When I was hiking the AT, I learned a lot about the problems with heavily used trails. It’s difficult to convince people to practice good outdoor ethics without sounding preachy, but this is an issue close to my heart, so I decided to take a stab at spreading awareness. These are some of the problems I find people are most unaware of, or just tend to ignore because they see them as unimportant.
So next time you’re outside, keep these things in mind! I think knowing why rules are important can help you remember them.
- Do not make new campsites in alpine zones. Camping is usually rife with small rules/guidelines that depend on the type of use seen in the area you are camping in. Many times, camping somewhere no one else has camped is an acceptable and low-impact activity, as long as you minimize your effect on the campsite (no fires, avoid moving many large objects, only stay one night, etc). But in alpine zones, the plant life is very different. Alpine plants are more fragile and take much longer to grow with the limited resources available to them. Mt. Rainier National Park recommends only camping on permanent snow or on grounds that have been used as a campsite before. Camping in alpine meadows may not seem very different from choosing a campsite in a low-altitude forest, but in reality the impact can be many times greater, especailly these alpine zones are home to many rare species.
- When possible, don’t build a fire except in an established fire ring (and definitely don’t build new fire rings). This one can be hard to swallow for people who love building fires, but fires are less important than they traditionally were for keeping warm and preparing food. Building a fire isn’t always a huge problem (unless it’s actually forbidden), but camp stoves can be very light and much more convenient. Plus, you avoid creating a fire risk, removing wood, and burning the ground. Creating a fire ring and not dismantling it when you’re done is sometimes seen as a public service, but in reality, it just encourages people to build fires where it should not be specifically encouraged and creates work for trail maintainers, who often come through and remove them.
- Pick up after your dog. Sometimes, leave no trace is about being kind to other visitors as well, and no one wants to step in or smell your dog poop. And in some heavily used areas, the effect can be worse than a little grossness. Dogs can poop near water sources used by backpackers, they can transmit disease to wildlife, and the nitrogen in their waste can contribute to altered soil chemistry and encourage growth of invasive species. Pack it out, or on a multi-day trip, at least dig a proper cathole for your dog. (Notably, getting your dog a backpack can allow it to carry its own waste!)
- Don’t throw trash on the ground just because it’s “compostable.” Not only are discarded orange peels ugly, but on a larger scale they can start to have a negative effect on wildlife. Food trash is still something not normally found in the area, and animals may eat it and get sick. It also contributes to animal behavioral problems, like annoying birds that stay too close to popular lunch spots and harrass people, or squirrels who get into everyone’s stuff at camp.
- Hang your bear bag. On some level, most people know they are supposed to do this, but it can be annoying to do and so it is easy to rationalize skipping the chore if you don’t know of any bear danger nearby. The problem with this is that this guideline isn’t just meant to protect you, but also other hikers in the future as well as wildlife. Not hanging bear bags in an area without bear problems can create them. Eating your food is bad for wildlife in general, plus it creates behavioral problems. Bears who develop these will likely be killed as a result. And future hikers may be annoyed or even hurt by the indirect results of your choices. A way to help mitigate this problem is to practice your bear bag strategies before you enter the backcountry and find out what works for you, so you aren’t throwing rocks at trees late into the night.