what it's like to backpack for a living
People are always wondering how I get paid real money to go hiking and backpacking. I never really thought that I'd be a federal ranger in my early twenties, but I can tell you one thing: I don't do it for the money. I want to preface this blog by reminding you that I’m on medical leave from work until next season, so I’m not actually working this summer. Regardless, as a wilderness ranger, I live and breathe wilderness 24/7. It's in my soul, and it's there to stay. Here's a glimpse of what life has been like for me since I first started rangering.
When summer rolls around and I’m out in the wilderness 2-5 days a week from May until October, my life is pretty routine-oriented. I usually get my Deuter pack ready for multi-day trips in less than 30 minutes. I have a whole portion of a room dedicated to gear: sleeping bags and packs hanging from the walls, cookware in one box, first aid kits in another box, headlamps and batteries in another box, you catch my drift. I'm organized about it because it's my job to be prepared.
Generally my days off are spent doing laundry so that I can have a clean uniform to bring on my next hitch, meal planning and grocery shopping for the next few days I’m spending in the backcountry, and relaxing with a beer in hand (shoutout to the best gluten-free beer around: Omission!). Yeah. Even feds know how to kick back.
Actually, from what I’ve learned, California’s wilderness personnel are the most down-to-earth and best people to drink with ever. The stories we have from rangering are pretty damn good, plus we know how to drink in moderation because we almost always have to wake up early to get work in before the hot sun hits our back.
SINGLE-DAY WORK TRIPS
To me, day hikes are almost nonexistent. I don’t even really like them. I can't get as much work done because I spend a few hours hiking toward my work location, get to work a couple hours before having to head back to make it to my FS rig in time to let our dispatch center know that I'm back safe & sound. Even on my days off I don't like doing day hikes. There's just not that much in it for me if I can't fall asleep under the stars or have my morning coffee in complete silence miles away from civilization.
MULTI-DAY WORK TRIPS
Most hikers are amazed to see a young wilderness ranger headed into the backcountry on a Friday afternoon. They love making jokes about how we should be going out with friends and not into the mountains to be alone all weekend. I’m not sure that they realize how much better being in the mountains is than being out at a gross club or something like that, so I usually just smile and keep hiking. My daily commute consists of hiking a few miles along a trail with my full pack toward the spot I choose to set up my camp, and I don't see any issues with that!
I’d like to think that I’m a pretty light backpacker- my pack almost always weighs under 30lbs with all of my ranger gear (I’ll post another blog about gear later) and usually under 20lbs without my ranger gear. When I’m out on a multi-day hitch I don’t think about how much fun I’m going to have or the incredible scenery I’m going to see. I think about how many people I’ll be able to talk to, how many minds I’ll be able to fill with Leave No Trace (LNT) ethics, and how much work I’m going to do. I think about all of the illegal campfire rings I’ll have to disperse, how many boulders I’ll have to move into illegal camp spots so that people don’t camp there, how much human waste I’ll have to bury, etc.
We do a lot of work that goes unnoticed to the untrained eye, but that’s how we need it to be. If someone sees what we do and how we do it, the wilderness would probably be a mess! People would figure out how to reverse our work just to spite us (it’s been done before) or just try to do it themselves, forgetting that us rangers are there for a reason and we’re professionals at what we do.
I work in the most heavily used wilderness area per acre in the U.S., so we get a lot of foot traffic. Our job is to do our best to make sure each visitor to the backcountry feels like they’re the first person to step foot there, so there's always at least one ranger walking around... especially during the busy season. Oh yeah, and the only way to get around out there is to hike, so our legs are strong as hell. Bikes and motorized equipment aren't allowed in wilderness. I'll get into that in another blog post.
I think this might be my favorite part of my job. I love learning about how I can be better at what I do, how I can help other people understand why LNT is so important, and essentially just how to be the best ranger I can be. Here's a picture somebody on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest got one morning at last year's annual Interagency Wilderness Ranger Academy. I'm in the grey pants and tan shirt between the two blue chairs learning about the other rangers (not to be confused with the girl on the right-hand side of the photo standing like her legs are about to give way... I really have no idea how she's doing that).
Basically the academy is a week-long campout of about 100 rangers (most of them aren't pictured above) from all over California. We brush up on our skills, learn new skills, and get ready for the summer season- the best time of the year. Then we go home, do more training with our head rangers, and hike around our wilderness areas all summer. Not bad, eh?
Hopefully this gave you an idea of what it's like to be a ranger. Make sure and let me know if you have questions for me to answer by shooting me an email through the "contact" page of my website!
cover photo of myself taken by trevor lee in yosemite national park