When hitting the trail these days, it’s not uncommon to see evidence of human activity, even miles into the backcountry. Trails are littered with trash and graffiti, and common areas are often destroyed. And this makes outdoor enthusiasts wonder if hiking is bad for the environment.
Hiking isn’t bad for the environment, but with more people treading on fragile ecosystems and disposing of their waste improperly, the environment can suffer over time. However, if all hikers remain on designated trails and follow Leave No Trace principles, the benefits of hiking outweigh the harm.
Hiking offers the chance for people to learn about and see these ecosystems for themselves. This builds a better understanding of why these natural areas should be protected and how an individual can help. But the trick is getting everyone who enjoys these natural areas to understand their impact.
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Not only unsightly to other hikers, leaving your trash in nature can have a severe impact on the environment. Litter washes into waterways, contaminating the precious natural resource for humans and wildlife alike. All rivers lead to the ocean, so to speak, where garbage has become one of the most problematic forces that environmentalists face.
Plastic especially is a big problem, as very few plastics biodegrade (break down into natural substances over time). In fact, conservationists have an on-going battle with plastic which is known to photodegrade. This means that the exposure of sunlight on plastics make the material brittle overtime.
Because of this, plastic will break down into smaller and smaller pieces until it appears to have vanished, but this illusion is false. Although the pieces are smaller than the naked eye can see, the chemical composition of this unnatural substance remains the same. This has a large impact on soil and plant health in wilderness areas due to the buildup of those harmful chemicals over time.
Improper disposal of waste often includes human feces. Poorly disposing of your bodily waste while out in nature can not only poison a nearby water supply, but it may also cause curious wildlife to travel outside their territory to investigate the smell.
Whether other hikers or wildlife are dealing with the consequences of your actions, the things we throw away in nature do not merely disappear.
With environmental protection and management measures on the rise, signage that marks habitat restoration areas are commonly displayed these days. But as we hike, we rarely stop to consider the impact of our own footprints when we step off the trail.
It’s of course courtesy to move over or off the path to let other hikers pass, but it’s also important to think before you step. Even a few feet off the beaten path can hold a diverse ecosystem of fragile species.
Native plants are an excellent example of this. To the average hiker these spindly species may look like weeds, but among them are endangered or threatened flowering plants such as Peninsular spineflower, Hickman’s cinquefoil, and Lyon’s pentachaeta.
An average person may ask, ‘but who cares about a couple of dying flowers?’ And the answer would be that the animals do, even if some humans don’t! Various bird and rodent species rely on the seeds of endangered plants for food, especially during sparse months before winter sets in.
Furthermore, the introduction of nonnative species like invasive grasses outcompete these endangered plants. European grass species are especially hardy, with their seeds clinging to our socks and pant legs as they travel miles to a new area to be accidentally planted by a blissfully unaware hiker.
The development of new hiking trails and recreational areas hold exciting news for the average outdoor enthusiast. More thrilling still are the adventures many novice hikers have by stepping off the trail. While this is enticing to an ever-growing human population, the expansion of outdoor spaces for human enjoyment means a shrinking habitat for wildlife.
Just as new housing projects and businesses encroach on the wilderness and impact the animals that live there, the opening of new trails or even increased use of existing ones can negatively affect the animals that rely on those areas.
As humans frequent new areas, it prevents wildlife from traveling through or otherwise using their own habitat. Changes to the ecosystem such as the addition of fire rings in and around camping areas further impact the animals that call the forest their home, yet humans rarely realize this while they’re enjoying their hike or camping trip.
While it’s exciting that more people are hitting the trails than ever before, the fact is that most hiking areas aren’t prepared for the increase in activity. Unexpected heavy traffic means that trails are likely to widen, opening up the potential for erosion.
During winter and rainy seasons, trails become difficult to traverse, resulting in slippery, muddy trails in high traffic areas. This inconvenience for the majority of hikers causes people to make their own trails by “bog-skirting” (tip-toeing around muddy areas and slowly widening the trail).
These trails usually trek through the fragile environments that conservationists seek to protect, resulting in damage to the habitat. Going back to our earlier example of endangered native plants, species such as native grasses and mosses that often grow along trails are the first to be trampled.
As the season progresses into the drier months, these newly widened trails tend to remain widened because the soil has been compacted from repeated travelers. When soil particles are compacted this way, it prevents seeds from sprouting and roots from expanding to break the soil up again.
This cycle, when repeated over many years, can cause trails that started as narrow footpaths to expand to the width of a country road, further encroaching on native plant and animal species. But it’s not all bad news!
Being out in nature can both boost your mood and reduce stress. Happier people tend to be more helpful, receptive, and more hopeful overall. This results in more positive thinking and actions, especially when it comes to the preservation of nature, because a connection has already been formed.
Since hiking is good for the mind and body, this outdoor activity increases a person’s quality of life, as well as their overall health. Hiking also offers a form of recreation that does not pollute the environment with harmful fossil fuel emissions. This makes the activity both healthy for the individual as well as the environment.
Education is abundant in nature, on a personal level and a large scale. While out on the trail, we immediately become more aware of our surroundings. Whether we see that someone else has left their trash behind, or struggle with how to dispose of our own waste, the extra thought put into the simple act of throwing something away becomes a lesson.
External sources such as informational signage placed by park rangers helps educate hikers to understand the landscape they’re exploring, the wildlife that lives there, and how human activity might affect it all.
The more time you spend out in nature, the more you will learn. Being able to observe and study it first-hand has a much greater impact on our daily lives than simply reading about nature or watching it on a television program.
And like with most things, the more you learn about it, the more likely you are to want to care for it. This helps with the preservation of natural areas for future generations to see and learn about too.
Seeing the degradation of your favorite places and understanding how you can impact it helps to increase conservation efforts. When conservation of these areas improves through resources like better funding, it becomes more likely that they will be better preserved moving forward.
Sharing what you’ve experienced and learned about your conservation efforts and preserving nature helps to inspire others to act too. This was seen in 2019 with the #trashtag challenge. Individuals took it upon themselves to organize small trash clean-ups of their favorite nature spots and posted their efforts on social media.
That social media “trend” is just one example that shows, when we all work together toward a similar cause, we make a big impact on the world around us.
The ecotourism industry – businesses that use tourism to allow visitors to explore and learn about natural areas while supporting conservation efforts – is a good example of this on a large scale. Companies that offer rafting tours, zipline excursions, and mountain biking adventures, all contribute to natural areas by providing environmental education and increasing conservation efforts.
This contribution to conservation efforts also benefits an area economically, thereby increasing the quality of life for those living within that area. In less developed areas such as Monte Verde, Costa Rica, this can allow the local economy to thrive without having to rely on corporate entities that may be looking to open expansive resorts that would devastate the surrounding environment.
Furthermore, while the development of some trails may negatively impact wildlife, others exist to prevent the encroachment of human civilization on nature.
Additions of these types of trails actually assist in mitigating isolated habitats, because the use of them ensures that the area will not be developed into housing or businesses by humans. This helps prevent “habitat islands” that occur when a larger habitat is split up by human activity, whether that be a road, housing track, or strip mall.
Now that you understand how hiking can leave both a positive and negative impact on nature, it’s time to explore how to boost your positive impacts while you’re out on the trail!
As its name suggests, Leave No Trace (LNT) was designed to educate people on how to interact with their natural environment without leaving evidence that they were ever there.
These principles are based on scientific research conducted by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics to develop the most up to date practices for protecting and preserving nature. Following these 7 principles while out in any natural setting will ensure you’re using best practices to limit your impact on the environment, so others have a chance to enjoy it too.
Know the area you’re planning to visit, including the rules and regulations. Try to research wildlife in the area, inclusive of endangered or threatened species before visiting. Doing this beforehand will help you know what to look out for and what to avoid, so your time on the trail is as enjoyable as possible, without leaving a negative impact in your wake.
If additional signage has been added to a trailhead or recreation area, there’s likely a good reason for it. Typically, this occurs because professionals such as park rangers or wildlife biologists have noticed an ongoing problem in the area, like an excess of trash or visitors feeding the animals.
A durable surface typically means designated trails and developed campsites. However, if you have experience in the backcountry, you probably know that trails are not always well-marked and not all trails have designated camping areas.
In these cases, it’s important to limit the amount of time you spend off-trail hiking. Remember that even if the trail is muddy or wet, it is better for the environment for you to get a little mud on your boots than it is to bog skirt.
Avoid camping in fragile areas such as meadows. Not only will the environment be better for it, you’ll also likely avoid waking up with a damp tent and a lot more bug bites!
A good rule of thumb when it comes to waste on the trail is, “pack it in, pack it out.” With that said, there are some things that are okay to leave in nature in certain areas.
In most wilderness settings, it is okay to leave behind human waste, as long as it is buried at least 6-8 inches underground and at least 200 feet away from any water source, trail or campsite. This ensures that it is well hidden from humans and wildlife that may pass through that area.
Any other waste, including toilet paper, should be packed out with you and disposed of when you get back to the trailhead or your home.
Although we would all love to take that pretty flower or super cool rock home with us, the problem is just that – we all want to. And if we all did, there would be no more cool rocks or pretty flowers for the next person to enjoy.
Furthermore, the animals that rely on these natural resources as food and shelter wouldn’t have them either. In order to preserve the natural environment for humans and animals alike, you should bring nothing but memories and your own waste home with you.
Campfires have become the largest environmental impact of humans in nature areas. They cause the majority of wildfires, according to the US Forest Service.
In order to minimize your campfire impact and the risk it poses to nature, be sure to always use designated fire rings and only start a fire if the area you’re in currently allows campfires. Many parks and nature areas ban the use of campfires for any reason during drier seasons, so find out before you go.
Additionally, most wilderness areas require a fire permit to have a campfire. Being granted this printable permit usually involves watching a short video on campfire safety, including important tips like never leaving your fire unattended.
You’ll likely come across a wild animal at some point during your time on the trail. But being respectful of wildlife means generally leaving them alone as much as possible.
It is always okay to observe an animal, and that is one of the wonders that hiking provides. But be sure to keep your distance, don’t try to scare them off (unless your life is in danger), and do not try to feed them. An important thing to remember is that when we step into nature, we are stepping into the homes of all the animals that live there.
Backcountry etiquette dictates being courteous and considerate of both humans and wildlife alike. This means refraining from making excessive noise while hiking (i.e. not using personal stereos or shouting unnecessarily), picking up after yourself, and leaving an area in the same condition in which you found it.
Remember that nature is there for everyone to enjoy, whether that’s today, tomorrow, or years down the road. As long as we take care of it, it will remain the same for generations to come!
Hiking isn’t bad for the environment, as long as people follow basic leave no trace principles and take care not to actively harm the environment around them. By taking your waste home with you and sticking to designated trails, you can minimize the impact your hike has on the environment.