Home / Leave No Trace / How to Educate Other Hikers Respectfully When They Harm the Backcountry

How to Educate Other Hikers Respectfully When They Harm the Backcountry

Alpine Vegetation - Don't Tread on Me
Alpine Vegetation – Don’t Tread on Me

Have you ever seen someone trampling rare lichens above treeline by hiking outside designated trails? Camping illegally on an open summit? Cutting down krumholz to fuel a fire? Carving their initials into a shelter? Building a new fire ring? Washing their dishes with soap in a wilderness pond? Knocking over rock cairns? Breaking live tree branches near a campsite for a fire? Digging a trench around their tent to drain rain? Leaving toilet paper on top of the ground?

I believe that everyone who loves the backcountry has an obligation to speak up when they see others doing things that cause lasting harm to the wilderness or deface it in a way that impacts others’ experience.

Most hikers and backcountry who do these things don’t realize that they cause lasting harm to the plants and creatures or impact other people’s’ appreciation of the wilderness and safety. In fact, if they’re not local, they probably don’t even know that there are backcountry rules that limit where they can camp or start a fire. However, if you speak to them respectfully and explain how their actions affect the environment or others, they won’t be offended.

This topic recently came up on a Facebook Group I belong to and I was dismayed that almost everyone who responded said they wouldn’t confront other hikers who were illegally camping above treeline because “they didn’t want to ruin their hike with a confrontation” or “you never know how people will react or whether they’re packing (firearms).”

There is a skill to educating less experienced or knowledgeable outdoor visitors without putting them on the defensive. Being critical and attacking someone for breaking the rules, especially when they’re not enforced by the Forest or Park Service, doesn’t work. Alpine Stewards, Leave No Trace Trainers, and Rangers learn this skill as part of their job, but anyone can do it.

Alpine Stewardess on Mount Moousilauke
Alpine Stewardess on Mount Moousilauke

Communication Techniques

Here are five communication techniques that you can use to approach people on the trail when they are doing something that violates backcountry regulations (the law) and/or will have a major impact on the outdoors or affect other visitors’ wilderness experience negatively.

1.     Give the person the benefit of the doubt

  • It could have been someone else that caused an issue, not the person you approach. People will be more responsive to you if you show them consideration and tact. Lead with a neutral question. like “Great day?” or “How do you like that view?”

2.     Build rapport with the person that you are approaching

  • Get to know the person. Find out what their experience levels is or familiarity with the region before you try to address the issue at hand.

3.     Stand side by side

  • Never confront someone eye to eye. Stand off to the side so the problem is out in front of both of you. This is such a simple technique to diffuse a situation.

4.     Educate

  • Teach people the reason why their actions impact the backcountry by explaining the ecological and natural processes at work (see examples below.)

5.     Give them an alternative

  • Lastly, try to provide them with an alternative like taking pictures of a moose antler shed by an animal rather taking it out of the environment, where it can provide mineral nutrients to rodents and scavengers.
Campsuds
Biodegradable soap is not safe to use in steams and ponds.

Educational Messages

If you’re an experienced hiker who’s familiar with an area, chances are you know a lot about the local vegetation, flowers, animals, birds, weather patterns, camping options, and so. Leverage that expertise to build rapport and teach people something when you try to steer them to an alternative behavior.

For example,

“Did you know that soap hurts the fish even though it’s biodegradable? I didn’t realize it until someone told me.”

“Did you know that when you step outside the path marked by the rocks you might damage rare plants. It’s amazing, They can only grow for three months a year because they’re covered by snow the rest of the time, which makes it impossible for them to recover when people step on them. The path is bordered by these little rocks walls and people try to stay between them when they’re up here.”

“Excuse me, do you know that camping above treeline isn’t permitted in the White Mountains in order to protect the fragile plans and animals living on the summits? It makes sense since so many people visit the White Mountains. There’s a campsite you can go to instead at Valley Way which is free. I hear the fine is pretty steep if they catch you and that they confiscate all of your gear. ”

“Do know that live wood won’t burn in a campfire? Your best bet is to walk out a ways and find firewood that’s on the ground because it’s dry and will burn well.”

“Did you know that the woods here are infested with timber rattlesnakes and copperheads? Are you sure you want to keep your dog unleashed? You’d never reach a vet in time for an anti-venom shot.”

If You Don’t Educate Others, Who Will?

I think all outdoor lovers share a responsibility to help and educate one another when we’re enjoying a backcountry wilderness experience. You can’t rely on a higher government authority, like the US Forest Service or the Park Service to educate people about proper outdoor etiquette or to enforce backcountry regulations. There’s not enough to money for their annual budgets to hire the people needed and rule enforcement doesn’t work as well as interpersonal interaction among regular people, anyway.

If you value the resource, a hiking trail, a forest, the mountains, and rivers, and you want it to flourish while you are alive and for your children, you need to stick you neck out once and a while and pass your knowledge foreward.

Obviously, you need to make a judgement about when you feel comfortable and safe to intervene, but there will still be plenty of situations where speaking up can change someone’s behavior in a way that won’t harm the environment or another visitor’s experience.

If you don’t educate others to help preserve the backcountry and the experience of wilderness, who will?

23 comments

  1. Points well taken. I had an interesting talk with someone who had a campfire at well over 10,000 feet elevation in the High Sierra last summer. He wasn’t belligerent but he basically refused to believe that a campfire could somehow be harmful — even in a sensitive alpine environment where it takes centuries to grow wood.

    HJ

  2. On the Biodegradable Soap and disposing of the waste water properly – shit is perfectly biodegradable but hopefully you wouldn’t shit in a stream!

  3. What about bushwhacking and stealth camping (below treeline)? No matter how careful you may think you are, you are still extending use outside of trails or designated camping areas, no?

    • The purpose of this article is to explain how to talk to people who are engaging in high impact activities, often against backcountry regulations which would be fineable if there were enough fund/resources to enforce them.

      With respect to off trail hiking, you need to examine the impact on a case by case basis and what the local backcountry regulations are.

      For a detailed discussion see…
      http://sectionhiker.com/leave-no-trace-and-bushwhacking/

      Off trail hiking or stealth camping can be done in a way that is not high impact, but when people do it in large numbers on non durable surfaces, they hang tape from trees to mark a new path, create new fire rings, create new campsites that other people may discover and use, etc…you should speak up and challenge them about it when it is done in a destructive and unskilled manner.

      I would encourage you though to use the communication techniques I describe in this post to have a discussion with them about it, in the context in which the activities are occurring.

    • Only if you have a line of a bazillion people following you in and you return down the same trail consistently. I’ve bushwhacked many places and you cannot tell where you came from most of the time.

      • That’s why I encourage people to have these discussion in the context in which the activity is occurring and not make blanket assertions about them on the internet. Done intentionally off trail hiking can have virtually no impact but it really depends on the place, climate, time of year, and number of people participating. It’s also perfectly legal in many places as long as it is low impact. It really just depends.

  4. Great article Philip. I am afraid I must confess to being unlikely to “confront” someone deviating from leave No Trace. Sharing knowledge sounds like a reasonable approach.

    • Leave no trace can be a very slippery slope. We can do the most good if we focus on clear violations of local backcountry or park rules, but use educational techniques to explain how behavior affects the backcountry and/or other people. That’s how you get change.

  5. I have learned a lot about leave-no-trace/environmentally responsible camping and backpacking from my son who was a boy scout and eagle scout when he was younger. The leaders of his troop and other scouts who worked with them did a phenomenal job and he wouldn’t even consider camping any other way. We have even packed out trash that other campers left on a few occasions. I especially like the tip to stand next to the person while you are talking with them so that it feels less confrontational.

  6. These are great practical tips. I especially like the standing side-by-side.
    I hike Monadnock a lot and when I take the more heavily used trails I usually end up hauling a bag of other people’s trash out. I just wish if they are going to leave their Bud Light cans, they leave them on the trail so I don’t have to pick through brush to get them. I wonder if the people paying $5 to hike there figure that their fee includes housekeeping.

  7. In the Poudre Wilderness Volunteers organization I belong to, we use a non-confrontational “Authority of the Resource” approach to educating visitors to forest regulations and Leave No Trace principles on the trails we patrol. The basic idea is that we are all out here because we love the place, and the place itself has requirements that will preserve it for future generations. Our “authority” comes not from rules and regulations, but from love and respect for what wilderness gives us. Almost everyone wants to preserve that experience for future generations.

    • I’ve never understood why LNT.org (“the non-profit”) uses that term “Authority of the Resource” to describe these communication techniques when they could simply teach them without branding them. But that’s a discussion for another time. Keep on doing what you’re doing!

  8. Don’t forget the “Teddy Bear” technique as taught by Teddy Roosevelt, “Speak softly and carry a big gun”. Some prefer the “Stinking Badges” approach, “Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!” Followed by a hail of gunfire. Either way you’ll get the miscreant’s attention. Sometimes it’s difficult to have a decent conversation with a miscreant until you gotten their attention. On the flip side, it’s also difficult to have a conversation when the miscreants are leaving rapidly because you’ve shown your “badge”.

  9. Debra Colchamiro

    I was up at Backpacker Campsite 2 on the AT above the Water Gap & my boyfriend & I were packing up, when I spotted a guy heading into the pit toilet with a large plastic bag. I figured he was changing his clothes or something. But when he emerged without the plastic bag, I yelled out, “did you just throw a bag of garbage down the pit toilet?” He said “yes.” I yelled, “not cool, not cool!” Unfortunately it was too late. But maybe he would think twice about doing it again.

  10. Kurt in Colorado

    I have a concern about a prevailing attitude in the wilderness where some people believe they have the right and obligation to lecture strangers. The examples are very good at avoiding a “lecturing” attitude. Humility is paramount when one is being so presumptive as to tell a stranger that he is “wrong.”

    I just read Dr. Wallace’s “Authority of the Resource” paper (which he seriously needs to proofread!) and was quite impressed with his insights. His paper seems directed at official rangers, not private citizens. But I like the notion that we (private citizens) can appeal to fellow campers’ appreciation for the resource (“This is a beautiful area, isn’t it?”) rather than lecturing (“You’re doing it wrong”).

  11. Huckleberry Gap

    I would be interested in a post (or links to other resources) that would help me understand where it is and where it isn’t okay to step off the trail (assuming there are no regulations or signage.)

    I go to the mountains for solitude and like to find my own little quiet spot to camp or eat my lunch rather than a crowded campground or the same scenic spot as everyone else. But I don’t want to damage the ecosystem, and I certainly don’t want to be accosted by a stranger because I didn’t know better.

    I recently read a piece in which the author spoke of spotting a perfect campsite not far away and then realizing that the direct route was across some fancy-named crusted fragile soil type, so they walked a long way around to avoid that fragile area. I’d never heard the term and don’t recall it, and wouldn’t know that kind of soil if I saw it. Anybody want to help me out? Photos and explanations would help. If it makes a difference, I’m in the Pacific Northwest, hiking mostly in the Selkirks, Cascades, and Northern Rockies.

    • I would think they are referring to Cryptobiotic soil, a kind of topsoil that grows in dry areas, especially deserts. Where there is no true topsoil, bio-soils grow and offer a nutrient rich area off of which other plants can grow and thrive. One step on such soil, however, and it is essentially destroyed. Here is more info on some of the more common types; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biological_soil_crust The key to look for at is a raised, black/brownish “crust” on top of the existing ground soil.

      In terms of off-trail/on-trail, in general, try to stay on trail, especially above the treeline. Off-trail hiking should really be done in areas that are extremely low impact, namely, areas where you are walking on rock rather than vegetation.

      Below the treeline, most plants are well adapted and can recover quickly from abuse. Not to make an excuse to abuse those areas with off-trail hiking, but it presents different pros/cons. In alpine areas, most of the plants there are specifically adapted to the climate and are very fragile, such that one step on them can kill the plant.

  12. While some people are not open to any advice / suggestions / discussion about LNT, I expect the majority are like me, who had not thought about the topic or consequences prior to coming into contact with others who had, but who are open to the ideas. Perhaps an effective approach to raise awareness and change behavior is a tactic similar to the effort to stop smoking, whereby every tobacco product requires a warning label. In this case, manufacturers of camping / backpacking equipment could display a prominent “Leave No Trace” on their products. This might tie into LNT awareness materials that are on display in stores or their online websites. It could become the “Just Do It” catchphrase of the industry and eventually heighten awareness of the basic principles.

    • I like your idea Steve, I can’t recall the details but I do vaguely remember reading a study about how many times the average person needs to be given a particular instruction/message before it becomes accepted and (hopefully in the case of LNT) second nature. New information needs to be repeated a lot. The first time someone hears about LNT they are probably likely to glaze over or to (at best) not fully grasp it. So making it an often repeated and reinforced message might help to gradually shift people’s understanding and behavior.

    • Many brands already do this. Deuter backpacks for instance. Look under the top lid.

  13. We were all beginners once – heck, I am still a raw beginner. A smile and a friendly “this is how you can do this better / more easily / more safely for you and the surrounding wilderness” is appreciated, especially if the reasoning is explained. It’s a good thing that the local Conservation Dept ropes off patches of ground with rare plants, because I sure wouldn’t recognize a rare ground cover plant from a common wildflower.

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