Volunteer to Make a Difference with Outdoor Ministries

A great way to get outside and be active, build community and help others is to volunteer for outdoor camps, ministries and businesses.

"Outdoor volunteering" with image of a bunch of people splitting wood, piles of logs and split wood around them

Larger organizations usually have a volunteer coordinator (either paid or volunteer!), a volunteer application process and volunteer events that are already coordinated and on volunteer calendars.

Smaller non-profits and businesses often run a more flexible program based on their staff size and needs—whether by preference or necessity.

Beyond the common “indoor” help (computer work, website help, social media, customer service, bookkeeping, tech, special events, et cetera) many of them also rely on volunteers for all kinds of outdoor tasks. 

Whichever organizations you’d love to work with, volunteering is the perfect way to plug in when and where you can. It can be seasonal, gear-related, grounds-related, animal-related, maybe some trail and campsite maintenance, firewood processing…the list can be endless.

My family and I (my husband, our three now-adult kids and their families) have made this part of our lifestyle since forever ago. And it’s one of the most fulfilling things we do, especially since we love to do it together.

two men work at chainsawing a fall tree in the woods
My husband and son chainsaw a fallen tree in camp

What Can Outdoor Volunteering Look Like?

If it’s local, you can offer to put time in weekly or monthly. If it’s not local, offer to help out for a multi-day project once or twice a year.

Some outdoor volunteer projects are best for large groups, others for just a handful of people. Some would love to have school groups help out, some only use adult volunteers. 

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 the morning I was there.

It was a great option because 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 a while). 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 family campground and Christian retreat center.

We’ve helped them plant, weed and harvest in their large community garden. We’ve helped maintain their campground. We’ve helped split and stack their winter firewood supply. We’ve helped cut and clear brush, and remove dead trees near campsites.

Often these volunteer projects have been an add-on to a long weekend or week of camping up there anyway.

When I was 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.

A few years ago I was able to fill an ongoing (remote) volunteer position with an outdoor ministry until they were able to get someone full-time in their office.

How to Find Outdoor Volunteer Gigs

We love volunteering for Okontoe because we can share fellowship, help behind the scenes at a Christ-based organization and freely talk about our faith with both staff and co-volunteers.

Christian kids camps and outdoor ministries near you, or ones you’re already connected with, are natural places to consider.

The first step is to reach out and see where they need help and what specific skills they look for. If they have a volunteer program in place, follow the procedure to get your name on the list. If not, get in touch and ask.

They don’t have to be too near if you can pull off an occasional multi-day trip like we do for Okontoe—which is a five-hour drive away. Now that we’re empty nesters, I’d even consider going across the country to volunteer for a week at a ministry I want to support.

There’s also much to be said for being salt and light in the broader community. Especially if your spiritual gifts are bent towards evangelism.

two young moms stack wood
These two young moms (our daughter Jamie on the right) brought their babies along and are both pregnant with Baby #2 in this photo—they’re helping stack wood during naptime

Examples of Outdoor Volunteer Opportunities

Wherever you decide to focus your volunteer efforts there are numerous opportunities:

  • 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 animal shelter or 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, part of the North Country Trail and the portage system in the Boundary Waters. They’re always looking for help with trail work—maintaining, trimming, removing fallen trees and more.
  • 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. Many campgrounds, both public and private, need a campground host during their camping season. 
  • 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 Park Service uses 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?
  • Resorts and lodges in wilderness areas often can use volunteer help pre- and post-season. Just ask!

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 doing hands-on activities.
  • It gets the kids outside and away from their electronic gadgets. 
  • It exposes them to the blessing of serving others. The more you do it, the more of a lifestyle it becomes.
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

I was raised by parents who regularly volunteered for all kinds of things, so it’s always been part of my life. My husband was also raised that way, and we raised our kids to volunteer with us as they grew up. Now it’s ingrained in their lives and will be part of their own children’s growing-up years.

This kind of generational giving is amazing! I’m so thankful for the example we had and the example we can be.

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 poop, hauling hay, sometimes walking horses…whatever the day required. It was a wonderful break from all that sitting.

Our Okontoe events keep us outside for 3-4 days straight in all kinds of weather (even snow). That’s even better.

man chops wood with an ax
Our son Travis started chopping wood as a service project when in junior high—now he’s an expert after many years of this! (he’s still in high school in this photo)

2. A great family affair

One outdoor volunteering project has become an annual family tradition—what we call 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 process their winter wood supply. 

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

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!

This year (2023) even our 15-month-old grandson came along, as well as the 11-month-old daughter of one of our long-standing participants. These folks who were young kids when they started are now bringing their own families. What a joy!

group of young people in a trailer in a wooded camp
Volunteers and staff get to work together

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.

While we’ve had plenty of beautiful sunshine and blue skies over the years, we’ve also worked in rain, cold and snow—something most of them wouldn’t do at home.

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

4. A chance to learn new skills

Almost none of the first-time participants we bring on our Woodcutting Weekends have split wood with an ax before. And they all love it! Especially the guys, but many of the girls too.

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

Many of the available opportunities for outdoor volunteering can include learning new skills you can then use in your day-to-day life…or just for fun.

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.

Not every outdoor volunteer gig will be media-free. But it’s sure nice to get them when we can.

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

There are volunteer opportunities at state parks, regional parks, national parks, wilderness ministries—all over the US and some international ones.

While you can certainly serve locally, another adventure would be to find a volunteer opportunity located in a destination you want to travel to. Add an extra day or two to take advantage of the outdoor recreation opportunities there.

four smiling hikers in autumn
My husband and I showing these sisters a favorite Minnesota spot they hadn’t seen yet, on our way to a volunteer weekend

Our weekends at Okontoe are five hours from us, so we always try to include some local hikes before 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.

If the ministry or business you want to volunteer for has overnight accommodations it always helps. But even if they don’t, you can usually find a nearby campground or short-term rental to keep your trip within budget.

7. Meet new people

Invite people to your own group who don’t know each other yet. Most of the folks who come with us to Okontoe are part of our local church. Some of them are new and don’t know that many people yet, so these are great weekends for mingling.

Or you can join up with an established volunteer group. Either way, you’re bound to meet new people.

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

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

Volunteering for an outdoor ministry is also a wonderful way to get to know the staff. You never know how God will use these connections in the future!

8. Gain a new appreciation

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

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

Every time we come back from our Wood Weekend we gain a new appreciation for our furnace and indoor plumbing, haha!

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 (in 2012 as a high schooler) 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 last time:

  • It’s a great opportunity to get outside…
  • It gets you active…
  • It’s a wonderful way to give to and serve others. What a blessing for them!
  • And it’s a blessing for you and others you bring along.

What could be better?

Here’s more…

Sharon Brodin
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