Be a Courteous Camper: Try Low Impact Camping and Hiking

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Stick to the existing trail for low-impact hiking.
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“The Green Guide to Low-Impact Hiking and Camping” by Laura and Guy Waterman, encourages all campers and hikers to follow a few simple steps to reduce their impact on the earth.

The Green Guide to Low-Impact Hiking and Camping(The Countryman Press, 2016), by Laura and Guy Waterman is a necessary tool for any outdoorsman or woman. Laura and Guy Waterman teach readers about the value that a few small contributions can have on the land. With their suggestions, they also teach readers how to achieve each task. The following excerpt is located in Chapter 8: Cleaning Up Our Act.

Elements of the New Ethic

What was this new backwoods gospel?

1. Carry a lightweight backpacking stove. No fires. Leave the ax at home. In areas where campfires are still appropriate, there are a lot of sensible practices that fire builders can use to minimize their impact, both physical and visual.

2. Those who do insist on a fire, and are in an area where it is both legally and environmentally feasible to have one, have an obligation to take special pains to keep it safe and small, and to destroy all evidence of its having been there when they leave.

3. Use a lightweight foam pad. No more cutting bough beds for mattresses. (At least one camping manual of the old days had advised taking one entire balsam fir tree per bed!)

4. Wash both dishes and yourself away from streams, using biodegradable soap, and not much of it.

5. Choose a low-impact tent site so that you don’t need to provide drainage by digging a trench around your tent. This one is a bit tricky, and it illustrates the need for campers to understand the subtleties of the problem and the underlying objective, rather than just memorizing a rule or regulation. If you are in an area already heavily impacted, it is better to use the site that everyone else already has, rather than create a new one. But if you come on a lightly used site that is just beginning to show wear, it is better to disperse and find another place, preferably one that others are unlikely to find or reuse. No pat instruction can be handed out, but if you understand what the objective is, you can choose the right place to camp.

6. As a general rule, camp at least 150 feet from water and hiking trails.

7. These days it’s increasingly possible to purchase tents and packs of softer colors—green or brown—rather than the flaming reds and oranges that stand out so blatantly from far away and trumpet your presence to every other passing hiker.

8. Some conscientious campers carry hammocks to sleep entirely off the ground. More on this in chapter 10.

9. From wherever you camp, take a different route between there and the trail and the stream when you go for water. That way you won’t wear a path. Take a large water carrier with you so you can get ample water on the first trip.

10. Choose a different campsite every time. Most important: Never camp where someone else has (but also see rule 5 above). It’s repeated use of the same site that causes the damage. Limit use of any one site to two or at most three nights. (Some would say just one night.) It’s rather difficult to stay longer in one place and not have it look—and be—well worn.

11. Wear soft-soled shoes around your campsite. Take off the heavy lug-soled boots while in camp so as to take it easy on the ground cover. For that matter, many hikers feel that running shoes or similar lighter footwear are entirely adequate for most day hikes at least. Automatically strapping on the big lug soles is not necessarily the way to go.

12. No litter, of course. Carry out everything you bring in. Go one step further and pick up trash left by those who haven’t gotten the message yet.

13. Dispose of human waste with discretion and some understanding of what pollutes and how decomposition acts fastest. Where toilets are available, use them. In remoter locations, dig a very shallow cat hole, maximizing the speed with which nature can compost what you leave—well away from streams and trails, of course.

14. Don’t pick the wildflowers or forage indiscriminately for what some nature writer told you were edible wild foods. And will this generation at last be the one to leave all the birchbark on the white birches? Nothing symbolizes irresponsibility in the woods more than stripping birchbark.

15. Limit group size. One of the primary findings of the 1977 report of the Adirondacks’ High Peaks Wilderness Advisory Committee was that groups of more than 10 hikers have “a greater pressure on the resource than would the same number of users as individual day hikers or backpackers.” All over the country now, officials frown on groups of more than 10.

16. Keep voices down near other parties, and especially keep quiet after dark. As for radios—?!?!

17. Remember, it’s low-impact hiking as well as low-impact camping. As you hike along, stick to the existing trail rather than skirt its edge and widen it. Resist the temptation to walk alongside the person you’re conversing with if that requires you to walk outside the existing track.

18. When hiking off-trail, fan out through the untrampled woods, rather than tramping single file, thereby starting a herd path that could become a trail.

19. On trails, if you see drainage that’s clogged, scrape it out with your boot or a stick. Trails would survive so much better if every hiker had a sense of stewardship. We should stop thinking of ourselves as trail users and instead think of ourselves as trail stewards.

20. Have consideration for the local regulations when using pack animals. Nothing tears up mountain meadows and trails or pollutes watersheds quite so much as a string of horses, mules, burros, or llamas.

21. Even on human feet, think about your impact. Notice the season of the year when the snows thaw and reveal the land for the first time. The earth is uniquely vulnerable then. The mud that churning hiking boots create at such time goes deep fast. It is not like mud in a midsummer rainstorm. It is much deeper, much more disturbing to the integrity of the soil. Therefore, many hikers stay out of the hills in mud season. It’s not a great time for hiking anyway. In the 1970s Vermont’s Green Mountain Club began urging its members to stay off popular mountains in May, and Vermonters bought the idea. Now state government officials take to the television screen every spring to exhort the good citizens not to hike on vulnerable trails at that critical point of the seasonal cycle.

22. Above treeline, exercise special care to protect alpine vegetation. This means sticking to a designated trail where there is one, and where there isn’t, walking carefully on rocks only. It certainly means not camping on the tundra vegetation. The tent above treeline has to be a luxury lost, save in winter on a protective snow cover or in remote areas where a site may never be found and used again by other parties. But beyond camping, the aware hiker has developed an instinctive concern for where to put each footstep.

23. Cooperate with the sometimes onerous restrictions that backcountry managers install to cope with the impact of people.

24. Contribute constructive thinking to the problem. Those in charge are looking for ideas, and “public involvement” is a byword in the lexicon of modern backcountry management.

25. Remember, every time you’re walking up a trail or camping in the backcountry: The mountain environment is fragile.

That was the basic agenda of the new backwoods ethic. What was the result? A good answer is to go back and look at that clearing in the Krummholz near Greenleaf Hut that we described at the start of the previous chapter. It is now thirty years since the regulations and (more important) the education began, and since hikers started to live by the new ethic. What do we see?

The change is perfectly extraordinary for anyone who can recall what it looked like in 1970. It is tremendously heartening. Now we see a clearing still, but it is grass green. It might not remain a clearing long. Bushy shrubs and young balsams to a height of several feet grow in around the edges and cluster in the middle. Look for those bludgeoned-off stumps we mentioned. The new growth of fir overwhelms them—scarcely a stump visible! As you gaze, a snowshoe hare hops out from the dense edge and begins to nibble on that tempting, thick grass. (Or is it sedge? The hare doesn’t seem to care.) On a young balsam a white-throated sparrow sings.

More from The Green Guide to Low-Impact Hiking and Camping:
Bushwhacking Guideline for Low Impact

Try Hammock Camping in Backwoods for Low Impact


Reprinted with permission from The Green Guide to Low-Impact Hiking and Camping by Laura and Guy Waterman and Published by The Countryman Press, 2016. 

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