From aches to zen, this is life on a trail crew

By Connor Swift, PCTA Technical Advisor

Working on a trail crew is always unique. Sometimes the experience is good and sometimes it’s bad. Either way, trail work is an irreplaceable opportunity, and most who do it remember it for the rest of their lives.

One thing is certain: you will walk away with an understanding of how difficult and challenging working on trails can be. Of course, people like me would not be doing this type of work unless it was extremely valuable and rewarding. That’s exactly why “traildogs” (seasoned veterans of trail work) like me return year after year.

So, here is a little background information about trail work. It is very labor intensive! Trail crews are constantly hiking with extremely heavy backpacks, usually loaded with tools, food, water and whatever else is needed to safely complete a project. Trail work requires continuous swinging of tools, moving humungous boulders and rocks, massive amounts of excavation, long and hard hikes and ultimately the ability to endure. Yes, it’s exhausting—but it’s very rewarding at the same time. I like to say that my worst day in the office is typically better and more satisfying than most peoples’ best day at work. Trail workers are blessed with constantly being surrounded by natural beauty. We sleep under the stars, have the biggest views one could possibly imagine and our days are regulated by the rising and setting of the sun. It’s rare that I hear crew members say, “Wow, this is an ugly place!”  There is beauty everywhere and we get to work and live right in the heart of it all.

tools for maintaining a trail

Small tool package for a rock project.

mules in southern california walking on a trail

Getting some much needed support from volunteers and our four-legged friends.

John, from one of the American Conservation Experience trail crews working the PCT this year, offered a unique perspective during his short amount of time working on a trail crew.

“Working on the Pacific Crest Trail is an experience like I’ve never had before. It really isn’t like my day-to-day life in any way. Before I joined the trail crew, I had never been camping. I really was thrown into it, but I figure there are two different ways to get into the pool, test the water with your toe or just dive right in! Usually, in my “normal” life, I find myself waking up mid-day and reading the New York Times and drinking tea. On the trail, we wake up at 6 a.m. and I scatter frantically in the morning just to get everything ready for the day. On the trail, with work sites sometimes miles from basecamp, there is no going back to camp if you forgot something. That equates to spending much of your morning double-checking your pack to make sure you have everything. Another aspect of my typical life that is completely different than life on the trail is going to bed early. I’m a night owl; I come alive in the moonlight. Every job I’ve ever had has been at night because that’s when I enjoy being awake. Falling asleep at 9 p.m is surreal, especially in such a quiet place. I’m used to falling asleep with dogs barking and neighbors yelling. I get the best rest with a car alarm going off down the street. The quiet mountains and deserts are a total change from city life but in a refreshing way. It’s not actually something that I’m used to but it’s a good change. I didn’t think I’d like it at first but I do! Life on the trail and PCT is different than West Philadelphia but it’s something I feel blessed to be a part of.  After just a few weeks in the mountains, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

Over time, trail work inevitably becomes habitual, perhaps even somewhat of a ritual for certain people.  Crewmembers get into routines that soon become second nature. Our routines and how we spend our free time is not just coincidence or choice but it often comes out of necessity. There are many things we all must do and be conscious of to be healthy and happy. For me, an example of something that makes me happy is coffee. I look forward to it at the end of the day and is part of my routine. It’s not a necessity (not yet) but some things are. Stretching is one. It’s very necessary in order for me to stay strong and limber, which is also part of my routine. So, it’s not just the work on the trail that is routine but it’s everything that comes along with life on a trail crew.

Ultralight backcountry coffee system

When you want coffee…you want coffee!

NCCC Americorps trail crew on the Pacific Crest Trail

Trail crew stretching and warming up to start the work day.

Jane, also from an ACE trail crew, described her routine for the day while on hitch.

“My morning routine begins around 5:30 a.m. I wake up in my tent, throw on a sweatshirt and shoes and walk to the bathroom or an area away from camp we call the “bathroom” to attend to the morning duties. I go back to my tent and assemble my various Band-Aids, creams and gauzes to protect my blisters. This process normally takes 15 to 20 minutes and will end with 30 percent of my feet being covered with various types of protection. Afterward, I layer on my socks and put on the dirty work clothes. I finally emerge from my tent around 6 a.m. and start boiling water because no one is usually up at that time. I assemble breakfast, normally oatmeal because it’s fast, and I eat while simultaneously making lunch and getting water for the day. We pile into the car or start hiking at 7 a.m. Our work day begins by setting goals and objectives for the day and how to achieve them; then we break into groups and head out. The objectives usually revolve around building rock steps, rock retaining walls, widening and improving trail tread and brushing the trail corridor: simply put, improving the trail. Did I mention we hike a lot? A large part of our days often are spent hiking to and from the worksite. It may be 3 miles or it may be 5 miles, but every mile adds a bit more to the day (having blisters can make this much more difficult). After our workday, we either cache the tools or carry them out with us. Once we finally make it back to camp or the car, the first thing I do is take off my Personal Protective Equipment (hard hat, gloves, eye protection and long sleeves) and I head straight for my clean clothes and sandals. I peel off my boots; peel off the bandages so my feet are exposed and can air out. By the way, this is my favorite part of the day. Two crew members make dinner and we eat together as a group and tell our war stories of the day. The cooks clean up and do the dishes while the other crew members relax and do whatever they do for the evening. At this point, I brush my teeth and venture to the bathroom one last time before I crawl into my tent for the night. Sometimes this is around 10 p.m. and sometimes it’s as early as 8 p.m. No matter the time, I listen to an audio book and fall asleep hoping my aches and pains are magically gone when I wake.”

The work itself is constantly changing and is always challenging. For instance, my last hitch (work-week on the trail, usually 8-10 days) was intended to be an easier completion of 4.5 miles trail, of which only 1.5 miles remained. Our anticipated work was tread reconstruction, though this changed drastically when an enormous amount of bedrock was found under the old trail, thus creating a new challenge and objective for the hitch. Not only did we need to switch gears to accommodate the new work, but we also were required to haul in an entirely different set of specialty tools for the bedrock. As usual, we completed the goals and objectives of the project, but only because the trail crew adapted, shifted its focus and prioritized the work in an efficient manner.

The weather also plays a big role in the ever-changing work of trails. Trail crews must be flexible and always prepared to cope with weather extremes. One day you’ll wake up with a foot of snow outside your tent, while the next day will be 90 degrees. We cannot control Mother Nature, the only thing we can do is be flexible and work where and when we can. Weather also affects life in camp, which can be even more challenging than on the trail.

Trail crew life is very different than what most people believe. I think it is hard to describe. One must experience it to completely be able to relate, but here are words that define and illustrate our work on the trail: gratification, Zen, strength, unison, purpose, unutterable, people, places, building, results, sweating, crushing, happiness, endurance, beauty, dinner and determination. This is the other side of things: blisters, chaffing, weather, pain, dust, snakes, sweating, sand, aches, wind, odor, fires and dishes. There are always two sides to any situation, though in trail work, the pros outweigh the cons.

Definitely. It can be hard, rough and dirty work but there is something about it that keeps me coming back season after season.

snow in the desert on the pacific crest trail

The unexpected weather events.

moving a heavy rock by hand

Learning teamwork…

NCCC trail crew uses a rock bar to move a rock

…as well as technique.

Support our trail crews by donating or volunteering.

Author: PCTA Staff

The mission of the Pacific Crest Trail Association is to protect, preserve and promote the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail as a world-class experience for hikers and equestrians, and for all the values provided by wild and scenic lands.