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).Native Land Acknowledgment: The places I traveled and the work I did took place on O’odham, Tohono O’odham, Sobaipuri, Hokoham, Southern Paiute, Hualapai, Hopi, Havasupai, Pueblos, Western Apache, and Yavapaiv Apache land.
CONSIDER THE WEATHER!You’ll probably be working outside 90% of the time (there were times we did inside work, like when I sorted seeds after seed collecting at Lake Mead), so definitely consider the weather of your chosen destination. I worked from winter to spring (from late February to late April) which was pretty perfect. I’d heard stories of other groups working (and camping) in the freezing cold (one night it snowed), as well as in the blazing heat and tumultuous monsoons that come with Arizona summers.
And of course, it won’t be perfect all the time. I think I was pretty lucky – it only rained a few times while I was in the Grand Canyon, and it was never too hot. I also loved all the cactus blooms I got to see in the spring! There were, however, a couple of nights that it was super windy and I barely slept since my tent wall kept hitting me in the face.
YOU PROBABLY WON’T GET PAID MUCHI 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 do that 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 $1,500 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 PREPAREDACE 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 PEOPLEAnd 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 just 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.
IT FEELS GOOD TO BE DOING WORK THAT MATTERSI 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 VARYLuckily, 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 WORKDepending on what you get assigned to, anyways. The amount of manual labor and hiking you do during each project really varies!
It honestly wasn’t as much hiking as I thought it would be (for some reason I was picturing 10 miles a day in my head), 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 (usually a short distance) 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 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 just get myself into?! 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 I knew what to expect. After that I was actually put on the same hitch again but asked to try something new, so I was moved to a month long doing invasive plant removal, revegetation, and surveys in Saguaro National Park. After that I did seed collecting in Lake Mead (literally just picking flowers) and trail maintenance in the Grand Canyon. These activities were all 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.
IT CAN BE DANGEROUS, & YOU MAY GET INJURED OR SICKAnd 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.
While working at Lake Mead, I got pink eye – yay! I lost all my friends after that. (LOL, that was joke. They still stayed friends with me!)Either way, it wasn’t a huge deal. I just told my crew leader and they drove me to the nearest Urgent Care.
You also 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.
It can also be dangerous work at times. We had a ‘safety circle’ each morning to talk about how to stay safe every morning. But in places like Yarnell, you may have to be extra careful – we were doing a lot of ‘rock work’, meaning setting large rocks to help stabilize the trail.
We had to be super vigilant so we didn’t accidentally lose control of one and let it fall down the side of the mountain – especially since we were working above a road at times, as seen in the picture above. We didn’t want to accidentally hit a passing car! Most of the time they tried not to have crews working directly above each other for this reason (the trail snaked around with lots of switchbacks up the mountain), but had to at times. If the word “rock” was yelled loudly, that meant you needed to get out of the way ASAP!
YOU SHOULD LIKE CAMPING & BE OK WITH A LITTLE DIRTMost 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 you were camping (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, since we were staying in the ranger’s cabin) most people only 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 CLOTHESYep. 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 (it happens!).
GOING TO THE BATHROOM WILL BE…INTERESTING…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’LL SEE SOME COOL SHITOn 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.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
While on hitch 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).
It totally works if you’re vegan or vegetarian, too! Or have any other dietary restrictions for that matter. There’s a form you fill out beforehand and you can just write down all your dietary needs there. Then they’ll pack special stuff for you if necessary.
Of course, on your off days, you could do whatever you wanted as far as food went. There are lots of amazing restaurants in Flagstaff, and plenty of grocery stores nearby.
YOU’RE FORCED TO BECOME A MORNING PERSONOn 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.
On your off days, you can go to bed and wake up whenever you want! But most people ended up waking up early anyways, since our bodies are used to it.
YOU’LL GET ATTACHED TO SOME PLACES & HATE OTHERSYarnell (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.
And I honestly did NOT want to go on my month long. I had just come back from California with my car in tow, and had no idea where I was going to leave it for the 3 weeks I was gone (I ended up parking it near the apartments we lived in, but I’d definitely double check with your housing manager before doing that – Flagstaff can sometimes have strict street parking rules because of the snow. I went in April so I didn’t have to worry about that.).
I almost asked them if I could moved to a normal hitch, but I’d just asked to do something other than Yarnell again. So I felt bad complaining and did it anyway. I’m so glad I did since I absolutely loved it!
COMFORT FOOD BECOMES SO IMPORTANTEvery 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. And 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 HILARIOUSEveryone in the store will stare at you and your dirty ass self, especially because you’re still in your gross conservation corps uniform. People usually go to the store a couple of times a week if there’s one nearby, or on the way to and from your project site.
When you’re done with hitch and about to head home, you can forget about changing. Everyone waits to freshen up until after getting dropped off back at home – which can sometimes mean hours in the van beforehand! And don’t forget you have to help with ‘derig’ before that, too…
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.
YOU MIGHT LIVE IN A HOUSE WITH 4584753 PEOPLEAnd 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 which was upsetting for some people (there were 2 other housing units in Flagstaff, and these were actual houses, not apartments). I was never moved but I wouldn’t have minded it if I had. I liked the people in the apartments, but they were a little further from town and smaller than the other 2 houses.
YOU’LL HAVE AMAZING OFF DAY ADVENTURESEspecially 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 on off days. This only pertains to month long projects, though, when you don’t go back to Flagstaff during your off days. If you have to go back to Flag, you’re on your own! Some people bought bikes for this reason, as most people didn’t bring their cars with them.
You can BET I took full advantage of that and planned most of our off day excursions while on my month long in Saguaro National Park. 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. 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.I really miss it (although I admit I do NOT miss living with 16 people, but other than that…), and honestly wish I did 6 months instead of just 3. I’d already had something planned afterwards, or else I definitely would have! So keep that in mind – you may love it and end up staying longer! You can pretty much just keep extending your term (they do terms in either 3 or 6 months) as long as you want, or until the age of 26.
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!
HERE’S HOW TO JOIN THE CONSERVATION CORPS
There are many different organizations you can apply to. I would suggest Googling the state or region you want to work in along with “conservation corps”. You’ll find that there are plenty of opportunities!
I’d also suggest checking the Texas A&M Job Board as there are plenty of opportunities there, too. That’s how I find ACE!
You also don’t need a background in the outdoor or environmental field to apply. Many people were taking some time off before, during, or after college, and were often pursuing or planning to go down completely unrelated paths like accounting or medicine.
Most conservation corps have an age requirement of 18-25. I did meet a couple people who had surpassed that age limit, but they had spoken directly to the organization before applying and had been admitted as an exception.
So, if you’re the type of person that’s looking for adventure, enjoys challenges, loves being outdoors in new places, and is flexible regarding your living situation, then the conservation corps might be perfect for you!
After all, the CCC’s (California Conservation Corps) tagline is “Hard work. Low pay. Miserable conditions…And more!”