How to Pay Your Trail Dues
We all use the trails—but very few hikers take the time to help keep them clean, safe, and maintained. Here's how you can join them.
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Did you know that developing professionally-built trails can cost as much as $15,000-40,000 per mile? Or that it takes thousands of person-hours to maintain trails that already exist? There’s a lot of work that goes into the creation, protection, and maintenance of the treadpaths that we all love to hike, yet our trails don’t always have the resources that they need to stay groomed and safe to use.
The good news: You can help. Yes, you: Getting involved as a volunteer is a great way to offset your own use and keep your favorite areas viable for future generations of hikers. Here are six ways you can give back.
Join Search and Rescue
If you’ve ever been in a precarious situation in the backcountry, you know how terrifying it is to be far away from help. Search and rescue organizations operate all around the country to extract those who are in distress from dangerous or lethal situations. Most of the country’s SAR personnel are volunteers: Joining a search and rescue team allows you to develop new skills, but it also allows you to have a direct impact on the lives of hikers who need help the most. Depending on the program that you join, you may even be eligible for subsidized training and certifications.
Find a Trail Crew
Want to get really comfortable with a chainsaw? Have you ever wanted to learn how to build a bridge? If you’re someone who likes to get their hands dirty, you should join a trail crew. Trail crews do everything from cutting brush to building bridges. Every project involves a different set of skills. Trail crews might meet for a daily outing, but they also commonly head into the wilderness for overnight trips to complete important trail projects, allowing you to pair hard work with recreation.
Organizations like the Colorado Trail Foundation offer a schedule of trail crew events over the course of the year, giving you the chance to pick and choose the ones that sound most appealing to you. Depending on the style and length of the project, you may pay a small fee to cover expenses like food. Those who want to get paid for their efforts might apply to a position with the Conservation Corps or the Forest Service. If you want, you can even sign up for a volunteer vacation with an organization like the American Hiking Society in order to give back with your PTO.
Look for Cleanup Opportunities
You don’t have to wait until Earth Day to join a cleanup. Most cities and recreational departments provide cleanups year-round, making them super accessible. Joining a cleanup could be a good volunteer option for someone who wants to give back to the trails without committing to a regular schedule or traveling far from home. A good place to find current cleanup opportunities is on the EPA’s website. Nothing near you? You don’t need anyone’s permission to pick up garbage: Grab a bag, head to the trailhead, and get to it.
Help Promote Good Stewardship
One of the best ways to protect the environment is by fostering stewardship in the younger generation. Find an organization like Leave No Trace that teaches new and experienced hikers how to lessen their impact. Some Leave No Trace events may teach children how to minimize their footprint while they’re enjoying nature. Colorado Youth Outdoors may also provide volunteer teaching opportunities to those who are interested in giving back.
Donate to Your Favorite Trail Organizations
Not everyone has the time or ability to volunteer for trail maintenance, but they may have resources to share. Donating to your favorite trail organization enables it to continue supporting hikers and trails. Some organizations even offer memberships, which usually involves paying an annual fee to support certain programs. (Looking for a good place to start? Outside’s Find Your Good program connects donors with vetted charities from around the outdoors.)
Keep in mind that donations don’t always have to be monetary. You can donate gear to organizations like Outdoors For All, Gear Forward, and Teens to Trails. And those organizations often re-distribute the gear to under-served communities.
Create Your Own Volunteer Group
Let’s face it: We’re seeing catastrophic ecological damages around the world every day. From rampant wildfires, to water shortages, and hurricane damage, there’s always something that’s being destroyed. If you want to give back to the trail community but you live in an area without established volunteer opportunities, consider creating your own group to target specific issues in your area. This may allow you to meet a need that previously wasn’t being met. It can be as simple as getting a couple of friends together and getting in touch with your local public lands managers to find out what you can do.