Recreate Responsibly: Backcountry Etiquette On Public Lands
Have you ever been on a hike, bike, ski, or swim somewhere new, somewhere that is totally pristine and it makes you feel all the awe, wonder, and amazement that the outdoors have to offer? Have you ever been back to that place after awhile and seen the impact of the many visitors that came after you, only to realize that some of that original awe, wonder, and amazement has diminished? I have. My name is Kiira, I am a Colorado native, born and raised in Evergreen. I remember the first time that I was at the top of a fourteener, I was totally and completely overcome by a sense of wonder, amazement, and awe. I felt like I was the first person to ever be in that spot and the first person to ever see the world from that perspective (even though I was basically dragged/carried to the top by my dad). I have had the privilege of recreating in the outdoors for most of my life and have also had the privilege to see the impact that visitors to natural spaces have on the space itself, but also the experience of each individual.
Throughout this blog post I will outline the seven Leave No Trace principles and explain how they apply to winter recreation.
I am a firm believer that the backcountry is for everyone, we all have a right to experience everything our public lands have to offer. There is a total of 2.27 billion acres of land that makes up the land of the United States, 640 million acres of that are federally managed. This means that most of what we would designate as ‘backcountry’ lies on public land. Public lands are in the most basic sense, areas of land that are open to the public and managed by the federal government. The three types of government managed land areas are: federal (think National Parks, National Forests, Wilderness Areas, etc.), state (state parks, state forests, etc.), and local (that park down the street). Further there is a distinction between two of the federally managed land areas: National Forests and Wilderness Areas. The two places can be casually confused in conversation, but are distinct by their accessibility and by how they are managed.
In general National Forests are used for five primary purposes: timber production, water production, wildlife protection, grazing, and outdoor recreation. These lands are relatively unmanaged compared to Wilderness Areas that are highly managed. Wilderness Areas are designated within National Forests or Parks and their primary purpose is to preserve land in its primitive nature, free from improvements or human habitation to protect and manage the natural conditions. These areas are also open to the public for recreational purposes, however, motorized vehicles of any kind are prohibited. The restriction of motorized vehicles and development of the land are meant to preserve and protect the environment. As backcountry users, it is likely that we recreate (or will recreate) on all types of public land, so knowing the distinctions between these and understanding the restrictions put in place is essential to protecting the environment that we travel through.
(Photo: Isaiah Branch-Boyle.)
Since the land that we all recreate on is open to the public, it sees a lot of visitors and overtime this has a pretty significant impact. This is important because over time, with use, without our protection the places that use to bring us those moments of awe, amazement, and wonder tend to diminish and/or disappear.
The Leave No Trace Ethics are a set of principles that backcountry users can use to guide their decisions when it comes to recreating in the outdoors, these principles help to ensure that the space we enjoy can be enjoyed the same way by others that come after us. The Leave No Trace Ethics and Principles are a call to action, not a set of rules. They can be used in all forms of recreation but can also be specified to winter recreation. The seven principles are: Plan Ahead and Prepare, Travel on Durable Surfaces, Dispose of Waste Properly, Leave What You Find, Minimize Campfire and Hut Impacts, Respect Wildlife, and Be Considerate of Other Visitors.
1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
The first principle, Plan Ahead and Prepare, doesn’t just include knowing where you are going and having the necessary equipment to accomplish your objective. The broader picture that this principle paints is that you and your partners are prepared to be unassisted in the terrain and environment that you are entering. As a user of the backcountry it is important to Practice Safety First, meaning that you should: have first aid training and to carry a first aid kit that matches your level of training, have communicated your plan with someone outside of your party, have an awareness of avalanche terrain, training in use of rescue equipment (beacon, shovel, probe), knowledge of the area, and knowledge of your groups abilities. If you are recreating in the backcountry during the winter, I strongly recommend taking an Avalanche Rescue Course (AIARE) to get a better understanding of what avalanche terrain is, how they can be triggered, what to do in an event of an avalanche, and most importantly how to stay out of avalanche terrain.
2. Travel and Camp On Durable Surfaces
In the winter environment the second principle, Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces, primarily pertains to the snow. We want to avoid traveling on shallow snow packs because although there is something blanketing the vegetation there isn’t enough snow to insulate the vegetation from the human impact, instead try to stick to surfaces that are covered with deep snow (~3 ft.). Even with deep snow, if the area is a highly trafficked repeated impact on a singular skin track or snow trail can have an effect on the vegetation below the snow surface. One way to minimize this impact is by spreading out or choosing to set a new skin/snow track for your group. When looking for a site to set up a tent, you should avoid camping on vegetation and instead opt for snow, rocks, or dirt that is 150 ft. from running water. It’s likely that if you are winter camping, you’ll be melting snow, in this case you should designate a bathroom area 150 feet away from your designated water collection area.
3. Dispose Of Waste Properly
The third principle, Dispose of Waste Properly, can be boiled down to “pack it in, pack it out”. This means that you are bringing anything that you brought into the backcountry back out with you. During the winter this often means that you should be prepared to carry out your poop as well. You can purchase human waste disposal bags from your local outdoor retailer or REI. In some cases you may be able to find a patch of uncovered, unfrozen soil that is at least 200 feet away from a water source and dig a 6-8in cathole. When you are recreating this winter, I encourage you to not only pack out your own trash but to pick up any that you find while recreating, leaving the area better than you found it.
4. Leave What You Find
Have you ever taken a shell from a beach or a rock from a river? I know I have. The fourth principle, Leave What You Find, is a good reminder that these are principles that you can put into practice and start conversations over, they aren't hard set rules. This principle strives to make, you, the user think about what it is you are taking from the spot you are visiting. At the time those shells and rocks meant something to me, they held the value of the memory tied to the visit of the space. Now, I look at the shells and rocks sitting in a bowl on my table and I couldn’t tell you if I got them from a beautiful beach or off the side of the road. I have learned that taking objects from a space doesn’t always mean that the sentiment travels with them. Instead, I like to leave the beautiful objects in place for others to see and experience. When you recreate outside and see something you’d like to take, I encourage you to instead take a moment and think about the value of the object that you are taking in the context of the environment you are taking it from and the environment you are taking it to.
5. Minimize Campfires and Hut Impacts
The fifth principle, Minimize Campfire and Hut Impacts, is something that you’ll likely encounter on any sort of overnight trip. Even in the snow, it is important to build and maintain low impact fires that use firewood that fits the five D’s. The five D’s can be applied to when you are gathering firewood: Dead, Down, Dry, Dinky (no bigger than your forearm), and Distant. Using these as guidelines to finding wood for your fire will help you manage its size and impact on the surrounding area. This principle can also be used when building fires inside a stove while using any sort of hut. In general, do your best to pick up after yourselves and leave the hut in a better condition than when you got there. This ensures that access remains open for everyone!
6. Respect Wildlife
In the town I grew up in, it was completely reasonable to be late because of an “elk jam” on the way to where you were going. At this point, I’ve seen so many elk and deer in and on the side of the road that it doesn't really phase me. When I see them while I'm recreating? That’s a different story. While I love to see animals interacting in their natural habitat, I definitely do not want to be the one they are interacting with. The sixth principle, Respect Wildlife, outlines some ways you can help to minimize animal and human interactions. First, you should be familiar with what “big” animals (I’m talking bears, moose, elf, mountain lions, anything that you can’t out run and that will most definitely hurt you) potentially live where you are planning on going. The best way to minimize interaction with these, or any, animals is to give them lots of space. You can also avoid specific habitats during sensitive times, for example winter elk ranges and calving areas. If you follow principle three and pack out what you bring in, you shouldn’t be leaving any food behind for animals to eat but it’s important to think about what feeding wildlife does to the environment and their behavior. If animals get used to humans feeding them in the backcountry, it is likely that they will wander into our neighborhoods when they get hungry and search for food instead of hunting or foraging in their habitats. Finally, if you recreate with a dog, make sure you keep it under control so that it’s not harassing wildlife.
7. Be Considerate of Others
The seventh, and final, principle of Leave No Trace is to Be Considerate of Others. I told you at the beginning of this blog (thanks for sticking with me) that I was a firm believer that the backcountry is for all and this principle helps to ensure that everyone who recreates or interacts with the outdoor environment is respected. When heading out, make sure you check what kind of land you are going to be recreating on to avoid traveling on private property and so that you know what regulations are in play for the type of land you are recreating on. Be aware of other users in the area, skiers should watch out for snowshoers and hikers and motorized vehicles should be paying attention and yielding to other users in the area. In the winter setting, make sure that when you are traveling uphill you are using the skin track, if you ski, and walking along side of the track if you are hiking or snowshoeing, this helps preserve the skin track for others to use too! Lastly, if you want to listen to music please use headphones. For me and many others one of the reasons we continue to go into the backcountry is to enjoy the “natural soundtrack” and the quiet break from the loudness of our day to day lives.