5 Unusual Tips for Leaving No Trace While Hiking


, by Greg Heil

Pizzo Cefalone, Italy. Hiker: Christine Henry. Photo: Greg Heil

Whenever the aprés hiking discussion turns to the topic of Leave No Trace, most everyone can agree that it's a good idea to leave the Wilderness in pristine condition for the next person who visits. However, when the finger-pointing inevitably starts, the fingers are always pointed at other people: horseback riders on their thousand-pound beasts, mountain bikers skidding down the hills, dirt bikers roosting up the trails, uneducated tourists walking on the vegetation. But as the old adage goes, “Always remember that when you're pointing your finger at someone, you've got three pointing back at yourself.”

Hikers collectively seem to think that they're the most environmentally friendly user group—however, as the most populous user group by far, the sheer number of hikers can be extremely destructive. Worse still, many hikers who may not be as passionate about learning Leave No Trace principles often inadvertently cause incredible environmental impact, whereas other more passionate user groups might take more time to self-educate and, thereby, cause less impact.

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The nuances and interplays here are myriad, but the net-net of all this discussion is that hikers can and do make a significant impact on the natural environment. So, how can we reduce our impact while hiking?

We sat down with Erin Collier, Education and Program Manager for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, to get her top tips for leaving no trace while hiking.

1. Walk Through Mud Puddles—Not Around Them

Trail widening in Bryce Canyon National Park during a freeze/thaw cycle. Hikers not wanting to get their feet muddy have turned a beautiful trail into an 8-foot-wide muddy mess. Photo: Greg Heil

When a person is hiking down a trail and sees a mud puddle in front of them, their instinctive reaction is to divert around the mud puddle to avoid getting their feet wet—but according to Erin, that's the worst thing that you can possibly do. "The least impactful thing is to go straight through the mud," says Erin. "When we all go around it. . .the trail gets wider and wider, and it also can have negative impacts for trail maintenance and making sure that that trail's sustainable and going to be able to be used for a long time."

According to Erin, it only takes 25 passes over a stretch of ground to create a new trail. If each person goes around the mud puddle on the way out and the way back, those 25 passes can happen in a shockingly short amount of time. 

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The problem is further exacerbated because, when 25 people have walked around the edge of a mud hole, it inevitably makes the mud hole itself bigger—which then encourages people to walk further out around the new mud hole. It's a never-ending cycle.

Most people who've been hiking outdoors for enough years can think of trails that were once beautiful, narrow strips of dirt running through the woods that have turned into mucky, pothole-filled highways. In these cases, the trail widening can be entirely due to people walking around mud puddles. 

2. Don't Step off the Trail when Passing

Multiple trails forming in the high alpine. Photo: Greg Heil

In a similar vein, it's common for hikers to jump off the trail and hike through the undergrowth when they see another oncoming hiker. While these hikers might think that they're being courteous by giving the oncoming hiker space, in fact, they're actually damaging the vegetation and compacting the soil off-trail. On a really busy trail, this can take place enough times to widen the trail, damage the vegetation, and create trail braiding.

In this scenario, supposedly "courteous" hikers are the most inconsiderate people on the trail due to the environmental damage that they cause.

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When you see another oncoming hiker, and you want to let them pass, "the best thing to do is just find a rock or some kind of durable surface, just step off, and let someone go by," says Erin. "Just take a quick break and then get back on the trail." It doesn't have to take long, but by being a bit more mindful of how you yield the trail, you can dramatically reduce environmental damage.

3. Spread out when Hiking off Trail

Off-trail hiking to reach an obscure peak. Photo: Greg Heil

If there is an existing trail to follow, the least impactful way to travel is to stick to the trail and never leave it—don't shortcut switchbacks, don't hike along the sides of the trail. Instead, stay directly on the trail. 

However, if you find yourself in a situation where you have to hike off-trail—whether it's to reach an obscure peak objective or travel to your backcountry campsite—in order to reduce your impact, you should spread your group out instead of walking in a single line. 

Remember that it only takes 25 passes over a stretch of ground to create a new trail. If we take the example of a backcountry campsite with a group of, say, 5 people spending the night, those 25 passes can happen really quickly if you're traveling to/from a water source (for example). 

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Erin explains "it's not just the vegetation, it's also the soil compaction happening below that. Once the soil gets compacted, it's a lot more difficult for new vegetation to spring up, for new seeds to come up." 

Once the 25 passes have happened, a new trail has been created—and after that point has been reached, "it's really difficult to rehabilitate that site and kind of get it back to what it once was."

If, say, you're hiking off-trail to a peak with a group of friends, it might feel strange to hike in a spread-out cluster instead of a single line, but that's the easiest way to reduce your environmental impact.

4. Evaluate the Amount of Impact that an Area can Sustain and Whether You Should Be Hiking There

While intimidating, the rocky surfaces of large scree fields provide a durable hiking surface. Photo: Greg Heil

Hiking on a well-maintained trail is an extremely low-impact way to visit the outdoors (as long as we don't hike around mud puddles, stay on the trail, pass with care, etc.). But there are inevitably gray zones—gray areas where it's difficult to know how much impact a local area can sustain. This might be due to hiking off-trail to reach an obscure destination or following a social trail that was never really well-built in the first place and is in the process of eroding into an environmental disaster.

As we've learned, it isn't just one person traveling through an area that causes damage, but rather the cumulative effect of multiple people. So how do you evaluate your own individual impact in relation to this incredibly complex matrix?

SEE ALSO: "How to Leave no Trace While Backcountry Camping"

As you might imagine, there's no clear answer, but Erin tries to explain it:

"[It's] always important to think about: how trafficked is this area? How busy is this area? What is the potential for that cumulative impact? 

Each of us has our own personal outdoor ethic, and each of us also has our own personal connection to nature. Like I said, Leave No Trace isn't in the business of creating rules for how you should get outdoors. We're just trying to create that educational framework so that we can all make our own kind of personal decisions within our outdoor ethic, within what we feel is an acceptable amount of impact. 

So for some people, that might [mean] that they don't go on certain trails or they don't do certain things because the potential for impact is outside of what they're interested in. And for some people, that might [mean] that they're really trying to pay attention to each footstep and how each footstep can be the least impactful possible.

I think that obviously people are getting outdoors and climbing mountains and being in pretty undeveloped areas, pretty remote areas, and there's nothing wrong with that. That's a completely acceptable way to be connected with nature and spend time outside. But trying to just think through each situation and how you can be the least impactful in that situation and really trying to localize your knowledge so that you understand the ecosystem you are in and what potential harm there is from the activity that you're out doing [is important].

It's really thinking through your personal outdoor ethic and also thinking through whatever kind of rules and regulations are in place to protect that ecosystem in that area."

5. Educate People Within Your Sphere of Influence

One of the most significant ways that we can have a positive impact while hiking is to help educate other hikers about how to hike with minimal impact. If we can spread the common-sense rules of Leave No Trace, we can dramatically reduce our collective negative impact.

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Even if you consider yourself one of the enlightened hikers who knows how to hike without causing excess environmental impact, trying to correct other people that you see on the trail who might be making these errors is almost never effective at prompting true behavior change. Instead of confronting strangers, Erin notes that you can have a much greater impact by focusing on your sphere of influence—the people that you already know and have relationships with. Since we already have some built-in credibility with the people that we already know and go outdoors with, sharing these insights with our friends and family has a much higher chance of being effective and getting through. Beyond that, simply modeling good behavior is one of our best ways to make a difference.

Parting Thoughts: Get Involved with a Local Trail Crew

The unfortunate reality is that environmental damage inflicted on our public lands by uneducated hikers is rampant. It's incredibly common to find yourself hiking through a supposedly "pristine" wilderness area only to see multiple trail treads that have devolved into muddy ditches running next to each other. Sometimes it's three or four mucky messes that should instead just be one trail. So how do we deal with this reality?

"We're very lucky to have huge amounts of public land in the US and huge amounts of trail systems, and it's pretty difficult to maintain all of those trail systems," said Erin. "Our land managers are pretty strapped for resources, so those impacts can just continue." But if we can get involved by volunteering with trail maintenance groups, that can have a tangible positive impact on our local trails for not just us—but everyone else who comes after us.

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