SIX HIKING HABITS TO LEAVE WILD PLACES BETTER THAN YOU FOUND THEM
Words and Photos from Katie Houston (@oatshikes)
Sometimes we pat ourselves on the back for sticking diligently to Leave No Trace, the expectation of backcountry behavior meant to protect our public lands, and other times Mother Nature begs for us to do more. Those particularly devoted to the cause join a local trail maintaining club or embark on a work trip to tackle a larger project, while others may simply gather waste as they head out on their local trails. Though leaving public lands better than we found them may look different ways in practice, there are plenty of opportunities to join in on the fun, whether you're solo or adventuring with others. The next time you head out for a hike, remember these assignments to become a habitual trail maintainer.
1. REMOVE WASTE YOU ENCOUNTER - The easiest way to begin making a difference is by picking up anything from microtrash to larger waste and removing it from trails when you encounter it. Consider organizing a group clean-up or notifying your local trail maintaining club of any particularly gnarly sections for particularly trashed areas. Thanks to you, even that long-forgotten doggy doo-doo bag will be properly disposed of.
2. REMAIN ON TRAIL - Though it may be tempting to stray from the path, know the trail is there for a reason and volunteers work hard to keep you on track and off fragile vegetation, soil, and habitat that lies just out of reach. When your faith in LNT is questioned the most - between muddy, mid-trail puddles and never-ending switchbacks - that is when you must hold the course and protect trails from serious degradation.
3. BECOME A BLOWDOWN BUSTER - The general rule of thumb here is if you feel comfortable and confident you won't injure yourself in the process, you can remove small blowdowns from the trail yourself. HMG Ambassador Rebecca Sperry recommends giving those smaller than the width of your wrist a go if you've got some gloves handy. For those interested in doing even more for our trails, consider a Sawyer Class through the USFS or your local trail maintaining club.
4. REPORT ISSUES TO TRAIL MAINTAINING CLUBS - You won't be able to tackle all-important projects and restoration efforts on the trail (nor should you without adequate training), but by taking photos or providing details about damage to resources, you can help maintainers have the most up-to-date information about conditions on trail before they head into the backcountry. Trail maintainers may not know about large blowdowns or privy overuse until it's too late and hikers begin venturing off-trail, causing overuse or unnecessary degradation - timely notice of any issues will ensure volunteers are able to perform their valuable work promptly and prioritize accordingly.
5. GRAFFITI BE GONE - Looking to restore trail resources to their original glory? Carry a small piece of cardboard to remove ink from metal signs and sandpaper to shave off graffiti on wooden benches, bridges, or shelters. This tip is perfect for those who'd like to go the extra mile but don't have the flexibility in their schedule to head out on a work day.
6. VOLUNTEERING LOOKS GOOD ON YOU (SHOW IT OFF!) - Helping to make our trails more accessible, sustainable, and better environments for the creatures that call them home deserves some pretty serious bragging rights. Kindly educate others on the Principles of Leave No Trace when appropriate and share how they too can develop hiking habits to help leave it better on their next adventure.
THE HABITUAL TRAIL-MAINTAINER PACKING LIST
A HARROWING CASE OF LEAVE NO TRACE
My favorite day on the Appalachian Trail I spent in New York state, crushing miles through a thunderstorm, dining on trail magic ice cream, and camping at the beloved Warwick Drive-In Movie Theater. Back on trail the next day, I encountered something that made my heart sink lower than anything else on my 2,200-mile journey; as I approached a particularly exposed rocky bald, the hastily spray-painted words "WILL YOU GO TO PROM WITH ME?" read bright-red on the rock below my feet. The next ¼ mile of trail was littered with spray-painted hearts covering trees, rocks, and dirt on the path, and synthetic rose petals lay wrinkled and muddy among the leaves.
In a world where important and highly-consequential decisions often feel out of our control, we are still able to make a positive difference around us in an impactful way. I took photos of the graffiti along the trail and contacted the local trail maintenance club to notify them of the situation. A day later, they informed me the responsible party had been identified and was going to repair the damage personally alongside volunteer trail crews. As I gathered the synthetic rose petals, I couldn't help but notice the silver lining in my gratitude for the opportunity to play my part in leaving the trails better than I found them that day.
Katie "Oats" Houston (she/her) is a freelance outdoor writer and content creator based in Austin, TX. After being bit by the thru-hiking bug in 2019 on the Appalachian Trail, Katie has since got the Colorado Trail and Lone Star Hiking Trail under her belt with a bucket list of many, many more in her future. She enjoys any opportunity to write about her adventures, good trail ethics, and trail stewardship and currently works as the Social Media Lead for The Trek. Check out her adventures with Thru the husky on her website and Instagram.