The tools you’ll need to stay happy when volunteering on the trail

By Justin Brimer, PCTA trail crew technical advisor

As trail maintainers, we use many different tools to take care of the PCT. If you are a regular PCTA volunteer, you know how fun and rewarding it is to show up—rain or shine—to dig, lop, lift, sweat and get dirty for our beloved trail.

But to keep it fun, we have to take care of ourselves while we’re out there.

We have food taken care of. This is what a trail crew eats over the course of a week. Photo by Justin Brimer.

I’ve been leading professional and volunteer backcountry trail crews for seven years in all four corners of the country. I’ve concluded that the most important tool you can bring as a trail crew volunteer is a good attitude. We all know the work can be difficult and the conditions uncomfortable. A positive, happy and resilient trail crew member is a treat for everyone to be around.

To stay that way, here are a few other items you should bring if you join a backcountry trail crew:

  • A quality sleeping bag, sleeping pad and tent. If you’re a seasoned hiker, you get this. If you’re new to the scene, ask around and don’t skimp on quality. You will use these three items more than anything else in your pack. If you stay dry, warm and well-rested, you will be a happy and productive worker. I have a five-pound, two-person tent, with two large vestibules. I bring either a 20- or 40-degree sleeping bag, depending on the forecast. After switching between foam and air pads for years, I’ve settled on an insulated air pad, but foam pads can be a safe bet for inexperienced backpackers. Again, ask around. Message boards, friends, other volunteers will happily give advice.

Basecamp near North Sister during a recent volunteer vacation. Photo by Justin Brimer.

  • Warm layers and rain gear. Near freezing temperatures can be common at some of our work locations, especially at high elevations or in Oregon and Washington. Many of our work and camping spots are above 6,000 feet with unpredictable mountain weather patterns. Nature doesn’t always care what the calendar says and volunteers who bring warm layers and rainproof gear will be prepared for almost anything. It’s important to stay dry, so choose your clothing with that in mind. Wicking materials dry faster, though I prefer natural fibers. Wool is a good option. For working, I bring one t-shirt, one flannel shirt, one pair of wool long johns, four or five pairs of wool socks, a couple pair of underwear and one pair of Carhart-style sturdy working pants. I promise that you will not need a clean shirt for every work day. In fact, I wear my only work shirt every day during a week-long project. I also bring “breathable” rain jacket and pants. I use the quotation marks because “breathable” is a marketing term that doesn’t really work in backcountry trail work, but is a good goal. I also bring a puffy down jacket or cotton fleece style jacket for evening times. Throw in a bandana and your clothes are good to go. You will get dirty and will probably not have any way to shower or bathe for a week.

Nature doesn’t care what the calendar says. Warm layers and rain gear are essential. Photo by Alex Mackie.

  • Water capacity, not filters. Unlike backpacking, trail crews often do not have the luxury of working around water. Where a backpacker might bring a couple of liter water bottles and a quality filter, as trail volunteers you should bring at least three liters every day and leave the filter at home. On the volunteer vacations I lead, we filter water at the campsite and bring enough for the entire day, keeping in mind the sometimes-arduous hike back to camp. You should have enough water for an 8-hour working day.
  • Boots, head lamps etc. As trail workers, you’ll need sturdy boots. Hiking shoes are not sufficient. Hikers typically go for lightweight shoes that are comfortable for walking on well groomed trails. Trail workers, on the other hand, need ankle supporting sturdy boots that keep feet supported and dry in many terrains. We often work by streams or on steep hillsides and the shoes that are perfect for hiking may not be suitable for trail work. I use all leather boots and they do very well on the trail. You also can carry your boots to the basecamp if you prefer to hike in your trail shoes. And bring a head lamp, even though we usually go to sleep before the sun sets. A bowl and utensil are essential, and a good book or camp chair are luxuries that will make your day. (And keep you happy!)

Justin and crew during the 2017 North Sister Volunteer Vacation. Photo by Monique Schaefers.

Gear is obviously important, but again a good attitude is the most important tool! Thanks—and see y’all on the trail.


Justin Brimer is in his third season leading week-long PCTA Volunteer Vacations in Oregon and Washington. He previously worked on National Park Service trail crews and led backcountry trail crews in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Alabama, Utah and New Mexico. He lives in White Salmon, Washington, in the Columbia River Gorge.