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Urban Leave No Trace – Travel on Durable Surfaces

Leave No Trace - Don't Create Bootleg Trails
Leave No Trace - Don't Create Bootleg Trails

I live near an urban nature reserve that is heavily used by hikers, mountain bikers, and dog walkers. The place has always been big enough, and the users few enough, that we’ve had relatively little impact on the local ecology. Unfortunately that’s no longer true, and the trails in the reserve are starting to show clear signs of overuse. I’m talking about the Middlesex Fells which are inside Route 128, the major Boston ring road, but this could be any big urban park in any city.

One of the big problems we’re experiencing in the Fells is the creation of bootleg trails created by hikers and mountain bikers. These range from seemingly harmless detours around muddy spots to full blown 1/4 mile shortcuts that people take from their cars parked outside to Fells to get to the trails in the interior. This has been going on for a long time, but there are a lot more people using the park now.

For example, there are 22 miles of bootleg trails in the Fells compared to 80 miles of legitimate maintained trails.  You can walk down any woodland trail in the park and you’ll see bootleg routes crisscrossing the main tread-way all around you. There’s ample evidence of advanced erosion and loss of habitat in what was previously a gem in the emerald necklace of parks surrounding Boston.

Dusk in the Middlesex Fells
Dusk in the Middlesex Fells

Leave No Trace

I’ve been talking to a lot of people this past week about the bootleg trail issue in the Middlesex Fells and most of them are really concerned this isse. I think we all agree that education is the key to changing peoples’ behavior in the Fells, and I’m glad to see that signs, like the one above, are being posted in the forest to start educating park users about the consequences of straying from the maintained pathways.

But we need to do even more education and I plan to do my share, by teaching the principles of Leave No Trace in the Fells. I’m taking a Master Educator course in LNT in a few weeks, the highest level of training offered by the organization, and I plan to use my training to teach classes in the Fells with emphasis on one of the main Leave No Trace Principles: Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces.

In the context of the Fells (where camping isn’t permitted):

  • Durable surfaces include established trails, rock, gravel, dry grasses or snow.
    • In popular areas:
      • Concentrate use on existing trails.
      • Walk single file in the middle of the trail, even when wet or muddy.
    • In pristine areas:
      • Disperse use to prevent the creation  and trails.
      • Avoid places where impacts are just beginning.

If you’re a hiker or dog walker or mountain biker, it makes sense to stick to established trails or durable surfaces that will won’t be impacted by your passing. As trail maintainers, it’s easier for us to fix any damage that is caused by increase use if it is concentrated on the trail and not adjacent to it, or branching off to who knows where. Please  stay on the trails in popular areas that are threatened by overuse, so we can all enjoy the Fells well into the future.

In less popular areas, disperse your use. Don’t go to the same places over and over, and keep your group size very small. The woods, animals, and plant life in the Fells are very fragile and tromping over them like a herd of cattle will destroy them. If you see a new bootleg trail, avoid it, or drag blow-downs and dead branches of wood from the surrounding area to block it off: that’s what I do.

If we all work together on this common cause, wherever you live, we can save our urban parks and nature reserves for everyone to enjoy.


  1. As a mountain biker, hiker and snowboarder, I’m trained to look for “secret stashes”. Without signs, almost all trails appear to be fair game at first glimpse. You almost can’t even blame people if they don’t know what they are doing has a negative impact. Some might think they are deer paths or legal trails.

    The signs would keep me and probably most people off of them but this line goes through my head whenever I see a cool side trail.

    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.
    Robert Frost

    • Eh, I do blame people if they have a negative impact even if they don’t know it. Shame on me (us in general) for not making it a widely recognized taboo.

  2. Well Said. Around my area we have plenty of designated trails, and a lot of people don’t stick to those trails. Like you said, it most likely is an issue of education, not of blatant disrespect to the land. People don’t actively think about what the impact their footsteps have. Although there are a few people; hopefully not many, who just don’t care about the wildlife or the land and just beat up on it and leave trash behind making it a mess for the next person to worry about. It is those few people who anger me, as I walk past and pick up their empty soda cans and cigarette cartons.

  3. In general, I’d be interested to know the percentage of people that use the trails and actually give a shit about preserving such places. I think a lot of people look at them as public parks and think some paid public employee is going to come pick up their litter for them.

    • I met one of those over the weekend. He made a lasting impression on me. Strengthened my resolve to make a constructive contribution. Hopefully it will have some impact.