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Low Impact Stealth Camping and Travel in Wilderness Areas

Meadow of Flowers
Meadow of Flowers

Have you ever come across a meadow of wild flowers and walked across it? How about tall prairie grass? If you have, you know that it takes very little to create a noticeable path through such an area. Once created, others have a strong tendency to walk along the same route and create a permanent path.

The same trampling effect occurs if you lay out a picnic blanket in a field of wild flowers. There the impact is not just a momentary footstep, but a prolonged, repeated crushing of the plant life underneath you. A picnic blanket is not that different from a tent footprint, if you think about it.

What people don’t see is the time it takes for plants to recover and start growing again after they’ve been trampled. It can take a full year for many species or plants to start growing again if they’ve been impacted like this. Multiply that by a 100 or a 1000 people and a permanent path will be formed where none existed before.

Surface Durability

Clearly wild flowers and tall prairie grass are delicate surfaces. But there’s a huge range of different surface types in the Wilderness, many which are far less prone to damage when you walk or camp on top of them. If we can walk or camp on them instead, we can preserve the beauty of more fragile areas for others to enjoy.

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

Here are some examples of different surfaces that one finds in Wilderness areas, ranging from very fragile to bombproof:

  1. Wildflowers – fragile
  2. Alpine, above treeline vegetation – fragile
  3. Moss – fragile
  4. Lichen on rocks – fragile
  5. Ferns – fragile
  6. Grass – moderately resilient
  7. Creeping ground cover – moderately resilient
  8. Forest duff – more resilient
  9. Pine and spruce saplings – more resilient
  10. Mineral soil – very durable
  11. Sand – very durable
  12. Rock – bombproof

The key to low impact travel and camping is to avoid more the fragile surfaces and use the more durable ones instead. It’s as simple as that.

Forest Duff
Forest Duff

Visible Impacts

Thinking about the durability of surfaces in especially important whenever you leave a hardened trail and head off over less durable ground to find a stealth campsite. You’d be surprised how easy it is to leave a visible sign of your presence behind, even on a moderately durable surface.

Leaving a visible trail or campsite is bad, because people are innately wired to follow paths or reuse campsites if they find them in an otherwise pathless or undeveloped area. Repeated impacts leave an even bigger trace, creating a snowball effect that ruins the aesthetics of a wild area.

For example, consider forest duff, made out of dead leaves, pine or spruce needles and small sticks.

  • If one person walks across it, they won’t create a noticeable path.  But if three walk the same route, they will compress the surface enough to create a clear path.
  • If you pitch a tent on forest duff, the ground underneath it will be noticeably compacted by morning. If you stay for multiple nights on the same site the impact will be much greater and it will be clear that a tent was pitched on the site previously.

How to Avoid Creating a Trail

There are couple of ways to prevent creating a trail to a stealth campsite:

First, try walking a route over as many durable surfaces as possible. For instance, don’t walk through a patch of ferns when you can walk around them over forest duff or rocks. If unavoidable, try to break up your route so that it alternates between more fragile and more resilient surfaces, if only to hide the fact that the different segments are part of a longer route.

Second, minimize the number of back and forth trips you need to make across the same ground. People’s ability to find a path over forest duff,  increases every time someone walks the same route. Refill your water before you start looking for a site, or cook your dinner on the trail before you leave it, in order to eliminate as many back and forth trips as possible.

Finally, if there are multiple people in your party, have them disperse as they walk through an area. Rather than having them follow the person in front of them, have them walk shoulder to shoulder, with some space between. This helps prevent the formation of a visible path and gives any trampled vegetation a better chance to recover.

How to Avoid Creating a Campsite

Here’s how to avoid creating a noticeable campsite:

  • Hike a good distance off trail, not the required minimum of 200 feet. Keep going a 1/4 mile or more.
  • Find an open place to pitch your shelter that doesn’t have any ground vegetation.
  • Stay for one night and move on the next day.
  • Don’t create a campfire or rearrange the site in any visible way, such as moving logs or breaking branches.
  • Restore the site the next morning by fluffing up compressed areas.
  • Pack out all trash and dispose of waste properly.

Of these, the most effective is probably to get as far away from a hardened hiking trail as possible. People will reuse campsites that are easy to find, just off a trail, but if they think they have to bushwhack, they’ll give up and turn around.

Summary

This is the second article in a series on how to practice low impact stealth camping. In the first article, I focused how to plan and prepare for a stealth camping trip, while this post focused on how to keep your site undetectable and hidden. Next week, I’ll focus on how to further minimize campsite impacts including how to build low impact mound fires and waste disposal.

 

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7 comments

  1. In Scotland recently some of the hills had pretty little flowers which may not be “rare”, but you don’t see them very often. Or possibly they are rare, because they only grow in such places. I trod carefully trying to avoid them, but there are times when its impossible not to – going up a steep heathery slope for example, when you don’t have full balance and control over your steps.

    • Heather’s is a pretty durable surface in my experience, but still you made a deliberate choice to avoid the more delicate vegetation. The bigger issue for us in the states is the multiplier affect. If you had 1000 people step on the flowers,they’d be gone forever and no one would ever experience them again.

  2. Here is a photo of a use trail being created across a meadow. Crews needed to get to the other side of the meadow to do some trail maintenance. Every crew was taught how to walk across a meadow (spread out), but it only takes a few oblivious campers to make a trail.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/walter_underwood/4783654473/in/set-72157624347890249

  3. Superb article. Right on the mark.

  4. Very informative article for both advanced and beginner hikers. Gives you the basics on how to keep your site undetectable and hidden. Great job.

  5. You don’t mention it in your list of Wilderness surfaces, but in the western/southwestern parts of the U.S. we also have special earthen “crusts” which are commonly found in desert areas (Joshua Tree NP is an excellent example) that are easily damaged but lack the noticeably fragile “appearance” of wildflowers and grassy meadows.
    http://www.nps.gov/jotr/learn/nature/cryptocrusts.htm

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