American Trail Etiquette

On June 30th I went on a hike to Upper Wildcat Lake (UWC) via the Snow Lake Trail Head in Washington’s Snoqualmie Pass region.  It’s a beautiful 8-mile hike to a backcountry lake that’s rarely visited, but the first two miles are a super highway to the extremely popular Snow Lake.  Snow Lake pulls locals and tourists alike because of its relative easy and huge visual reward.  My June 30th hike in wasn’t terrible—maybe a dozen or so folks out on the trail as I made my way in.

After a rewarding half day of hiking, I arrived at my camp site at UWC and was surprised to see some junk laying around.  There’s no maintained trail to that lake so it’s not used often, but still there were some clothes lines left up, a grill rack hung on a nail in a tree, and an old rusted over pellet gun laying close by.  While the Alpine Lakes Region is a no-fire zone, there was a fire pit and charred wood about the site as well, which is pretty typical as backcountry fire bans have always been seen as a suggestion rather than a rule. Left over paracord ties and some other miscellaneous cordage rounded out the trash left over from previous use. Not the worst I’ve ever seen, unfortunately, but still not cool. I cleaned up the site as best I could and enjoyed the solidarity that UWC provides to a weekday hiker.

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Private island in the middle of Upper Wild Cat

After a relaxing evening at Upper Wildcat, my July 1st hike out wasn’t terrible either.  I packed out what I could and felt guilty about not doing more.

Our July 3rd hike in was one of the worst experiences I’ve had with a backpack and boots on. Carrying overnight bags and a serious doubt in humanity, we passed countless groups who were oblivious to our presence, tourists stumbling downhill into us at bottle-necked sections of trail, a group of ten who had stopped on the trail for a snack and water…

Two days later, I went back with my partner to Gem Lake, which I passed on my previous adventure to UWC.  Our July 3rd hike in was one of the worst experiences I’ve had with a backpack and boots on. Carrying overnight bags and a serious doubt in humanity, we passed countless groups who were oblivious to our presence, tourists stumbling downhill into us at bottle-necked sections of trail, a group of ten who had stopped on the trail for a snack and water, and half a dozen doggy-bags tied off and set on the trail’s edge for pick-up on the return to the parking lot.

I felt a little hopeless and frustrated and… angry. Do these people not know any trail etiquette? Are they aware of the unwritten rules and simply don’t care?  With use comes stewardship, right?

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Journey on, sister.

A lot of these visitors are of other cultures and probably just don’t know any better, I rationalize to myself.  Is it my responsibility to say something? After talking with my partner about this at length, I’ve decided to start doing more than just packing out other people’s trash: I’m going to start trying to educate people.  I don’t know if it’s the right response to what I’m experiencing, and I don’t know if it’s my place to say something, but I can’t keep doing what I’m doing and expect things to change because from my experiences on the trail—things are getting worse.

Here’s a list of things we can all do to preserve our shared use spaces.


Trail Etiquette!

Leave No Trace. Here’s the deal.  We need to Leave No Trace.  NO TRACE.  That should be in the forefront of our minds when making all of our decisions.  But what does LNT mean? Well, do bananas grow in Washington? Do birds naturally eat Cheese-Its? Do rocks magically stack themselves upon one another? Stop doing that.  We’re ruining everything.  Don’t throw away rinds or peels just because they’re biodegradable. They wouldn’t occur there naturally. Quit feeding grey jays, who are now totally desensitized to people, and taking pictures of them in your palm to post on Instagram.  And if I see one more cairn on a well-defined boot path, I’m going to explode. Yes, they’re necessary in some places—trust me, I’ve needed them before—and yes, they look cool, but this isn’t the Mesozoic Era, and you don’t need to express yourself via rock balancing in shared use areas. Do a sweep every time you leave an area where you were resting, and be sure to leave as small of a footprint as possible.

Uphill travelers almost always have the right-of-way. The idea here is that they are sucking air, and they’re working harder than you are.  They have a smaller field of view.  They’re in the zone.  It makes sense. The only time this isn’t a rule is if the downhill traveler is elderly or a family with children.  Use your best judgement, but this is pretty widely accepted as law.

Let other travelers pass.  We should also pay close attention to travelers who are moving faster than we are and in the same direction.  This is pretty standard: Keep right.  Pass left. On single track, if there’s a party closing in on you, it’s best practice to allow the faster moving group to pass.  To folks who tend to move rather quickly, it’s good form to announce yourself as you close in on other parties as to invite them to pull off and so you don’t scare the bejesus out of them.

Pull off the trail for longer duration breaks. Be it a water break, a food break, a pee break, or any other awesome kind of break you get to take while hiking, we should not affect the experience of others by—for lack of a better word, loitering—near the trail.  This, I feel, is less of a rule and more a suggestion because there are plenty of places where it’s impossible to pull off the trail without negatively impacting the vegetation, terrain, or environment in general.  With that in mind, we should be on the lookout for good spots to, as a wise hiker once taught me, “Eat before you’re hungry, drink before you’re thirsty, and stop before you’re tired.”

 

Pull off the trail for longer duration breaks. Be it a water break, a food break, a pee break, or any other awesome kind of break you get to take while hiking…

Use the switchbacks. Pretty simple here. The trails are cut into the land by professionals to minimize the impact they will have on the immediate environment.  We’ve already left a big enough footprint as a species, so please don’t make it any bigger.  Cutting switchbacks contributes to erosion, and erosion is bad.

Turn off your open air music or use headphones.  This is a relatively new development in people being the worst.  Fact: Aside from the OG dirt bags wearing jorts in Yosemite in the 60s, nobody should be playing open air music in the mountains. Again, this goes back to affecting others’ experiences. I like all kinds of music.  But the only things I should hear in the mountains are the wind, moving water, and other people being constantly blown away at how unbelievably amazing our planet is.

Don’t camp next to other groups. Even if it means getting a sub-prime camp site.  This has happened to me a couple of times in pretty remote locations.  Personally, I’m out for the solitude and to wonder at my existence. I’m all for having some whiskey and friendly conversation with fellow hikers, but in regard to my campsite, I’d rather be alone. I would venture to say that only under very rare circumstances is it acceptable to pitch your tent in the immediate vicinity of another party.  It’s better to move farther along, find a decent spot to set up camp, cook your dinner, and head back to steal some views and soak in some vibes while you eat.

Walk at least 200 feet away from the trail/camp to poop. I personally think 200 feet isn’t far enough.  I’ve discovered too many poorly disguised cat holes, and that’s a really good indicator of how bad our overuse/abuse of some sites is.  Here’s a great resource from Trail Space on pooping outside. While we’re on the subject…

Carry your dog’s poop. I know. I get it. You’ll pick it up on your way out.  Hear me out though. First, I don’t trust other people.  I’ve been the last hiker out plenty of times and have seen too many forgotten doggy bags near points of interest and trail heads.  So I don’t trust other people to remember—at the end of the day, people are fatigued and caught up with dreaming about what they’re going to eat. You know it’s true.

…I don’t trust other people to remember—at the end of the day, people are fatigued and caught up with dreaming about what they’re going to eat…

Secondly, the whole point of being outside is to get away and commune with nature.  Bags of dog poop don’t get me to that mental space that I’m trying to find, and ultimately, we should be aware of affecting other people’s experiences.  Being outside for some people is sacred.  Don’t leave poop bags in someone’s temple.  Besides, I carry my own shit for miles. Literally.


 

So now what?

We have to educate people as kindly as we can because we love these places that allow us to meditate and explore.  A hiker recently gave me some unsolicited trail “knowledge” near Cathedral Rock, and I didn’t like the way he had gone about it.  It was condescending and rather uncalled for. Our strange exchange ended with him throwing his hands up in the air and walking away from me. Party on, Garth. This is just to say that we should be kind to one another.  If we’re going to educate people we need to go about it with empathy and love.  The beautiful thing about hiking is that we’re all out there for the same reason.  Let’s hold on to that and preserve these places for our grandchildren to enjoy as well.

If we’re going to educate people we need to go about it with empathy and love.  The beautiful thing about hiking is that we’re all out there for the same reason.

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