Straight from our TA: how to get a job on the PCT

Another season in the woods: how/why I got paid to spend a summer on the PCT and how volunteering changed my life (or can change your life.)

In my 17 years of working on trails, I’ve had one conversation more than any other. That conversation begins:

“Oh, so you’re like a ranger?”

I always find myself a bit baffled that somebody would confuse me with a ranger. Trail workers, after all, are a much different animal. Trail work entails all the walking of a ranger, but none of the interpretive talk or dashing uniform complete with polished brass, campaign hat and daily shaving requirements. In short, it’s all the sunshine, hikes with heavy packs, and hard work in remote, obscure locations you could ever hope for.

PCTA's Andrew Fish is an amazing capable trail guy.

PCTA’s Andrew Fish is an amazingly capable trail guy.

“No, ma’am/sir I’m a trail worker for ________ (whoever is paying me to be there at the time) and we’re out here to (brief explanation of the project and its objectives).”

“Oh wow, you get paid to hike, so that’s so cool! How do I get your job?”

Invariably this elicits a chuckle on my part. Get my job? It’s easy, I think, just do what I did: volunteer. Find a reputable trail professional and commit to volunteering thousands of hours of your time to learning the dying trade of trail maintenance and management. Seek out every piece of written information, training session, and work project that you can. Keep your mind and heart open to the possibility that the simple act of giving some of your time and energy to something, can radically and positively alter the course of your life, and the experience of every hiker that traverses your work. So, my answer is simple, really. Sign up as a volunteer!

Getting packed in and our - a hallmark of a remote stint.

Getting packed in and out – a hallmark of a remote stint.

This past season my job was technical advisor for the PCTA, which entailed managing a conservation corps crew leapfrogging from project to project in the mountains of California, often hosting volunteers.

When I met you on the trail, whether you were a thru-hiker, local user, agency partner, corps member or tourist, you all asked me how to get my job. You already know my answer: start by volunteering.

Clearing a large log the old-school way, with a crosscut saw.

Clearing a large log the old-school way, with a crosscut saw.

I truly believe that volunteering is the absolute best way to begin a career as a trail worker. It’s the way I did it and the way many of the best trail workers across the country got their start as well. There’s a simple reason for that. Unlike most of the myriad occupational specialties employed by land management agencies and NGOs, trails is one of the only for which there is no college offering a degree in the science of trail management. More like the old trade guilds, learning trails requires finding someone to teach you and a willingness to give your time.

Fish (in the back) with a stellar, and wonderfully dirty, ACE crew.

Fish (in the back) with a stellar, and remarkably smiley, ACE crew.

Sadly as agency trail maintenance budgets continue to suffer from deep cuts, these opportunities are becoming more difficult to find. A 2013 General Accounting Office study commissioned to determine how to decrease the maintenance backlog and enhance the sustainability of the U.S. Forest Service trail system found that one of the main obstacles other than lack of funding was the lack of staff properly equipped for management and training of volunteers. In fact in my career there have been at least two constants: trail managers asking for better funding and elected officials telling them to make due with less.

This is where the PCTA comes into the picture. In order to meet the objective of increasing the percentage of the trail system managed to standard as budgets continue to fall, the Forest Service and other land management agencies increasingly rely on volunteers and outside partners such as PCTA to manage those volunteers. My season as a technical advisor and the project that I was there to support was made possible by the partnership between the Forest Service and the PCTA.

Working a stint in Southern California that involved clearing poodle-dog bush and lots of other overgrowth.

Working a stint in Southern California that involved clearing poodle-dog bush and lots of other overgrowth.

Truth be told, I wish there were greater funding for trails. My agency trail jobs have been some of the most simultaneously demanding and rewarding that I’ve ever held. Often, the only the only thing limiting what I can accomplish is a lack of the necessary resources. However, in the end, I’m a realist. Rather than complain about how things should be, I’d much rather be a part of the solution by focusing on the resources that are there, namely, you, the volunteer.

Author: Andrew Fish

Andrew has been a trail professional with the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, PCTA and other organizations. As a technical advisor for PCTA, Andrew provided oversight and training to conservation corps crews and volunteers performing maintenance on the PCT. When he's not working on a trail, you'll likely find him hiking one (he’s section hiking the PCT) and taking pictures.