LNT: Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

This is part 2 of a 7 part series exploring the why’s and how’s of practicing the seven principles of Leave No Trace.

The second principle, travel and camp on durable surfaces, provides guidelines for choosing campsites and walking paths.

Why travel and camp on durable surfaces?

All people who recreate in the outdoors leave a mark on the landscape. Animals do, too. However, people tend to recreate in very large numbers in specific areas. We congregate around streams, meadows and lakes. We tend not to stray too far from access points like parking lots. We move in groups. All those footfalls make an impact, but the impact is greater on some surfaces than others.

According to lnt.org, “Travel damage occurs when surface vegetation or communities of organisms are trampled beyond recovery. ” Alpine meadows and cryptobiotic soil are not very resistant to disturbance. It doesn’t take much to damage the habitat and once disturbed, it can take years or decades to recover. Rock, snow and sand are typically very resistant to disturbance. You can take huge groups of people hiking across these surfaces and leave hardly any impact.

It is especially important to consider surface durability when camping. Think about your behavior once you set up camp. You set your tent on the ground and spent probably 8 hours per night laying on the ground there. During the morning and evening, you walk all over the terrain surrounding your tent, trampling the vegetation over and over again. Once you establish a new campsite, it could remain disturbed for a long time to come. Each subsequent camper will continue to impact that area, making it nearly impossible to recover. Once established, it is best to continue using that site instead of creating new ones.

How to travel and camp on durable surfaces?

First, understand what surfaces are durable. Trails are created to minimize the impact on a landscape by hikers. They are designed to withstand erosive forces and provide a route through a natural space that receives a lot of visitation. If you stick to the trail, you reduce your impact by restraining your impact to a designated area. Imagine a popular place like Yellowstone National Park. If everyone who pulled up to the parking lot walked off in a different direction, the entire landscape surrounding the visitor center would be trampled and barren. Instead, trails and fences are put in place to concentrate the impact. While trails themselves are an impact on the land, they enable large volumes of people to visit and enjoy an area in a more natural state.

Follow the switchbacks!

Does that mean you should always stay on the trail? No! In places that receive high visitation, or where you specifically see “stay on trail” signs, it’s important to walk on the trail. It’s also important to avoid cutting switchbacks. Switchbacks and other trail design features are used to reduce erosion. Yes, you may shave 30 seconds off your hike time, but you are likely contributing to that trail needing more maintenance in the future. Stick to the trail in high use areas!

Off-trail hiking at its finest.

If you like to hike off-trail, as I do, there are different principles to consider. Where it is allowed, hike off-trail in areas where there are not lots of people. If you are hiking off-trail in a group, try not to walk single-file. Repetitive footsteps in the same line will create a trail of convenience, not design. Unofficial trails can cause damage to the landscape. However, if you’re walking on a durable surface like snow or gravel, you need to be less concerned about dispersing use. The bottom line is: consider the degree of impact you (and your group) is making in that particular area.¬† Then, make decisions that will both help you achieve your goal and minimize disturbance in an area.

Choosing a campsite that considers this Leave No Trace Principle can be challenging in certain environments. First, check the rules and regulations for the area in which you are planning to camp (see: LNT Principle 1). If there are already designated or obvious campsites, these should be your first choice. Unfortunately, some people choose to make campsites in places where they shouldn’t be, so just because¬† a site is disturbed doesn’t mean you should camp there. Making camp on durable surfaces is a no-brainer; do this whenever possible. Rock slabs, snowy fields and sandy beaches above high tide line are excellent choices.

A previously disturbed campsite on a durable surface.

In addition, try to use established cooking areas, fire rings and walking routes whenever possible (instead of creating new ones). When you break camp, be sure to clean up all signs that you were there and do your best to naturalize areas you disturbed. Camp like a ninja: make the site look like you were never there…

By traveling and camping on durable surfaces, we can all minimize our impact by concentrating it in high-use areas and dispersing it in low-use areas. What strategies do you use to assess surfaces and reduce your impact?