What is the relationship between bushwhacking and Leave No Trace? Can you bushwhack in a manner that is consistent with Leave No Trace ethics or is all bushwhacking bad? What does bushwhacking have to do with ethics anyway? What are some best practices that one can adopt as a bushwhacker to minimize negative impacts and help conserve the wilderness?
These questions were at the forefront of my mind last spring when I took the 5-day training class required to become a Leave No Trace Master Educator. But my instructors wouldn’t tell me what was “right” or “wrong”. Instead, they did what I encourage everyone to do with the Leave No Trace principles. Use your judgement. Leave No Trace is about making choices, not about following dogma.
Leave No Trace Guidelines
Contrary to what many people believe, Leave No Trace is not a set of rules, but a system of ethics or guidelines to help people make informed decisions about how to behave in the wilderness. When you get right down to it, rules are unenforceable in wilderness situations. The only practical way to encourage conservation is to help people understand the consequences of wilderness activities that impact other people, wildlife, plants, and the environment. This is particularly important when a lot of people are using the same resources as in Yosemite or the White Mountain National Forest, where harmful impacts are hugely magnified by concentrated and repeated use.
For example, if everyone took a crap in the woods wherever they felt like it, our national parks and scenic trails would be knee deep in human shit. No one wants to see that, so most people use trail privies or bury their waste in cat holes in wilderness areas. While there will always be people who don’t consider the greater good important, if most do, there’s hope we can preserve the wilderness for future generations to enjoy.
But like any system of ethics (the 10 Commandments, the Talmud, Human Rights), the Leave No Trace guidelines are not absolutes. They are not applicable to every situation and are open to different interpretations depending on where you are, the popularity of an area, the level of existing impact, or the resilience of the local environment.
An Example: Preventing High Use Impacts
For example, when Leave No Trace encourages hikers to walk on durable surfaces, they want hikers to stick to designated paths in high-use areas in order to prevent fragile plant-life from being trampled and irreparable erosion. The intent is to preserve the high use area so that the next people to walk through it have the same quality of wilderness experience as the people who were there before them.
But hiking on hardened, durable surfaces might be impossible if you’re in a wilderness area where there are no trails. It’s also somewhat less important to hike on durable surfaces such as rock or mineral soil if you’re alone or in a small group of people in an area that is seldom visited by other people, or where the vegetation is fast growing and has time to recover before someone else visits the area.
I’m not saying that hikers get a free pass when it comes to trampling vegetation in low use areas, but rather that people need to make judgement calls about their level of impact when hiking off-trail. There are a lot of simple things that hikers can do to mitigate off-trail hiking impacts.
What is Bushwhacking?
If you’ve never bushwhacked or are unclear what it entails, here are some of its distinguishing characteristics:
- Travel off designated or maintained trails, through forest, brush, across open landscape, or along unmarked and unmaintained pathways (often called herd paths) that are usually not listed on area maps.
- Travel by foot across snow, frozen ponds and lakes, boulder fields, through stands of trees and brush, and open ground.
- Navigation by compass, altimeter and map, frequently without the use of visible landmarks.
- An activity that often results in torn clothes, scratches, and other minor injuries to one’s person and gear.
- It’s called bushwhacking because the bushes whack back.
- Few people do it and there’s little chance of that changing. The people who do it are probably a little cracked.
Personally, I like to bushwhack. I find it amazingly liberating to walk off-trail and use my brain and brawn to navigate through dense brush that seems determined to impede my progress and drain the last drops of blood from my body. While bushwhacking is not for everyone, I find it exhilarating to hike wherever I want to go in the wilderness and to explore places that no one has visited before.
This Bushwhacker’s Guide to Leave No Trace Awareness
My goal in this post is not to dictate how bushwhacking should be practiced, but I do believe that there is a way to practice low impact bushwhacking in a way that is consistent with the wilderness ethics of Leave No Trace. To illustrate, here are some personal bushwhacking practices that I try to observe in New Hampshire’s White Mountains in order to preserve the wilderness experience for others who might follow in my footsteps.
Note: These are my personal bushwhacking LNT preferences: I’m not dictating them to others, just putting them out there.
- I try to bushwhack in small groups no larger than 6 people. The bigger group the group, the more impact it will cause even in very dense, fast growing vegetation.
- If bushwhacking with a larger group, I plan my hikes when there is snowshoe depth snow on the ground. Snow and ice are durable surfaces making winter a great time to practice low impact bushwhacking, particularly in higher use locations.
- I avoid bushwhacking in boggy locations or near beaver ponds. There is too much potential harm I can do to the animals and their habitat, so I stay away.
- If there’s an existing path or trail (ie. a herd path) leading to a bushwhacking destination, I follow it rather than creating a new one. I try to concentrate use on areas that have already been impacted instead of creating new ones.
- I avoid walking on moss, ferns, lichen, and alpine plants because they take longer to recover from trampling than woodier plants.
- I don’t mark my route in any way (tape, blazes, etc), or cut or chop trees and branches to create a new trail.
- I carefully plan a bushwhacking route in advance to minimize the distance traveled and obviate the need for a search and rescue effort, which can cause a far greater amount of damage. I bring gear necessary to spend an unexpected night out and make sure that the person I leave my itinerary with knows when to call for help and when to wait in case I’m temporarily delayed.
- I don’t alter the landscape or vegetation in any way such as building silly rock cairns or carving my initials in trees to commemorate my journey.
- I pack out all of the trash I pack in.
- I bury my feces and toilet paper in a cat hole or pack them out.
- I won’t start a campfire except in an emergency situation. If I need to cook, I use a camping stove.
- If I’m in a group, I try to take a slightly different return route on a bushwhack to further disperse any impacts.
- If I have to walk through an area of fragile vegetation, I encourage the people with me not to walk single file. Dispersed routes are better because is they distribute trampling impacts and help vegetation recover more quickly.