Walking Lightly on the Land

Have you ever thought that there just might be too many of us out there? Our population is growing, our true wild places are shrinking, and the popularity of outdoor sports and recreation continues to rise. Preserving and protecting our wildlands is not just a job for rangers and land managers—it's a task for the rest of us, not only when we're camping, but also when we're walking.

The good news: It doesn't take much to have a positive impact—just a little concern and some know-how. Here's how you can help:

Limit the size of your group to no more than 10 people, including leaders. Less is even better. Smaller groups have less impact on both the land and on other hikers (who in many cases are seeking solitude, not a party).

Keep groups away from popular campsites and shelters. The illusion of privacy is precious to backcountry users. And your group will have more fun if the people in it don't have to worry about disturbing folks in the tent 10 feet away.

Hike single file. Hiking two or more abreast widens and erodes trails.

Stay on the trails. Don't be tempted to cut switchbacks—they're there not only to make the grade easier for walking, but to prevent erosion. If the trail is muddy, walk straight through the middle rather than cowering at the edges, which broadens the trail unnecessarily.

You can help prevent flooded or muddy trails by shoring up broken water bars. Placing a few rocks across the trail can help divert water downhill and away from the path. Note: Unless you've got trail maintenance experience, you'll be more helpful if you repair damaged water bars than if you attempt to install new ones.

Don't use so-called "social" or "volunteer" trails that veer off in all directions, sometimes crisscrossing meadows like rabbit tails. Stay on official trails. Encourage others to do the same by barricading shortcuts and social trails with some sticks and stones, the recognized hiker sign for "trail closed" or "don't go here."


Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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