So, you want to be a professional trail worker?

As a trail worker I’ve often been asked, “What a cool job! How do you get a job like that?” I always take the time to explain how I did it (volunteering) and encourage the person asking to consider volunteering if they are interested in pursuing a career in trails. Strangely though, almost nobody asks what the job is actually like or even what is expected of the typical paid trail worker.

I can only speculate why and figure it’s something akin to one of those “What People Think I Do vs. What I Actually Do” picture memes that occasionally show up on Facebook. When it comes to what people think I do, the picture that comes to mind is either Julie Andrews singing on a beautiful green mountain top or Yogi Bear’s nemesis, the good Ranger Smith, finger raised to answer a park visitor’s question. What picture would I choose to show what I actually do: a frame from any movie with a scene of prisoners breaking rock under the unrelenting sun. Take away the stripped jumpsuit and you have the essence of trail work: performing hard labor while exposed to the vagaries of mountain weather.



Now if that last thought appeals to you – or even worse, it sounds like a good time – you might really be interested in a career building and maintaining trails. One of the great things about trails is that, as a profession, it doesn’t require the same degree of credentialing as most modern professions. So if you are able to find the time to volunteer or can afford to do a stint on a corps crew, you have a decent shot at eventually getting a trail job.

Now let’s pretend that you’ve landed the dream trails job. What are the expectations? The job ad probably contained a few but they are typically written in the language of human resources, and as such, don’t really convey what it’s like to work the job day to day.  Here’s my take on it:

1) Know the whereabouts of your lunch at all times

This rule came to me through my first mentor and has been something I’ve adopted as my own. On its face, it seems a joke but when explained, it’s clear why it’s the first rule. Consider that a crew member who shows up to the trailhead or the work site and does not know the whereabouts of his or her lunch is in far more trouble than they might realize. Trail work demands physical exertion as well as the ability to make sound decisions in potentially hazardous situations. Very few things affect one’s decision-making ability like an empty stomach. More broadly interpreted, professional trail workers understand that their first priority isn’t accomplishing work, but rather paying attention to and dealing with those things that potentially have an adverse impact on health, safety, or to some degree, comfort. Nothing we do as trail workers is worth a potential life changing injury or worse, not going home at all.  The takeaway here is that proper nutrition, adequate hydration and taking an appropriate number of breaks are keys to success as a trail worker.



2) Be fit, be ready

The best trail workers are those that show up to the trailhead mentally and physically fit for duty, carrying the necessary items for the conditions to be faced. Fit workers are better able to withstand the rigors of the work, making for a much safer and enjoyable work experience.  What level of fitness is required?  See numbers 3 and 4 below.

Likewise, it’s a sign of professionalism and respect to show up prepared for the expected conditions. Trail work is a team effort and as such, the team is sharing some of the risk associated with working in remote locations, so even one unprepared crewmember can have a serious affect on the team. This means checking weather forecasts, understanding the specifics of the project and making sure to have the necessary gear prior to showing up at the trailhead.  Beyond anything specific to a project, this also means showing up with all the required Personal Protective Equipment, with no exceptions.



3) Walk far, walk fast, carry heavy things

The agency standard for self-supported backcountry crews that I see most often is to be able to hike 20 miles at 3 mph carrying 60 to 70 lbs. at elevation. While modern ultra-lightweight backpacking gear can lighten the load, almost every tool used is made of steel and relatively heavy. Items carried can range from a 1 lb. chisel to 18 lb. rockbars to 70 lb. gasoline breaker drills with all number of heavy, awkward items in between. Expect to carry tools in the pack as well as in hand. In addition to personal gear, tools and food, crewmembers often have to carry shared gear such as water treatment equipment, pots and pans and sanitation supplies.  Summary: don’t expect an easy hike or a light load.





4) Do hard work, do it well

There are no easy jobs on a trail crew. Even tasks that aren’t necessarily difficult, say using a pair of loppers to cut brush, become challenging when repeated throughout a 10-hour work day. Because of this, workers are often tempted to take shortcuts or do work that falls short of standard. True professionals see the hard labor as a challenge to be enjoyed and quality standards as a bar to be exceeded.




5) Embrace the suck

Not only is the work hard, it can also be frustrating, even for those that love the work.  Imagine working on a structure for hours only to be told that it has to be ripped out and started over because it can’t be made to meet standard. Maybe it was quinoa hash for the forth night in a row or maybe it’s feet that are wet or cold all day or those balmy 110-degree desert afternoons. Trail work’s bottom line is that it’s a job with demanding requirements, lots of variable conditions and occasionally, downright tedious work.  My best crew members have always been the ones that take these difficult moments to step back, remind themselves that they’re out there because they love it and that meeting these challenges with a positive mental attitude is how they show love for their craft.



Hopefully I haven’t scared anyone off. Paid trail work is by nature, a tough job but that difficulty is also one of its greatest qualities. As much as I might like to show pictures of some of my favorite projects, I’d much rather talk about the former crewmembers that have written to tell me that it wasn’t until they had stuck through these challenges that they realized just how much inner strength they had or how much they could accomplish if they set their mind to it. I know that hiking the PCT can have a significant positive affect on someone’s life and is a very popular concept right now. But I’d also say that committing a chunk of time to maintaining the trail can be equally profound, with the added bonus of improving the experience of everyone that does hike or ride it.


 Editor’s note: Our volunteer crews can be a good bit less difficult than what paid crew members perform. Check it out for yourself at Check out more of Andrew’s photos on his Instagram: @refusnik

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.