Greet the Outdoors... Responsibly

Words and photos by Jason Fitzgibbon

Contrary to what many folks may believe, social media serves as a vital resource in conserving our last remaining wild and natural places. It’s ability to readily share places and stories—and therefore influence a worldwide audience—can inspire thousands of people to visit, protect, or simply learn more about places they might never have heard of. It’s my belief that the more often we all get out and experience natural places, the more we'll ensure those places continue to be protected far into the future.

However, it is rather common to come across shared images that completely ignore the written and unwritten rules and regulations of the backcountry. Sometimes it’s due to lack of awareness, but often it’s for the sake of obtaining an "epic shot". While these images do inspire many people to get outdoors, they also promote unsafe, unsustainable, and sometimes illegal activities that can have long-lasting detrimental impacts on the plants and animals that make these places so intriguing in the first place.

Some of the best ways to minimize your impact on the environment are plain common sense. Others, however, are not quite so straightforward; comprehending their purpose can require a slightly more involved understanding of how we, even just as temporary visitors, can adversely affect the natural environment. By following and sharing some of these ethical backcountry practices, we can ensure this recent wave of social media-driven outdoor enthusiasts are able to enjoy, maintain, and protect the beautiful natural landscapes that inspired us all to get out there in the first place.

Pack it Out

One of the most obvious ways to limit your impact on the environment is to carry out everything that you carry in. Never leave, burn, or bury trash in the backcountry. Most plastics, paper, and glass remain in the environment for many years and are likely to be ingested by wildlife, or simply seen by other outdoor enthusiasts (gross!). I always bring along an extra bag to pick up a few extra pieces of trash along the trail or at camp. You'll be surprised how much is out there to pack out.

Keep Food to Yourself

Don't ever feed wildlife (no matter how rad of a photo you might get!) and be extremely careful about protecting your food. Try your best not to leave scraps from cooking or cleaning, and don't leave food unattended and out in the open. Protecting your food not only ensures you don't have to hike out on an empty stomach, but it also prevents wildlife from becoming dependent on humans. Bears that learn to raid campsites or visit tents for easy pickings are often labeled "trouble animals" and are sometimes relocated. In some cases, these bears are even euthanized. Smaller opportunistic animals such as the endangered Channel Islands fox (shown sniffing around our picnic table in the photo above ) can become malnourished and prone to chronic infections from eating human food. Rodents that get into camp food can readily transmit deadly diseases such as hantavirus through their saliva, urine and droppings.

To avoid these issues, cook and clean at least one hundred feet away from your campsite and make sure unattended food is always hung in a tree or secured in a protective bear canister. Bear cans not only keep bears out but are impenetrable to smaller mammals and birds. At night, always securely stash your food and scented toiletries, away from camp and out of the reach of bears and other wildlife. If hanging a bag, secure it 8-10 feet high. If storing in a bear can, tie it to a boulder.

Be Mindful of Your Campsite

Try to camp at least one hundred feet away from water sources. We all know that it makes for a way better photo to have your tent placed right next to the shore of an alpine lake or along the bank of a rushing mountain stream, but if even just a few of us do that we can have profound negative effects on the ecosystem.

What we typically do not see on our visits into the backcountry is how vastly the environment changes with time. Aquatic environments, which ebb and flow tremendously with the seasonal fluctuations of rainfall and snowmelt, exemplify this exceptionally well. Mountain lakes and streams swell and shrink with the seasons, often leaving exposed banks in the summer that support highly specialized hydrophytic plants and animals that have evolved to occupy these dynamic habitats. By digging out a spot for your tent or just simply by going about your regular camp business, you can crush burrowed amphibians like the endangered mountain yellow-legged frog, or irreversibly compact the soft, damp soils that annual plant species require to germinate. Failed plant germination leads to bank erosion, which can increase the silt levels in the water, which can result in smothered trout redds and higher turbidity, which causes lower photosynthetic capability… the cycle goes on.

For your next camp spot, make sure you're well above the active bank of the lake or stream you're camped next to. For most lakes, this is delineated by the forest edge (visible in the photo above), or rock or soil staining. For streams, make sure you're well above anything that appears to have been a recent or past bank or terrace; look for signs of flow or steps up from the active bank, then camp a decent distance upslope from either. Usually a meadow is part of a stream or lake ecosystem, so always try to avoid them—they're often too damp to camp in anyway. (Not to mentioned they can be loaded with mosquitoes and are horribly unsafe in a thunderstorm.)

Oh, and always be sure to "use the restroom" a significant distance from water sources. That's just common courtesy. 

Consider Your Impact on the Trail

Some of the most significant impact we can have on our trails is when they’re muddy. When trails get wet due to heavy rainfall or during spring snow melt (see photo), a couple of things happen. First (and most obvious), trail soils become saturated, allowing boots and especially hooves to displace much more soil with each step. This sounds minor but it can drastically increases the rate of erosion, and over time our favorite trails become deeply incised and rutted. The erosion only worsens as the ruts collect more water, and then continue to get deeper and deeper still.

Second, water often pools on flat, compacted sections of trail. Most of us don’t like getting our feet wet and naturally some hikers skirt around these pools. But that damages vegetation and widens the trail by creating braided paths along the trail corridor. When you encounter pools on the trail, just hike right through them. Most of the time you'll actually stay dry, plus you’ll be super stoked how well your GoreTex boots work!

Fires Are a Privilege

Yes, it’s true—in the backcountry, fires are a privilege and not a right.

In the arid west, much of our montane vegetation is sparse and slow-growing. Plants have evolved over time to cope with the unpredictable climate by growing extremely slowly, investing less energy in reproduction, and by going "dormant" during seasonal dry periods or drought. These same adaptations render many montane species unable to recover from the cut of a saw, the rip of an appealingly dead branch—or the intense heat of a fire.

Additionally, the already dead and dying vegetation that looks like great firewood supplies critical nutrients to the soil. Rotting organic matter hosts a suite of fungal and bacterial species that serve to break down the cellulose of dead wood and return it to the earth as usable compounds by future plant species. Removing dead wood and burning it (completely oxidizing the compounds) irreversibly removes those potential nutrients from the soil cycle. This is especially true in areas where soil development is critical such as alpine and subalpine ecosystems.

In the future, try filling that time you would have otherwise just spent staring at burning wood by keeping busy or just relaxing sans fire. I often look forward to my fire-less nights as an opportunity to work on my astrophotography (campfire light can kill a star photo), or to simply rig up my Loafer Hammock and stare at the night sky. And if you're really antsy to shoot some campfire-vibe Instagram photos, an amber-colored Luci lantern does the trick just fine!

All said and done, it remains vital that we all get outside, and often. The more of us that experience our beautifully wild places, and the more of us that share those experiences, the more valuable these diminishing places will become to our society. So I urge you all: get outside and have fun! Enjoy nature responsibly so that these places remain wild for generations of outdoor enthusiasts to come.

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