Trails for everyone, forever
The skills we teach our crew leaders and volunteers can help cultivate a more welcoming trail community — whether on a work party or just out on your own. By Janée Romesberg
Safety, fun and work — in that order — has been the WTA trail maintenance motto since our program was founded over 25 years ago. Volunteers and staff have worked hard over those years to develop a culture of safety. Physical safety is relatively straightforward — keep the sharp ends of all tools away from all body parts (yours and others) and be aware of your surroundings.
But tripping over a tool left in the middle of the trail is not the only kind of injury we’re concerned about on a work party. Emotional and mental safety are just as important, but these types of injuries are often harder to identify and uncomfortable to address.
We’ve responded to reports from work parties about a volunteer demeaning another volunteer’s nationality, and recurring instances where women are given less technically demanding projects. These experiences can be harmful even if the injury isn’t visible, and we strive to prevent them. When they do occur, we strive to address them with as much determination and care as we do for physical injuries. To help our crew leaders respond to all kinds of injuries, we offer training in emergency response, group management and how to address bias, like unwelcome jokes and comments or stereotyping, on trail.
When physical, emotional and mental safety are given equal consideration, it’s possible to create an environment where people can bring their full selves to a work party and have a safe and rewarding experience. This culture of safety — of compassion and care for each other — can extend beyond trail work and into your personal hiking practice and daily life. Here’s how.
Good situational awareness is crucial on a work party. The crew checks the project site for hazards when they arrive on trail, and they keep an eye out for new hazards throughout the day. Crew leaders in particular need to recognize potential dangers to the group as a whole — like dead standing trees in a windstorm or crews working with large rocks on switchbacks above other crew members — so we offer trainings that develop these awareness skills.
Situational awareness is vital for mental and emotional safety too. One of a crew leader’s core responsibilities is creating a welcoming environment for the entire crew. This means greeting volunteers as they arrive and learning their names. But creating a welcoming space also requires tuning into social interactions, recognizing potentially harmful, often subtle, actions and stepping in to address them when they occur.
These subtle interactions happen outside of work parties, too. Assumptions about a person’s hiking experience or ability based on their body type or size; expressions of surprise when seeing a hiker of color; or comments about safety to women hiking alone are just a few ways bias can creep into on-trail encounters. Hikers can increase their situational awareness by researching unconscious bias and microaggressions, then evaluating their own interactions with other hikers. Only when you can recognize biases in yourself and others can you start to avoid and address this type of harm.
Crew leaders carry big packs full of everything they might need to keep volunteers physically safe — extra gloves and warm layers, a first-aid kit, a radio for additional help. What you won’t see is the suite of tools these folks have for maintaining a crew’s emotional and mental safety. It is important that our crew leaders recognize and interrupt situations that put volunteers’ mental safety at risk. But it can be intimidating to speak up in these situations, so to help crew leaders prepare for moments like this, WTA offers recurring leadership trainings where crew leaders are able to practice realistic scenarios in the field. Over the course of the day, they are given scenarios (some of which have occurred during past WTA events) to work through just as they would on a real work party. After each scenario, leaders discuss how it went and continue practicing strategies that will help them speak up and interrupt bias in the future.
You may not be able to attend a trail maintenance leadership training, but you can create your own opportunities to practice scenarios. Spend some time reflecting on past situations where you witnessed racism or bias and were unable to or chose not to act. Think about what you could have said or done differently. Don’t waste energy feeling guilty about these missed opportunities! Instead, refocus that energy into preparing yourself to respond in the future. If you feel comfortable, talk about what you’ve learned with a friend.
No matter how strong our culture of safety is, occasionally crew leaders need to respond to an injury. They’re prepared to respond to physical injuries with first-aid certifications, carrying a first-aid kit and having systems in place for addressing emergencies.
As a hiker, you likely carry a first aid kit too, and may even remember that the main goals of first aid are to preserve life, prevent further injury and promote recovery. These goals also apply to mental and emotional safety. Microaggressions can cause significant damage to mental health (sometimes the example used is “death by a thousand cuts”). Continually facing bias can make a joyful activity, like hiking, exhausting, and enough microaggressions may lead someone to stop hiking entirely. Hiking is healing and we want trails to be a safe, welcoming place for every hiker. By addressing a microaggression or other biased interaction when you see one, you contribute to creating an environment where everyone feels welcome.
Interrupting bias requires you to step outside your comfort zone. Don’t feel obligated to do so if you feel unsafe, especially if you are the one being impacted by the racist or biased interaction. Just like physical first aid, the scene should be safe before a responder provides care. And just like first aid, properly addressing an incident requires some knowledge of how to address it. If this is new ground for you, do some research into this subject and get comfortable with techniques that interrupt bias but maintain compassion. Take your cues from first aid training — if you know how to address the problem and the scene is safe, challenge yourself to push past discomfort and respond. This work is a journey that can be challenging, but the payoff is powerful, creating spaces where everyone feels welcome.
If you have been on a WTA work party, you know that our work on a single trail is never finished. In order for us to have trails for future generations to enjoy, we return time and time again to maintain trails to a standard that provides safe access for all those who may visit.
The same can be said for our work making Washington state a place where trails are truly welcoming and safe for everyone, especially those who are most marginalized in society. It’s an ongoing project that requires all of us to take regular and mindful actions in our daily lives.
WTA and our trail maintenance crew leaders are committed to continuing to help make trails a safe place for everyone, and we hope you will join us in this work. Here are some suggestions on how to get started.