Lake Aloha, along the Pacific Crest Trail. | Federica Grassi/Moment/Getty Images
Lake Aloha, along the Pacific Crest Trail. | Federica Grassi/Moment/Getty Images

Give Back and Get Outside as a Trail Volunteer

Spend a day volunteering with the Pacific Crest Trail Association.

Stacey Lee refers to herself as a “classically-trained” outdoorswoman. A hiker since the age of five, she began building survivalist skills early with the Girl Scouts. And though she’s never thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in its entirety, she’s spent ample time hiking large swaths of the gorgeous 2,650-mile behemoth.

When the 2017 Eagle Creek fire in the Columbia River Gorge devastated and temporarily closed 10 miles of the PCT, Lee felt compelled to help. “I think myself, along with other hikers in the Pacific Northwest, were like 'Well, what can I do about this?'"

She began taking introductory classes with the Pacific Crest Trail Association, a nonprofit which advocates for, protects, and maintains the PCT. They also recruit volunteers to assist with trail repair and preservation. Eventually, Lee was able to head out on the trail and get her hands dirty helping clean up the burn area. And even though tasks were grueling at times, with days spent shoveling endless thick muck, she says “I, just like a lot of our people, got addicted.”

Overlooking Pine Valley on the Pacific Crest Trail. | Corey Jenkins/Image Source/Getty Images

The Pacific Crest Trail is a National Scenic Trail that stretches through California, Oregon, and Washington, with a terminus in British Columbia. To thru-hike it is a grueling feat of endurance. It takes time: four months for some, around six months for most. It takes money: anywhere from $4,000 to $17,000, depending on gear, food, and lodging. And it takes risk: Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed in Wild almost lost a toe.

But while hiking the length of the PCT is a bucket-list goal for some, you can also… not do it. There’s plenty of other ways to immerse yourself in its beauty and benefit from being outdoors while saving your toes and money. You can run, hike, or ride a horse through a favorite section (National Scenic Trails are open to both hikers and equestrians). You can be a trail angel, handing out supplies to those who come through. Or, like Lee, you can volunteer with a nonprofit like the Pacific Crest Trail Association.

People find their way to volunteering with the PCT for myriad reasons. Some have thru-hiked the trail and want to give back. Some want to learn and implement the skills of trail maintenance, which the PCTA teaches for free in conjunction with the US Forest Service. Others are looking for a volunteer project. “It’s become common for a lot of longer distance races, 100 milers, 200 milers to require you to have volunteer time in order to participate,” says Lee.

Volunteers for the PCTA do everything from computer work to social media to setting up tables at trailheads and answering questions from hikers. “In the Mount Hood chapter right now, we’re looking for somebody who does event planning and tabling,” says Lee. “Somebody who would go out to REI or PCT trail bays and set up a table there and talk about what we do, maybe give out small amounts of swag.”

Lee is now a steward, or caretaker, for two five-mile stretches of the trail. On top of hiking her purview semi-regularly to assess its condition, she organizes volunteer groups to go out and clear the trail and prevent erosion. Projects can last from one day hiking in and out, to a “Sasquatch Crew” that spends ten days out in the backcountry.

While trail caretakers like Lee are required to have First Aid and CPR certification, volunteers don't need any prerequisite skills or knowledge. But to do the more dangerous— and more fun—tasks, you might want to take one of the certification classes. Like becoming a sawyer. That means you get to saw stuff.

“A lot of trail sections I work on is wilderness and we can’t use anything that’s motorized,” says Lee. “So we have to do everything old-school. We have cross-cut saws… those old longtooth saws that loggers use. And people love it.”

Because while the main objective of a crew is to get work done on the trail, there are a couple other goals. One is, of course, to be safe out there. And the is just to have a good time. “We want volunteers to have fun,” says Lee. “Nobody wants to come out and volunteer for a day if they’re gonna have a sucky time.”

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She would like to help build dams, so she can pretend she's a little beaver.