Jeffrey H. Ryan Hiker Author Photographer Speaker Podcaster Director

Some thoughts as spring, hiking season and Earth Day converge 

Photo of litter. ©2018 CleanTrails.orgThe world is blessed with hundreds of thousands of miles of walking trails. One estimate is there are over 70,000 miles of long-distance hiking trails in America alone. The popularity of trails —be they urban, rural or wilderness — is a wonderful thing. Many of us don’t need to venture far to find a place to recreate or, as Benton MacKaye (the Father of the Appalachian Trail) said, “to gain oxygen and perspective.”

Yet, the more we use our trails, the more they need our care. I’ve identified four simple things we can do to help keep our favorite places special — things that only take a few moments of our time to do, but will have an enormous impact if we all do them.

  1. Pick up litter.
    Granola bar wrappers and water bottles are the most significant culprits. Whether they fell out of pockets or were purposely discarded, who can say? What I do know is that if we take the few seconds to pick them up, put them in a plastic bag and hike them out with us, it can make a bigger difference than we might expect. I once read about a study that found that if there was one piece of litter on the ground, it made it easier for others to rationalize adding to the pile. If we pick up one piece of litter, it may prevent a much greater problem. The organization Clean Trails, which does tremendous work, has found another benefit. That is, if you pick up litter, it inspires others to follow suit.
  2. Stick to the trail.
    Have you ever been on a trail and wondered why it didn’t take a more direct route to where it was leading? Perhaps you’ve been tempted to leave the trail and blaze a shorter route. Please don’t. Trails are laid out the way they are for many reasons. Sometimes they switchback (zig-zag) their way up a mountain to help mitigate erosion. Sometimes they purposely lead around ecologically sensitive areas or privately owned land. Every time someone takes a shortcut, it causes problems. One more note: If you find parts of the trail that need maintenance (e.g., trees blown down across the trail, muddy stretches that could benefit from new or improved “bog bridges”, etc.), please consider contacting the public or private entity responsible for the trail. Often this helps maintenance crews prioritize their project lists.
  3. Don’t leave food at shelters (or anywhere else).
    On long-distance trails such as the Appalachian Trail, I often encounter shelters where hikers have left food — everything from canned green beans to instant soup. Please don’t leave uneaten food in shelters or throw it into the woods. It is unlikely anyone else will eat food left in shelters (they don’t know how long it’s been there) and it attracts mice, chipmunks, bears, and other animals. This is another case where packing out items others leave behind can make a really positive impact.
  4. Take care of “business” properly.

    One of the worst things people leave behind is not only unsightly but also a potential health hazard. It’s poop. My friend and hiking colleague Carey Kish handles this subject well in a recent article, so I don’t need to repeat it here. But in a nutshell, if there is a backcountry or trailhead toilet handy, please use it. There’s nothing worse than stumbling upon an area where someone has left their mark and piles of toilet paper on top of the forest floor.

So, there it is. Four easy things we can do that don’t take much time, just an attitude to make things better for those who follow. If you’d like to do more, please contact a trail group in your area and volunteer to help on a trail maintenance trip. You can also join a project or start one through CleanTrails.org. Both are satisfying ways to give something back and to meet like-minded folks.

(Above litter photo courtesy of CleanTrails.org.)

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