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Ask a Pro: How to Leave Less of an Impact in the Outdoors

Mikaela Ray | Oboz Ambassador

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Picture this: You have come up to your favorite vista in your favorite wild place, your tingling smile is starting to cut across your face as you crest over that final moment to see your special place and there….on the ancient rock in front of you...are some new spray painted profanities and images indicating someone has been here and has not respected this place.

If you are like me, anger and frustration well up, but a reminder that being an advocate and model for minimum impact practices, like Leave No Trace principles, is key!

As someone who spends my professional career as a trekking guide and someone who spends all of my free time outside, I am constantly thinking about my impact, how I can educate those that travel with me into the outdoors and how I can even properly recognize and talk about the issues that face our wild places. Sometimes, as a trekking guide who has a large audience of guests traveling with me each year, I have to find that fine line between “teaching” and “preaching”. My goal is to always leave people more aware of their impact and how to minimize it in wild places.  

In 2000, there were 285 million people visiting our nation’s National Parks. In 2018, that number grew to an estimated 330 million people visiting National Parks. Park visitation hours are continuing to sky rocket and the number of people visiting our parks is definitely expected to rise. 

Some attribute the increasing use of social media as being a major vehicle in motivating new numbers of people, tens of thousands of people, to seek out these destinations they see on Instagram and Facebook. Some see this instantaneous sharing of wild places and locations as a double-edged sword and some National Parks have turned to social media to start educational campaigns to remind people to respect these areas they go to, like Yellowstone’s #YellowstonePledge.

If more and more people continue to visit wild places, how can we keep them wild?

Vital resources exist that can help mitigate harmful impacts to wild places from increased visitation. Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics teaches the 7 Leave No Trace principles. These principles provide an easy to understand framework that anyone can live by when in the outdoors:

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly
  4. Leave What You Find
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
  6. Respect Wildlife
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

These principles can be applied to backcountry and frontcountry travel as well as different environments.

Since I travel between different environments for work, like desert environments all the way to high mountain, alpine environments, I take a considerable effort to see how these principles can be applied specifically to certain environments. I read and understand each National Park or National Forest’s general regulations, limits and closures, and/or activity-specific regulations, like whether you can have a campfire, if bear/animal safe containers are needed, how to manage human waste and what is needed to recreate safely in certain areas. I utilize these resources to make sure I apply the proper principles to these environments. 

These resources are available on park websites. 

For instance, Principle #2: Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces is important for some desert environments I guide in as there are biologically living soils called cryptobiotic soils. This living soil crust helps control erosion in the desert by keeping soil stuck together to stop sediment loss during big desert rains or winds. Walking off trail in these desert environments can be detrimental to these soils and should be avoided. I try to educate people on how to recognize these soils and how to avoid them (stepping on rocks verses soil, etc.) if the need does arise to step off trail.

Another example is Principle #3: Dispose of Waste Properly—I guide hikes in parks that either require or strongly recommend the use of wag bags for human waste as the soil or water sources are either at risk of becoming contaminated or the need to reduce this impact is imperative. 

In the desert environments where I guide and recreate in, I find I struggle with Principle #4: Leave What You Find, when it comes to the topic of cairns. I have seen an extreme uptick of non-route related cairns and have seen how the building of unnecessary cairns has disrupted the natural environment.

Cairns, if you are unfamiliar, are man-made stacks of rocks or stones. Cairns have been used to represent different things (burial sites, memorials, etc), but their most-used function is marking hiking routes in National Parks and forest lands. The rock cairns at National Parks like Canyonlands, Hawaii Volcanoes, and Acadia are maintained by park staff and trail crews to keep hikers on the correct path. Rock cairns are a natural route finding tool that is low impact and does not disrupt the land by installing signage. 

Building rock cairns has become a trendy and fun thing to do for some visitors to park and forest lands and so I find it challenging to be the person that “shuts down” the making of unauthorized cairns and/or the tampering of existing ones. Every National Park and National Forest has different rules about cairns and so it’s always a good idea to check out each place’s website for this type of information and how to deal with them.

There are many resources out there to ensure we do our part in keeping the wild...well, wild. It has become increasingly harder to get that “untouched” feeling in the outdoors these days with social media tagging of locations and visitation numbers rising, but we can work to live by this proposition as best we can: “A good traveler leaves no tracks.”- Lao Tzu

Mikaela  Ray

Name: Mikaela Ray

Hometown: Sedona, Ariz.

Where I’ve Been: My father and I built a canoe together when I was about 12 years old. We took our makeshift canoe down a huge section of the Delaware river, camping and eating fresh caught fish for dinner for weeks. We had to make so many repairs to our canoe along the way. This was the start of my lifelong obsession with adventure.

Why I Hike: I'm a hiking guide with Wildland Trekking, and I love taking people to beautiful places. My love of the natural world and medical sciences (I majored in Medical Sciences) has taken me to remote medical backpacking trips in Peru, Mexico, India and parts of the U.S. 

Lead The Way: Onward!

Ambassador Focus: #protip

Find Me:

Instagram: @wildlandtrekking

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