When Best Intentions Have Unintended Consequences on Trails
Whether it’s stacking stones, leaving treasures at summits or marking miles, sometimes hikers’ good intentions leave a lasting mark. Learn what is—and isn’t—cool on trail.
"I took some time to practice my graffiti-removal skills on the large purple ‘1’ that was spray-painted near the one-mile mark on the Snow Lake Trail. I’d say the effort was largely successful, although some of the purple spray paint is still clinging to cracks and crevices in the rock." — benmayberry, Snow Lake
This excerpt from a trip report earlier this year spotlighted a problem we sometimes see on trails. A hiker's helpful act actually does more damage than good. While Ben deserves full kudos for cleaning up a part of the Snow Lake Trail for future hikers, the graffiti he discovered was most likely left to help out hikers. Whether it’s stacking stones, leaving treasures at summits or marking miles, sometimes hikers’ good intentions leave a lasting mark.
Below are a few other practices that, while well-intentioned, should probably be avoided.
Marking or flagging along a trail
Whether it's spray painting markers, carving arrows into trees or flagging an unclear route, it's best to leave marking a trail up to the officials.
Flagging a route can lead heavy traffic onto bootleg trails, confuse hikers and lead folks into dangerous situations. All of these practices violate basic Leave No Trace principles by altering the landscape and leaving trash behind.
If you feel like a trail needs more or new signage, report it to your local ranger station or mention it in a trip report.
Removing debris from decomissioned trails
When trails are dangerous or have been rerouted, rangers might decomission a trail to let it fade back into the forest. They often lay debris across the trail to indicate the closure, and give the trail time to be restored. If you see what looks like a systematic or intentional blockage on a trail, especially at an intersection, leave it be.
Trail treasures left behind
There's no question that nature inspires and moves us, but the products of your inspiration shouldn't be left behind on trail. Take photos, create art, and share it online, but your art projects or celebration stashes should never be left behind for others. While some trail users may enjoy seeing these treasures, it will negatively impact the experience of a place for others.
Geocaching and official summit registers are different beasts, both with land manager approval and strict Leave No Trace impacts.
With hundreds and thousands of hikers visiting a trail in a year, the look and feel of trails would be fundamentally altered if everyone left their treasures behind. Instead, funnel your creativity into art projects that don't leave their mark on the places that inspired you to begin with.
The problem of cached supplies
The Pacific Crest Trail Association has written extensively about the caching of goodies and water for thru-hikers. While the folks who leave unattended caches may seek to delight future hikers, what's left behind can spoil natural experiences, leave tons of trail trash behind and harm wildlife.
"A 12-pack of beer left in the wilderness may be fun and refreshing on a hot summer day. But it’s another encroachment on the wildness that needs all of our protection," writes Jack Haskel of the Pacific Crest Trail Association. "Bags of candy stashed in trees from Mexico to Canada may be morale boosters, but they also harm wildlife and starkly interrupt the natural setting of the trail."