Part 1 of this series introduced the concepts of Leave No Trace Canada, and noted the 7 principles of Leave No Trace. The first of these principles is “Planning”. The second of these principles is “Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces”.
To quote Leave No Trace Canada:
The goal of backcountry travel is to move through the backcountry while avoiding damage to the land. Understanding how travel causes impacts is necessary to accomplish this goal. Travel damage occurs when surface vegetation or communities of organisms are trampled beyond recovery. The resulting barren area leads to soil erosion and the development of undesirable trails. Backcountry travel may involve travel over both trails and off-trail areas.
The importance of durable surfaces
We build and maintain trails. The first thing you learn from us in Trail Building 101 is that the only durable surface for a trail is the mineral soil underneath all that organic matter.
Little known scary fact: all it takes is 6 people walking in a row through a forest to sufficiently trample the organic matter to damage it and make a “trail”. Game trails are often obvious in a forest, and one can only imagine how little use they’re getting.
A well built trail features adequate width for people to walk or bike – typically shoulder width for a hiking trail, 48” for a bike. If a trail gets too narrow, it tends to get deeper with use (especially in meadow environments where there are no roots to stabilize soil), causing people to want to walk/bike (on the nice soft organic material) next to the trail. This creates a second trail. Keep that up long enough, and you have the picture on the right of a mess: 3 primary trails, 2 secondary (likely abandoned) routes, and 3 new routes being formed – an 8 lane road in the wilderness, which no one likes to see and is entirely preventable by just having people choosing to walk on the one trail.
One badly placed step…
Many of our high alpine plants in K-Country, such as Moss Campion (pictured at right), can’t be stepped on or they will die. Scramblers in high rocky environment can kill lichens that are thousands of years old by stepping on them and scraping them off the rock, though relatively speaking, rock is a far more durable surface than organics on the ground, and lichens are tougher than mosses.
So “Step Number One”, literally, is to not step on a non-durable surface, like anything organic, unless it can’t be avoided. And if it can’t be avoided, step on it only once. The greater the amount of traffic, the more damage going off a trail creates.
Puddles appear to be the bane of existence to hikers and bikers (and equestrians), but avoiding puddles by going around them is a sure way to make new trails or make existing trails (and the puddles) even wider. It’s far better to invest in good boots or mud flaps and walk or bike through a puddle. That’s a Friends Trail crew trying to fix an entirely preventable mess on the old Tom Snow trail pictured at right.
Wet or Soft Soils
If you’re up in an alpine meadow, and you step (and sink up to your ankle) in a bog, realize that footprint hole will likely be there for decades. Any time it’s wet (or snowy), care needs to be taken regarding where you put your feet or tires. There are a few official trails in K-Country where travel is not recommended until trails dry in June or July due to the ease at which they are damaged when wet; we can think of many unofficial routes that would benefit from this, too. Shoulder seasons of fall and spring are notorious for hikers and bikers creating unintentional trail damage on wet or muddy trails. In the Bow Valley in the spring, you’ll see pleas from the mountain bike community to stay off certain trails until they dry. Purpose built, official trails are MUCH better choices when trails are wet; while not perfect, they are designed with water management issues in mind. Folks need to think about this in the shoulder season of larch-time, when MANY people are out wandering around off-trail on unofficial routes at the worst possible time to do it.
A very rare but very delicate environment in K-Country, even more delicate than fragile alpine meadows, is drying up/dried up lake/marsh/tarn areas. A good example is Warspite Lake on the Black Prince trail (pictured at right), which dries up every August. The seemingly dry, desolate lakebed is anything but. Cryptobiotic crusts, tiny communities of algae and bacteria, form on the evaporative soils in the dry lake bed, preserving moisture and preventing wind erosion of those rich lakebed soils. One footstep and the crust is dead. Tromp around enough and the lake bed loses all plant life that would grow next spring, and a once-alive lake is dead because of uneducated hikers.
Good trail design usually avoids the use of switchbacks, but sometimes, switchbacks are required. Folks who shortcut switchbacks will always create unsightly and often significant environmental and unsustainable damage on the landscape, as pictured at left. Again, outdoor etiquette says, “stay on the trail” and encourage others to do so as well.
The cost of going off official trails
Many areas of K-Country, and many of its popular “trails”, are not official at all (we talk about the difference between trails and routes here). The land use rules say you can walk wherever you want so long as it’s not closed, but think about why you’re going “off-route”. Odds are pretty good the answer includes “to experience a more pristine wilderness” – and “pristine” suggest a lack of evidence of much human influence, such as cairns, log chairs or shelters, fire pits or braided trails. So off-route explorers need to be even more conscious of the surfaces they walk on lest they leave the pristine less pristine, and more human influenced.
A great example is the Sparrowhawk Tarns basin, a popular unofficial hike in K-Country. The unofficial, unmaintained trail (technically a “route”) leads through a large rock field to a wide-open, high, unspoiled alpine meadow. Damage to the meadow is easy in the fragile alpine environment, so spreading out and not walking single file will do less damage. Less than ten years ago, there were no trails of any kind in the meadow (the photo to the right is from 2011, and no trail is visible); now there are a few. Cairns can help find a route through the rock field, but demonstrate the human impact we’re going up there to avoid; there used to be a few, now there are dozens. Digging up the rocks to find fossils will leave damage that will be there for decades.
Most camping in K-Country is done at designated back- or front-country sites, all of which have tent pads, cooking and food storage areas created to minimize damage to the landscape. But random camping is permitted in many places like the Public Land Use Zones and Wildland Parks, and the selection of a good random campsite is essential lest you leave a permanent scar on the land.
First, never scrape away organics to make a tent site. They may never grow back, and once you’re gone, the soil runs a high risk of erosion. Rocky areas are great spots for kitchen areas; not only are fire risks reduced, but the inevitable trampling has less impact. Building seating out of rocks or downed trees just creates work to remove, or if you don’t, you’re leaving a permanent mark on the landscape that harms the next person’s wilderness experience.
Always set up a random camp a good distance from water bodies (60 m is the minimum recommended) because shorelines are fragile things indeed. And better to potentially re-use a space you find than just set up your camp next to it – if the previous use left a footprint, yours will too. A great example of the challenges of back-country, leave no trace, random camping in K-Country is the very popular Picklejar Lakes area (pictured above right), where evidence of numerous past campers and campsites is obvious and more discouraging every year.
So “look down” when you are traveling. Ask yourself “Is this the best place for my feet to minimize the impact I’m having?” There’s an old saying in the outdoor world: “Take only Photographs, and Leave Only Footprints”. But perhaps think if there’s a way you can avoid leaving a new, permanent footprint on the fragile lands we call K-Country — because sometimes, even leaving footprints is leaving too much.
- Stay on the trail if there is one, even if it’s muddy
- Never shortcut or try to find an “easier way”
- If there is no trail at all, spread out, and watch where you step
- Look down before you set up your camp
- The next person wants a wilderness experience, too
- Select official trails in shoulder seasons or when conditions are wet
- YOUR footsteps matter. Choose wisely.