by Danielle Miller, Epicure & Culture contributor
Setting off into the wilderness on foot is a fantastic way to discover the natural beauty of the place you’re visiting. Hiking may seem like a very eco-friendly choice, and often is; but the irresponsible practices of hikers can have lasting damaging effects on the environment and local communities around you – the very surroundings that you’re there to enjoy.
Whether you’re scaling peaks in the Lake District of the United Kingdom, exploring lush rainforests on the Caribbean island of Grenada or trekking to the end of the earth in South America’s Patagonia region, here are 10 tips for being a more responsible hiker.
1. Follow The Rules
It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? If you’re hiking in a national park or protected area, you’ll usually be given park information on entry – sometimes on signs, leaflets to take with you, or even a video to watch.
Here’s the thing, though: many people just brush over it. I’ve seen so many of those leaflets end up in the garbage without a cursory glance. And while many of the instructions you’ll have heard before — like not to feed the wildlife and to leave no trace — some are unique to that particular destination. For example, some parks may say you can’t hike after dark or light fires, so pay attention. Check out the regulations for Yellowstone National Park. In addition to the expected, there are some specific rules about what you can and can’t do around the thermal features, like no swimming in the hot springs, and some unexpected ones like removing detachable side mirrors when you’re not using a trailer. There’s no way I would have known that otherwise!
Additionally, these documents often provide important information on where to source safe drinking water and first aid facilities. Many parks have hefty fines for breaking the rules, so it’s in your best interest to spend a few minutes reading through them.
2. Manage Your Waste
Our planet has a serious plastic bottle problem. This is compounded in remote locations when hiking. Some national parks have waste disposal points, but it’s often a logistical nightmare and a huge cost to remove waste from parks that cover vast areas. Take a refillable water bottle or water bladder for your backpack to reduce plastic waste and keep all your trash with you until you leave the park. Check out Ban the Bottle for more on the impact of plastic bottles on the environment.
Waste also attracts animals and makes them reliant on scavenging, like the coati in the photo above who knows that his daily meal is courtesy of the thousands of visitors to Iguazu waterfalls each day.
And by the way, “waste” doesn’t just entail plastic. It includes organic waste too. It may seem harmless to toss an apple core into the bushes, but if apples are not endemic to that area, they’re basically an invasive species that over time can alter the local ecology. This is a huge problem in the Galapagos Islands, where scientists and conservationists call invasive species the ‘single greatest threat to the terrestrial ecosystems of the Galapagos’, including the pesky blackberry!
Properly disposing of waste also applies to toilet paper when using the bathroom au natural. I know it’s gross, but don’t just bury it. Keep a sealed bag for used toilet paper until you can dispose of it properly.
3. Stick To The Paths
This is a rule I often want to break. The thing with hiking is you want to escape from people and be surrounded by nature. Although it’s tempting to get off the beaten track and away from other hikers, many trails have thousands of hikers every year, and this huge footfall can have a damaging effect on the environment.
Clumsy, misplaced footsteps can kill delicate flora, disturb the habitats and nesting grounds of fauna, and cause soil erosion. National parks invest huge amounts of money to create and maintain paths to protect the wildlife around them — and for your own safety — so be respectful and stick to them.
A park ranger in Chile once explained to me how difficult it is to stop hikers creating new trails. Rangers will try to prevent this by placing tree branches and logs across the trail — so look out for that, and don’t follow those paths. The Washington Trails Association has a great guide to identifying different types of trails, including closed and decommissioned ones.
We’d all like to escape the crowds and forge our own path, but it’s irresponsible to do so.
4. Look, Don’t Touch
I’m a bit like a honey bee; always attracted to beautiful wildflowers. And I have been guilty of picking them in the past; but if each hiker did this, they’d be none left to admire. A better idea is to let them do their job of pollinating and leave them alone.
That goes for animals, as well. How far away you should stay depends on where you are, and how dangerous the animals are, so find a guide to where you’re hiking. In Yellowstone National Park the recommendation is 100 yards for bears and wolves, and 25 yards for other wild mammals. In the Galapagos islands where the animals are extremely friendly, you should keep a distance of six feet (two yards) to avoid disturbing them. If one comes toward you, stand still and watch it, but don’t actively approach it.
Park information will also tell you specifically how to react to any animals that pose a danger.
And whatever you do, don’t feed the animals. Many people know this; though it’s crazy what people will do to get a monkey to come closer for a selfie. I’ve seen people feeding them chocolate, still in the wrapper, which is terrible for their health and feeding habits.
The best advice for enjoying up-close encounters with wildlife is to invest in a good zoom lens for your camera – so you can safely keep your distance and still closely observe them – the best of both worlds!
5. Be Careful With Fire
This is so important in precious woodland areas. If you’re camping and cooking your own food, check whether fires are allowed, and if they are, try to use existing fire pits. Check out this fire safety guide from the American Hiking Society.
If open fires are not allowed there may be designated cooking points at campsites, or you may be allowed to use a propane camping stove, which doesn’t require firewood and poses less of a risk of starting forest fires. Following Tip #2, take your empty canisters with you until you can find a recycling point outside of the park.
Check carefully the rules about smoking – if it’s allowed, ensure that your cigarette is fully extinguished before moving on.
In 2011, an Israeli hiker broke the no fire rule in Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National park, allegedly trying to burn some toilet paper, starting a devastating fire that destroyed over 40,000 acres of the park and causing permanent damage.
6. Camp In Designated Areas
Again, we’d all love to avoid over-crowded campsites. I’ve spent way too many sleepless nights wishing I had packed earplugs! Remember, though, campsites are there for many reasons, including your safety and to protect the natural environment.
Tents can damage vegetation and disrupt animal habitats in the same way that hiking off-piste does. So if you’re in a campsite, stay within the designated camping area, so you don’t extend the disruption.
On the other hand, if you’re allowed to camp wild, it’s a good idea to avoid places with small signs of a recent camp and to move your tent every two days if you’re staying in one area for a few nights. This gives the grass and undergrowth a chance to recover, rather than being killed off from repeated use. When camping wild, it’s very important to practice the ‘leave no trace’ principle.
Never cut trees to make space or build windbreakers. Also, make sure you set up camp at least 200 feet away from water sources (more on that below).
Rules vary wherever you go. For instance, check out this guide to camping wild in the UK with different laws to follow in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
7. Keep Water Sources Clean
Lakes, rivers, streams, and springs are important for the natural ecology and also as a source of drinking water for fellow hikers. So, it’s important to take steps to avoid contaminating them.
Never wash dishes, clothes or yourself in the water source. Soap, even the biodegradable kind can be harmful to the environment. Use a bucket to carry water away from the source and to your camp, where you can then use it for cooking and washing.
The “200 feet” rule also applies to bathrooms – keep your human waste well away from the water too!
Ask if it’s safe to drink the water from natural source. You may want to boil it or use purification tablets first. In Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, I survived five days drinking the delicious natural spring water around the park, after confirming it was safe to drink.
8. Choose Responsible Operators
If you’re doing a group hike with a local operator, do some research first. While I’m not suggesting you need to go with the luxury, super-expensive tours, be wary of budget deals.
Check out their website for mentions of sustainability and responsible travel standards. Search for reviews and blogs from previous hikers and ask for recommendations. I chose my Inca Trail provider, Llama Path, based on a personal recommendation, and reviews online. They have a great track record as a sustainable and responsible operator. They are proud of their treatment of porters – restricting the weight they carry, providing them with hiking boots, uniforms (including awesome Spiderman pants), insurance and paying them a fair wage.
Don’t be afraid to ask the company direct questions about pay and conditions for porters, welfare for mules, and how they manage waste — including human waste if they offer portable toilets. Many of these use very harmful chemicals that are terrible for the environment, so wild toilets might actually be a more responsible choice.
If you enjoy your hike, tip your guide and the support staff generously – they work hard and deserve it.
9. Take Responsibility For Your Safety
I recently saw that a young guy climbed Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales wearing only superman underwear.
Hilarious and heroic?
More like stupid and very costly to the emergency services who had to treat him for hypothermia.
Make sure you have enough food, water, warm clothes, supplies and a first aid kit for your trip.
If it’s a difficult or technical hike, pack the right gear, and know how to use it.
Check in with park rangers and weather stations to keep up to date on the latest conditions to assess whether it’s safe to continue.
Have a map and know where you’re going, and make sure you let friends and family know your route and when you’ll be back in touch. For more details, check out the Hiker Responsibility Code.
10. Contribute To Local Communities
If your hiking adventures take you through isolated local communities, think about how you passing through impacts them. Some are heavily reliant on hikers for their income. Hire a local guide to show you around, buy a meal or handicrafts and pay to use their bathrooms. If you have time, a community homestay can be an incredible experience to learn about their culture and customs.
Note though that you shouldn’t give sweets and money to kids. If you know you’ll be passing through villages like this, pack some crayons and pencils to give out. But check with the adults or community leaders first – they might have a school or central donation point which is better than creating rivalry and jealousy amongst the children.
Pack for a Purpose offers a guide to giving to community organizations and NGOs all around the world, ensuring that you can help with what they need most.
Unfortunately, I’ve personally witnessed all of these rules being broken – from hikers setting up camp out of sight from park rangers to piles of toilet paper left behind a “private” rock, to a hiker sneaking a quick cigarette in Torres del Paine National Park, only a few years after it was devasted by forest fire, and is now strictly forbidden.
The beautiful pristine places we enjoy as hikers will not stay that way unless we all take responsibility for keeping them that way.
And it really doesn’t take much.
Just follow the rules, use your common sense and a keep a conscientious mind. In this way we can all ensure we’re being responsible hikers and doing our part to protect mother nature and all her beauty that’s shared with us.
Featured image courtesy of Pexels/Pixabay
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