Environment

 

“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…….”

-  Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi”

A hiker’s moral compass generally points towards the greener side of the environmental fence. However, good intentions are about as useful as a chocolate teapot unless they are accompanied by action. Leave No Trace (LNT) hiking and camping means doing the little things regularly during your time out in the wilderness. With increasing numbers of people wanting to experience the same limited resources, the onus is upon all of us to play a part in preserving our natural heritage.

Keep On Track

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Mud slogging | South Coast Track, Tasmania, Australia, 2002

Bog skirters.

The scourge of trail maintainers around the world.

You know who I’m talking about. Hikers who slyly tiptoe along the side of trails in order to keep their tootsies dry and comfy. Armed with the attitude that “oh well, I’m only one person, it can’t do too much harm can it?”

The reality is that, yes, it can.  Whilst the impact of a single individual may be minimal, the damage caused by a number of hikers doing exactly the same thing is anything but. The repercussions of widespread off-trail hiking in heavily trafficked areas include:

  • Large scale erosion
  • Damaged vegetation
  • Disruption to wildlife
  • Altered hydrology
  • Widening of trails
  • Increased muddiness

The primary goal of a formal trail system is to enable people to enjoy a natural environment, whilst simultaneously minimizing the amount of human-induced impact to the area in question. When large numbers of hikers skirt bogs, cut switchbacks and take short cuts this objective is fundamentally compromised.

Shoes can be cleaned. You can dry your feet at day’s end. Damaged vegetation and erosion are not so easily remedied. The solution? Simple. If you are walking on a trail, irrespective of whether it is muddy or not, suck it up and stick to the path. Channel your inner Buddhist and follow the “middle way.”

Note: The above commentary refers specifically to popular areas in which a formal trail system is in place. If walking over trailless terrain in a group, you can lessen your environmental impact by fanning out, in order to avoid forming paths which future hikers may follow.

Camping

No trace camping is all about minimizing your wilderness footprint. When you leave a pristine campsite, it should be as if you were never there. When departing from an established site, aim to leave it a little better than what you found it.

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Campsite near Volcan Cotopaxi, Ecuador, 2004

Established Sites: If camping at established sites, stick to the designated area so as to not expand the already impacted surface.

Pack it in, Pack it out: Leave no rubbish; bring an extra plastic bag and pick up additional litter you see on the trail. Make this a habit. If other hikers see you doing it, it may just catch on!

Stealth Camping: If camping away from established sites, often referred to as wild or stealth camping, the hiker’s responsibilityto practice no trace principles is even greater. Avoid making fires (except in emergencies), uprooting plants and breaking off branches in order to make space for your shelter.

Groups: Try to keep size to a minimum. Larger groups make a bigger impact physically, visually and audibly.

Fire: If you must build a fire (eg. in an emergency situation to warm yourself), then minimize your impact by making it a mound fire (see Fire in the SKILLS section). Ideally, build it on an already impacted surface such as a dry river or creek bed. There are certain times and places where you should never build a fire:

  • Anywhere that wood resources are limited or in danger (eg. above the tree line).
  • In the vicinity of remote villages in developing countries.  The locals definitely need the wood more than you do.
  • Most importantly, anywhere that fire danger is a possibility. Always be aware of fire regulations and/or restrictions in the area in which you are hiking.  Be cognizant of the weather conditions. Many bush fires have resulted from hikers ignoring the warning signs, and building fires regardless.

Impact of the Campfire: If you do decide to build a fire, take a moment to think about the impact you will be causing. Consider that twigs, branches and logs don’t just lie about the forest waiting for some random hiker to come along and burn them. On the contrary, they play an important role in nature’s cycle through the process of decomposition. Nutrients obtained from the earth for growth are returned from whence they came via decay. Indiscriminate burning interrupts that process and thereby compromises soil quality.

Departure: When it is time to leave your campsite, if your shelter has left any imprint whatsoever be sure to remove it before setting off.

Hygiene

Maintaining hygiene standards in the wilderness is important for warding off infections and intestinal problems. However, a hiker’s personal hygiene should never come at the expense of the environment.

BODY WASH

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Sunset swim, Lake Baikal / Olkhon Island, Russia, 2009

Distance: Choose a spot at least 50 metres away from water sources.

Means: Use your cooking pot or a large water sack (eg. Platypus). Focus on the “essential” areas. If you choose to use soap, make it biodegradable and dilute it as much as possible.

Alternatives: If water is in short supply, baby wipes are a great option.

Swimming: Before jumping in be sure to give yourself a quick “pre-wash” if you have been using sunscreen, insect repellent or any other type of cream or lotion. At the end of a long hot day on the trail, it is easy to forget that what you see as a quick means of cooling-off and getting clean, is in actual fact a home for aquatic life and a water source for animals and future hikers.

WASHING CLOTHES

Suck it up: If you are hiking for only two or three days, you don’t need to be worried about washing clothes.

Daily Attire: During extended trips (ie. more than a week), the only items I regularly wash whilst on trail are socks (I don’t wear underwear). Clean socks are important in discouraging blisters and fungal infections. I generally carry three pair. One for sleeping (always kept clean) and the other two for hiking. In hot and/or humid conditions when I am sweating profusely, I will also rinse out my hiking shirt and shorts every two or three days to help avoid chafe.

Technique: Always wash your clothes away from water sources. No soap or detergent necessary.  Use your cooking pot or alternatively use a zip lock bag filled with water. After finishing, hang your socks on the outside of your backpack and away you go. In regards to the shirt and shorts, I will generally put them straight back on and within 30 minutes to an hour, I have worn them dry.

DISHES

Distance: Dishes should be done at least 50m away from water sources.

Technique: Pour a little water into the pot. Give it a good scrape and stir with your eating utensil. If you are not the fussy type, drink the liquid residue. If that doesn’t appeal, use a bandana to strain the larger food particles (which you can eat or pack out) and disperse the remaining water over a wide area.

Alternatives: For hard to remove food residue use a dishcloth, bandana or natural alternatives such as sand or snow.

No Soap: I tend not to use dishwashing soap. Utensils and pots can be sterilized simply by boiling water. If you choose to use a dishwashing liquid, make it biodegradable, dilute the water as much as possible and after finishing disperse it widely; ideally over a bare or already impacted surface.

THE #2 QUESTION

Location, Location: Choose a spot at least 50m away from water sources. Avoid drainage areas where heavy rains may dislodge the faeces and wash it downstream. Whenever possible, choose a site with maximum sun exposure as heat helps to accelerate the decomposition process.

Depth: Dig a hole about 15cm deep (use your heel, a stick, hiking pole or tent peg). Don’t go too much deeper as soils decomposing bacteria is concentrated closest to the surface.

Technique: Once you have finished your deposit, break it up with a stick and mix in some dry leaves or grass to help speed up decomposition. Urine and water also helps.

Toilet Paper: There is nothing worse than seeing used toilet paper in the wilderness. At the very least all TP should be well buried. The best option is to pack it out. Use a ziplock bag to decrease the odour factor. If it makes you feel weird looking at a bag of used TP, double it up with a coloured baggy.

Alternatives: If you use natural materials (eg. moss, large leaves, flat rocks) for wiping, then bury them together with the faeces.

Clean Up: Always clean your hands after finishing. If using soap (biodegradable) and water, do so at least 50m away from water sources.

Wildlife

What makes a successful wildlife watcher? A combination of patience, adaptability, knowledge and respect………..with the occasional sprinkling of good fortune thrown into the mix. Five tips for interacting with wildlife:

Observation: Observe wildlife without disturbing. If an animal changes its behaviour because of your presence, you are too close. Channel your inner-birdwatcher. It is helpful to have an idea about the behavioural patterns of the fauna you are likely to encounter. Animals can act differently depending on the season, location and their own species-specific life cycle.

Patience: The best times for viewing wildlife are generally first thing in the morning and late afternoon/early evening. You enhance your chances simply by finding a spot, sitting down and waiting. Be patient. The more you move around, the more conspicuous you are. By staying put, in effect you become part of the scenery and subsequently represent less of a threat.

Wind Direction: Animals have a much better sense of smell than we do. Very often they will smell you, before they hear or see you. That being the case, you improve your chances of viewing wildlife by approaching from an up wind direction.

Visual Impact: Minimize your visual impact by wearing neutrally coloured clothing. Same applies for your shelter and pack. The objective is to blend in, rather than standout from your surroundings. The important exception to this point is if you are hiking in an area in which hunters are active. In this case, wearing bright orange or other conspicuously coloured clothing is recommended.

Food: Never feed animals or leave behind food scraps. It doesn’t take long for animals to become habituated to human food. The repercussions are all negative – mice infested shelters; popular campsites frequented by possums, bears and other wildlife and; most importantly, an interruption to the animal’s natural dietary habits. No matter whether you are camping at an established or a pristine site, always safeguard your food. Methods, which will vary according to the conditions, include odour-proof bags, canisters, ursacks,  ziplock bags and hanging your food.

Hiking Etiquette

Minimizing your wilderness impact includes showing consideration for your fellow hikers. We all have different motivations for going out into nature. Accepting and being respectful of those differences, makes for a more harmonious experience for everyone.

Greetings: Always acknowledge your fellow hikers. At the very least a nod of the head or a simple ‘hello’. Such basic gestures of friendliness distinguish your average wilderness encounter from its big city equivalent.

Right of Way: People going uphill have the right of way. If they are exhausted, they will probably be grateful for the repose and wave you through. Nonetheless, the decision is theirs to make.

Breaks: If you are taking a break or stopping to admire a view, move off the trail so others can pass without impediment.

Hut Etiquette: If you are sleeping in a lean-to or mountain hut, be considerate to your fellow inhabitants. Keep noise to a minimum after 9 or 10 pm. If you are an early riser, try to have the majority of your gear packed and prepared before going to sleep. If you are a heavy snorer, do both yourself and everyone else a favour by bringing your own shelter. If you insist on staying indoors, think about passing out multiple sets of earplugs to your victims.

Noise: Try to avoid being excessively noisy on the trail. This is easier said than done if you are hiking in a big group. Be conscious of the fact that others may prefer to hear the sounds of nature rather than your own dulcet tones (e.g. If you need to use your cell phone, try and do so out of earshot of your fellow hikers).  A notable exception to this “less is more” propriety is if you happen to be hiking in bear country (see Animal Encounters in HEALTH & SAFETY), where making noise will help to minimize the chances of a surprise encounter.