13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Park Rangers

Getty Images
Getty Images

The National Park Service is over 100 years old, and while we could wax poetic for days about the splendor of the parks themselves, we decided instead to find out more about the people who help preserve them on a daily basis—not to mention keep us from getting lost. Here are a few insights about what life is like as a park ranger for the NPS and other agencies, from their biggest perils to some of their most special moments.

1. THEY DO (A LOT) MORE THAN ANSWER YOUR QUESTIONS. 


The job of a ranger is more multifaceted than it may seem. “As seasonal employees we essentially have to get a year of work done in three months or so,” said Alex Miller, a Lead Park Ranger for the US Forest Service at the National Grasslands Visitor Center in South Dakota. Ranger duties may include giving tours, staffing the visitor center, collecting fees, fielding questions, patrolling the park, enforcing park regulations, doing demonstrations, coordinating education programs, tidying up park areas, conducting interviews for oral history projects, running outreach programs, serving as a first responder, fighting wildfires, and even manning social media accounts (phew).

Steve Gifford, who has worked as a ranger at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Illinois, as well as other NPS sites, told us: “People think that it is an easy job, that all you do is answer some questions and offer a few tours. But it is much more than that; you do the general things people see, but also the behind-the-scenes work is varied and intense.”

Despite all that hard work, many rangers told us that the hands-on, unpredictable nature of the job was all part of its appeal. The life of a ranger never looks the same from one day to the next—in part because the tasks are so varied, and in part because the rangers never know what sort of things might come their way. 

2. THEY'RE NOT NECESSARILY NATURE PEOPLE.

An NPS uniform doesn’t automatically mean your park ranger is a wildlife expert or skilled mountaineer. After all, not all locations under the National Park Service are nature preserves. There are also historic sites, national monuments, battlefields, and other conservation sites [PDF]—which could mean your ranger is more of a history buff.

Perhaps surprisingly, not all rangers are technically "rangers" either. There are also Park Guides, who are typically on a lower tier within the specialization of interpretation and education and have less potential for promotion. Still, even these guides sometimes go by "ranger" informally or wear a badge that reads "National Park Ranger." Other ranger specializations include law enforcement, emergency response, maintenance, administration, and more. Additionally, while every agency is different, there are distinctions that come with rank—like District Ranger and Supervisory Park Ranger.

3. THERE’S SOME SECRET LINGO.

Since the NPS is a government organization, acronyms are everywhere. Miller told mental_floss: “We do the GARS and GOHP projects as the USFS under the USDA in partnership with the BHPFA, VBJ and NPS, but for UNL have to be CITI certified with IRBs. All perfectly clear, right?” 

Aside from the ubiquitous acronyms, other slang terms includes "clustering," which occurs when there are too many rangers and/or volunteers at the front desk at one time, and which can give the impression that the park service employees have nothing to do. A "Furniture Tour" is when a ranger does a historic house tour but talks about the furniture or architecture of the house without talking about the people who lived there. While those tours are sometimes intentional, they’re also sometimes a byproduct of visitors who steer a tour through their persistent questions (you know the type).

Yellowstone in particular has its own set of lingo, where the rangers and other seasonal employees refer to themselves as “Savages," the exact origin of which is unknown. Then there's a "Code W" tourist—a wimpy hiker who requests emergency help when they don't really need it.

4. IT CAN BE A SCARY GIG ...

Rangers are incredibly well-prepared, skilled, and knowledgeable—both in their background and the education they receive on the job—but you can’t prepare for everything. The parks employees we talked to mentioned everything from bison to rattlesnakes to mountain lions, though nearly all of them also talked about how easy it was to avoid getting into trouble with wildlife if you take the right precautions. Basic rules, like not getting too close or moving too quickly, will generally keep you out of harm's way: "They give plenty of indicators when their territory is being encroached," Miller told us. It's also a good idea to properly stow your food items and trash, as those will attract all kinds of creatures. 

The elements can become an issue too; severe storms, tornados, and other surprise weather events all come into play from time to time. As does the paranormal, in some cases. Nick Sacco, a ranger at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri, joked, “Some visitors talk about seeing ghosts in the basement of White Haven [another name for the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site] but I haven't seen any yet!”

5. … BUT THERE’S PLENTY OF ADORABLE TOO.

Yellowstone National Park via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The laws of nature state: Where there are big scary animals, there are little, enchanting ones too. You’ll probably be happy to know that multiple rangers mentioned cuddly creatures; perhaps surprisingly, porcupines got a few shout-outs (not necessarily first critter that comes to mind when conjuring “cute”), in addition to other furry, park-dwelling friends who’ve crossed paths with rangers and visitors over the years. It's just one of the perks of the job.

6. MOST OF THEIR EXPERIENCES WITH PEOPLE ARE GREAT.

When we set out to discover what the life of a park ranger was like, we expected to hear a lot of horror stories about ridiculous tourists. While those do exist, the rangers we spoke with were overwhelmingly positive about visitors. They love talking to people, and not just about the parks. They like finding out what brings people out and what experiences they’ve had, which sometimes even leads to lasting connections. Sacco recounted this story:

I'll never forget this family of three that visited the site—a grandfather, a father, and a boy with autism. It was just the three of them during the tour and I tried to give them a personalized experience showing them around the house. The grandfather bought three pocket watches from our gift shop, but he came back another month later and showed me a plaque he had bought with one of the watches glued on top and a personalized engraving stating the date in which they had visited the park. He told me that the boy absolutely loved the site and couldn't stop talking about it for days with his family, friends, and classmates, and that the experience had brought the three of them together. That was really special to hear.

Rangers also told us that visitors are generally pretty well-prepared on a practical level—camping etiquette is on-point!—and said that occasionally visitors will even have teach park employees things about the great outdoors.

7. BUT PEOPLE STILL DO STUPID THINGS SOMETIMES.


From dangerous selfies to not reading signs to starting fires when they shouldn’t (there’s a reason Smokey Bear is still around), park visitors do occasionally do things that put themselves and the land in danger. Other common issues include people who want to argue about historical facts or who want to interact with places or things that are off-limits. Rangers also told us that they’re commonly mistaken for law enforcement—so let this be a reminder that not all uniforms are created equal.

8. IT TAKES A LOT OF WORK TO BECOME A RANGER.

Anyone who dreams of being a park ranger should know it doesn’t just happen overnight. But the good news is, there are a lot of roads that lead there, most of which involve a relevant degree and volunteer work (usually a lot of volunteer work). 

One of the rangers we spoke to volunteered through a Forest Service program called Passport in Time before becoming a ranger, while another went through a program now known as Pathways, which allows undergraduate and graduate students to work for the NPS while also working on their degrees. Sacco got his start at the park as an undergrad through an internship with a predecessor to Pathways called the STEP program. “The plan all along had been for me to become a high school social studies teacher," he says, "but when I started working at the Park Service it was real revelation for me. Learning about and teaching history became something that went far beyond the confines of the classroom and history textbook, and I loved how people of all ages relished the chance to interact with NPS staff and see historical homes and artifacts in person,” he told us. 

9. THE FIELD IS HIGHLY COMPETITIVE.

Even those who put in the hard work to become a ranger might not get a job or get placed where they want to be. According to Gifford, “There is so much competition for every single position within the agency. One of my coworkers applied to 90 different jobs before getting on with us.”

As far as compensation goes, it varies quite a bit based on the location and scope of the park, the position itself, and the employee's education history. Most NPS jobs—like other government jobs—have their pay based on the General Schedule pay scale [PDF]. But while most on the GS pay scale are full-time workers, many parks employees are seasonal, meaning they have to find work in other areas during the off-season. For a few specific examples of jobs (and their pay brackets) check out the USAJOBS site; some positions are hourly while others are salaried.

10. A PARK RANGER DOESN’T NECESSARILY WORK FOR THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE.

Of course, not every park with a ranger falls under the umbrella of the NPS. There’s also the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Wildlife Refuge System, and other state agencies that employ the term “park ranger.” It might seem like a small distinction, but the agencies have different approaches and missions, which means their rangers can have different roles and responsibilities. For example, while national parks emphasize preservation and work under the Department of Interior, the US Forest Service is under the Department of Agriculture and is focused on both preservation and uses—such as lumber, cattle grazing, and mining.

11. THEY ADVOCATE R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Since every park is so different, it’s tricky to come up with a hard-and-fast rule of behavior to encompass them all, but one thing a few rangers mentioned was plain old respect. If visitors all went in to the parks with a spirit of respect—for nature, wildlife, history, and other people—a lot of park problems, like trash and fires, could be avoided.

12. THEY WANT TO HELP YOU.


Another thing rangers strongly advised was planning ahead—and asking them for help when you arrive. Many parks offer varied experiences, from hikes to horseback riding, and knowing what you want to do ahead of time is useful for both you and parks officials, who are trying to serve the needs of a lot of people (over 10 million annually at the most popular location, Great Smoky Mountains National Park). Many of the parks have extensive online resources to help you plan your park experience.

The whole asking questions thing isn’t just about planning, though—rangers also want you to talk to them if you have concerns or need help. It’s what they’re there for, and many say that people don’t do it enough. 

13. THEY’RE NOT ALLOWED TO SPILL ALL THEIR SECRETS.

As active government employees, many rangers aren’t allowed to speak about the job—we talked to mostly former rangers, or current rangers who were given approval from above, and they couldn't share all the details of their work. (We should also note that the views expressed here are personal opinions that don't necessarily reflect the views of the National Park Service). Many rangers have great stories—there was some off-the-record talk of finding visitor underwear and other misadventures—but for the most part, the rangers had to be tight-lipped. Yet another good reason to take one out for a drink, and ask to be regaled with some anonymous tall tales.

Know of something you think we should cover? Email us at tips@mentalfloss.com.

All photos provided by iStock unless otherwise noted.

10 Reusable Gifts for Your Eco-Friendliest Friend

Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
DecorChic/Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

By this point, your eco-friendly pal probably has a reusable water bottle that accompanies them everywhere and some sturdy grocery totes that keep their plastic-bag count below par. Here are 10 other sustainable gift ideas that’ll help them in their conservation efforts.

1. Reusable Produce Bags; $13

No more staticky plastic bags.Naturally Sensible/Amazon

The complimentary plastic produce bags in grocery stores aren’t great, but neither is having all your spherical fruits and vegetables roll pell-mell down the checkout conveyor belt. Enter the perfect alternative: mesh bags that are nylon, lightweight, and even machine-washable.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Animal Tea Infusers; $16

Nothing like afternoon tea with your tiny animal friends.DecorChic/Amazon

Saying goodbye to disposable tea bags calls for a quality tea diffuser, and there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t be shaped like an adorable animal. This “ParTEA Pack” includes a hippo, platypus, otter, cat, and owl, which can all hang over the edge of a glass or mug. (In other words, you won’t have to fish them out with your fingers or dirty a spoon when your loose leaf is done steeping.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Rocketbook Smart Notebook; $25

Typing your notes on a tablet or laptop might save trees, but it doesn’t quite capture the feeling of writing on paper with a regular pen. The Rocketbook, on the other hand, does. After you’re finished filling a page with sketches, musings, or whatever else, you scan it into the Rocketbook app with your smartphone, wipe it clean with the microfiber cloth, and start again. This one also comes with a compatible pen, but any PILOT FriXion pens will do.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Food Huggers; $13

"I'm a hugger!"Food Huggers/Amazon

It’s hard to compete with the convenience of plastic wrap or tin foil when it comes to covering the exposed end of a piece of produce or an open tin can—and keeping those leftovers in food storage containers can take up valuable space in the fridge. This set of five silicone Food Huggers stretch to fit over a wide range of circular goods, from a lidless jar to half a lemon.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Swiffer Mop Pads; $15

For floors that'll shine like the top of the Chrysler Building.Turbo Microfiber/Amazon

Swiffers may be much less unwieldy than regular mops, but the disposable pads present a problem to anyone who likes to keep their trash output to a minimum. These machine-washable pads fasten to the bottom of any Swiffer WetJet, and the thick microfiber will trap dirt and dust instead of pushing it into corners. Each pad lasts for at least 100 uses, so you’d be saving your eco-friendly friend quite a bit of money, too.

Buy it: Amazon

6. SodaStream for Sparkling Water; $69

A fondness for fizzy over flat water doesn’t have to mean buying it bottled. Not only does the SodaStream let you make seltzer at home, but it’s also small enough that it won’t take up too much precious counter space. SodaStream also sells flavor drops to give your home-brewed beverage even more flair—this pack from Amazon ($25) includes mango, orange, raspberry, lemon, and lime.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Washable Lint Roller; $13

Roller dirty.iLifeTech/Amazon

There’s a good chance that anyone with a pet (or just an intense dislike for lint) has lint-rolled their way through countless sticky sheets. iLifeTech’s reusable roller boasts “the power of glue,” which doesn’t wear off even after you’ve washed it. Each one also comes with a 3-inch travel-sized version, so you can stay fuzz-free on the go.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Countertop Compost Bin; $23

Like a tiny Tin Man for your table.Epica/Amazon

Even if you keep a compost pile in your own backyard, it doesn’t make sense to dash outside every time you need to dump a food scrap. A countertop compost bin can come in handy, especially if it kills odors and blends in with your decor. This 1.3-gallon pail does both. It’s made of stainless steel—which matches just about everything—and contains an activated-charcoal filter that prevents rancid peels and juices from stinking up your kitchen.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Fabric-Softening Dryer Balls; $17

Also great for learning how to juggle without breaking anything.Smart Sheep

Nobody likes starchy, scratchy clothes, but some people might like blowing through bottles of fabric softener and boxes of dryer sheets even less. Smart Sheep is here to offer a solution: wool dryer balls. Not only do they last for more than 1000 loads, they also dry your laundry faster. And since they don’t contain any chemicals, fragrances, or synthetic materials, they’re a doubly great option for people with allergies and/or sensitive skin.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Rechargeable Batteries; $40

Say goodbye to loose batteries in your junk drawer.eneloop/Amazon

While plenty of devices are rechargeable themselves, others still require batteries to buzz, whir, and change the TV channel—so it’s good to have some rechargeable batteries on hand. In addition to AA batteries, AAA batteries, and a charger, this case from Panasonic comes with tiny canisters that function as C and D batteries when you slip the smaller batteries into them.

Buy it: Amazon

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12 Secrets of Spirit Halloween Employees

Spirit Halloween stores are a sign Halloween has arrived.
Spirit Halloween stores are a sign Halloween has arrived.
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When Joe Marver founded Spirit Halloween in 1983, he probably didn’t have any idea his seasonal Halloween store would eventually grow to over 1300 locations in the United States and Canada. But now, seeing a Spirit pop-up materialize in a vacant building has become as much of a Halloween tradition as pumpkin carving.

In order to assist shoppers with Halloween costumes, decorations, and animatronic creatures, Spirit employs a small army of seasonal workers. To get a better feel for what goes into this spooky vocation, Mental Floss reached out to several current Spirit Halloween team members. Here’s what they had to say about everything from customers making a mess to the hazards of trying on a mask during this pandemic-heavy Halloween.

1. Most Spirit Halloween employees really, really love Halloween.

Why take on a seasonal job with no potential for year-round work? If you love Halloween and the macabre, it’s a dream job. “I've never once worked with an employee that didn't love Halloween,” Kota, a five-year veteran of Spirit Halloween in Kentucky, tells Mental Floss. “It's something that all employees have in common from my experience … It's a perfect place to meet people with the same interests.”

2. Spirit Halloween employees are supposed to open costume packages for customers.

Spirit Halloween employees are happy to help with your costume selection.Courtesy of Spirit Halloween

If a Spirit Halloween employee is eyeing you with a little bit of consternation, it might be because you ripped open a costume package. Owing to issues of loss prevention and hygiene—even before COVID-19 struck—Spirit’s policy is to let employees open items and then package them back up. But not every customer is willing to wait.

“Our employees are supposed to deal with opening and closing each and every package,” Kota says. “This way we don't have to worry about things coming out or going into the packages that aren't supposed to. Although we try hard to make it as easy and friendly as possible, some customers would rather do it themselves wherever they may be standing in the store.”

3. Spirit Halloween employees can’t keep astronaut helmets in stock.

Every season brings a different phenomenon to Halloween shopping. In 2018, it was the popular video game Fortnite. This year, it’s an astronaut helmet. Not the suit, just the helmet. The trend is due to the popularity of a smartphone game titled Among Us, which puts the player in the role of a space explorer.

“Despite what you might think, the suits themselves seem significantly less popular than the helmets themselves for reasons beyond my comprehension,” Derek, a Spirit Halloween employee in New Jersey for the past three years, tells Mental Floss. “It's still just a bit too early to say, but if the helmets keep shipping out at the rate they are, in-store stock will probably remain at a near-constant zero. If I'm recalling it right, all of the stores in my area currently have one helmet if any, and no more than five are being shipped to each store.”

4. Spirit Halloween employees can’t believe customers are still trying on masks.

It's probably not a good idea to try on Halloween masks this year.Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Despite newfound concerns over touching surfaces or being exposed to infectious particles, customers are still willing to try on masks in the store, even though someone else may have already been wearing it. “Ultimately the pandemic hasn't affected my store, aside from everyone needing to wear face masks while they're inside,” Jayme, a Spirit Halloween employee in Florida who’s worked there for four years, tells Mental Floss. “But people still ask to try things on and … they do still put masks on despite orange signs everywhere saying not to.”

Derek agrees. “If you've bought a mask from Spirit in any of the past seasons, there's a very high chance you're one of at least five people who’s worn that mask, and that's a conservative estimate for some of the masks. Despite the rule, I think I've seen that many people trying on [fictional creepypasta internet character] Jeff the Killer masks just in this past week.”

5. Spirit Halloween employees have seen some spooky things.

While a store full of scary costumes and props is a Halloween lover’s dream, some Spirit Halloween employees say it can also be the site of some spooky events. “An associate and I have both seen things swaying on the shelves as if someone walked by it, though nobody else is in the store,” Jayme says. “We've seen a few shadow movements as if people were hiding behind [a] corner. The funniest one [was] at closing time. One of my associates yelled ‘whoo’ and we heard a guy's voice say something in response. It totally freaked him out. It was one of our sound-activated hanging [animatronics].”

But not all employees get creeped out. “As much as I want to say that I've experienced anything creepy or paranormal, the store's about as creepy as a former Circuit City can be,” Derek says. Still, he's seen some strange things. “The lights used to turn off at the exact same time every day for about a month, there's always been the occasional inexplicable bang or creak, and some of the aisles do get messy a bit too quickly. One time, I was working at the fitting room. I sent a kid back with a previously unopened, dry Morphsuit costume [a full-body spandex outfit] and it came back warm and moist.”

Wet costumes aside, Derek won’t declare any paranormal activity just yet. “If I see a kid go flying across the store, I'll let you know.”

6. Spirit Halloween employees wish customers would stop making a huge mess.

Spirit Halloween employees like to keep stores neat.Courtesy of Spirit Halloween

Owing to the nature of pop-up stores or the excitement over the holiday, customers at Spirit Halloween stores tend to make messes. Big ones. “You could've just finished putting every mask neatly back on the racks, and half of them will be back on the floor before you've caught your breath,” Derek says. “It seems like everyone takes a little pride in the sections they helped set up and the animatronics they built, and that definitely manifests in how we feel about customers messing with those things.”

7. Spirit Halloween employees would prefer you not use the aisle as a dressing room.

Some customers like to try on outfits in the aisle instead of the dressing room, a habit that predated the current pandemic. (Spirit Halloween fitting rooms are closed this season.) Employees would still prefer you not try to dress—or undress—in the middle of the store. “It's very common to find people, mostly kids, trying on costumes in aisles,” Kota says. “We [did] have multiple fitting rooms to try to stop this from happening, but once again, people would rather do things themselves sometimes.”

8. Spirit Halloween employees move a lot of licensed animatronics.

Animatronics are a popular item at Spirit Halloween.Courtesy of Spirit Halloween

Among the most popular items in Spirit Halloween locations are the life-sized animatronics that provide a scary atmosphere for homes or parties. “Animatronics are one of our largest-selling items,” Kota says. “There's a certain group of people that love them and look forward to them annually. Some of our buyers buy them and use them for their haunted attractions. It's always nice to go to one and see a familiar face.”

While Spirit offers a number of original animatronic concepts—the Harvester of Souls being among the more popular—Kota says that customers usually gravitate toward licensed characters. “I've noticed that the most popular animatronics are our licensed ones. Pennywise [from 2017's It] and Sam [from 2007's Trick 'r Treat] have been huge sellers this year as was Michael Myers a few years ago. I've also noticed the ones that stay behind at the end of the season are almost always the swinging animatronics. I think they're interesting, but they don't sell as often as the others do.”

9. Spirit Halloween employees might sell you a used animatronic, but you need to get lucky.

Come the end of the season, Spirit Halloween locations often unload animatronics that were on display and no longer being manufactured. “Older animatronics, if I recall correctly, will stop being manufactured and then sold until it runs out,” Jayme says. “As for the displays, we do sell those at the end of the season. It's just a matter of putting your info on a waiting list.”

10. Spirit Halloween employees meet a lot of cosplayers.

Cosplayers are frequent shoppers at Spirit Halloween.Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It’s not just Halloween customers that Spirit Halloween stores service. According to Kota, cosplayers looking for that perfect accessory sometimes show up. “Spirit actually gets quite a bit of cosplayers and I personally think it's a great place to go for more specific items,” Kota says. “I'm sure we get even more cosplayers than I'm aware of since some customers like to talk about it and others don't say much about it.”

11. Spirit Halloween employees get a steep, steep discount once Halloween is over.

Between the standard employee discount and the after-Halloween fire sale available to customers, Derek says that he can go shopping in November and save a considerable amount of money. It’s one reason he keeps coming back. “It's hard to say no to an 80-percent discount during the November clearance sale,” he says. (The regular discount is 50 percent, and employees get an additional 30 percent.) “There's nothing like rewarding yourself after a busy season by spending $150 on, like, five or six things.”

12. Spirit Halloween employees sometimes get holiday shoppers.

Halloween means holiday shopping for some people.JJBers, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

For some customers, a Spirit Halloween store is a perfect place to start their holiday gift shopping. “I made a friend last year with a kid who comes in weekly to see if we have anything new in yet,” Kota says. “He's maybe about 7 years old and [he] and I go around the store almost every time he comes in and talk about new things and animatronics we have. His parents then secretly go around and buy him animatronics and props as Christmas presents. It's so nice to see his love for Halloween all year round. It reminds me of myself when I was his age.”