Becoming a Park Ranger is definitely a dream job for many people. You get to wear the iconic “Smokey hat” and spend days in the sun and nights under the stars. If you want to work the natural resources or conservation and preservation fields, consider these following park ranger careers:
- Law Enforcement Ranger
- Interpretive Ranger
- Trail Crew Member
- Wildland Firefighter
- Smoke Jumper
Park ranger and forest ranger jobs can be a lot of fun, but they require hard work, flexible hours, and training. Be prepared to work seasonally, especially as you’re starting out. It helps if you’re willing to relocate to take advantage of the best career opportunities.
- Law Enforcement Ranger
Law enforcement rangers, or protection rangers, can be found in national parks, national forests, state parks, and city parks. Law enforcement rangers work to protect the parks resources, ecosystem, environmental scenery, wildlife, historic structures, artifacts, and visitors. This includes making arrests, issuing tickets, assisting in crowd control, enforcing park regulations and forest regulations, performing building safety checks, responding to emergency calls and investigating motor vehicle accidents or other crimes within the park. Public safety is of utmost concern.
Job duties can range widely, depending on the jurisdiction. For example, park rangers working for the city of Denver and Denver County may regularly deal with homeless encampments, while a park ranger working in Yosemite Village primarily interacts with tourists on vacation.
Like a police officer working in a city, a law enforcement officer in a park often deals with danger and serious crimes. There can be many serious offenses that a ranger must deal with, such as attempted murder, illegal marijuana operations, and domestic violence, to name a few. Although law enforcement rangers make arrests and issue tickets, they are also educators who have an opportunity to teach violators about the rules and regulations and why a law exists.
Salary: Entry-level law enforcement rangers at the GS-5 level typically make between $34,000 to $44,000 per year. There is the ability to increase pay as you move up in your career and gain experience.
Hours: 40 hours a week. Law enforcement rangers may have to work nights, weekends, holidays and overtime.
Training and Certification Requirements: For federal employment with the National Park Service or Forest Service, rangers must already possess a valid Type II (seasonal) or higher law enforcement commission, which is a certification gained in the federal law enforcement academy. This academy program lasts about 17 weeks and consists of over 650 class hours. There are only 7 colleges across the nation offering this program.
Please note: County, state, and local parks may want their state’s education and experience requirements, NOT a federal law enforcement commission. It is important to note that this may not transfer from state to state.
Other requirements include:
- Must be between the ages of 21-37 for federal employment due to retirement guidelines
- No domestic violence convictions
- Pass a drug test
- Pass a physical exam consisting of five different components: agility run, bench press, 1.5-mile run, sit and reach, and body composition
- Many federal positions also require certification as an EMT
- Interpretive Ranger
Interpretive park rangers, also known as cultural park rangers, are the ones who wear the iconic “Smokey hat” or flat hat. These rangers are typically very friendly, passionate walking encyclopedias who love to teach and share facts about nature.
The primary job of an interpretive ranger is to ensure visitors have a meaningful, satisfying, and safe park experience—while obeying park rules. They often help people decide how to spend their time at the park, informing them of all the natural wonders awaiting their discovery.
Interpreters are specially trained to engage the public in a way that creates an emotional and intellectual connection between the visitors and the park by giving it special meaning and values. The environmental connection facilitated by interpretive rangers helps deepen public support for preservation and conservation so that the parks can be enjoyed by present and future generations.
Many interpretive rangers follow a code famously quoted by environmentalist Baba Dioum: “In the end, we will only conserve what we love; we will only love what we understand, and we will only understand what we are taught.”
The duties of this position include leading interpretive hikes and guided walks, staffing visitor centers, creating educational content, including lectures, and multimedia presentations. They are also responsible for conducting on and off-site community outreach programs to schools and community groups, and teaching educational courses (field trips, camps, scout programs, and family events). Some national parks, such as Cuyahoga Valley National Park and Yellowstone National Park, have educational campuses designed to accommodate large groups. NPS park rangers can live and work in the park while conducting educational programming.
Salary: Entry-level Interpretive rangers begin at the GS-4 or GS-5 hiring range, which pays between $12.50-$18.25 per hour. With experience, interpretive rangers are able to move up the pay scale and can max out at around $35.21 per hour at the GS-11 level.
Hours: 40 hours a week, but they often have to work weekends and holidays, because that is when all the visitors come.
Training and Certification Requirements: A college degree in fields such as natural resource management, earth sciences, history, park and recreation management, public administration, education, and law enforcement are preferred. Interpretive park rangers must have specific knowledge of the park they are working in, which can be learned on the job. It has been said that interpretive rangers have a knowledge base 1 inch deep, but a mile wide. They must know a lot to keep up with curious visitors, but most are not specialists in a specific field.
The National Association for Interpretation offers a Certified Interpretive Guide Program, which is a 32-hour ranger program that teaches the basics of interpretation to make your programs purposeful, organized, and powerful so that visitors have the opportunity to build a connection to the resource.
- Trail Crew Member
Trail management and maintenance crews work to maintain existing walking and hiking trails. They build new trials by cutting away fallen trees, controlling erosion, cutting back brush, blowing up boulders, and making bridges. Their job is to give park visitors the opportunity to safely and more effortlessly enjoy the park’s beauty with the least possible environmental impact.
Some crews get to work with electric or gas power tools, like chainsaws and hedge trimmers. Some crews working in designated wilderness areas must use hand-powered tools like crosscut saws and pruning shears, which can be significantly more difficult.
Working on a trail crew may bring you to extremely remote environments that require hiking in and “spiking out.” These spike crews often camp out in the wild for upwards of two weeks. Working on the trails is rugged and tough, requiring hard work on steep, wet, muddy, and uneven surfaces. Trail crew members must be capable of working alone, though most work is completed as a group. Be prepared to live with your team for 24 hours a day, for weeks on end doing manual labor. It is certainly hard work.
Salary: Entry-level trail crew members are typically paid $12.00-$18.00 per hour. Many city parks and county parks pay minimum wage, which can be significantly lower. While crews are spiked out, sleeping overnight in the wild, they receive an additional small stipend per night.
Hours: 40 hours a week, though trail crew members often have to sleep in the field. They may be required to work weekends and holidays.
Training and Certification Requirements: While a related outdoors degree is always recommended, having a background in construction or landscaping goes a long way. Specialized certification is typically not required. It takes a special person to enjoy a trail crew atmosphere, and the hands-on experience can be more important than education.
- Wildland Firefighter
Wildland firefighters work for federal agencies, like the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs. They can also work for state agencies, such as CalFire, and sometimes private firefighting companies, like Firestorm Wildland Suppression, Inc. and Grayback Forestry.
There are many distinctive specialties in wildland firefighting, but most responsibilities are associated with prescribed burning, wildfire suppression, rescue operations, and fire preparedness. Wildland firefighters must be able to communicate clearly and work well with others for prolonged periods of time. Advanced positions typically require experience on an engine crew or hand crew, so it is helpful to start there when launching a career.
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Salary: Labor statistics data show entry-level wildland firefighters make between $14.00-19.00 per hour. There is an enormous opportunity for overtime (150% of base pay) and hazard pay (25% of base pay), which is how the firefighters make a good amount of their money in a fire season. It is not uncommon to make $35,000-$50,000 in 6 months, but it depends on how often a crew is assigned to a dangerous fire and required to work overtime.
Hours: 40 hours a week, but expect to work up to 16-hour days for 14-21 days straight when a crew has been dispatched to a fire.
Training and Certification Requirements: Firefighters must be remarkably physically fit to execute the arduous duties necessary for their profession. Every wildland firefighter must pass the Work Capacity Test, or “pack test,” which consists of a 3-mile walk while carrying 45 pounds in 45 minutes. The pack test measures aerobic and muscular fitness, plus the ability to perform in the field while carrying hand tools or heavy backpacks over rough terrain.
While a bachelor’s degree is not required, entry-level firefighters (Firefighter Type 2) must complete basic firefighting training before they are allowed to work on the fire line under direct supervision. All wildfire education is standardized by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG).
Basic Firefighter Training Requirements:
- Introduction to ICS (ICS-100)
- Human Factors in the Wildland Fire Service (L-180) Firefighter Training (S-130)
- Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior (S-190)
- NIMS: An Introduction (IS-700)
- Annual Fireline Safety Refresher (RT-130)
- Smoke Jumper
Smokejumpers are elite wildland firefighters that parachute from planes to attack wildfires in inaccessible, remote areas. They lead the charge against the largest, most dangerous forest fires and the job is highly competitive. Each year, crews receive hundreds of applications for only a handful of open positions. There are only about 400 smoke jumpers nationwide between 9 crews.
The U.S. Forest Service employs seven crews, which are based in the following locations:
- McCall, Idaho
- Grangeville, Idaho
- Redding, California
- West Yellowstone, Montana
- Missoula, Montana
- Winthrop, Washington
- Redmond, Oregon
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) also has smokejumpers at two bases, one in Boise, Idaho and the other in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Salary: On average, entry-level smokejumpers make between $18.00-$21.00 an hour. There is an enormous opportunity for overtime (150% of base pay) and hazard pay (25% of base pay).
Hours: Hours vary. During a fire tour, expect to work up to 16 hours per day for several weeks at a time.
Training and Certification Requirements: To become a smokejumper, you need at least one year of experience on a wildfire engine or hand crew. Despite requiring individuals to parachute out of planes, previous experience in this field is not required and is actually discouraged.
Guidelines specify height and weight measurements, and the physical requirements are extreme. Job applicants are required to hike for 5 miles in 90 minutes or less while carrying 110 pounds of gear. They must also be able to run 1.5 miles in 10:47 minutes or less, do 6 pull-ups, and 30 push-ups.
If you plan on working for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the requirements are even more rigorous. The BLM dictates that Smoke Jumpers must be able to run 1.5 miles in 9:30 minutes or less, do 10 pull-ups, 60 sit-ups, and 35 push-ups. Their pack test is also more difficult, with a 3-mile hike that must be completed in 55 minutes or less while carrying 110 pounds of gear.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do I need a college degree?
Technically, no, but it is advised! A bachelor’s degree (four-year degree) and associate’s degree may be well worth your time and money. Degrees can be majors in related fields, such as natural resource management, earth sciences, history, conservation biology, park and recreation management, public administration, education, criminal justice, or engineering.
I have a degree in something very unrelated to parks, is there any chance I can still be a ranger?
Definitely! Many park rangers started with their career with a degree in art or English, and many interpretive park rangers have theatre degrees. Let your passion shine through your resume and look for opportunities to get some hands-on volunteer experience related to parks.
What exactly counts as “experience”?
Experience includes both paid and unpaid work, which means volunteer hours count, too! Your work can be through National Service programs, like the Peace Corps or Americorps, or through other personal or local organizations (church, college groups, charities). Be sure to check out volunteer.gov for awesome opportunities that can help you get your foot in the door.
Do I get to live in the park?
Sometimes, it depends. Parks and forests in remote areas provide housing for employees. A stipend is automatically removed from your paycheck. Some parks in urban areas require you to find your own housing due to the availability of reasonably priced housing options nearby.
Will I be able to wear the “Smokey Hat”?
It’s certainly possible. The iconic hat is usually only worn daily by National Park Service interpretive park rangers or “visitor use specialists,” who are the PR workers whose main job it is to address the public. The Smokey hat is, after all, the easiest way to spot someone in charge who can help you. Sometimes, you can catch law enforcement officers wearing it, but not always. If you work for the National Park Service, you can always buy one with your uniform allowance or out of pocket.
You definitely won’t be wearing the hat if you are working on a trail crew. Also, National Forest Rangers don’t wear a Smokey hat.
Give your career a boost by joining related professional organizations. These groups provide a great opportunity to learn and share information, get support, and network with other professionals in your field. Membership looks great on a resume, too. As you pursue a career as a park ranger, consider joining these popular and influential organizations.
Association of National Park Rangers: The Association of National Park Rangers (ANPR) is for current or former park employees, volunteers or supporters of the National Parks. The benefits of this organization include professional development opportunities, special training, access to career mentors, rebates on the yearly Ranger Rendezvous conference, and a subscription to the quarterly magazine.
The National Parks and Recreation Association: The National Parks and Recreation Association (NRPA) offers its members educational development, certification opportunities, a thriving job board, and access to mountains of information through their publications, newsletters, and knowledge center.
National Association of State Foresters: National Association of State Foresters (NASF) is a non-profit composed of the directors of forestry agencies across the United States. NASF is a trailblazer in forest policy creation, helping to support the role of trees, forests, and folks who serve them. This non-profit can only be joined by specialists in the field, but this webpage offers invaluable knowledge to entry-level workers and those who are interested in forestry.
International Association of Wildland Fire: Wildland firefighting policies can be controversial, and this non-profit organization offers a neutral forum to discuss these hot, fiery issues surrounding forest fires. Some member benefits include a subscription to Wildfire Magazine, complimentary access to the International Journal of Wildland Fire, student scholarships, and a mentoring program.
ExpertVoice: ExpertVoice allows professionals an opportunity to share their knowledge with followers, friends, family, and other co-workers. When a professional falls in love with certain gear, it’s fun and helpful to talk about it. Get to know the industry’s top brands and get access to new products and gear at cut-rate prices. ExpertVoice will connect you to other experts—like Gregg Boydston, a wildland firefighter, hotshot, and photographer out of California. You’ll be able to talk gear, share gear tips with others, and take courses so you can learn about the hottest new gear and equipment.
When you’re hard at work in the great outdoors, having the right gear and equipment is essential. Top brands produce the essential gear worn by park rangers and forest rangers.
5.11 Stryke Pants
5.11 Stryke Pants are the official pants for NPS staff. With just the right amount of stretch, these reliable and durable pants get the job done.
Many Forest Service staff members do not wear uniforms in the field. There is a high preference for Prana pants, as they are water repellant, don’t rip easily, and match the color scheme.
- Prana Stretch Zion in Cargo Green (Men’s)
- Prana Meme Slim Fit in Cargo Green (Women’s)
- Prana Meme Halle in Cargo Green (Women’s)
Asolo TPS 520 GV Boots
Asolo TPS 520 GV boots can be seen on ranger feet in parks and forests. The boots are waterproof, comfortable, and most importantly brown polishable leather.
The North Face
The North Face is owned by VF Imagewear, the uniform provider for the National Park Service. They create quality gear and their tents can be seen all over fire camps, specifically chosen by Wildland Firefighters. The tents have an easy pitch design and are free-standing, allowing them to be set up quickly on any terrain.
The North Face also makes a red-colored 95 Liter Duffel bag that is popular for carrying two weeks’ worth of belongings. Many firefighters use this bag when assigned to a fire.
Park Ranger Jobs and Forest Ranger Jobs for Those Who Love the Outdoors
Careers in the outdoor industry can certainly be a walk in the park, but they require dedication, flexibility, hard work, and specialized knowledge. Be prepared to work seasonally for a few years, embrace moving around the country for interesting job opportunities, and take any opportunity that comes your way. Working in the outdoor industry means your everyday job is what most folks look forward to in their two weeks of vacation a year. You will never have a better #viewfromtheoffice.
With the help of ExpertVoice, professionals are not only specialists in their field, but they become experts on the products that help them perform their best. You can trust that any gear experts endorse has been tried-and-tested in the field. Experts are passionate, experienced professionals who consumers trust for gear advice. Join ExpertVoice today for exclusive deals only available to product experts and lend your voice to the growing community.