These days, when you get a wilderness permit at Yosemite National Park, they give you a twenty minute lecture on all the rules and regulations they want you to follow. We know it so well by now that we find it quicker to actually give it to them first, so that we can get on with our hike. If you want to know the background for the whole lecture, you can see it all on this web page: http://www.lnt.org/programs/principles.php
But to be fair, the rules and regulations are right. In the old days, this was part of mountain lore--every good hiker knew most of these rules. But not every hiker knew every rule, and so in some places the wilderness seemed a lot less wild than it should have seemed. There is nothing very pleasant about arriving at a beautiful high Sierra lake to discover that the grassy lakeshore has been hard-packed into dirt, it is surrounded by fire rings behind every tree, and on the far side, a few rodents have discovered the buried toilet paper and distributed it all over the ground. It seems like every trip we take, we find some trash that someone else has left. We pick it up and pack it out, too.
What does that mean? First of all, on the trail itself, limit yourself to smaller groups. It’s no fun to hike along knowing that a group of seventeen people will be camping at the same lake later in the day--especially when you can hear them hiking from ½ mile away by their loud voices.
It’s also a bad idea to cut through switchbacks on the trail. It may seem easier to you, but this creates erosion paths that eat away the trail and ruin it for everyone else. We think anyone who cuts a switchback on a trail should spend a day rebuilding a trail as punishment. It’s very hard work. And it would be so nice if those trail crews could spend all of their time repairing natural damage to the trails and building new ones, without having to spend their days fixing what some idiots broke.
Some parts of the Sierra are clearly marked as habitat restoration areas, and have signs asking people to please stay off the lawn, meadows, stream banks or campsites. The National Park Service and the US Forest Service do this to try to give the most heavily impacted areas a chance to recover. If they don't protect these areas, they frequently expand into vast wastelands of bare earth that has been pounded flat, devoid of plant or animal life. That's not what we want in our National Parks.
We are not big fans of horses on hiking trails—they do a lot of damage to the trails over time. And while we’ve heard that they also pay a fee to fix that damage, our experience is that the damage gets done, we hike the trail, and then maybe later they fix it. Not a great system. But when you meet a horse on a trail, your job really should be to get out of the way. Stand still, well back from the trail, and let the horse or horses pass calmly. Once they are out of earshot, you are free to mutter under your breath.
The same goes for bicycles, where legal.
Dogs are not permitted in some areas (including all National Parks), and almost always should be on leash. And almost never are. I don’t mind meeting a well-behaved dog on the trail. At times I find it charming to see them out with their family and friends, enjoying the hike. But if you are not ABSOLUTELY sure your dog will behave well, please leave it at home. Dogs barking at campsites at night ruin the wilderness experience for others. Dogs barking or “defending their owners” on the trail have no business being there. Dogs chasing wildlife or introducing disease are a danger to the parks.
See our humor section for one encounter with a dog that I will not forget!
And follow the rules about campsites. Make them at least 100 feet from the lake or stream…ideally hidden away where you go unnoticed by others. Such campsites have a number of advantages—they are quieter for you, they are quieter for others. They won’t let your accidentally dropped stuff, from cameras to garbage, fall in the water. Mosquitoes are almost always less common farther from the water. And if you really want to camp on the edge of a lake, make darned sure that when the runoff from the snowmelt reaches its peak at 3 a.m., your sleeping bag doesn’t get wet.
That one is from personal experience about 40 years ago. Grin.
Other good ideas that have become rules? If you’re going to poop, do it far from water. The rules suggest up to 300 feet. Dig a hole, and cover it up later. And pack your toilet paper out. (We use about six sheets, which when you fold them gives you 2-3 good wipes…then fold it one more time, and put it in a tightly sealed opaque plastic bag. Whoever carries the lighter pack gets to carry this on the trip. That’s fair. Get over it.) We're sick of seeing clumps of toilet paper surrounding campsites. No matter how well you bury it, rodents will dig it up and display it for all those who come later. There's no excuse for this. Pack it out.
Campsites? We like to pick a spot that has been used before, and we like to leave it looking more natural than when we found it. That means that we often scatter a few pine cones back over where we pitched our tent, or even a few little rocks. Not so much to discourage others, but to make it a little more fun for them. Our favorite campsites have been those that seem almost undiscovered, and we think most other people feel the same way. So the last thing we do as we leave a site is to scatter a few pine needles over our tent site…knowing that the next campers will feel that same thrill.
Fires? We don’t always make a fire every night. In fact, we really don't make a very often at all--only 3-4 times in the last five years. And if there is no fire ring, we will NOT make a fire, period, because we don’t want to contribute to the problem. If there is a fire ring, and it is legal, we may make a small fire. This is a big change from a generation ago, when we cooked all of our food over an open fire. But times have changed, and so have our habits.
By the way, there are a number of experienced backpackers who believe that campfires attract bears who have come to rely on people for food. Just a thought. Remember: Red man make small fire, sit close. White man make big fire, sit WAY back. White man is a knucklehead.
And we won’t go into too much detail about making sure that your fire is out. Just make sure that it is really, truly out before you leave. If your campfire is left with some live coals in the bottom, and those Sierra winds kick up and spread the sparks to a nearby tree or bush, know that we and many other hikers will curse you into perdition forever. And the Forest Service will bill you for the cleanup. They’ll also put you in jail. Seriously.
If you want more comments about animals on the trail or if you should build a fire, check out the links below.