The National Park Service recently celebrated its centennial and urged people to "find their park." Well, many have done just that! Parks are hitting record high visitor numbers, and I know from my own anecdotal experience that the trails -- especially the popular ones -- are far less quiet than they used to be.
Unfortunately, more people often equals more damage, as any frequent hiker knows. More traffic means more feet trampling delicate vegetation, more erosion, more pets scaring wildlife, more poorly planned campsites, and (it's gross but it must be mentioned) more human and canine waste, much of which isn't disposed of properly.
Because of this, it can be tough, especially for more seasoned outdoor adventurers, to welcome newcomers to the scene with open arms. It's easy to get upset and blame others, and gripe about the diminished state of the wilderness in our backyard. I know -- I've done it!
The reality is that these new folks probably aren't going anywhere. Instead of getting upset about the state of things, it's more productive and sustainable to consider how we might, in our own way, contribute to improving the wilderness experience for all, while also protecting the places we love. Here are some tips on how to be a good trail steward and build a better trail community.
1. Know the rules yourself.
I wrote a post a while back about proper trail etiquette, including knowing when to yield the right of way, how to minimize your impact on the environment, and general best practices for being on the trails. Make sure you're in the know before you try correcting someone else's bad behavior.
2. Open a dialogue.
In the Adirondack High Peak region of upstate New York, there are volunteers who hang out on summits and hike the trails, striking up conversation with hikers they encounter. The goal with these conversations isn't to chastise others for mistakes, but rather to have a conversation that fosters greater understanding.
Channel your inner trail steward when you see someone behaving badly. It's human nature to become defensive if we feel we are being attacked. Angrily chastising someone for going off trail or littering won't do much good, but approaching them politely and calmly explaining your view might yield a better result. If you see something, say something... but say it kindly.
3. Set a good example.
We were all beginners once, and likely broke one or two rules ourselves before we learned proper etiquette and came to care for the trails we now love. When approached kindly, and with sensible suggestions for keeping our shared wilderness wild and untrammeled, most folks will appreciate your perspective.
If you see trash, pick it up. If you're hiking with a group, ask everyone to remain single file and on trail to minimize erosion. Avoid trampling vegetation if you must stop or step aside to let another person pass. And if you have a friend or family member who is expressing a desire to get into hiking or another outdoor activity, bring them along on your own trips or offer to join them on theirs so you can show them first hand what a good trail steward does, and why it's so important.
4. Recognize you can only do so much.
Making an effort to open a dialogue, keeping the conversation respectful and informative, and being calm and reasonable are all worthwhile efforts when you're trying to help educate the less informed. Unfortunately, though, we can only do so much, and not everyone is going to be open to our efforts. If you encounter an unreasonable hiker who simply won't engage respectfully, keep your cool and move on.
5. Get involved, and do your part.
Chances are, there's a local advocacy or educational group in your community, dedicated to good trail practices, outdoor education, and trail maintenance. Join them! You'll accomplish several things: you'll set a good example for those who see you out on the trails putting in work and time, you'll help prevent future damage through smart trail building practices, and you'll feel darn good about yourself. It's a no-lose opportunity.
I know firsthand how difficult it can be to stay calm when you see someone walking over delicate alpine vegetation, littering, or engaging in bad outdoor habits. Use these tips to keep your cool and hopefully make a lasting, positive difference, and keep fighting the good fight!