The next time you’re on a hike, do yourself a favor and look at the trail. Look closely, beyond the familiar strip of dirt or fringe of vegetation. Can you see it?
If you pay close enough attention, you’ll see the detailed handiwork of the hundreds who’ve built the trail you use: the drainages, the rock barriers, the zippy switchbacks replacing an arduous uphill grind. Nature’s power of reclamation is something to be reckoned with, and without constant maintenance, trails quickly devolve into tangled messes or wash away entirely in just a few seasons. Off-trail travel has its place, but largely our access to the wild places we love is a privilege — one we owe to the diverse coalition of underfunded government employees and dedicated volunteers who keep the trails open.
But there’s a secret to swinging shovels in beautiful places: It’s a whole heck of a lot of fun. And the best news of all is you can join in. Trail groups all over the country organize trail cleanups in all 50 states, from blackberry bramble removals in city parks to multi-day excursions in abject wilderness. They’re the perfect method for nurturing a closer relationship with your favorite wild place, or an excuse to visit one you’ve never seen. Along the way, you’ll learn the subtle skills of making manmade constructions blend into nature, and you’ll bond with new friends and trip leaders. Some trips even offer rewards to make charity trailwork feel like a luxury vacation. Here are some of your best options.
Washington Trails Association Volunteer Vacations
Washingtonians are lucky to have one of the most robust trail organizations in the nation. And while the WTA’s detailed trip reports, meetups, and instruction are tailored for locals, outsiders can get in on the action with eight-day volunteer vacations. WTA crew leaders guide a group of 10 or so visitors to international destinations like Mt. Rainier, Olympic National Park, the North Cascades, and the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. As a bonus, volunteer trips sometimes provide access to life-list areas with hard-to-score permits like The Wonderland Trail or The Enchantments. The trips themselves are a balance of sweat and sweet: You’ll complete important trailwork and share chores, but gourmet meals are provided, and ample time for personal exploration and relaxation is built into each day. Food and tools get packed in by the WTA, but bringing personal gear keeps costs low. Tough flannels absorb the physical abuse of trailwork, and a waterproof jacket for the Pacific Northwest’s capricious storms is essential.
Conservation Volunteers International and the Sierra Club
This option is tailor-made for adventure travelers who want to go as epic as possible — and you might not even touch a shovel. Marine life enthusiasts can visit Galapagos Island to assist with sea turtle and giant tortoise restoration projects, and spend your downtime snorkeling with marine iguanas. History buffs can opt for archaeological restoration in Peru’s Machu Picchu or repairing a historic mine and kayaking past ice-choked fjords in Alaska. If you’d prefer plain-old trail maintenance, there’s maybe no better place to swing a pulaski than under the spires of Chile’s Torres del Paine. Prices are steep ($900-$4,000), but the exotic locations justify the splurge. For a diverse slate of adventurous options in the U.S. at slightly more reasonable prices ($200-$1,000), Sierra Club offers service vacations that include everything from bird habitat restoration in Hawaii to urban park restoration and culinary tours in New York or Chicago. No matter which trip you choose, travelers should pack one pant breathable, weatherproof, and durable enough to rule them all (work, hiking, leisure, transit).
Here’s another added bonus to trailwork vacations: They don’t have to cost anything. Volunteer.gov collects free trailwork opportunities for local, state, and federal agencies nationwide. A simple tool lets you determine your window of time, sort through your destination and preferred activity, and connect with reps on the ground to confirm your trail trip. Support is usually minimal — you’ll likely need to figure out your food, transport, and gear options entirely on your own. But freedom to explore while helping out our trails tastes best when we emphasize the “free.” Gear versatility is key: A merino wool baselayer works in just about any ecosystem you can imagine.
The Student Conservation Association
Calling all young people interested in a career in the outdoors: For over 60 years, SCA has built a reputation for finding leaders in conservation. They operate programs for people of all ages, but trips are tailor-made for high schoolers with free summers who can sign up for two- and three-week trailwork stints in striking locations all over the country with people their own age. What’s more, this is trailwork that can eventually pay you: College-age kids can train to become paid field leaders, and these skills often go beyond learning how to properly dig an ditch: 70 percent of SCA students go on to work in careers in conservation and sustainability; nearly 100 percent make friends for life. There’s probably no better way to get hooked on the outdoors.