Our day-to-day hiking seems to have little effect on us, but hugely impacts the next person coming through that environment. We are just passing through. We don’t live there. We don’t see it daily. We experience it and move on, usually forever. This is where trail etiquette becomes a critical player, because damage done on all those quick jaunts along the trail can really add up fast.
1. Get Educated
Leave No Trace (lnt.org) does an amazing job educating in this area. I like to imagine that my grandchildren are coming to see these places I’m enjoying. Do I want them to have the same pristine and inspiring experience or does it really not matter? I think it matters. This trick always helps me keep on the straight and narrow.
2. Stopping Along The Trail
Deciding to stop hiking for a break or for the night requires you to be diligent in your location selection. Stopping and exploding your backpack in the middle of the trail is poor form. Good form is getting off trail a few yards so people who aren’t stopping can come by without having to step over you or your things. Look for a durable surface like a big rock or bed of pine needles under a tree to take a break at.
3. Camp Away From Water
When it comes to stopping for the night, we all need water to cook dinner and re-hydrate. Make a point to get over 30 meters from your intended water source. Granted, you have to walk a little further to get water but you came out here to hike, right? This act works two-fold. It helps prevent erosion along the riparian corridors that cradle that beautiful life liquid we call water. The other benefit is that it gets your poop further away from said source. Keeping the water source in good condition is always good etiquette. Just think about getting more than 30 meters away for camp and an additional 30 meters away for that fecal matter. Easy, right?
4. When Nature Calls
Human waste takes a while to break down, and while organic, it isn’t natural in the quantity left by hundreds of hikers each summer. The worst thing you can do is try to be a bear and just drop it on top of the ground. Take a moment to dig a hole at least 6 inches down. The goal is to tap into the rich organic soils below the top layer of duff. These rich soils will help break down our organic booty matter. Oh and be sure to either bury that toilet paper with your matter or just pack it out. I promise, our grandchildren will thank us for doing this. Now dab some hand sanitizer on your hands and let’s move on. Remember, the leading cause of backcountry illness is fecal contamination. Nobody wants to have to leave the backcountry early because they got themselves or their friends sick.
5. Don’t Cut Switchbacks
I’ve often seen hikers moving as fast as they could down the mountain, like it was a hiking race. As a result, they not only needlessly punished their bodies but most importantly, as they were cutting switchbacks, they ruined hours of work put in by trail crews. Switchbacks are designed to help make steep terrain manageable and prevent erosion. By cutting off the trail to get to the spot below for the sake of distance and time, the trail develops ruts that lead to washouts, serious erosion problems, and braided trails. Eventually, these can really scar the landscape. Even cutting a switchback once, that single footprint, can enable the next guy to do the same. Then the next, and so on, until it’s a big old mess. Most trails were done right the first time.
7. Leave No Trace
That doesn’t mean “leave a little trace.” Aim for none. Leave the trail exactly as you found it, or better, even picking up the trash that others left behind.