Trail Maintenance Volunteer

Insider Info

When Jim Hooper maintains trails, people are often in disbelief. Not because of what he's doing -- everyone likes a clean, well-maintained trail. It's because they can't believe he's not getting paid for what he does.

"People ask us who we are working for," says Hooper. He is the trails chair of the York Hiking Club and president of the Mason-Dixon Trail System in Pennsylvania. "A lot of people can not conceive that we do it for free!" He says that inexperienced hikers don't realize that trails are maintained by volunteers.

Volunteers do it for free because they love the work. Trail maintenance gets volunteers outside and connects them with nature. It is also a great way to meet people.

Volunteer trail maintenance workers help keep hiking and biking trails clean and in usable shape. Although some cities employ people to do this, lots of trail maintenance is done by volunteers -- by people who just love the outdoors and enjoy nature.

Trail maintenance involves many things: cleaning up garbage, digging, helping the trails keep their shape, painting boundary lines along the sides of the trails. Basically, it involves keeping the trails in good condition.

Trail maintenance can also be a pretty serious job: moving heavy rocks and negotiating with landowners to keep the trails protected can be tough work! But that tough work is often rewarding.

Hooper says the York Hiking Club has no paid employees. The number of volunteers he has varies.

"I do not have a headcount of the total number of volunteers," he says. "We get up to eight people at a time. The two times that we exceeded that number was when a college decided to send some volunteers. In those cases, we got up to 18 people out.

"We were doing the hardest maintenance job on those two occasions. We were doing boundary painting, which involves walking the boundary of national park service land with a can of paint. The boundary is on a steep slope with loose rocks and briars. Neither college group came back to join us again!"

But most volunteers do come back time and time again. Volunteers are vital to outdoors clubs.

"It is important for our club to have people volunteer their time because if they didn't, we could not function," says Louise Melnik. Melnik is social co-chairperson of the Cleveland Hiking Club in Cleveland, Ohio.

"Our dues are minimal, so it is not even considered to have any of the positions as paid positions. Most of the people in our club are older and many are retired from their jobs, so they are looking for something interesting and important for themselves, and the hiking club provides them with the exercise and entertainment they are needing. Volunteering is just a part of that to keep the club going."

Often, you'll have to pay dues (or "fees") to be a volunteer. This is a small amount of money that helps keep the clubs running. For example, at the Cleveland Hiking Club, dues are about $30 a year.

There is no age restriction to volunteering at Hooper's club, but younger children have to work with an adult.

Mari Zagarins is the membership and volunteer coordinator of the Green Mountain Club in Vermont. The club has over 800 volunteers.

"The Green Mountain Club's volunteers offer limitless services for the Long Trail [the oldest long-distance trail in the U.S.] and the club," she says, "including restoring and repairing shelters, performing trail maintenance and protecting against erosion on the trail, educating visitors, sitting on Green Mountain Club committees, and stuffing envelopes in the office at headquarters. Volunteers ensure that the Long Trail remains a vital natural and historic landmark in Vermont."

Stuffing envelopes? It's true: you can help maintain trails in ways that don't involve grueling physical work. This is great news for those who have physical limitations but still want to get involved. You could be involved in website maintenance, office work, even keeping tools clean... a wide range of activities that all result in better trails.

Many of the people who volunteer to maintain trails have hiked or biked trails during their lives. They want to give back.

"I initially got involved to pay back for all the trails I hiked on that were maintained by other people," says Hooper. "I have been doing it for over 30 years. Volunteers in Pennsylvania spend between 30,000 to 40,000 hours a year doing volunteer trail work."

During those hours out on the trail you can bet that some exciting things happen.

"Our volunteer caretakers receive training and learn about the fragile, rare and endangered plants on the rocky, exposed summits of the Green Mountains," says Zagarins. "Long Trail patrol workers learn exciting new terms, such as the 'circle of death,' and handle pick mattocks and rock bars [tools] on a daily basis."

"Circle of death?!" Don't worry: it's not as bad as it sounds. It's just the area where volunteers swing around tools like pick mattocks while working.

Melnik has a funny -- and exciting -- story that happened at her club's cabin.

"We had a group out at the cabin cleaning and preparing for the evening event when one of the men ran into the cabin, breathless with excitement," she says. "He had been clearing out the cobwebs in the outhouses, and as he was leaving them and walking along the path back toward the cabin, he heard a crackling noise.

"He turned around to see where the noise was coming from, and couldn't believe his eyes as he watched a tree about a foot in diameter slowly fall to the ground, missing him and the outhouses by inches! The tree was a blooming cucumber tree, and it fell slowly because of being uprooted.

"Since the tree was so large, it could not be moved," she adds. "And we were not able to cut it up and clear it out until the following Tuesday. So, anyone using the outhouses at the evening function had to climb over the tree."

How to Get Involved

Kit Griffin is the coordinator of an introduction-to-climbing program. Griffin says it's easy to get involved as a trail maintenance volunteer. Just sign up, go to some meetings and be proactive in joining trips.

"Clubs are whatever you put in to it," he says. "That may sound trite, but there is no benefit in sitting back expecting the phone to ring."

Most clubs have websites where you can sign up. Just search for your city and the words "hiking club" or "trail maintenance" and see what you can find! Or, check your phone book and give them a call.

Griffin adds that it's important to get some hiking under your belt before you start volunteering for trail maintenance. These clubs can also help with that.

"Mountaineering is all about hiking upward, and some training is essential," he says.


Trail Maintenance & Management
Find lots of articles relating to trail maintenance

Green Mountain Club
A Vermont-based mountain club

Pacific Crest Trail
Find out what you can learn for a Trail Skill College

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