Hiking and Backpacking Etiquette
As outdoor recreation becomes increasingly popular it is evident that
the days of the "skilled woodsmen" who modified the environment for
their personal comfort are over. Pristine areas are fragile and need
protection from damage. Heavily used areas need protection from overuse.
It is now essential to do everything possible to minimize the impact
and damage to an area by practising "low impact", "no trace" skills,
leaving as little trace of our presence as possible. It is with this in
mind that we would like to share some ideas which will help you to
leave an area as you would like to find it.
The following are simply guidelines to consider, not a set of rigid
rules. Depending on the circumstances and situation, judgement should
be used and alternatives considered.
Many of us have come across areas that are criss crossed with trails
where others have taken "short-cuts" down hillsides or around problems.
These practices lead to erosion and excessively wide trail systems. It
takes very few footsteps to create a new trail in a fragile alpine area
but years, even decades, for the environment to recover from the loss
of vegetation, erosion and compacting of the soil this causes. Such
problems are simple to avoid but very difficult to rectify.
- Keep to trails where possible.
- In alpine areas walk on rocks and snow as much as possible.
- Try not to expand or create new trails around problems areas such as mud. This tends to create a wide area which is damaged.
- Where there are multiple options consider which one results in the least environmental impact.
- When off trail, try to minimize the damage to vegetation (including moss and lichens).
- In sensitive areas (e.g. alpine) compacting the soil is also damaging.
- Moving on scree slopes can cause rock slides.
- Avoid building rock cairns.
Garbage attracts wild animals (bears, raccoons, rodents, birds,
insects) and accustoms them to human food. Do not assume biodegradable
things degrade quickly or at all. Our climate and local bacteria favour
some biodegradables over others, for example, orange peels do not
decompose easily. Partially decomposed items are unsightly.
- Try to create as little waste as possible.
- As a general rule, pack out ALL garbage.
- Do not throw peelings away. Consider eating apple cores etc.
- Consider every small item. Wooden matches decompose slowly and are unsightly.
- Some garbage (e.g. paper) can be burnt but many things do not burn
well or at all (aluminum foil). Food could leave some residue when
burnt. Plastics give off toxic gases when burnt.
- Never bury garbage - it can be exposed by animals or frost action.
- Consider packing out garbage that others have left behind.
- Leave your campsite cleaner than you found it.
Campsites concentrate damage in a small area, especially with larger
groups. Select campsites to minimize this damage. Try to leave as
little trace of your presence as possible.
- Set tents on needles or bare spots, not on vegetation such as meadows or flowers.
- Select a site at least 30 m (100ft) from water sources. This helps to reduce water pollution.
- Do not create drainage trenches.
- Try to repair any damage you may have done.
Traditionally considered an essential part of camping, fires cause a
great deal of damage: consuming wood, damaging the soil, creating a
visual scar and potentially leading to a runaway fire. Camping can be
fun without a fire. A fire tends to form a little bubble of light and
warmth cutting you off from experiencing the night, darkness, sounds,
silence and stars. Fires can still be used when the conditions allow.
Alpine areas are very fragile and have little wood. Trees may have
taken decades to grow a few meters. The soil and vegetation are very
fragile. Fires can cause damage that will take decades to repair.
- Don't depend on a fire for cooking. Backpacking stoves are small, light and efficient - far better than fires for cooking.
- Never build fires in fragile areas, especially alpine areas.
- In coastal areas, try to make fires below the high tide mark.
- Don't cut down branches for wood, even if dead. Consider whether
the wood you are collecting is important as biodegradable mass. Are you
burning wood that is picturesque and part of the scenery?
- If you have made a new fire pit, consider dismantling it
afterwards. Remove any rocks, spread and bury the ashes. A beautiful
wilderness spot is spoilt by the remains of past camp fires.
- Consider dismantling other people's fire pits if they are in
inappropriate areas. This will improve the appearance of an area and
may help to discourage inappropriate fires.
Water & Sanitation
Due to heavy use and careless action, all water should now be
considered contaminated. For example, the parasite "giardiasis"
(gee-ar-die-assis), commonly called "beaver fever", can be found in the
cleanest of waters. Other diseases may also be present.
Before consuming any water, boil the water (for 1 minute plus 1 minute
per 300 m (1000ft) altitude) or use purifying tablets as directed.
- Dispose of waste water (e.g. from washing) at least 60 m (180ft) from any water source to avoid contaminating the water source.
- In coastal areas take advantage of the natural flushing of the ocean and dispose below the high tide mark.
- Soaps should be biodegradable. Consider washing without soap.
- Some sources recommend swallowing toothpaste in fragile areas.
- Tampons should be packed out.
A major source of contamination is the improper disposal of human waste.
- Human waste should be deposited at a site at least 60 m (200ft) from any watercourse, even if it is currently dry.
- In coastal areas select a site below the high tide mark.
- Dig a "cat hole" 10-15 cm (4-8 inches) deep, but do not dig below
the topsoil into inert-looking soil. A small trowel makes this easy.
Burn the toilet paper afterwards (unless there is an extreme fire
hazard; one source recommends packing it out in this eventuality).
Refill the hole.
- For larger groups, consider making one latrine for the whole group.
See also our article on Water in the Backcountry.
Feeding or encouraging contact with animals (e.g. bears, raccoons,
squirrels, birds, insects) accustoms them to human food and
desensitizes them to human presence. They may become dependent on
humans and unable to survive naturally. This may lead to dangerous
situations and aggressive animals may have to be destroyed.
- Never take food into your tent.
- Keep the campsite clean - avoid food spills & spreading food smells.
- Cook away from your tent.
- Keep clothes free from food odours.
- Hang all food and any other smelly items (sunscreen, toothpaste,
flavoured water, cooking pots) at least 3m (10ft) above the ground and
1 m (3ft) from the support (e.g. tree trunk).
- Some animals, particularly ground nesting birds can be sensitive to
humans during the nesting season. Disturbing them could result in the
failure of their breeding season. Please respect their
- Do not assume that young animals on their own (such as seal pups or
fawns) have been abandoned by their parents. The parents are likely
looking for food. Any human contact with the young animal can be
- If you come across animals which are obviously sick or injured do
not move them but call the District Wildlife Officer, the S.P.C.A. or
Picking Plants, Collecting Samples
Consider the consequences, think what would happen if 100 other people acted similarly.
- Consider the impact on the ecosystem when removing specimens such as plants, sealife, rocks or wood.
- Be careful when examining objects. After disturbing rocks or logs,
restore them to their original position. This may be the habitat of
- Consider the visual impact. Is the piece of driftwood you are collecting part of the scenery?
- Before picking excessive quantities of berries consider whether or not you are depriving the wildlife of a vital food source.
- If you have pets with you, make sure their behavior is non destructive.
Take only photos, leave only foot-prints.
- Back Country Sanitation
- Outdoor Recreation Council of B.C.
- The Complete Walker
- Colin Fletcher
- Hiking Trails I, II, III
- Jane Waddell
- How to Shit in the Woods
- Kathleen Meyer
- Olympic Mountains Trail Guide
- Robert Wood
- Trail Users' Code of Ethics
- Outdoor Recreation Council of B.C.