Note: The following commentary refers specifically to popular areas in which a formal trail system is in place. If hiking in trailless terrain, always make a concerted effort to avoid walking over fragile vegetation (see below) and if you are in a group, minimize your environmental impact by fanning out in order to avoid forming paths which future hikers may follow.
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, wet or circuitous, suck it up and channel your inner-Buddhist, i.e., follow the “middle way.”
I’ll leave you with a quote I read on the DeAnza College “Leave No Trace” page. It is from a Park Ranger in Grand Teton National Park (MT) speaking about the fragility of alpine vegetation:
“………… short growing seasons, wind, intense UV radiation, and heavy snow loads make life in the alpine zone precarious and fragile. Plants may take 300-500 years to recover once trampled or destroyed. Reduce your impacts on alpine vegetation by walking on rocks and staying on trails, when available. Camp on durable surfaces and not on vegetation.”