If you love the outdoors, the idea of being a park ranger — whether in a state or national park — may appeal to you. However, if you don't know anyone who works as a park ranger (and let's face it, how many people do?), it may be difficult to figure out how to become one.
What is a park ranger?
Before embarking on the journey to becoming a park ranger, you need to understand what the job entails. At the most fundamental level, a park ranger is someone whose work revolves around the conservation and responsible use of state or national park resources.
Therefore, park rangers usually:
- Work outdoors patrolling campgrounds, trails and surrounding areas.
- Are employed by federal (for national parks) or state (for state parks) governments.
- Conduct tours and answer questions from park guests.
- Participate in search-and-rescue missions.
- Ensure that visitors to their parks follow fire and safety codes.
- Initiate conservation efforts.
- Help fight fires.
- Enforce the law in their park.
Some park rangers whose jobs are more specialized (such as law-enforcement or cultural-education rangers) may have more limited scopes of responsibilities.
Park rangers are sometimes also called park wardens, park police or forest rangers.
1. Attend a four-year university and earn a bachelor's degree in a related field.
Those interested in becoming a park ranger generally need to have a four-year degree. A bachelor's degree in a field that's relevant to a career as a park ranger (such as biology, environmental sciences or forestry) is the most useful educational credential for those looking to become park rangers after college.
2. Work, intern or volunteer in the field during school.
While you're in school, you can take advantage of opportunities to work, intern or volunteer with the National Park Service (for national parks) or a local state park. If there's a particular park of interest to you, contact them directly to ask about opportunities and ways for you to get involved in the park's work.
3. Get — and stay — in shape.
As park rangers spend the vast majority of their time at work outside, they need to be physically fit. If you're already in shape, work to maintain your good physical condition. If you're not yet in shape, make it a goal to get into healthy, fit physical shape so you can cope with the stresses of the job.
4. Develop (or maintain) strong communication skills.
Due to the fact that public education is one of their main responsibilities, park rangers need to have strong communication skills. It would, after all, be difficult to lead tours or answer questions from park visitors if you weren't comfortable with public speaking or interacting with others.
5. If applying for a state position, check if additional training or educational requirements are needed.
In some states, those who want to become park rangers need to have further training beyond a bachelor's degree. If you're looking to become a state park ranger, it's a good idea to check whether this is the case in the state(s) you want to work in.
As a general rule, park rangers need to be able to relocate for a job.
7. Expect training as a park ranger cadet before becoming a full park ranger.
New park ranger recruits perform duties at the entry or training level. These duties are carried out under the supervision of higher-ranking park rangers, who ensure that the new cadets are taught properly. The training period often entails participation in:
- Basic law enforcement
- Visitor services
- Resource management training programs
completion of this training program is required to become a full park ranger.
8. Consider a master's degree.
While most park ranger jobs won't require a master's degree, having one can still help you advance in your career. It's worth investigating what — if any — particular degrees would be most beneficial.
How long does it take to become a park ranger?
Meeting the education, experience and training requirements to become a park ranger can take three to five years or longer.
How much money does a park ranger make?
ParkRangerEdu.org reports that park ranger salaries are highly variable. Some earn as little as $15/hour for seasonal work at small state parks, while others earn $80,000/year or more for supervisory positions at large state or national parks.
Salary ranges are affected by a number of factors, including:
- The park agency (federal or state)
- The park's size
- The scope of the specific job
- The park ranger position (e.g. cultural park ranger)
Park ranger pay is also affected by seasonality. During busy months, overtime
pay can be extensive, allowing them to earn significantly more in some months than they do in others.
Lorelei Yang is a New York-based consultant and freelance writer/researcher. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.