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Leave No Trace Principle 2 – Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

Leave No Trace Principle 2 tells us to travel and camp on durable surfaces
Hiking popular trails like this one on Mount Elbert in Colorado, it is important to stay on the established trail.

This is the second in a series where we are discussing the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics’ seven principles. In this series, I really am diving deep into each principle in order to help you better understand them. This blog post is digging into Leave No Trace Principle 2 – Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces.

Hiking areas that are wet or moist like this Mount Mitchell, North Carolina, trail it is important to stay on the path.

I recently bought some new hiking shoes. I went with the Oboz Sawtooth with the Bdry. The shoes without Bdry are $30 less. And I seriously debated buying them but ended up settling on the Bdry for one reason – mud puddles.

You guessed it – Leave No Trace Principle 2 – Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces – teaches us to walk right through the mud puddle.

This one actually had me confused for a long time. I couldn’t remember if we are supposed to avoid the muddy sections of trail in order to keep from making it deeper or go through it.

But during my Leave No Trace Trainer Course, I finally learned it in a way where it stuck with me. When you walk around the mud puddle you widen the path and increase human impact to the area. As opposed to going through the mud puddle, which only affects the area that has already been impacted.

But one time around the mud puddle, isn’t going do damage, right?

It’s not the one time around that is the problem. If all the people who came before you and all the people who come after you that continually trample the ground and make the path wider and wider.

According to Jeffery L. Marion, a founding member of the Leave No Trace Board of Directors, “Research reveals that vehicle and trampling impacts to plants and soil occurs quickly but these surfaces recover slowly.”

Leave No Trace Principle 2 says to walk and camp on durable surfaces. So what are durable surfaces?

Durable surfaces include anything hard and compacted like pavement, rock, gravel, ice, and barren soil. Paths like you find on well-established trails and recreation areas.

Leave No Trace Principle 2 tells us camping on sand is a durable surface
Sand is an example of a durable surface. It also is extremely comfy to sleep on.

But it also includes some softer surfaces like snow and sand. These are considered durable because they shift and move and therefor impact from humans does not remain there for a long time.

If you are hiking in an area where you do not have these options, then consider vegetation that can withstand trampling better. Organic litter such as fallen leaves and pine needles are better than places with live vegetation. Grasses are considered the most durable types of live vegetation for hiking. Dry grasses in open fields with a lot of sunshine as the best.

So what are some examples of non-durable surfaces?

Avoid hiking on or through broadleaf vegetation as they tend to have weak stems. Ferns are also fragile and should be avoided. Wet soil, steep slopes, and biological soil crust and cryptobiotic soils, should also be avoided.

The best way to practice Leave No Trace Principle 2 – Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces – is to stick to well-established trails and paths.

Marion notes in his book, Leave No Trace in the Outdoors, “Recovery rates are very low so the restoration of impacted trails and recreation sites to natural conditions can require 10 to 30 years.” Even though it takes a long time to recover, it only takes a short time to show signs of impact.

When hikers begin leaving the established trail, say to cut switchbacks, that portion of the terrain loses the precious living matter that prevent the soil from eroding away.

Veering off the trail can also create “social trails.” Social trails are where one person or one group walks a certain way. It causes impact and then the next group follows that impact, which creates more impact. And like Marion states, it doesn’t take long at all for the impact to start. Then you begin to have hikers follow the social trail instead of the established trail causing them to get lost.

I have gotten lost every time I hike to Hemmed-In Hollow on the Buffalo National River because I follow social trails and lose the real trail.

When hiking in large groups and there is no established trail, consider “meadow walking.” This is where your group spreads out in order to avoid several people trampling in the same area.

You also want to find good durable surfaces when it comes time to set up camp for the night.

Great Campsites are found not made
My friend Lagena standing near our campsite along the Buffalo River Trail

Great campsite are found not made. We go into the backcountry to get away from civilization and crowds of people, therefore we want to preserve that serenity for those who come along after us.

Using Leave No Trace Principle 1 – Plan Ahead and Prepare – while camping in the backcountry, you always need to check with the park or forest to see if permits are required and if there are any regulations for backcountry camping.

Leave No Trace Principle 2 – Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
Some area that are particularly sensitive, will have raised walkways or platforms to camp on like this trail at White Oak Lake State Park in southern Arkansas.

For example, while backpacking at the Buffalo National River, you do not need backcountry permits. You can camp anywhere along the trail. However, don’t forget great campsites are found not made.

Cutting down vegetation to make a better campsite is never recommended. Take your time, and you will find a great spot.

If you find a spot that is already showing signs of impact, consider continuing your search. Those in large groups should spread out to minimize the number of people walking around in one area.

You also want to confine your activities around the campsite to the most durable surfaces. We do this in order to keep from expanding the impact and making the backcountry campsite larger.

When tearing down your tent, consider moving and distributing leaf litter and pine needles back to scuffed up areas. Also be sure to not leave any litter, spilled food, unsightly fire rings. Marion says you are the host to the those who come after you.

Dry grasses exposed to the sun are considered a durable surface
Dry grasses exposed to the sun are considered a durable surface. This field on the Buffalo National River is a great example.

When camping in the same spot for several night, move your tent around. This prevents constant impact to one specific area.

Dispersed camping is generally discouraged in any front country area to prevent the site from being overrun and heavily impacted. It is best to stay in established campsites in the front country.

Backcountry campers are also encouraged to not camp on lake shores and banks of streams. However Marion notes that sand and gravel bars along rivers and oceans are considered durable surfaces.

When traveling to get water from camp be sure to take different routes and avoid steep slopes to prevent erosion.

By practicing Leave No Trace Principle 2 – Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces – we can really minimize our impact to the pristine wilderness we love so much. We can keep it pristine so others can truly have a wilderness experience.

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Leave No Trace Principle 2 – Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces helps prevent impact by protecting the vegetation and soil from trampling.

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