[Desert scene from our camping spot on BLM land near Yarnell in Arizona]
Want to travel and get paid? Join the conservation corps!
And yes, it’s definitely too good to be true, because you get paid practically nothing. Woohoo!!!!!
It’s definitely hard work – but the conservation corps is soo worth it and the experiences I had were awesome. The people are (for the most part) great and it was like a ‘behind the scenes’ which I love. I hate traveling and feeling like a tourist – I like to get immersed and get something out of the experience rather than just going to all the touristy spots. So – what’s it like? (Caution: this article is long AF).
[The answer is yes – it is indeed tough looking this unbelievably cool all the time]
YOU PROBABLY WON’T GET PAID MUCH
I chose to do ACE (American Conservation Experience) and was paid $110 every two weeks (a little less after taxes were taken out #brbcrying). BUT your housing is paid, food is paid while on “hitch”* (you can also go on food stamps – I didn’t but I did take a lot of leftover food from hitches), and I got an education award at the end that I could use for anything education related. Some examples: paying off student loans, tuition, NOLS courses, first aid or CPR certification, TEFL certification – basically anything that you can use related to education to further your career. I earned $1500 for education specifically for the three months I was there.
*Hitch means your project that you get assigned to. Hitches are usually 8 days on, 6 days off. During hitch, you’re usually camping, but when you’re “off” you’re usually back home in the conservation corps’ housing.
BUT YOU’LL BE PRETTY PREPARED
ACE sent out a long list of items we needed about a month before our arrival, which was really helpful. They also showed us how to set up our tents, went over what to expect, etc. And you have plenty of people in your house that can answer questions and help you out!
YOU’LL MEET AMAZING PEOPLE
[My friends and I on Devil’s Bridge in Sedona, AZ – highly recommend this hike]
And they’ll most likely be from all over, which is a semi bummer after you all leave because most people go their separate ways, but also cool because you have friends in different places to visit! It’s also pretty easy to make friends – it’s kind of impossible NOT to become friends with people after spending 24/7 together on hitch! My crew and I became SO close on my month long and it was really weird to come back to Flagstaff afterwards and not see them everyday, so we often ended up hanging out the remainder of our time there. You will also have hitches that go better than others – sometimes you’ll become close to your whole crew, some can be a little cliquey, and every now and then you may hate the people on your hitch – but then you remind yourself it’s only for a week. Unless you’re on a month long – in that case, good luck.
AND IT ALSO IT FEELS LIKE A BUBBLE
Everyone knows everyone, people are coming and going all the time, there are lots of hook ups, and there’s always fun activities people are organizing on off days (sloshball anyone?). And at least in my conservation corps, there was a lot of partying! That’s what happens when you work for 8 straight days and then get 6 days off…
IT FEELS GOOD TO BE DOING WORK THAT MATTERS
I loved feeling like I was doing work that would help other people get outdoors more and that was helping contribute to conservation. And I got to be outdoors all the time, too, so that was super awesome.
WHAT YOU END UP DOING CAN VARY
Luckily, I was able to do a variety of different ‘jobs’. I did trail building, trail maintenance, seed collecting, invasive plant removal, and revegetation during the three months I was there!
IT’S HARD WORK
[Building trails is intense! I have no idea how my limbs didn’t fall off]
Depending on what you get assigned to, anyways. It also wasn’t as much hiking as I thought it would be, but it TOTALLY depends on the project. Some require more hiking to the work site, some require less. You also don’t have to be in amazing shape – most people were at least somewhat outdoorsy, but plenty of people were new to it all! I got put on a trail building project for my first two hitches and that was absolutely BRUTAL. I’d never done manual labor like that before, had never used trail building tools, and am not the strongest person in the world so it was a bit of a shock to my body. After my first hitch, I was SO sore and I remember the joints in my fingers and my wrists especially hurt. I remember thinking WTF did I get myself into and how the HELL am I going to survive the rest of my time here. Luckily, it got easier after that – I did trail building again the next hitch, but after that did all the other things listed above which were A LOT easier.
YOU SHOULD LIKE CAMPING & BE OK WITH A LITTLE DIRT
[The camping sitch was lit]
Most hitches we camped for 7 nights (hitches were typically 8 days on, 6 days off; month longs were 4 days on, 3 days off) which was awesome! But that also usually meant you didn’t shower for that entire time (unless you were doing herbicide, in which case you had to shower every time you sprayed. Or if you stayed in a house/ranger station that had a shower like we did in the Grand Canyon). So, yay dirt!! It was actually kind of freeing. Even when we had the opportunity to shower (like in the Grand Canyon) most people did so once or twice (or not at all) during the 8 days we were there.
YOU’LL ONLY NEED A COUPLE PAIRS OF CLOTHES
Yep. You’re gonna get dirty and gross, so most people wear one set of clothes days 1-4, then the other days 5-8.
GOING TO THE BATHROOM WILL BE…INTERESTING…
[Why that person decided to set up their tent so close to the poop bins, I do not know. And no, there isn’t any actual poop in there, but rather just used toilet paper]
It really depends on your campsite. Some campsites had running water and toilets, and some were on BLM land so they had nothing. In that case, there was a designated spot for going #2 where a trench was dug. A brick/rock was put out, along with some toilet paper, that you’d take with you while you were doing your thing so that everyone else knew not to go to that area. We also couldn’t bury the toilet paper at that particular campsite/worksite, so we had to carry it back with us and then throw it in a bin that we would take back to Flag. Have to go during the day, while at work? Take a mini pick with you, find a rock, dig a hole, squat behind said rock, do your thing, take your TP back with you, and put in a bag to take back to camp. Delightful!! Oh and don’t forget to bury your godly gift(s). The desert was an interesting place to do this as there weren’t too many spots to hide and I definitely accidentally sat on a cactus once or twice.
YOU MAY GET INJURED OR SICK
[Prickly Pear cacti is pretty but also deadly – my poor knee and butt are shuddering at the sight of it]
And going to the doctor while on project sucks. I actually had to go to the doctor twice. Once, I was working in Saguaro National Pack and accidentally rammed my leg into a Prickly Pear Cactus. I couldn’t find the needle so my guess is that it went so far deep into my leg that I couldn’t pull it out (eventually it disintegrates in your body) – I had to go to the doctor to get a tetanus shot and couldn’t walk without a limp for about a week. At Lake Mead, I got pink eye – yay! I lost all (read: 1) my friends after that. Fun times in the conservation corps.
YOU’LL SEE SOME COOL SHIT
[The Gila Monster we saw! And no, I didn’t get all up in her grill, I zoomed in and cropped the image]
On my month long in Saguaro National Park we were treated to so many behind-the-scene things! We saw Javelina, a Gila Monster (def the highlight), and got the scoop on all kinds of inside info from the park rangers we were partnering with. When I was in the Grand Canyon, our NPS partner was also cool AF and took us to Ribbon Falls and a really cool semi-hidden natural slide. Which was cold AF but awesome. We also slept outside under the stars, but could also sleep in the ranger bunkhouse (basically unheard of!). We also mostly had the area to ourselves since the North Rim, where we were working, was closed! We only encountered other Rim to Rim Runners and the occasional long distance hiker.
YOU’LL SHARE THE COOKING & CLEANING
It totally works if you’re vegan or vegetarian, too! Or have any other dietary restrictions for that matter. Basically, you get a cooking partner on each hitch and on certain nights you cook for everyone or you clean for everyone. You follow a recipe using food that’s provided for you, which can be interesting – everyone still talks about chili mac, and the bodily functions that occurred afterwards (thankful I’m a veggie person and missed that one).
YOU’RE FORCED TO BECOME A MORNING PERSON
[I saw many a sunrises a la this. Not pictured: me grumpy AF, I’m not a morning person]
On hitch, you’ll most likely go to bed really early (like 7 or 8PM) and wake up pretty early, like 5 or 6AM. I promise you’ll be exhausted AF from the day and will have no trouble falling asleep. It’s actually pretty nice, because a lot of the time you don’t get reception, so you just eat dinner, hang out with everyone around the fire, then go to your tent around 7 and read until 8. Ahhhh, the life.
YOU’LL GET ATTACHED TO SOME PLACES & HATE OTHERS
[Pretty sweet when this is your office; Saguaro National Park]
Yarnell (where I built trails) will forever be special to me, as we were building a trail in memorium to hotshots who had passed fighting a fire there. It was also my first project, and it was HARD. It made me more confident, but I’ve also never felt like more of a failure. By day 2 I was like, wtf did I get myself into and how am I going to survive the next 6 days?? But, somehow I did, and even went back there for the next hitch. I’m also really attached to Saguaro National Park because that’s where I had my month long, met my amazing crew, and our project partners were a lot of fun – it was just a wonderful, extremely fun hitch and some of my favorite memories from the conservation corps.
COMFORT FOOD BECOMES SO IMPORTANT
[Ice cream is LIFE]
Every time you stop at the gas station or go into town, you can bet people are buying snacks. Also, ice cream is essential. Cookie day (Wednesday) is the best. Cream cheese and salsa with chips is a life I never knew I wanted, but now can’t imagine going without.
GOING BACK TO TOWN AFTER HITCH IS HILARIOUS
Everyone in the store will stare at you and your dirty ass self, especially because you’re still in your gross conservation corps uniform.
BUT “DERIG” SUCKS
This is what happens after being on hitch, and everyone gets a job they have to do in order to clean everything up. For instance, you can be in charge of cleaning and putting away all the kitchen stuff, washing the van, putting away PPE (personal protective eqiupment), etc.
ON YOUR OFF DAYS
YOU MIGHT LIVE IN A HOUSE WITH 4584753 PEOPLE
And by that I mean 16. Yep. In my building (and it was actually an apartment, not a house) there were 4 rooms, and each room had 4 people in it. So. That was fun. But it actually kind of was, because BAM instant social life and friends. Basically, you live in your house in between hitches – so I would go on hitch and camp for 8 days, then come back and live in the apartment for 6. Most people had the same schedule, but some people were put on month longs and thus weren’t back when everyone else was. You could also get moved at a moment’s notice (there were 2 other housing units scattered around Flagstaff). Conservation corps life, man.
YOU’LL HAVE AMAZING OFF DAY ADVENTURES
[Chiricahua is one of the places we went on our off days]
Especially on month longs! We were able to use the van (and ACE paid for our gas!) as long as we stayed within 100 miles of our work site. You can BET I took full advantage of that and planned most of our off day excursions. We went to Madera Canyon, Bisbee, Chiricahua, the Biosphere, and explored downtown Tucson. And when you’re back in town, it’s easy to find people to adventure with! Especially if you have a car – not many people brought theirs, so if you have one and want to go somewhere, I guarantee you’ll have a line of people wanting to come along.
[Favorite sleeping sitch – cowboy camping (going sans tent) on the helipad in the Grand Canyon! We often fell asleep way too early to see the stars, though]
And so, if you’re thinking about it, I would highly encourage joining the conservation corps! I had so many amazing experiences that I look back upon fondly quite often. I really miss it (although I admit I do NOT miss living with 16 people, but other than that…), and sometimes wish I did 6 months instead of just 3. But I also didn’t want to stick around for AZ’s scorching summers, so there’s that. Definitely something to consider, as you’ll be doing your work outside!