking and especially for using pointy tools, you’ll want your piggies well-protected.
WHAT SHOULD I EXPECT?
Depending on the organization hosting and what needs to be done, trail work days can take on a lot of different forms. Sometimes you’ll be picking up litter, or trimming back trees and brush that are crowding the trail (or inhibiting lines of sight.) Other times you’ll be put to work fixing berms, tamping down newly built sections of trail, repairing ruts, or solving drainage issues. No worries if you’ve never done this stuff before—there will almost certainly be experienced trail workers there who can show you the ropes. Just go into it with an open mind, be willing to take direction, and don’t be afraid to ask questions!
One final thing to keep in mind is that unless specifically instructed otherwise, you should leave your four-legged friends at home on trail work days. Even with the best-behaved trail dogs, there can be liability concerns for land-management organizations when people bring their pooches around groups of strangers and fast-swinging tools.
If you haven’t already planned an epic hike, ride, or run for National Trails Day, consider seeking out opportunities to volunteer with a local trail organization. Not only will you play an important part in keeping your favorite trails in tip-top shape, you’ll get a chance to meet some of your fellow outdoor-lovers and also stack up some serious trail karma.
Call us superstitious, but sometimes that karma comes in handy just a few days later on that very same trail you helped maintain, when you lock up your brakes to avoid hitting a critter, nearly tumble into the forest at 20mph, and then somehow stay on your bike, narrowly dodging certain dismemberment—or at least certain embarrassment. (True story.)
TJ Parsons is a semi-reformed snowboard bum who now has a semi-adult career as a professional writer and creative. He's a self-proclaimed perpetual intermediate who thinks the outdoors are for everyone, and who wants to help dismantle gatekeeping and elitism in outdoor sports. When he's not squeezing brain juice into a keyboard, you'll find him riding boards or bikes throughout the Intermountain West.
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