Minimizing Our Impact
The natural world needs our help. We all know about some of the environmental problems that our planet faces, including air and water pollution, acid rain, and global warming. Natural areas are very vulnerable to such threats, and this is an extremely relevant issue for those of us who care about hiking. The health of some wild areas is currently in jeopardy. In addition, for a long time there have been pressures to permit limited exploitation of the land within certain parks and preserves. The future of the wilder places -- and of hiking -- depends on the efforts of all of us to see that they remain fully protected an unharmed.
Any measures we take to reduce the amount of waste and pollution that we directly or indirectly create in our lives can only have a positive effect on the environment and the many natural areas where hiking takes place. We can also help by joining and supporting groups and organizations that are working full-time to protect the environment in general and unspoiled natural areas in particular. You’ll find links to some of them on our “Useful Links” page.
The increased popularity of hiking and backpacking in recent decades has led to some special problems in the backcountry. The volume of litter has increased, some streams and other water sources have become contaminated because of poor sanitation practices, and fragile vegetation has been damaged by careless hikers and other outdoorspeople. It’s obviously vital that we all refrain from actions that could mar the natural world in any way, and prevent any further deterioration from occurring. One way to put it is that we need to practice “low-impact hiking” or “minimal-impact hiking.”
Few things are more disturbing to those of us who love hiking and revel in natural beauty than the sight of garbage or broken glass in a splendid setting. It feels like an inexcusable desecration. Sadly, some people have little respect for their surroundings (or an apparent need to deface them), and/or minimal awareness of what they’re doing in leaving a trail of refuse behind. These may be the actions of a relatively small number of people, but their impact is glaring.
While most hikers certainly don’t intentionally throw litter around, some do carelessly leave behind such things as tissues or candy wrappers or cigarette butts. It’s essential while we’re out hiking that we try to be as diligent as possible with regard to every bit of trash. Everything we bring in MUST be carried out when we leave (with the exception of toilet paper, which is permitted to be buried after use in many but not all parks and natural areas). Picking up litter left by others will also help. If a fire has been built, paper alone may be burned, but not the many paper items that are plastic-coated or lined with foil (as burning these things results in pollution and leaves an unwholesome and sometimes unsightly residue).
Leftover food, including such things as apple cores and orange or banana peels, should usually be carried out as well. Bring an extra plastic bag for litter or leftovers. In some places it’s still considered acceptable to toss them in the woods -- away from water sources and trails -- but they have an effect on the local ecology and essentially don’t belong there. Aside from that, no one wants to sit down at a lovely spot next to decaying food scraps left by someone else.
For the sake of the wilder places as well as those who will follow us, when we’re hiking we need to leave no sign that we’ve been there.
When an outhouse or bathroom is available it’s probably best to use it, if we need to, assuming the conditions inside are reasonably sanitary. Most of the time, however, hiking entails using the “natural facilities,” taking care of our needs in the woods. In some fragile areas special regulations apply (including occasionally the requirement to carry out human waste in some heavily-used national parks and fragile areas).
In most wild natural areas there are just a couple of important guidelines. First, before taking care of business it’s necessary to get well away from any water sources, preferably 150 feet or more. Second, solid waste must be buried. Dig a hole four to six inches deep, if possible, and cover it over afterwards. In areas where the earth is moist a stick will usually suffice as a digging tool, or a small trowel may be carried for this purpose. If the soil is rocky or hard, dig as much of a hole as possible and rake some extra leaves or other organic matter over it. This should not be done at higher elevations where the vegetation is very fragile and the soil thin.
Poor sanitation practices are probably the single most important reason why water sources in wilderness areas have been going bad or deteriorating. Unburied waste can wash downhill a considerable distance in heavy rain and end up in a stream or lake. Failing to follow the proper methods may mean harm to the natural world and wildlife -- and indirectly to ourselves as well.
Water is vital to all forms of life. Pure clean water in the wild is a delicious and precious gift, and unpolluted water is sadly becoming more scarce. Years ago while hiking one could dip into practically any wild stream or lake for a refreshing drink, with little need to be concerned about contamination, but this is no longer true. Some water sources are undoubtedly still good, but the past couple of decades have seen more people than ever getting sick from Giardia and other parasites. While not life-threatening, the effects of contracting a parasite or ingesting harmful bacteria can be quite an unpleasant experience, one well worth avoiding. Most of us are now very cautious about the water we drink.
On a day hike the easiest things to do is bring water from home for the whole day. It’s also possible but less convenient to purify water while on a hiking trip, and usually essential to do if you’re camping overnight. Boiling water will destroy bacteria or parasites, but requires a stove or campfire. Iodine or other purification tablets added to water may do the trick, but everyone should know that these have a significant failure rate -- and some of us don’t carry them because of that fact (your author got a serious case of parasites many years ago after using iodine tablets). Lightweight “water purifiers” (filtration systems that often include a hand pump) have been on the market for some time, and these do the job quite well.
The only source of water that may be considered reasonably safe without treatment is that flowing out of the ground from a high mountain spring. If you get the water directly as it emerges from the ground high in a mountain wilderness, and you’re certain there’s no development or potential source of pollution within many miles or at a higher elevation, the chances of contamination are almost nil.
When you’re hiking near a lake or pond in warm weather, you may want to stop for a refreshing swim (which is what we do on many Wild Earth Adventures trips in the summer). And when in the water it’s important to avoid ever using soap or any other substance that doesn’t belong there. Not everyone realizes that biodegradable soaps will still contaminate the water. Any cleaning with soap should be done on land some distance away (you can carry water from the lake or stream for this purpose).
Contrary to practices of the past, no dishes or food containers should ever be washed in a wild stream or lake, with or without soap. Food scraps that end up in the water will probably rot and increase the bacterial count, contributing to the deterioration of the water quality. It’s vital that we do nothing that fouls or harms a water source.
A range of sometimes conflicting needs are represented by those who venture into natural areas. Many of us who enjoy hiking and camping in the wilder places treasure the peaceful quiet, and want to be free of distractions and noise -- human and otherwise -- as much as possible during our stay. At the same time, children and others who are having fun outdoors often vocalize their excitement and pleasure loudly, which isn’t always surprising. In addition, some groups of teenagers and adults go into the woods with cases of beer to party and loudly let off steam.
We can’t ask or expect others to be silent, but everyone should be aware that sound tends to travel a good distance in the natural world. Shouting may sometimes be heard from as much as several miles away. To others within earshot, especially those immersed in listening to natural sounds like birdsong or lapping waves, it may be experienced as annoyingly disruptive. Noise also greatly reduces your chances of seeing wildlife.
Many natural areas are large enough to handles numbers of people with different needs. Those who wish to make noise or are likely to be loud can show consideration by making an effort to seek a secluded area, a good distance away from others who might be disturbed. At the same time, practicing “quiet time” in the woods will not only be appreciated by others but has many beneficial effects to the practitioner.
Reducing Our Visual Impact
While it may not seem to be a matter of special importance, wearing and using bright-colored clothing and gear while hiking does have an effect in the natural world, making other hikers as well as wildlife much more aware of your presence -- sometimes disturbingly so. You can reduce your visual impact by wearing more muted colors (refraining especially from using day-glo-like colors). The one important exception is, of course, during hunting season: if you’re hiking in areas where hunting is going on, for safety’s sake you’re wise to wear bright orange or red.
Staying on the Trail
When you’re hiking in areas of heavy trail use and/or fragile terrain, try to stay on the trail as much as possible (unless you’re deliberately bushwhacking). Sometimes mud or water will force you to the side, but walking unnecessarily alongside a trail will help to wide it and increase erosion. Likewise, cutting across switchbacks (the zigzags in a trail as it climbs the side of a mountain) is bad form. Taking a shortcut between switchbacks creates a steeper trail that will probably funnel rainfall and quickly erode. By watching where you’re walking you’ll avoid creating more work for trail maintainers or otherwise impacting negatively on the trail environment.