The goal of backcountry travel is to move through the backcountry while minimizing damage to the land. Understanding the impact of travel on the land is necessary to accomplish this goal. Damage occurs when hikers trample surface vegetation or communities of organisms beyond recovery. The resulting barren area leads to the development of undesirable trails and erosion.
Concentrate Activities in Heavily Used Areas
Backcountry travel frequently involves travel over trails and off-trail areas. Land management agencies construct trails in backcountry areas to provide identifiable routes that concentrate foot and stock traffic. Constructed trails are themselves an impact on the land; however, they are a necessary response to the fact that people travel in the backcountry. Concentrating travel on trails reduces the likelihood that multiple routes will develop and scar the landscape. It is better to have one well-designed route than many poorly chosen paths.
Trail use is recommended whenever possible. Encourage travelers to stay within the width of the trail and not take shortcuts along trail switchbacks (trail zigzags that climb hillsides). Travelers should provide space for other hikers if taking breaks along the trail. When taking a break, select a durable surface well off the trail on which to rest. Practice the principles of off-trail travel if the decision is made to move off-trail for breaks.
Spread Use and Impact in Pristine Areas
Spreading use and impact applies when visiting any pristine area, except some desert settings. “Off-trail” refers to all travel that does not utilize a designated trail, such as travel to remote areas, searches for “bathroom” privacy, and explorations near and around campsites. With the exception of some desert areas, backcountry travelers should spread use and impact in pristine areas. Two primary factors influence how off-trail travel affects the land: durability of surfaces and vegetation, and frequency of travel (or group size).
- Durability refers to the ability of surfaces or vegetation to withstand wear or remain in a stable condition.
- Frequency of use (and large group size) increases the likelihood that a large area will be trampled or that a small area will be trampled multiple times.
The concept of durability is an important one for all backcountry travelers to understand. The following natural surfaces respond differently to backcountry travel.
Rock, Sand, and Gravel. These surfaces are highly durable and can tolerate repeated trampling and scuffing. However, lichens that grow on rocks are vulnerable to repeated scuffing.
Ice and Snow. The effect of travel across these surfaces is temporary, making them good choices for travel—assuming good safety precautions are followed and the snow layer is of sufficient depth and firmness to prevent vegetation damage.
Vegetation. The resistance of vegetation to trampling varies. Careful decisions must be made when traveling across vegetation. Select areas of durable vegetation or sparse vegetation that is easily avoided. Grasses are resistant to trampling, but most forest herbs and ferns are fragile and quickly show the effects of trampling. Wet meadows and other fragile vegetation quickly show the effects of trampling. Trampling encourages new and inexperienced travelers to take the same route and leads to undesirable trail development. As a general rule, travelers who must venture off-trail should spread out to avoid creating paths that encourage others to follow. Avoid vegetation whenever possible, especially on steep slopes where the effects of off-trail travel are magnified.
Cryptobiotic Crust. Cryptobiotic crust, found in desert environments, is extremely vulnerable to foot traffic. Cryptobiotic crust consists of tiny communities of organisms that appear as a blackish and irregular raised crust upon the sand. This crust retains moisture in desert climates and provides a protective layer that helps prevent erosion. One footstep can destroy cryptobiotic crust for decades. It is important to use developed trails in these areas. If you must travel off-trail, walk on rocks or other durable surfaces. In broad areas of cryptobiotic crust, where damage is unavoidable, it is best to follow in one another’s footsteps, thereby affecting the smallest area of crust possible—exactly the opposite rule for traveling through vegetation. Cryptobiotic crust is also extremely vulnerable to mountain bicycle and horse travel.
Desert Puddles and Mud Holes. Water is a preciously scarce resource for all living things in the desert. Don’t walk through desert puddles or mud holes, or disturb surface water in any way. Potholes are also home to tiny desert animals.
Camp on Durable Surfaces
Selecting an appropriate campsite is perhaps the most important aspect of low-impact backcountry use. It requires the greatest use of judgment and information and often involves making trade-offs between minimizing ecological and social impacts. A decision about where to camp should be based on information about the level of use in the area, the fragility of vegetation and soil, the likelihood of wildlife disturbance, an assessment of previous impacts, and your party’s potential to cause or avoid impact.
Choosing a Campsite in High-Use Areas
Avoid camping close to water and trails, and select a site that is not visible to others. Even in popular areas the sense of solitude can be enhanced by screening campsites and choosing an out-of-the-way site. Camping away from the water’s edge also allows access routes for wildlife.
Plan ahead by discovering and obeying regulations related to campsite selection. Some areas require campers to use designated sites and/or to camp a specified distance from water sources. Allow enough time and energy at the end of the day to select an appropriate site. Fatigue, bad weather, and late departure times are not acceptable excuses for choosing poor or fragile campsites.
Generally, it is best to camp on sites that are so highly impacted that further careful use will cause no noticeable impact. In popular areas, these sites are obvious because they have already lost their vegetation cover. Also, it is often possible to find a site that naturally lacks vegetation, such as exposed bedrock, sandy areas, or bare soil.
On high-impact sites, concentrate tents, traffic routes, and kitchen areas in the center of already impacted areas. Locate the camp kitchen on the most durable site because most impact occurs when cooking and eating. The objective is to confine impact to places that already show use and avoid enlarging the area of disturbance. When leaving camp, make sure that it is clean, attractive, and appealing to other campers who follow.
Camping in Undisturbed, Remote Areas
Pristine areas usually are remote, see few visitors, and have no obvious impacts. Visit these special places only if you are committed to and knowledgeable of the techniques required to Leave No Trace.
On pristine sites it is best to spread out tents, avoid repetitive traffic routes, and move camp every night. The objective is to minimize the number of times any part of the site is trampled. In setting up camp:
- Disperse tents and the kitchen on durable sites.
- Plan ahead to wear soft shoes around camp to minimize the impact on vegetation and compaction of the soil, which may stifle roots.
- Minimize activity around the kitchen and places where packs are stashed.
The durable surfaces of large rock slabs make good kitchen sites. Watch where you walk to avoid crushing vegetation, and take alternate paths to water. Minimize the number of trips to water by carrying water containers. Check the regulation, but camping at least 200 feet (80 adult steps) from water is a good rule of thumb.
When breaking camp, take time to naturalize the site, help the site recover, and make it less obvious as a campsite.
- Cover scuffed areas with native materials (such as pine needles).
- Brush out footprints.
- Rake matted grassy areas with a stick.
This extra effort will help hide any signs that the spot has been a campsite and make it less likely that other backcountry travelers will camp in the same spot. The less often a pristine campsite is used, the better its chance of remaining pristine.
Camping in Arid Lands
The most appropriate campsites in arid lands are on durable surfaces, such as rock and gravel, or on sites that have been so highly impacted that further use will cause no additional disturbance. Previously impacted sites are obvious because they have already lost their vegetation cover or the rocky soils have been visibly disturbed. If choosing this type of site, make sure your spot is large enough to accommodate your entire group.
A pristine campsite, with no evidence of previous use, is appropriate in arid lands provided it is on a nonvegetated, highly resistant surface. Expanses of rock, gravel, or sand all make excellent choices. It should never be necessary to camp on cryptobiotic soil, islands of vegetation, or within the precious green ribbons of desert creeks or streams. Beware of camping on sandy river bottoms and areas susceptible to flash floods.
Position cooking areas, tents, and backpacks on rock, sand, or gravel. Consciously choose durable routes of travel among areas of your camp so that connecting trails do not develop. Vary your routes since the objective is to minimize trampling and compaction on any specific part of the campsite. Also, limit your stay to no more than two nights.
Never scrape away or clean sites of organic litter like leaves, and always minimize the removal of rocks and gravel. Organic litter helps to cushion trampling forces, limits the compatibility of soils, releases plant nutrients, and reduces the erosive forces of rainfall. Disturbing the lichen-coated and varnished rocks known as desert pavement can leave a visible impact for hundreds of years. Once overturned, these rocks are difficult to replace, and the lichens and varnish will not grow back within our lifetime.
Camping in River Corridors
River corridors are narrow strips of land and water where there is little room to disperse human activities. For this reason, campsites are often designated. It is generally best to camp on established sites located on beaches, sandbars, or nonvegetated sites below the high-water line.