Leave No Trace: Surface Matters

hLast week we began a series on the practice of Leave No Trace, which aims to educate outdoorsmen on the need to reduce our footprint and impact on the wilderness in order to preserve natural ecosystems. Specifically, we explored switchbacks and how they help to prevent erosion due to water or heavy foot traffic. Today we’ll continue with a look at how you can reduce your impact by being mindful of the ground beneath your feet on the trail and in the campsite.

Believe it or not, trails actually do much more than guide you along a safe route. A lot goes into their design and placement to ensure they don’t negatively affect the surrounding wilderness. To help them do their job effectively, try to stay on designated trails when you’re hiking. Furthermore, if you’re in a group, be sure to walk single file along the center of the path. Also, like we discussed last week, don’t take shortcuts, especially on switchbacks.

Even if the trail is muddy or riddled with puddles, stay on it. If you’re hiking in areas where the trails become a little messy, you should have a good pair of waterproof boots on your feet anyway, so trudge through it. When people don’t want to get their feet dirty and choose to walk around the muddy trail, it actually widens the trail and causes it to become muddier in the future. Getting dirty is all part of the experience, so wear good boots and even gaiters if you want, but always be sure to stay on the trail.

Believe it or not, your boots can actually cause damage to trails, as well. To minimize their potentially damaging effects, wear as light a boot as possible for the conditions you’ll be up against. Heavy boots with deep treads compact the soil more and tend to tear up trails. Furthermore, it’s smart to keep a pair of soft camp shoes on hand to wear around your campsite. Sandals, tennis shoes, or even moccasins are good options here.

On longer hikes, try to walk on durable surfaces—rock, sand, gravel, snow, pine needles, or dry grasses—as often as you can, in order to prevent vegetation damage and erosion. Also, if you do find yourself in the backcountry, spread out so that you don’t inadvertently create a trail due to the heavy foot traffic.

When it comes to your campsite, remember that you find campsites; you don’t make them. This means look for sites that are already established, to avoid destroying the nearby ecosystem in order to make a new site. Try to camp on sturdy, durable surfaces, too. Steer clear of soft, fragile areas that will impact easily, as they’ll take a long time to heal after you leave.

Many people are surprised to discover just how much nature reacts to our presence, even in the most remote areas of the wilderness. Even something as seemingly trivial as the treads on your boots can impact the ground and, thus, the ecosystem. True outdoorsmen strive to preserve Mother Nature’s beauty, so keep the tips outlined today in mind and be sure to return for more tips on implementing Leave No Trace principles into your everyday outdoors activities.