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Masks On, Hands Off (My Tools): Trail Work in the Time of COVID-19

Posted by Washington Trails Association at Aug 13, 2020 08:45 PM |

COVID messed everything up. But despite the whirlwind of changing safety requirements, WTA has adapted our work parties so our volunteer crews can continue to do the work public land managers rely on to keep trails clear and safe for hikers.

COVID messed everything up. Obviously — it's the motto of 2020. But despite the whirlwind of changing safety requirements, WTA has adapted our work parties so our volunteer crews can continue to do the work public land managers rely on to keep trails clear and safe for hikers.

Two of those requirements are wearing a mask when working within 6 feet of each other, and reducing the sharing of tools. But it took a lot of careful planning to land on our set of safety protocols. Here's how we did it.

Happy crew finished up at Sams Walker early in the season, masks on of course. Photo by Stasia Honnold. 


We shut down all in-person group trail work along with the rest of the state back in March. But while everyone was hunkering down, the trails staff stayed busy. They kept an eye on the emerging science, particularly around how to prevent spreading the virus.

As advice about how to reduce the spread emerged, we developed our guidelines with the help of an external outdoor-industry safety consultant and took cues from Washington state government's reopening plan.

As we worked on developing these guidelines, we were also talking to each of our agency partners. Since we work statewide, and guidance varied from county to county, this was complex. But lots of communication between staff, and trust built from years of working together, helped us land on a solid approach.

Giving hikers the heads up that we're working on trail was an early COVID precaution. Photo by Stasia Honnold. 

After many weeks, discussions and revisions, we adopted COVID-19 safety protocols that WTA, land agencies and other program partners are proud of. We settled on a phased approach that allowed us to ease back into trail work as it was safe to do so. These phases determine precautions such as how many people can attend each party, as well as who is able to attend work parties based on staff and/or volunteer status or experience.


Our first work parties in late April and early May were primarily staff. This allowed us to put the newly established COVID-19 safety protocols to the test and find areas to improve before bringing more volunteers on board.

We had fun building a section of structures at Tiger Mountain, helping scout the North Highline Forest project, building a new trail at Dishman Hills Conservancy, as well as other projects.


With Phase 2 of our work in place, we were able to move forward with day work parties statewide, and also resume our important multi-night backcountry trips. These trips are crucial to get to worksites that day work parties aren’t able to reach. Fortunately, with our adapted safety protocols, we're able to send the majority of our scheduled backcountry response teams (BCRTs) into the field.

The crew at the War Creek BCRT in July. The awkwardly-large circle for the tool talk has been conducive to physical distancing. Photo by Gary Zink.

Volunteer vacations saw a little more modification. Many frontcountry trips were changed to car camps at the trailhead instead of group camping or bunkhouses. We adopted a format similar to BCRTs but with pack support provided. We also removed the communal cooking to limit potential exposure. We stayed flexible for trip locations as well — shuffling locations as necessary to meet our COVID protocols.

This allowed us to focus on working in counties further along in the statewide reopening plan. Because of this, and our strong relationships with land managers who trust us to work safely, we’ve been able to offer more than one volunteer vacation at places like Deception Pass and Moran State Park this year — both beautiful locations with great technical projects.

Nothing will keep our volunteers away from power drills. Not even a pandemic. Photo courtesy Karen Bean. 

Cutting back

Unfortunately our youth volunteer vacation program was hit the hardest by COVID-19, and after a lot of deliberation, we elected to cancel the 2020 season. This was one of the most difficult decisions we had to make. Some staff who had been hired for the summer season were able to move to support the San Juan Island Conservation District's youth program.

We converted many of the youth trips to adult trips in order to ensure that the necessary work would still be accomplished, but we were disappointed not to be able to provide the youth experiences that we are so proud to offer. We’re hopeful that next season we’ll once again be able to have youth doing this vital work safely.

Phasing up

As we moved through our phased plans, we welcomed more volunteers back. Now, people with 25 or more days of work are welcome on all work parties, and in some regions we’re even able to invite new volunteers to join us on trail.

It has been SO great to see new volunteers coming to work parties again. Photo by Emily Snyder. 

We're happy to have been able to get so much work done this summer in spite of the confusion and uncertainty we're all experiencing. But it's also hard for us to not be able to see all of you as much as we'd like. As always, safety is our number one priority, and we'll stick to these guidelines as long as it is necessary. But we are hopeful that we can be having fun again on trail with all of you soon.

Want to hang out with us in person on trail? You can find a work party near you by visiting our volunteer calendar. Small crew sizes may make it hard to find a spot, but we’re adding new work parties to the schedule often, so keep checking! If minimum work party experience is required for a trip, it will be listed in the work party description.