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.
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.
- 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.
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.
“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 plants 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 way 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 your neck out once and a while and pass your knowledge forward.
Obviously, you need to make a judgment 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?