Many times I have said that the best part about hiking is the people that you meet. And other times I have said that the worst part about hiking is people. How can both be true?
There is no doubt that for me, meeting other hikers along the way is one of the most gratifying aspects of a long-distance hike. I completed the Appalachian Trail in 2014, and I still keep in touch with a number of my fellow trekkers. There is something about sharing a very difficult and challenging experience that creates strong bonds, and hiking is no exception.
However, many of the things that bother me about the behavior of the general population in regular life are the same things that bother me about some hikers that I meet on the trail.
Which brings me to the concept of Leave No Trace. Whether you are out on a day hike in Caledonia State Park, or on a six-month hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, the Leave No Trace principles are an important part of responsible, enjoyable hiking, and everyone of every ability and intent should learn these principles and encourage their use among fellow hikers.
In a nutshell, the seven Leave No Trace principles basically boil down to the Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If what you do bothers other people, or infringes on their capacity to enjoy their own time in the woods, please do not do it.
All of the Leave No Trace principles ensure the safety of individuals, minimizes damage to the trail and woods, and helps to provide a positive experience for everyone.
I have met amazingly wonderful people on the trail, and I have met complete boors. Imagine going out to the woods to contemplate, relax, and enjoy the quiet and peace, and you meet someone — or worse, a group — who crash through the woods, blare music from their phone, take care of their bathroom business just feet off the trail, toss their trash in the woods, carve their name on trees or shelter walls, and kill every snake they see. Those people are not really thinking of all the others that they share the woods with. They only are thinking of themselves, and probably either don’t care about the trash, or figure someone else will dispose of it. Those folks need to be educated.
Plan ahead and prepare
Know where you are going. If that necessitates using a compass, then learn those skills. If it requires a map, then make sure you have the most up-to-date maps or trail guides. Make sure you have proper clothing for the conditions. Many times a summer day can turn cold and wet in a matter of hours, particularly in the mountains. If you are out for a long time, carry the right amount of food, and know where the water sources are before you head out.
When hiking in the Great Smokies National Park in April, we were trying to make our way through rain and ice in 40 degree, windy weather. We arrived at Newfound Gap, which is 15 miles from Gatlinburg, TN, and a fellow hiker, one with little experience but a lot of gumption, was huddled in the bathroom trying to get warm with the hand dryer next to the sink. His only jacket was his life guard jacket from his summer job at a pool, and he was dangerously close to hyperthermia. We called a shuttle, packed him in the car, and went into Gatlinburg to warm us all up. He was woefully unprepared for the conditions, and put himself, and those who had to help him, in a potentially dangerous situation.
Travel and camp
on durable surfaces
Many trails, particularly in Maine, go straight up a mountain, and straight down. But most trails in all areas of the country contain switchbacks to make for an easier grade and to combat trail erosion. Invariably, someone decides they can cut their distance by cutting the switchbacks and hiking straight down the mountain. This causes another path, encourages others to do the same, and creates an erosion problem and damage to plant life. Hikers are encouraged to stay on the trail on the durable surfaces that have already been created.
The same is true with camping. When looking for a campsite, it is best to choose an area that has been camped on before. These surfaces have already been compacted and the chances for further damage are minimal. As tempting as the nice bed of wildflowers and moss may be for putting up a tent, this is not the way to set up camp. When leaving a campsite, or when hiking through the woods, no one who hikes after you should ever be able to tell that you were there.
Dispose of waste properly
Waste, both trash and human waste, are major problems out in the woods. It does seem logical however, that those who think nothing of throwing a bag of fast food trash out of their car window wouldn’t give a second thought to leaving their food trash and wrappers in a fire pit at a shelter. I was hiking with a young hiker in his early 20s and as he prepared his dinner, he put all of his trash, plastic wraps and all, into the campfire in the firepit.
Paper, to start a fire in a proper firepit, is one thing, but burning trash is entirely different. Toxic smoke is created with the burning of plastic, and many things thrown into a fire do not completely burn.
Human waste can be a real problem, and actually quite disgusting. Imagine setting up your tent at a campsite on a bed of leaves, and later realizing that you had discovered someone else’s bathroom. All waste should be buried in a six-inch deep hole, at least 200 feet from water, and 100 feet from the camp/shelter. On the Appalachian Trail, there are shelters, usually within a day’s walk from each other, and they all have a privy on the premises. This is very helpful in keeping the waste where it belongs.
Leave what you find
No one wants to see graffiti in the woods. If you want to take a picture of your campsite, great. But don’t leave your mark on the shelters or trees. If there is a beautiful patch of wildflowers, enjoy them, but leave them there for others to enjoy as well. There is a saying that I like: Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.
Minimize campfire impact
There is really no need for an axe when on a hike. The best wood to burn is the smaller stuff that is found on the ground, not the big logs that need to be cut up. Never cut down a tree to get wood for a fire. Rather, collect the small, downed wood that is everywhere. If you must have a campfire, use a firepit that is already there, or if you create a firepit, make sure it is dead and cold when you leave the next morning, and cover it with leaves and branches so no one can tell you were there.
There are some pretty amazing things out in the woods, and some pretty great wildlife. It is important to remember that you are a visitor in their home. One of the things I enjoy when in the wilderness is the fact that I am just one of the animals. Hiking in the High Sierras in California for example, the animals don’t usually feel threatened by people. They are miles and miles from any roads or civilization, and they are happy to co-exist with you. We should be happy, and honored, to co-exist with them. Keep a safe distance, take pictures, and don’t feed them or make your food easily accessible to them.
The campsite below Half Dome in Yosemite National Park is very popular. At close to 9,500 feet, it is difficult to get to and a welcome respite from a tough day of hiking. Most who camp there are very careful with their food, but the bears know that many are not. They know that food is there, and they will sort of hang out just out of sight, waiting for someone to leave their food unattended. That is not good for the bears, and it is certainly not good for the humans!
Be considerate of other visitors
While this is a really good rule to follow for any human in any circumstance, it is certainly one of the most important Leave No Trace principles. You may enjoy your music or podcasts with some good earbuds, but no one wants to hear loud voices or music. It is important to respect nature’s quiet. And, out in the woods, can we all be kind and friendly? No one goes out for a respite in nature desiring or expecting to find rude, selfish individuals. It can ruin a wonderful experience for someone.
So, hike on, hikers! Just make sure you pack it in, and then pack it out. Leave the outdoors better than you found it, control your pets, and when you are out there, leave no trace that you were ever there. Nature, and your fellow hikers, will love you for it.
The next installment of On The Trail will appear in the Oct. 11th edition of the Gettysburg Times