Working with Volunteers to Make Trail Projects a Reality

Apr 2, 2020

Carlisle, PA. – So often, the optimistic promise of volunteers doesn’t live up to the reality. No matter the context, volunteers often require training and supervision, and the question remains – is the outcome worth the effort?

For trail construction and maintenance, the question of outcome vs. effort is especially relevant. Trail work is strenuous, with physical risk posed by the environment and tools. It is tempting to forgo volunteers altogether and leave trail construction to the professionals or utilizing volunteers only for unskilled tasks like brush clearing and waste cleanup.

When considering the use of volunteers, it’s important to remember that all trail projects are not equal, and often there are portions of a project where volunteer participation can help the project get done, reducing cost and increasing community buy-in. With proper training and supervision, it is absolutely possible to include volunteers in meaningful and productive ways.

Penn Trails has long been a proponent of utilizing volunteers for trail construction and maintenance. In Fall of 2019, a project at King’s Gap State Park in Pennsylvania utilized a hybrid crew of trail professionals, park staff, and members of the PA Outdoor Corps with no previous trail construction experience. King’s Gap State Park has a long tradition of utilizing volunteers for trail maintenance activities, with hybrid crew projects completed in partnership with Penn Trails dating back to 2013.

Penn Trails work began with a plan and design for 1,500 linear feet of universal access trail for a vernal pools program area. Other projects include pedestrian boardwalk bridges, wall and headwall culverts for the Oaks Trail, 2,900 additional linear feet of universal access trail including a boardwalk, bridge, and program area for the Pond Day Use area and Irish Gap Trail.

The most recent project was an extension of the universal access section of the Irish Gap Trail, including ADA compliant boardwalk sections, turnpike with aggregate tread, and a 30-foot aluminum I-beam bridge.

While park staff handled the bridge construction (including pouring of footings and setting the bridge beams), Penn Trails staff worked with trained park volunteers to train PA Outdoors Corps members on the universal access sections of trail. Tasks including clearing and grubbing, disassembling old puncheon sections, fine grading around the corridor, laying out and staking trail sections, constructing 10’ sections of modular boardwalk, installing the boardwalk sections in the field, and filling in turnpike sections. While the PA Outdoor Corps members did require more supervision initially, eventually the group was proficient at constructing boardwalk, laying out trail, and setting aggregate tread with minimal supervision.

Some things to be consider before choosing to utilize volunteers on your trail project:

  • Do you have the time and expertise to train and supervise them? If not, can you hire a trail professional to train and supervise them?
  • Do you have the correct type and quantity of tools available to complete trail work? What work can take place in facilities where electricity is available vs. what work must be done in the field?
  • What level of skills does your volunteer group have?
  • Can trail tasks be delegated so that volunteers are completing tasks requiring fewer skills (ie: brush clearing vs. staking)


About Penn Trails: Founded in 2007, Penn Trails is an industry leader in sustainable trail design. We specialize in trail assessment, design, construction, and maintenance, with extensive experience with universal access trails. With years of combined staff experience in trail planning and design, Penn Trails has a unique approach that focuses on maximizing trail sustainability. From trail rehabilitation to design and master planning,  we provide guidance and direction that addresses your unique environment, focuses on your desired users and supports ongoing sustainable management of your site as an integrated element of your natural resource assets. We have helped to assess, conceptualize, plan and construct hundreds of miles of trails and pathways.

Media Contact:
Larry Knutson