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.

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10 Secrets of Epidemiologists

Epidemiologists are fans of charts.
Epidemiologists are fans of charts.
metamorworks/iStock via Getty Images

Unless you know an epidemiologist or are one yourself, those “disease detectives” might not have occupied a very large portion of your brain. Last year, that is. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic at the top of mind—and at the top of so many headlines—there’s a good chance you’re at least aware that epidemiologists study diseases.

To be more specific, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines epidemiology as “the study of the distribution and determinants of health-related states or events in specified populations, and the application of this study to the control of health problems.” So what exactly does this mean? Mental Floss spoke with a few epidemiologists to shed light on what they do, how they do it, and which germ-friendly foods they avoid at the buffet.

1. People often mistake epidemiologists for skin doctors.

Since the word epidemiologist sounds like it might have something to do with epidermis (the outer layer of skin), people often think epidemiology is some offshoot of dermatology. At least, until the coronavirus pandemic.

“Prior to that, no one knew what I did. Everyone was like ‘Oh you’re an epidemiologist—do you work with skin?’” Sarah Perramant, an epidemiologist at the Passaic County Department of Health Services in New Jersey, tells Mental Floss. “I would be rich if I had a dollar for every time I got asked if I work with dermatologists.”

2. Epidemiologists don’t discover a new disease every day.

Though some epidemiologists do look for unknown diseases—certain zoonotic epidemiologists, for example, surveil wildlife for animal pathogens that might jump to humans—most are dealing with diseases that we’re already familiar with. So what do they do every day? It varies … a lot.

Epidemiologists who work at academic or research institutions undertake research projects that help determine how a disease spreads, which behaviors put you at risk for it, and other unknowns about anything from common colds to cancer. But it’s not just about devising experiments and studying patient data.

“I like to tell my friends and family that my job is about four different jobs in one,” Dr. Lauren McCullough, an assistant professor in the department of epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, tells Mental Floss.

Writing, she says, is “the most important part.” It includes requesting grants, devising lectures and assignments, grading her students’ work, writing about her research, and more. She also sits on admissions committees, reviews other epidemiologists’ studies, and oversees the many people—project managers, data analysts, technicians, trainees, etc.—working on her own research projects.

Those who work in the public health sphere are often monitoring local outbreaks of diseases like the flu, Lyme disease, salmonellosis, measles, and more. If you test positive for a nationally notifiable disease (any of about 120 diseases that could cause a public health issue), the CDC or your state health department sends your electronic lab report to the epidemiologist in your area, who’s responsible for contacting you, finding out how you got sick, and telling local officials what steps to take in order to prevent it from causing an outbreak.

3. Epidemiologists have to make some uncomfortable phone calls.

At least the person on the other end can't see your expression of consternation.Andrea Piacquadio, Pexels

Epidemiologists sometimes have to ask pretty personal questions about drug use and sexual activity when trying to figure out how someone got infected, and not everyone is happy to answer them. “I’ve gotten hung up on many a time,” Dr. Krys Johnson, an assistant professor in Temple University’s department of epidemiology and biostatistics, tells Mental Floss.

Some simply aren’t willing to accept that they might have been exposed to a disease without knowing it. After several employees at a certain company tested positive for COVID-19, for example, Perramant started calling the rest of the workers to tell them to go into quarantine; this way, she could prevent sick people who weren't yet showing symptoms from spreading the disease without knowing it. But not everybody was open to her advice. “They would just swear up and down, ‘I haven’t been in touch with anybody who’s positive, please don’t call me again,’” Perramant says.

But there are plenty of cooperative people, too, especially victims of foodborne or diarrheal illnesses. “They really want to know where they got sick because they’re so miserable that they never, ever want to deal with that again,” Johnson explains. Parents of sick kids are also generally forthcoming, since they want to keep their kids healthy in the future. And then there are those who don’t have any problem spilling their secrets to a stranger.

“There was one woman who was very memorable,” Johnson says. “I called her about her Hepatitis C, and she was like, ‘Oh, honey, I did drugs back in the ’80s. That’s where I got my Hepatitis C. I pop positive every time!’”

4. Epidemiologists deal with a lot of rejection.

Public health epidemiologists have to learn to just shrug off all the rude tones and dial tones, and epidemiologists in academic settings need thick skin for different reasons.

“There’s just a lot of rejection,” McCullough says. “‘That idea isn’t good enough; this paper isn’t good enough; you’re not good enough.’ That is just a resounding thing. There’s a high bar for science; there’s a high bar for federal funding; and it takes a lot to cross that bar. So in the academic setting at these top-tier institutions, you really just have to have a thick skin.”

5. Just because epidemiologists' guidelines change doesn't mean they're wrong.

Sometimes, McCullough explains, the story of a disease can change over the course of one study. When you look at the first 100 people in a 10,000-person study, you’ll see one story emerge. By the time you’ve seen 1000 people, that story looks different. And after you’ve seen the data from all 10,000 people, the original story might not be accurate at all.

Usually, epidemiologists can complete the whole study of a disease and draw conclusions without the world clamoring for half-baked answers. But with a brand-new, highly infectious disease like COVID-19, epidemiologists don’t have that luxury. As they’ve learned more about how the pathogens spread, how long they can survive on surfaces, and other factors, they’ve changed their recommendations for safety precautions. Everyone else in the world of epidemiology expected this to happen, but the general public did not.

“If we say something this week that contradicts what we said last week, it’s not that we were wrong,” Johnson says. “It’s that we learned something between those two time points.”

6. Being an epidemiologist would be easier if people kept better track of their behavior.

Often, people omit vital information about how they got exposed to an illness because they just don’t remember all the details. You could easily recall devouring a few slices of the decadent chocolate cake your mom baked for your birthday last Friday, but you might not be able to name every bite of food you ate on a random Thursday three weeks ago.

“People aren’t telling us the whole truth, but it’s not that they’re being intentionally obtuse,” Johnson explains. “With recall bias, unless there’s a reason for us to really remember, we’re not going to remember everything we actually ate.”

This has made it especially difficult to trace an aerosolized disease like COVID-19.

“All my friends going into the Fourth of July were like, ‘Should we have a get-together?’” Perramant says. “And I said, ‘You can have people over, but you better take an attendance list. You better have a little spreadsheet on Google Drive that has every person’s name and their phone number, so that when one person tests positive and gets sick this week, when I call you, you will be able to give me that information like that.’”

7. Epidemiologists have reason to be wary of buffets, cruise ships, mayonnaise, and cubed ham.

It's all fun and games until someone eats warm egg salad.Tim Meyer, Unsplash

Infectious disease epidemiologists may have accepted that germs are a part of life, but they also know where those germs like to congregate.

“I don’t go to buffets, I have never been on a cruise ship and I don’t intend to, I’m super conscientious when I fly,” Johnson says. “And I’m really aware of whenever mayonnaise-based things are put out at family functions. If you’re ever at a potluck and people come down sick, the first thing people say [they ate] is potato salad or egg salad, because mayonnaise can spoil so quickly.”

“[Cubed ham] is one particular microbe’s very favorite thing to multiply on, so if you’re gonna have ham, make it a whole ham,” she says.

8. Teaching people is a really rewarding part of being an epidemiologist.

In addition to actually leading lectures in the classroom, academic epidemiologists also work extremely closely with their students on research projects; McCullough estimates that she’s in contact with hers at least once a day when they’re collaborating on a study.

“To work with someone so closely, and to watch them progress as a scientist and as a person, and then to have to let them go and send them out into the world, I find that very rewarding,” McCullough says of her trainees. “As a scientist in an academic institution, there’s not a whole lot of immediate gratification. Our papers get rejected, our grants don’t get funded, but the trainees are always a source of immediate gratification for me, so I hold them close to my heart.”

Epidemiologists in other spheres have teaching opportunities, too. When a community experiences a disease outbreak, public health epidemiologists like Perramant are responsible for helping the general public understand what they can do to prevent the spread.

“I like to teach kids about infectious disease and infection prevention for what’s relevant to them. We’ve had a couple of large outbreaks at summer camps, and last summer I put together a training for camp counselors,” Perramant says. “That’s always a part of my job that I really love.”

9. Epidemiologists have a unique understanding of racial disparities.

At this point, it's exceptionally clear that COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting people of color in the U.S. They're more likely to be exposed to it, they have less access to testing, and the preexisting conditions that place them at a higher risk can be the result of systemic racism. When these trends started to become apparent, McCullough got flooded with phone calls asking why. Her answer? This isn’t new. As she’s seen in her work as a breast cancer researcher, Black women are more likely to die of that disease than their white counterparts, and similar health disparities exist across the board.

McCullough explains that the general public is finally realizing what epidemiologists already knew: That poor disease outcomes in minority, low-income, and rural populations aren’t because of anything those people are doing on an individual level. Instead, it’s a result of systemic issues that keep them from leading financially comfortable, healthy lifestyles with access to healthcare and other resources.

“It’s not just COVID—it’s almost every single chronic and infection ailment that’s out there,” McCullough explains. “So this is a real opportunity for people to step back and take an assessment of where we are in terms of our healthcare system, and what we’re doing so that everybody has equitable outcomes. Because people shouldn’t die just because they live in a rural area, or just because they’re poor, or just because they’re Black or Hispanic.”

10. They've had to deal with a lot of “armchair epidemiologists” lately.

Until this year, epidemiologists had to suffer through people mistaking them for dermatologists. Now, during the coronavirus pandemic, people finally know at least a little about their jobs. In fact, people are so confident in their newfound epidemiological knowledge that many are fancying themselves experts on the subject.

“At the beginning of 2020, there were like 500 epidemiologists, and now there are about 5 million. Everybody thinks they’re an epidemiologist,” McCullough says. “There’s a science to it, and it’s a science that requires training. We went to school for a really long time to be doctorally trained epidemiologists.”

It’s not just about advanced degrees, either. Beyond that, you need years of firsthand experience to grasp all the nuances of understanding methods, interpreting data, translating your findings into recommendations for the general public, and so much more. In short, you can’t just decide you’re an epidemiologist.

Perramant has her own analogy for the recent influx of self-proclaimed epidemiologists: “It’s like armchair psychology. Poolside epidemiology now is a thing.”