How To

    6 Ways to Volunteer in The Great Outdoors

    trail-cleanup-maintenance

    Image by Jana Shea, Shutterstock

    We often head outside to unplug and unwind from the stresses of daily life, to improve our mood, get some exercise, or connect with others.

    Interestingly, these are some of the exact same benefits you get from doing volunteer work. So why not give back and do some good while you’re enjoying The Great Outdoors? Whether it’s benefiting your local community, a specific organization, or Mother Nature herself, volunteering outside has countless benefits.

    Fortunately, in today’s internet age with access to so many different social media platforms and groups, it’s never been easier to find these types of volunteer opportunities. Let’s take a look at six of our favorites.

    Quick note: While there are plenty of volunteer ideas here, it’s also important to note that you don’t necessarily have to do anything formal with an organization or even other people. You can make a significant impact on your own by doing something as simple as picking up trash at a local park or on a favorite trail.

    1. Clean up a Trail (or Park or Waterway)

    Access to trails, public parks, and waterways such as lakes and rivers is truly a privilege. One wonderful way to volunteer outdoors — and simultaneously give back to both the environment and the community — is to clean or maintain these special places.

    Much of what you see (and for that matter, much of what you don’t see) on any trail or at any park is maintained by volunteers: clearly-defined trails or paths, signage, clean restrooms, park equipment, and lack of garbage, to name a few.

    It’s easy to find volunteer opportunities for trail or park cleanups regardless of where you live. CleanTrails.org offers several ways to participate in trail cleanups across the country and the American Hiking Society even puts on week-long Volunteer Vacations throughout the year (how awesome does that sound?!). Similarly, VolunteerCleanUp.org maintains a list of shoreline cleanups nationwide.

    If you’re more interested in cleaning up a local park, think, well, more locally. Check state, city, and county parks and recreation websites for information on specific parks, and turn to local social media groups to find out about organized community events.

    A quick Google search for “[your area] park/trail cleanup” will also likely yield several results. For example, “Philadelphia park cleanup” helps you find Love Your Park, a Philly organization that focuses on volunteer events in neighborhood parks and watersheds. “Sedona trail cleanup” results in information on the Sedona Trail Keepers, a local partnership centered around maintaining the city’s famous hiking and biking trails.

    Finally, if you can’t seem to find any cleanup events locally, why not organize one yourself? It’s often as simple as calling City Hall or the County Clerk’s office. You never know — other people in your community may be waiting on an opportunity just like you are.

    2. Volunteer in a National Park

    Through its VIP (Volunteer in Parks) program, the National Park Service offers a multitude of volunteer opportunities. These range from one-time events to ongoing positions, and are available at all NPS sites including national parks, monuments, historic sites, lakeshores, preserves, wild and scenic rivers, and more. Even U.S. territories such as the U.S. Virgin Islands are included!

    To find one-time, typically “drop-in” style events, check out the NPS Volunteer Events website. You can filter results by date, as well as entire states and even specific parks, so it’s simple to find an event near you. If you’re visiting a national park outside of your home state, consider checking volunteer events there to make your trip even more memorable!

    For longer-term and seasonal volunteer positions, the National Park Service lists opportunities on volunteer.gov. At the time of writing, some examples include a six-month Astronomy Volunteer at Bryce National Park, a seasonal campground host at Lassen Volcanic National Park, and a Living History Volunteer for one year at Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site in Pennsylvania.

    Don’t feel discouraged if you don’t live near a NPS site. The Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other organizations also frequently list volunteer opportunities on volunteer.gov!


    3. Charity Walk, Run, Race, or Bike Ride

    Participating in a charity race or event allows you to spend time outdoors, of course. But it also gives you the opportunity to raise money for a philanthropic organization and challenge yourself physically.

    Year-round, there are walks, runs, trail races, and bike rides around the world catering to every interest and ability. Some are more fun, like ugly sweater bike rides or neon color runs. Others, such as half-marathons, marathons, and triathlons, cater to serious athletes.

    Even if you’re not big into races yourself, these events are a wonderful way to volunteer outdoors. You can typically volunteer in other ways, such as helping register participants or work water and snack stations along the route.

    Many charitable walks or runs are well-advertised, but there are also other excellent resources to find events. For example, Active.com maintains a huge list of races and similar events across the country, and TrailRunner.com specifically lists trail races.

    4. Volunteer at an Animal Shelter or Rescue

    Animal shelters and rescues are often almost entirely supported by volunteers. There are countless tasks to manage on a daily basis (many of them outside!), including walking/exercising the animals, keeping their pens clean, and helping out at adoption events. In many cases, shelters even need volunteers to literally play with their animals!

    Your local Humane Society location likely comes to mind when you think of animal shelters, but don’t overlook the hundreds of other local and specialized organizations. For example, some rescues specialize in exotic animals, strictly reptiles, or even horses.

    To find outdoor volunteer opportunities working with animals, simply search “animal rescue/shelter near me.” Most organizations will have volunteer information clearly listed on their website.

    5. Habitat for Humanity

    If you’re good with your hands (or heck, even if you aren’t) and want to make a significant difference in your town, volunteering with Habitat for Humanity allows you to very literally build a stronger community.

    Habitat volunteers repair and build homes and, in some cases, community centers and parks. Best of all, you don’t need any prior construction experience. Volunteers need nothing more than “a positive attitude and a willingness to learn.”

    Outdoor volunteer opportunities with Habitat for Humanity include both one-time opportunities where you commit to just a single day, and ongoing opportunities that last for several weeks or even months. The organization even has specialized national projects including youth programs, Women Build, and Veterans Build.

    6. Volunteer in a Community Garden

    If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of community gardens, they’re public spaces (think land on community college campuses, libraries, or even in the middle of a downtown square) converted to gardens. Community members work and maintain the garden and generally, produce harvested from it is available to anyone.

    Not all areas have community gardens, but they are getting much more popular around the world and this is a fantastic way to volunteer outdoors. The American Community Gardening Association maintains a database of over 4,000 gardens in North America, plus a handful of others across the world. You can also search for community gardens in your specific area.

    Of course, if there are no community gardens anywhere near you, it’s a great idea to take initiative and create one yourself. Start by calling or visiting your local library, community center, or community college.


    Taryn Shorr is an avid outdoor enthusiast, frequent traveler, and wannabe photographer based in southern Arizona. She lives for the opportunity to explore The Great Outdoors, both at home and in new destinations, and firmly believes that nature is a form of both therapy and religion.

    Share This Article