Why You Should be an Outdoor Volunteer

A great way to get outside, stay active and help others is to volunteer for outdoor non-profits, government organizations and ministries.

"outdoor volunteering" with image of a bunch of people hauling wood and branches

Outdoor volunteering opportunities are almost endless—certainly more than you could ever find time for.

Find an organization that does something you love, check out their website for volunteer opportunities and sign up.

If it’s local, you can offer to put time in weekly or monthly. If it’s a distance away, offer to help out for a multi-day project once or twice a year.

I volunteered monthly for a local horse rescue a few years ago. I lugged hay and grain to the various corrals, scooped out stalls and hauled manure away, cleaned and filled water troughs, and whatever else was on the agenda for that morning.

It got me around horses (I love horses). It got me off my rear and on my feet (when I sit a good part of my day it feels great to work hard for awhile). It got me outside and around new people.

Most of my family’s outdoor volunteering has been for our favorite non-profit ministry in northern Minnesota—Okontoe, a wilderness campground and retreat center.

We’ve helped them plant, weed and harvest in their large gardens. We’ve helped maintain their campground. We’ve helped split and stack their winter firewood supply. We’ve helped cut and clear brush.

Back in my 20s I volunteered for two summers there, too, when they used to run 2-week youth camps. I was a counselor one summer and co-director the other.

group of camp kids and counselors from the 80s
My first summer volunteering as a camp counselor (1987—I’m in the middle)

We taught things like wilderness skills, canoeing and team building. Each session culminated in a multi-day canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

How to Find Gigs

Do you love dogs but don’t have one of your own? Offer to walk a neighbor’s dog, or volunteer to walk dogs at your local humane society or other rescue organization.

Do you love to hike? Find a hiking organization in your state and see what they need help with. In Minnesota we have the Superior Hiking Trail and part of the North Country Trail. They’re always looking for help maintaining the trails.

Are you a camper? Check out local parks that accept volunteers to help maintain their campsites, plant trees, be a park guide or help get rid of invasive plant species.

Check with your state’s Department of Natural Resources for outdoor volunteer gigs at state parks. Minnesota’s DNR lists opportunities for master naturalist training, campground hosts and safety instructors.

America’s National Parks use many thousands of volunteers each year from Yosemite to Acadia, from Glacier to the Everglades.

If you live near one of them or you’re an empty nester with flexibility, how awesome would it be to give a summer for that? Or if you don’t have a summer, how about a weekend?

teens and adults hauling brush into a pickup truck
My husband, son, daughter and two nephews helping trim and haul brush at camp one summer when the kids were in high school

Include Your Family

If you’ve got kids at home, or grandkids old enough to bring along, an outdoor volunteer stint with them accomplishes several things:

  • It gives you a chance to spend time together.
  • It gets them outside and away from their electronic gadgets.
  • It exposes them to the blessing of serving others

I was raised by parents who regularly volunteered for all kinds of things, so it’s always been part of my life. My husband and I raised our kids to volunteer, too.

10 Reasons to be an Outdoor Volunteer

1. Gets you outside and active

I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of my day sitting. That’s one of the reasons I loved my 18-month volunteer gig with that local horse rescue.

For two hours I was off my rear and working hard scooping poo, hauling hay, sometimes walking horses…whatever the day required. It was a wonderful break from all that sitting.

2. A great family affair

One outdoor volunteering project has become an annual family tradition—our woodcutting weekend at Okontoe.

The staff there burns wood all through their long winters. When our kids were young teens we started going up every October for a long weekend to spend a day or two helping with their winter wood supply.

They started inviting their friends, and before long we had 15 teens and young adults coming with us.

man chops wood with an ax
Our son Travis started chopping wood as a service project when in junior high—now an expert after many years of this!

Now our kids are in their 20s, and they still look forward to it every fall. They’ll schedule work around it if they can. As a mom, I treasure that!

3. Introduce city folks to the outdoors

That annual weekend—cutting, splitting and stacking many cords of firewood—has been an awesome way to introduce our kids’ city friends to the wilderness.

Some of them had never hiked the beautiful trails, or lived for a weekend without running water, or had to stoke a wood stove instead of turning on a furnace.

Without exception, they’ve all loved it (at least for a few days!).

4. A chance to learn new skills

Almost none of the young folks we bring on our wood cutting weekends for the first time have split wood with an ax before. And they all love it!

It’s so empowering for them to realize what they can do. Most of them ask to come back to do it again.

man helping harness a belgian horse
Okontoe used to run a sleigh ride business. My husband and I volunteered to help out for a weekend one winter—what a wonderful experience, even if it was 20-below zero!

5. Gets everyone away from media

It’s not just young people who need a break from screens—we adults do, too! A few days away from the internet, TV and phones can do wonders for your peace of mind. It’s wonderfully refreshing.

6. See new parts of your state, region or country

There are volunteer opportunities at state parks, regional parks, national parks, wilderness non-profits.

While you can certainly serve locally, another adventure would be to find a volunteer opportunity near a destination you want to travel to.

Our weekends at Okontoe are five hours from us, so we always try to include some local hikes as we travel or after our work days. Doing this has introduced a gorgeous part of Minnesota to several of our kids’ friends who had never experienced it before.

Group of adults plus one dog outside up north—woodcutting crew
The 2022 Woodcutting Crew—some veterans, some newbies

7. Meet new people

Invite people to your own group who don’t know each other yet. Or join up with an established volunteer group.

You automatically have something in common with these soon-to-be friends—your love of the outdoors and your love of serving.

8. Gain a new appreciation

Every state or national trail system (like the Superior Hiking Trail and the Appalachian Trail) has volunteer weekends for trial maintenance.

I haven’t done this yet, but I’ll bet those who do have a new appreciation for what goes into keeping those trails in top condition for those who use and love them.

9. Develop an outward focus

One of the very top benefits of volunteering is focused giving. Remember Jesus’ words, “It is more blessed to give than receive”? Well, turns out—it is!

In their book The Paradox of Generosity, the authors state: “Generous people tend to receive back goods that are even more valuable than those they gave: happiness, health, a sense of purpose in life, and personal growth.”

(The Paradox of Generosity, by Christian Smith & Hilary Davidson, © 2014 Oxford University Press)

10. Create a lifestyle

All these choices—getting outdoors, being active and giving—can become a lifestyle. And a healthy one that offers physical, emotional, mental and spiritual benefits.

teen boy with Canada jay on his hand
Our son Jason (several years ago) takes a break from splitting firewood to buddy up to a friendly Canada jay

Kids who are raised this way see it as normal, and are very likely to keep doing it all their lives. But even if this wasn’t modeled for you when you were young, you can start now.

Let’s review the benefits of outdoor volunteering one more time:

  • It gets you outside
  • It gets you active
  • It gets you giving and serving
  • And one more: It really blesses others!

What could be better?

Here’s more…

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