‘Volunteer Vacations’ by the American Hiking Society Brings Volunteer Work Crews to Trails

by Ellie Place, Programs Manager, American Hiking Society

Photo courtesy Ryan Nelson / American Hiking Society

This fall, a group of American Hiking Society (AHS) volunteers laced up their boots and traveled into the Tonto National Forest backcountry for a week of trail maintenance on the Arizona National Scenic Trail (AZNST). These volunteers helped to restore a heavily burned area after over 125 miles of trails were impacted by 2020 wildfires. These volunteer efforts are a crucial part of the recovery and maintenance of these popular hiking regions, especially with staff time stretched thin, trail maintenance projects delayed, and visitation at record numbers. These challenges aren’t unique to the AZNST. Volunteer work is an increasingly invaluable component of building, maintaining, and repairing hiking trails across the country. 

For over 45 years, AHS volunteers have been traveling on Volunteer Vacations for a week of trail service, camaraderie, and fun to provide much needed trail service to the nation’s hiking trails, including National Scenic, Historic, and Recreation Trails. Most projects are one week in length, consist of 6-10 crew members (larger crews can be accommodated in non-COVID times), and involve trail maintenance and building tasks. AHS partners with land managers and trail organizations to host around 35 Volunteer Vacations annually. Volunteers have contributed over 650,000 hours of service that helped to build and maintain almost 5,000 miles of trails and topped $11.5 million in volunteer labor value. Nearly 100 of these trips have taken place across the National Trails System since 2006 alone!  

Photo Courtesy Ryan Nelson / American Hiking Society

Volunteer Vacations can involve backpacking into remote areas or day hiking to the project locations. The accommodations range from primitive campsites to bunkhouses or cabins. Each project is rated as easy, moderate, or strenuous and volunteers select which project best fits their skills and experience. Crew members arrive from across the country, ready to work hard and connect with other outdoor enthusiasts. Although these volunteers come from all walks of life, there is one thing that they consistently bring with them—their enthusiasm. When asked about their favorite experiences from their trips, many volunteers share stories about their fellow crew members’ friendly and hardworking attitudes and the opportunities to learn from hosts about the local environment and trail building techniques. Most commonly, the volunteers share the feeling of satisfaction at the end of a week of hard work. 

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy recently hosted a Volunteer Vacation Crew, where volunteers worked with staff to monitor and maintain the boundaries of the land preserved for the Appalachian National Scenic Trail which serves over 3 million visitors annually. The volunteers cleared brush with loppers, painted trees, replaced boundary signs, and recorded the condition of metal survey markers called “monuments.”  The group succeeded in covering 47 monuments and maintained over 9 miles of trail boundary in just one week. Appalachian Trail Conservancy staff Samuel Annabel shared that “[they] couldn’t have done it without the help of AHS volunteers—this multi-year effort, completed in 2021, was an important project for which there simply wasn’t funding. Without the volunteer crews to do the heavy work of trail reconstruction, it simply would not have happened in the foreseeable future.”

With limited resources and increased use, trail building and maintainance needs often get backlogged or remain incomplete. Through the support of and partnership with the National Park Service, US Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management, the Volunteer Vacations program is designed to send a crew leader and crew of eager volunteers, ready to assist with your trail needs. Any Federal land manager, trail organization, State park, or other nonprofit partner group can request to host a Volunteer Vacation. AHS accepts crew requests in the fall, and anyone interested is encouraged to apply. 

Founded in 1976, American Hiking Society is the only national nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering all to enjoy, share, and preserve the hiking experience.

Find more information or apply to host a volunteer vacation at: www.americanhiking.org/volunteer-vacations/host-information/