There are three qualities that are essential to a wilderness experience: solitude, silence, and lack of evidence of human encroachment. In addition, the hiker should also seek to preserve the natural balance of the ecosystem through which they are hiking. If these are qualities valued by the hiker, then etiquette dictates that behaviors compatible with these values are adopted. Not only will this reduce the impact of your own presence on the wilderness, but will help to assure that hikers to follow obtain the same enjoyment and sense of exploration from the area as you did.
My gut feeling is that the vast majority of people in living in American society are completely removed from the natural world. They have lived in an artificial environment for their entire lives to the point that when they arrive in the wilderness they have no idea how to behave or how it should be treated. If they have had the experience of going to an amusement park they know that in that setting, they are the customer and that the park is there to serve their needs and provide amusement. It can be seen how these attitudes are easily transferable to an area like the Grand Canyon, where an entrance fee is paid and amenities and services that cater to the customer are provided (hey, with the mules, trains and scenic overflights there are even 'rides'!!). Unfortunately actions taken by the Park Service often promote this 'entertain me' attitude and that by building roads right up to prominent natural landmarks they have turned many natural wonders into just another pretty postcard view (ironically you will often find Park Service signs at these locations bemoaning human vandalism which their roads helped to create in the first place). The thing that seems to be missing is respect. Respect the needs of the place first and foremost and it can't hurt to show some courtesy to your fellow hikers who's attitudes and actions mirror your own.
The 'Leave No Trace' organization has an excellent web site which offers practical conservation techniques designed to minimize the impact of visitors on the wilderness environment. I have attempted to summarize some of the major tenants of the LNT program on this page and have included some other tips based upon my own personal experiences to help minimize impact and maximize enjoyment for yourself and others while in the backcountry.
Getting away from the crowds to be alone with your thoughts is certainly one of the main reasons to go hiking in the first place (otherwise this site would be called Todd's Mall Walking Guide). Most of the time, however, there is more than one person that has this same idea, so you kids have to play nice and share - especially in some of the more popular locations. There are some things you can do to minimize the disturbances caused by your presence and allow other hikers to enjoy their experience as well.
- Take breaks and camp away from trails and other visitors. If the trail destination is a popular viewpoint, waterfall or mountain top, spend a few moments enjoying the view then, if you are planning a break or lunch, move off to the side to let other hikers have their turn. Please don't throw your pack down on the most prominent and visible area, kick off your shoes & spread out your lunch as if you owned the place.
- Be courteous. Yield to other users on the trail. A general rule of thumb is that the person climbing up hill has the right of way.
- Schedule your trip to avoid times of high use.
- Visit in small groups. Split larger parties into groups of 4-6.
- Respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience.
- Unless passing or being passed, try to maintain separation between yourself and other hikers.
Nothing quite shatters the illusion of solitude like noise from a man-made source. The sound of traffic, voices, low flying aircraft etc. act as an immediate reminder that civilization is not as far behind as you might like to think. In the desert, there are fewer obstacles to muffle loud noises, as a result sounds tend to carry quite far alerting animals and humans to your presence. By preserving the natural silence you are far more likely to see and hear wildlife at close range as well as reduce the chance of attracting unwanted human attention.
- Let nature's sounds prevail.
- Avoid loud voices and noises.
As human populations continue to rise (recently passing 6,000,000,000) and natural areas fall prey to developers, those natural areas that are left experience increasing amounts of human visitation. As a result, extra care is required to ensure that the area is left in no worse condition for our visit than when we arrived. This is especially true in a fragile desert environment in which off road tire tracks may persist for generations to come.
- Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you'll visit.
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces. Durable surfaces include established trails and campsites, rock, gravel, dry grasses or snow.
- Pack it in, pack it out. Inspect your campsite and rest areas for trash or spilled foods. Pack out all trash, leftover food, and litter. Pick up other peoples trash.
- Deposit solid human waste in catholes dug 6 to 8 inches deep at least 200 feet from water, camp, and trails. Cover and disguise the cathole when finished.
- Campfires can cause lasting impacts to the backcountry. Use a lightweight stove for cooking and enjoy a candle lantern for light.
- Do not build campfires. They are not necessary, create a lasting impact, and are responsible for many wildfires.
- Pack out toilet paper and hygiene products. Sounds gross? Actually, a resealable plastic bag does the trick (or double bag it if you'd like).
- Preserve the past: examine, but do not touch, cultural or historic structures and artifacts. Leave rocks, plants and other natural objects as you find them.
- Do not build structures, fire rings, furniture, or dig trenches.
- Walk single file in the middle of the trail, even when wet or muddy. Do not cut switchbacks.
- Keep campsites small.
- Focus activities in areas where vegetation is absent.
In addition to being a great place to explore, exercise, recreate and sightsee it should also be remembered that thousands of creatures depend on the wilderness for their survival. By thoughtless or careless degradation of a natural area you may be compromising the ability of those creatures to exist in the harsh desert climate. You are an uninvited guest in their desert homes, be considerate of the needs of wildlife.
- Protect riparian areas by camping at least 200 feet from lakes and streams. Animals need water to survive and may be hesitant to approach if you camp too close.
- Avoid walking on cryptobiotic soil. These soils can take hundreds of years to develop and may be destroyed by a single foot print.
- To wash yourself or your dishes, carry water 200 feet away from streams or lakes and use small amounts of biodegradable soap.
- Scatter strained dishwater.
- Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow or approach them.
- Never feed animals. Feeding wildlife damages their health, alters natural behaviors, and exposes them to predators and other dangers.
- Leave the dog at home. Especially if they chase wildlife &/or act threateningly to other hikers.
- Protect wildlife and your food by storing rations and trash securely.
- Avoid wildlife during sensitive times: mating, nesting, raising young, or winter.