What it’s like to volunteer on a trail building project (and why it’s important)

volunteer trail maintenance colorado

One summer, my previous day job took me on a trip to build some trail. Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) helps fund a ton of trail projects, but this was the first time many of us had gone out to actually build one ourselves. We were paired up with a crew from Mile High Youth Corps, and with 15 or so staff members out there I figured we would get at least a mile done, probably two or three. I mean how long could it possibly take, right?

Spoiler alert: a long effing time.

When I used to write press releases about these grants that employ Youth Corps, I sometimes found myself wondering, “500 feet of trail? Really? That’s it?” I knew the projects were needed, that Youth Corps is a path to financial independence and higher education, and that trail building was hard. But I’m a little embarrassed to say I didn’t really grasp it until I was out there myself, pick axe in hand.

We were building trail on what was described as an “easy” surface. Soft topsoil with a layer of grass on it, but not rocky and not too overgrown. The surface was also pretty much level, and we weren’t on the side of a mountain, just in the middle of a forest.

After half a day of intense manual labor, and what I thought had been pretty quick progress through the woods, we had managed to eke out less than half a mile of trail. Seriously!

Working at GOCO has opened my eyes to how much work it takes to build, let alone take care of, the amazing outdoor recreation amenities that so many of us enjoy – and quite frankly, expect to always be there.

I see more and more articles written that ask the question, particularly in Colorado, “are we loving the outdoors to death?” I’m not going to get into whether growth is good, bad, or somewhere in the middle. But it’s not debatable that Colorado is growing at a very fast rate. A vast majority of people moving here come here to play outside, which that increases the strain on our natural resources.

An article in 5280 interviewed Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, an organization that, as the name suggests, mobilizes volunteer labor to take care of Colorado’s great outdoors. VOC mentioned that while they enlisted 100,000 volunteers this year, which is great, there are 3 million people that live in Colorado.

That’s a big gap.

(And I’m in that gap, considering I only “volunteered” on a work day with my office)

Taking care of the great outdoors that you enjoy doesn’t take bulging biceps, or really any skill to speak of. Participating in a trail building or trail maintenance project is something anyone can do (VOC even has trips for kids and families!), and something everyone should try.

Donating money to organizations like VOC and the Colorado Youth Corps Association is of course also great, but there is something transformative about actually doing the work yourself.

By lunchtime that day, muscles I did not know I had were hurting. But looking at that few hundred feet of trail winding through the trees filled me with pride, as I realized I’d helped build something that other people would one day enjoy. Maybe it would be their first hike that would spark their love of the outdoors.

Trails don’t magically appear. And they sure as heck don’t magically maintain themselves. Nearly all of our trails in Colorado are built, fixed, and maintained by hand. And many times that hard work is done by volunteers who use those trails themselves.

What doesn’t happen very often? That the other 97% of us stop and think about the impact we’re having and the responsibility we have to make sure everyone can have the same experience that we do.

I hope to see you out there building some trail with me next year.

Published by Laura Cardon

Laura Cardon moved to Colorado as an adult and quickly realized how difficult it was to get started exploring the outdoors in a state full of experts. She founded Outdoor Beginner in 2014 to fill the gap in beginner-friendly content for camping, hiking, skiing, and other outdoor activities. In addition to Outdoor Beginner, she coaches beginner trail runners and works at Runners Roost in Golden, Colorado, where she lives with her spouse and toddler.

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