Hiking through the woods can offer exercise and an opportunity to observe nature. When you hike on trails, pay heed to the grass and fragile plants growing underfoot. Many types of plants are not strong enough to withstand the tread of humans and they may take time to rebound again with new growth.

Hiking on the Trail vs. Off-Trail Hiking

Always stay on established hiking trails to minimize the impact of your presence. Hiking trails have specific space designed to accommodate hikers. The soil on a hiking trail depends on the geographic location, the amount of precipitation that falls, and the amount of foot traffic the trail receives. Surface water should flow across a trail instead of parallel with it to avoid excessive erosion. Obey rules and follow signs posted on a hiking trail to minimize your impact. If you meet other hikers on a trail, give right-of-way to hikers moving downhill. Allow other hikers to pass you, but avoid stepping off of the trail to do so. Although it may be tempting to leave established hiking trails to find pristine views or natural areas, wandering off-trail can cause significant damage to a natural ecosystem. This can be especially true in alpine areas because vegetation that grows at this altitude is often extremely fragile. For example, it’s possible to damage some types of moss and lichen with only five to 10 passes over these plants. Not only are many plants susceptible to damage, but they could also take up to 20 years to recover, growing as little as two or three millimeters per year.

Solo Hiking and Hiking as a Group

Hiking individually or in small groups is preferable to hiking in larger groups to minimize the impact on fragile plants. Strive to keep the number of people in a hiking group below 12 for the best results. Not only will a large group contribute to plant damage, but it also leads to greater soil erosion as feet wander off of the established paths. Always walk single-file on a hiking trail, never two or more abreast, because this can widen the hiking trail unnecessarily.

How Trails Widen

With excessive use, trails often widen over time. Trail widening can also occur when people hike in muddy conditions. The common response to hiking in mud is to step around it instead of walking through it. Although this keeps mud off of your hiking boots, it means that you will be treading off of the hiking trail. Walking off of the hiking trail, especially during wet and muddy conditions, typically damages plants growing along the edge of a trail. Over time, trails will widen as hikers continue to hike around mud on a hiking trail. To prevent trail widening, hike through any mud on a trail. Trail widening can also occur if obstacles such as brush or tree limbs are present, requiring people to step off of the trail. Maintenance of a trail to remove obstacles can reduce trail widening.

Establishment and Spread of Campsites

When you camp, choose established campsites only, on durable surfaces such as bare ground. Established campsites are cleared to accommodate a specific number of people. Choose a campsite at least 100 feet away from any hiking trails and at least 250 feet away from sources of water. Spread a large group of people over a larger area of land to minimize your impact on the environment. To avoid damaging fragile plants and spreading the cleared area of a campsite farther, do not attempt to place more people in a campsite than it can accommodate. Campsites can also spread by campers moving back and forth between cleared areas, which may occur when a large group of people splits into separate campsites. You can avoid increasing the spread of a cleared area of a campsite by not spending more than a few nights in one place. Try to keep your campsite as primitive as possible during your stay. Use a camp stove instead of lighting a fire unless the campsite has an established fire ring. Don’t burn trash; carry it out with you instead.