Info for Volunteers
Your map and compass for the Volunteer Trail Crew adventure
On every project, MWA provides professional trail leadership, meals for volunteers, and the necessary gear and tools to get the job done. We'll handle all the logistics and keep you informed every step of the way. This guide will better prepare you for the adventure that lies ahead. We're psyched to have you join us!
MWA Volunteer Trail Crew projects are FREE of charge and anyone can join. To sign up, first review our project schedule and see which trips would be a good fit for you. Consider your schedule, the difficulty of the project, and where you've been wanting to get out and explore. Once you've narrowed it down, review each project's webpage to learn more. Remember, once you sign up we'll be counting on you to fulfill your volunteer commitment, so make sure this project is the right fit. You can then sign up by following the registration link at the bottom of the project page.
If you have any questions about a project or how to sign up, contact stewardship coordinator Sonny Mazzullo at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- WHAT: Typical project work includes constructing new trail, signage installation, "logging out" or opening trails for the season, and maintaining existing trail. Find out more about project work.
- WHERE: Volunteer Trail Crew projects take place on public lands all across the state. We prioritize projects that help address maintenance backlogs of the Forest Service and BLM.
- WHEN: Projects are typically multiple days long and take place throughout the summer. We'll establish a base camp near our work site and camp for the duration of the project. Our summer schedule is released on March 1st and can be found online.
- WHY: Volunteers are an essential resource for land management agencies' stewardship work. Your volunteer labor helps ensure trails remain accessible to the public for years to come. We promise that it'll be a fun and rewarding experience. You'll explore new places and make memories and friendships that will last a lifetime.
- WHO: Adults from all backgrounds and experience levels join our trips every summer. Whether you’re a seasoned trail dawg or a first time backpacker, we’d love to have you on the crew! Interested in helping, but swinging a tool isn't your thing? We’re always looking for camp cooks, volunteer photographers, and packers. Check out different wasy to help. We'll consider youth volunteers ages 13 and up if they will have a parent/guardian accompanying them during the trip.
- HOW: Find a trail project that is compatible with your schedule, desires, and physical fitness level. Register using the tab at the bottom of the project webpage.
- LEADERSHIP: Projects are coordinated and facilitated by experienced MWA staff. Every project will be led by a crew leader with a Wilderness First Responder (WFR) certification, appropriate USFS Sawyer certification. and years of trail project leadership experience.
- FOOD: MWA provides all food, cooking gear, water filters, and trail tools. Once in the field, volunteers are expected to help with food preparation and clean on a rotating basis. Your crew leader will handle primary kitchen responsibilities.
- CAMPING: A frontcountry project means we'll be camping near our cars. A backcountry project means we'll be hauling our gear in and setting up camp after a multi-mile hike into the woods. We'll set up a kitchen with tarp cover, a bear hang, and a latrine. Volunteers will camp together and share meals throughout the project. Teamwork, patience, and cooperation is a must amongst the crew.
- SCHEDULE: Here's what a typical volunteer day looks like in the field:
- 7:00 a.m.: Breakfast – this is the time to chow down, pack a lunch, fill waters, and prepare necessary layers and gear for the day. And don't forget: COFFEE.
- 8:00 a.m.: Hike to the worksite, stretch, and have our tailgate safety talk.
- 10:15 a.m.: Break time.
- 12:00 p.m.: Lunch on the trail. Kick back, relax, and break out that sack lunch.
- 2:30 p.m.: Afternoon break, a.k.a. nap time.
- 4:30 p.m.: Hike back to camp. Hang out, relax around camp, wash in the creek, and take in the scenery.
- 5:30 p.m.: Appetizer and dinner prep.
- After dinner and dishes, you are free to spend the evenings as you wish – taking in a sunset, reading, chatting around the campfire, or catching up on some ZZZs.
It takes all kinds of help to make our Volunteer Trail Crew projects successful. No matter your background or experience level, you can make a difference. Here are the ways you can contribute to MWA's trail stewardship efforts:
- Trail Crew – The backbone of our program, trail crew volunteers are the ones who work on the ground carrying out objectives outlined by land management partners. You'll dig trail with a pulaski, saw out downed trees with a crosscut, and help build new structures. Every one of our projects requires a minimum of 5 trail crew volunteers.
- Volunteer Packer – Much of our project work is located deep in the backcountry. In order to get our gear, tools, and food into camp, we need the help of volunteer packers. The Back Country Horsemen have been invaluable partners in enabling our Volunteer Trail Crews to perform the highest priorty work for land management partners. To learn more, visit our Volunteer Packer website.
- Camp Cook – Behind every happy and hardworking trail crew is a Camp Cook serving hearty and nutritious meals. Preparing tasty dinners and keeping a safe, organized kitchen is imperative to the success of any MWA trail trip. Your support as a camp cook will ensure our crews remain productive and healthy. Visit our Camp Cook page to learn more.
- Volunteer Photographer – Photos are one of the best ways to capture and share what happens on the trail. We need photos for our website, social media, and to document the work we do for our partners. If you take professional-quality photographs and are willing to lend your artistic perspective to our work, we'd love to have you come snap and share pictures. Learn more on the Volunteer Photographer page.
Volunteer Trail Crew project work typically falls into five categories. Some trips will focus solely on one work objective, while other projects may have two or more complimentary objectives. A project's webpage listing will include the type of work you can expect on a project.
- Trail Maintenance: basic maintenance that must be performed on an annual or bi-annual basis. Includes brushing (cutting branches and small trees from the trail corridor), drainage upkeep (cleaning deposited dirt/debris from drainage structures), drainage repair (replacing old log water bars and loose rock checks), and retread (digging to re-establish trail surface).
- Clearing: cutting out dead trees that have fallen across the trail.
- New Trail Construction: digging new trail tread and installing new drainage features.
- Structures: replacing and constructing new structures such as turnpikes, bridges, puncheons, fences, and crib walls.
- Signage: installing trail signs, trailhead kiosks, and cairns.
The feeling of accomplishment at the end of a trail project is what keeps many of our volunteers coming back year after year. Trail work is incredibly rewarding. At the end of the day, there is tangible evidence of your hard work and the improvements you have made to the trail will last for years to come. But it doesn't come easy: trail work is physically demanding and often requires a lot of problem-solving and improvisation. No project is just a "walk in the park." You don't need to be a world class athlete to join, but you do need to keep pace with the crew.
- Easy: Project requiring a short hike and less-demanding physical work. All aspects of the day, including hiking and trail work, can be self-paced.
- Moderate: Project requiring fewer than 5 miles of daily hiking. Work is physically demanding, but can be self-paced according to one's comfort level. Camp is not far from the worksite and there is access to vehicles at camp.
- Strenuous: Project requiring some combination of long daily hikes, demanding work tasks, and a hike into a backcountry camp. Opportunities for self-paced tasks exist during the workday but may not always be available. Camp is often established in the backcountry and will require hiking with a full pack.
- Very Strenuous: Project requiring some combination of long daily hikes, a long hike into a backcountry camp, especially demanding work tasks, and a need to keep pace with the rest of the crew at all times. These are our most challenging projects. If you have any doubts about your ability level, contact MWA staff prior to registering.
Before registering for a project, be honest with yourself about your physical ability. Make sure you are up for the challenge – the safety of yourself and the whole crew depends on it. Reach out to MWA staff with any questions or concerns about the project work. We are happy to match your ability and experience level with an appropriate project. Remember, there are lots of ways you can join a VTC.
There is an art to packing for a trip. Being well-prepared will make your experience infinitely more enjoyable, but who wants to carry more weight than necessary? Below are some suggested items to bring along. Use this list as a supplement to your own experience and common sense. As always, we're happy to help if you have any questions.
- Frontcountry Camping: We'll set up camp right near our cars. Don't skimp on the luxury items. A pillow or two, cold beer, bath towel, camp chair – it's hard to bring too much when you're car camping.
- Backcountry Camping: You'll have to carry all your personal gear in your pack for the length of the hike into camp. These trips are where you'll have to make some tough decisions and make a few sacrifices. (See ya next week, deodorant!) Packers will haul in our group gear.
NEED TO BRING IT:
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
- Mess kit
- Work boots
- Work pants
- Moisture-wicking shirts (at least one with long sleeves)
- Headlamp (with extra batteries)
- Wool socks
- Pair of sacred socks for sleeping
- Clean underwear
- Rain jacket
- Rain pants
- Warm layers (don't skimp, it gets cold in them hills)
- Thermal underwear
- Toiletries & sunscreen
- Bag for toiletries
- Camp shoes/creek crossing shoes
- Camp pants/shorts
- Water bottles (3 liters minimum)
- Prescription medications
GOOD IDEA TO HAVE IT:
- Packable camp towel
- Length of rope
- Pocket knife
- Over the counter drugs (especially ibuprofen)
- Personal first aid kit
- Bug spray
- Large trash bag to line backpack
- Fishing pole
- Camp chair or Crazy Creek
- Travel pillow
- Beer & whisky
DO NOT BRING:
- Cotton clothing
- Extra snacks (unless you have the capacity to store them in a Bear Safe manner)
- Illegal substances
- Your dog
- Your gun - volunteers (with the exception of packers) may not carry firearms per the Forest Service volunteer agreement, regardless of whether they are licensed to carry a concealed weapon.
What does it cost to volunteer?
How do I know if I'm accepted for a project?
How will I receive project info and updates from MWA?
What if a project is full?
Do I need trail experience to participate?
What do I bring?
What about bears and other critters?
Can I bring my dog?
What about food and cooking in the woods?
What will I have to carry to work each day?
What are the age requirements?
How do I get to the project?
Can I leave early or join the project late?
Can I enjoy a beer at the campfire?
Prohibited activities on projects
Reminder about individual responsibility
More questions? Contact us
It is FREE to volunteer! However, we do collect a refundable $50 deposit to ensure that those who register intend to participate in our projects. It doesn't cost anything to join us – and we appreciate your travel time and sweat equity – but we hope you'll help sustain our work by making a donation to Montana Wilderness Association to help us cover project costs. Small or large, your contribution makes a difference.
Note that your time is a valued contribution. Not only your smiling face and positive attitude, but the value you offer MWA can be tallied as a "match" for grants. Thank you in advance for your generous contribution of time and your commitment to paricipate in our projects. (Please do NOT cancel less than 3 weeks before a project and do NOT no-show. This puts our future funding at risk.)
Projects are filled in the order in which registrations are received. Your final acceptance is dependent upon MWA’s receipt, review, and approval of the registration forms. Incomplete forms will delay the process of your registration. Once MWA has received your information, you will receive an email (no mailed letters – sorry) to confirm your spot on a project(s). Please allow 1-2 weeks for your confirmation, as we may be in the hills.
After registering online, you will receive a link to the project webpage, which has up-to-date information about our trip. You will also receive your crew leader's contact information. If you have any questions about the logistics, reach out to your crew leader.
Sometimes projects will change at the last minute. The crew leader will keep you informed of any changes via email or a phone call. Please let us know if you will be travelling or out of reach in the days leading up to the project.
For some projects we have limited space so it's important that you sign up early. Most backcountry projects allow for 5-8 volunteers. Car-camping projects can accomodate more volunteers – between 8-10. If a project fills up, we will still take volunteer applications, but you'll be notified and placed on a wait list instead of receiving a project confirmation email. We have some truly one-in-a-lifetime projects, so if you want to be sure you're on those ones, register early!
For most projects no experience is required – only a willingness to learn. But certain projects are more strenuous and require prior backcountry experience to particpate. It's more fun for everyone if you are prepared for using your body before you join us. Do some hiking, swimming, or cycling to remind your muscles what exercise is like. Also, please do NOT break in new gear on a project or use MWA projects to get in shape. We are relying on you to meet the physical requirements to honor our grant commitments.
It's critical that you read the full project details (print them from the project page) to evaluate your ability level and expectations of the project. Keep in mind that your experience (or lack thereof) affects the entire crew. Generally speaking, the crew will hike, work, and "live" on the same schedule for the project duration. We ask that you are tolerant of the group experience, others' points of view, and crew decision-making. MWA provides a crew leader on every VTC project, so there will be guidance on the trail and in camp. Volunteers are expected to pitch in for cooking, cleaning, and general camp duties.
Each volunteer is responsible for bringing their own personal gear for the project duration: tent, sleeping bag, sleeping bag, personal products, hiking boots, work gloves, and protective eyewear (sunglasses are okay). MWA provides food, group cooking/kitchen gear (including water filters), tools, and safety gear. Check out our suggested packing list.
Keep in mind that ALL projects are in bear country. That means black bears and grizzly bears. Our staff is very familiar with safe travel in bear country and will advise the crew on proper procedures, food storage, and what to do in the event of wildlife encounters. Please note that there have never been any negative bear encounters on any MWA projects. No solo hiking is allowed on MWA projects to keep this record intact. Animals are often drawn to new human smells. Although it's not always the sweet smells that attract animals, please bring only non-scented toiletries or personal products. Let's keep those curious critters out of our camp.
We love dogs but the answer is a kind NO. We understand when you tell us that your dog is always well-behaved, silent, and obiedient. However, out of respect for other volunteers and the safety of the crew, we kindly ask that you leave your four-legged friend at home, please. Thanks for understanding. We know it's a drag, and we're sorry.
Because we ask you to work hard, we want to feed you well. You're only as good as the food you eat on these projects. MWA will handle all the food shopping, menu planning, and packing for most projects. We can accommodate both meat-eaters and vegetarians. If you have any unusual or unique dietary restrictions, we'll do our best to accommodate your needs, but if it's really out of the ordinary, we might ask for your assistance in bringing extra snacks reserved for your meals. Please be sure you note this info on your registration form, or we'll have no way of knowing. If you want to be doubly sure, pick up the phone or send us an email to confirm we understand your needs.
We ask that you eat every meal, mix it up with veggies and meat (if you're a carnivore), and fuel yourself with lots of calories. Running low on energy in the backcountry can be dangerous. Don't be shy about eating food!
Each volunteer should bring a medium-large backpack for work. This should include water (at least 3 liters), extra layers, rain gear, sunscreen, work gloves, warm hat, sun hat, bug dope, and your lunch/snacks for the day. In addition to your personal day-gear, you'll be asked to carry 1-2 tools for work. Some projects require pushing a wheelbarrow, toting rocks, moving sign posts, and other tasks that may be awkward or uncommon in your daily routine. Volunteer crews will try to share these duties. Do NOT bring a small bookbag, flimsy shoulder bag, or fanny pack to work. Bags must stay with owners at all times to avoid accidental damage. Also, food storage orders require you to stay within 50 feet of food in your pack.
We welcome 13+ year olds and 80+ year olds (and everyone in between). If you can do the work and are interested in being there, you're invited!
All minors must be accompanied by a trusted adult and must fill out paperwork including a parent/guardian signature in addition to their own. Supplemental phone calls with minors and parents are generally requested to be sure that everyone knows what they are getting into. Keep in mind that projects are adult-oriented with adult language and alcohol around the campfire at times (though most folks do have a desire not to offend and try to keep things in-check with younger folks around). Parents, this is not a substitute for summer camp; other volunteers want to work in a postive and up-beat atmosphere so be sure your kiddos also want to be on a group work project.
Please consult your project page for directions to your meeting place. For certain projects there is a designated meeting place and time where the crew will meet, then carpool to a more remote location. In the past, we've lost volunteers en route to hard-to-find locations, so please be on time to these meeting points. Other projects meet at the trailhead the night before and start early. In this case, we are flexible if you want to come later. However, keep in mind that these dirt roads and forest routes can be confusing at night. Also, if dinner is planned that evening and you'll be coming late, please let us know so we do not buy and make a meal for you. We also encourage exploring the area Google Maps to obtain your own directions. Please allow yourself plenty of drive time – dirt roads can be rugged and cause flat tires and wrong turns. Do not wait until the day before your project to figure out where you're going. Staff may have little time to help you figure it out, or they may already be in the field preparing for your arrival. Plan ahead!
Backcountry Projects: On trips where we are camped away from the trailhead, this is a hard NO. Not only do you increase your risk in bear country by hiking alone, a wrong turn can be very serious.
Frontcountry Projects: We'd prefer you didn't, but we understand that it's not always possible to make the posted times/dates. If a project is full – or close to it – we will give preference to volunteers who can make it for the entire trip. Any late arrivals/early departures must be discussed ahead of time so we can plan accordingly. Email Sonny Mazzullo at email@example.com to discuss.
There's nothing like a cold beer after a long, hot day of trail work, and it's okay with us. We just want everyone to understand that our projects are open to adults and minors alike. Only those who are 21 years of age and older are permitted to have or drink alcohol on projects. For those who want to kick back after work, please drink responsibly and be respectful of your neighbors.
What about recreational marijuana?
As of January 1st, 2021, it is no longer illegal to possess small amounts of marijuana for recreational use in Montana. However, nearly every MWA trail project is located on federal lands where federal laws are enforced. Federal law prohibits marijuana use.
You probably already know these things, but it's a good idea to mention them so we're all on the same page. These are activities not permitted on MWA trips: Possession or use of firearms, except with prior written authorization from MWA • Consumption of alcoholic beverages in excess • Possession or use of any illegal drugs • Fighting, use of derogatory language, intimidating behavior, discrimination, sexual harassment, or violent or threatening behavior • Violation of any state game and fish regulation • Violation of any federal, state, or local law • Disclosing others’ confidential information • Violation of any of the above prohibitions may constitute grounds for dismissal from the project.
Being prepared goes a long way; do your part and remember that your choices affect the entire crew. Many projects are at high elevations, in remote settings, and subject to rapid weather changes and possible exposure. Participants are expected to assist with camp chores, adhere to safety requests, and adapt to a shared group environment. Choose your projects wisely, based on your known abilities. No solo hiking is allowed to/from backcountry projects. Thank you in advance for volunteering.
Most VTC projects are located in remote areas with no cell phone service. When you join a project you will be out of contact with loved ones, friends, and Instagram. If an emergency arises, here is how we can communicate:
In the field: Every crew is outfitted with a satellite inReach Device. This lets us contact MWA staff, land managament partners, and emergency response personell in the civilized world. This tool is used only in the event of an emergency. It is not a resource for checking in on your family dog or baseball standings.
I need to reach someone who is on a VTC project: If you have a loved one on a trail crew project and you need to reach them, try contacting the people on the below list. They will be able to reach a crew in the field. It may take a few days to reach a crew in the field. Please only reach out with life-event emergencies that cannot wait.
- Montana Wilderness Association HQ (call this number during normal Monday–Friday business hours): 406-443-7350
- Matt Bowser: 406-314-9413
- Sonny Mazzullo: 406-334-7378
- Laura Parr: 406-570-4787