So You Want to Join the Conservation Corps

What it's like to join the conservation corps in Arizona!
[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!!!!! BUT – I would still do it all over again because overall, I had an amazing time.

I saw desert sunsets like this all the time during the conservation corps in Arizona - they looked so pretty with the cacti in them!
[The sunsets in the desert were pretty hard to beat]
It’s definitely hard work – but the conservation corps is sooo 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 really enjoyed getting to travel to amazing places, but also being immersed in them as well. Like I didn’t just SEE the Grand Canyon, I actually got to live and work in it for a week!

So – what’s it like? (Caution: this article is long AF).

Standing at a trail I helped build in the mountainous desert in Arizona in the conservation corps
[The answer is yes – it is indeed tough looking this unbelievably cool all the time]

IN GENERAL

YOU PROBABLY WON’T GET PAID MUCH

4 people on dirt road in Saguaro National Park in the Arizona desert after a long day working in the conservation corps
[You’ll be ballin’ a mega budget but THIS is your office! Also check out those cool tan things strapped to our legs – we were looking for invasive plants in rattlesnake territory, so we had to wear snake chaps in case one decided to strike]
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 housing (paid on AND off hitch*) and food (paid only on hitch) were provided. You can also go on food stamps to help pay for food on off days – I didn’t but I did take a lot of leftover perishables from hitches.

They also give you an “Education Award” to use for anything education related, like paying off student loans or tuition from a university (and it HAS to be from a university – no using your money to pay for a TEFL course or blog course etc.). I earned $1500 for education the three months I was there.

*”Hitch” is your project that you get assigned to. Hitches are usually 8 days on, 6 days off (unless on a month long, then it’s usually 4 days on, 3 days off, but you stay in the area instead of going back to housing). 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 showed us how to set up our tents upon arrival, 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

Standing with three friends on the Devil's Bridge in Sedona, Arizona, overlooking trees and red rock - where I went during my off time in the conservation corps
[My friends and I on Devil’s Bridge in Sedona, Arizona – 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! Most of 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 not forever.

Don’t put pressure on yourself to have an amazing hitch and become BFF’s every single time. I had hitches where I became super close with my crew, and some that felt kind of ‘off’. It happens. Make the best of it, and enjoy being in the great outdoors.

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 on off days (sloshball – basically kickball with beer – 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…

But if you’re not a partier, not to fear! Plenty of people weren’t. No one really cares or judges what you do with your free time – there are so many different kinds of people constantly coming and going that I’m sure you’ll find your people. And if you don’t, who cares! Just have fun and focus on what you want to get out of the experience.

ON HITCH

IT FEELS GOOD TO BE DOING WORK THAT MATTERS

Working on a trail in the Grand Canyon in the conservation corps
[I liked knowing that I was helping keep trails nice for other people to enjoy, and I can’t complain when I could look up and stare at the canyon whenever I needed a break]
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 (aka planting things) during the three months I was there!

If you want to do different things, just ask! They may say no, but I asked to get put on the Grand Canyon for my last hitch and got it. So you never know!

IT’S HARD WORK

Crushed rocks on a trail being built in the desert in Arizona during my time in the conservation corps
[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. The only hitch I actually had to hike in all my gear was at The Grand Canyon. On other hitches, you were dropped off at your campsite to set up, then you were all driven in a van from there each morning and hiked to your work site if needed.

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 laborΒ 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.

But honestly, if I can do it, you can do it because I am as weak as they come. Also, don’t be afraid to ask other corps members or your crew leader for help – everyone is really nice and willing to show newbies the ropes.

YOU SHOULD LIKE CAMPING & BE OK WITH A LITTLE DIRT

Sunrise and an orange tent in desert shrubs in Arizona in the conservation corps
[The camping sitch was lit]
Most hitches we camped for 7 nights which was awesome! However, on my month long, we camped the ENTIRE 3 weeks save for one night that we all splurged on a motel. So be prepared for that possibility!

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, usually using a solar shower like on my month long. 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 liberating. 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. Sounds gross now, but you just get used to it!

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. I’d advise you to go out and buy some old jeans or Carhartts. I just went to Goodwill and picked up three pairs of jeans and rotated through those. Definitely grab at least three in case you rip one on project (happens all the time).

GOING TO THE BATHROOM WILL BE…INTERESTING…

Tent in the desert in Arizona, surrounded by shrubs and a tree and next two three small trash bins during the conservation corps
[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]
The bathroom situation really depended on your campsite. Some campsites had running water and toilets, and some were on BLM land so there was absolutely nothing.

If the site was on BLM land, there was a designated spot for going #2 in a trench that was dug at the beginning of hitch. A brick/rock was put out, along with some toilet paper, and you’d take both with you while you were doing your thing so that everyone else knew to stay out of the trench area.

We also couldn’t bury the toilet paper at that particular campsite/worksite, so we had to carry it back from the trench 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 in arizona desert at one of our work sites in the conservaiton corps
[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 (another word for “hitch”) 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 any needles so my guess is that they went so far deep into my leg that I couldn’t pull it out (eventually they disintegrate 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. LOL.

You have a certain amount of time you can use if you’re ‘sick’ to take the day off and hang out at the campsite if needed. If you get super sick, they’re obviously not going to make you work, but you may have to make up the time later if you still want to get all the money from your education award.

YOU’LL SEE SOME COOL SHIT

Gila Monster running across the desert in saguaro national park in arizona
[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 (pictured above – 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.

Sliding down a natural water slide in the Grand Canyon
[The natural water slide in the Grand Canyon]
We also slept outside under the stars, but could also sleep in the ranger bunkhouse (basically unheard of!).

We 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.

In our conservation corps (but I’d imagine it’s similar for most), you picked or were assigned a cooking partner on each hitch, and on certain nights you and your partner cook for everyone or clean for everyone. We followed a recipe using food that’s provided, which can be interesting – everyone still talks about chili mac, and the bodily functions that occurred afterwards (thankfully I’m a veggie person and missed that one).

YOU’RE FORCED TO BECOME A MORNING PERSON

Early morning sunrise in southern Arizona - a common sight in the conservation corps!
[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

Cacti, plants, and mountains in the background in Saguaro National Park in Arizona
[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 full of some of my favorite memories from the conservation corps.

COMFORT FOOD BECOMES SO IMPORTANT

Eating ice cream at our campsite in the desert in Arizona in the conservation corps
[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

Hoodoos in Chiricahua in Arizona
[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.

4 girls with their arms around each other overlooking a big canyon with trees and rocks in Chiricahua in Arizona on an off day in the conservation corps
[On one of our off days in Chiricahua; my friend found the pink unicorn and carried it with us through the rest of our walk]
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. I ended up going home to grab my car halfway through, and I was sooo glad I did, because I got to see so much more of Arizona!

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.

Helipad at the bottom of the Grand Canyon
[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]
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 in the conservation corps!

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