“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln

One of the busiest hiking weekends of the year concluded this Columbus Day.  Education Programs Coordinator Seth Jones set up a Leave No Trace-themed table on the porch of the High Peaks Information Center (HPIC) to provide information and interact with hikers.  Seth has a broad variety of skill sets and knowledge, so his conversations were as all-over-the-map as the hikers’ destinations.  One thing he noted was the number of unprepared hikers.  The weekend presented challenging trail conditions with snow and ice in higher elevations and single digit wind-chill temperatures on summits.  Some folks were dressed for the weather.  Others were dressed for the weather…at the trailhead, and unaware of what lay beyond the trail register.  HPIC staff see this on a regular basis.

It’s somewhat understandable that hikers are determined to follow through with plans they’ve made, often months in advance, regardless of conditions.  They’ve invested time, energy, money, and emotion into the trip.  While this planning is to be commended, it is often limited in scope; Plan B is not always discussed.  Once plans are set, they’re less likely to adapt to new found information or conditions discovered at the trailhead.  Many will press on and stay the course because they’re committed to it.  Changing plans at the last minute can be a burden.  It’s a microcosm of hikers from Mt. Jo to Mt. Everest, similar to “summit fever.”

Many of us know the best time to get information about the area we’ll be visiting is ahead of time, during the planning phase of our recreation experience.  It’s an everyday occurrence for someone to show up at our facility unaware that bear-resistant food canisters are required; that fires are prohibited in the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness; that skis or snowshoes are required in winter when snow depths reach 8” or more.  Fortunately, we’re there to inform them, in many cases, before they get into the backcountry and find themselves having a chat with a Forest Ranger about their unplanned lack of compliance to regulations, which may turn their affordable day(s) in the woods into a considerably more expensive outing.

Questions we continually ask ourselves include, “How do we get information to visitors before they get to the trailhead?” and “How do we best impart what’s involved in good planning?”  With our own experiences in mind, we once again turn to the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics for sage advice on the first and most overarching principle of Leave No Trace – “Plan Ahead and Prepare.”  This is what they recommend:

Educate Yourself
Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you’ll visit.  Contact land management agencies, trail and/or outing clubs, gear shops, outfitters, conservation organizations, visitor centers, bookstores, libraries and the internet to gather information and plan accordingly.  Inquire about the character, fees and popularity of campsites, shelters and trails.  Obtain permits (or private landowner permission), if necessary.

Plan for Your Group
Be sure the skills and experience of your group fit the destination as well as your goals and itinerary.  A hiker looking for solitude will not be well-served by going to Algonquin on July 4th weekend.  A large inexperienced group may not find the preferred facilities for disposing of waste at a remote backcountry campsite.  While embracing challenges is part of wilderness travel, plan a route that is within the ability of the group members.  Adhere to group size limitations.  If necessary, ask about areas that can accommodate large groups.  Make efforts to minimize noise and visual impacts.

Schedule Your Trip to Avoid Times of High Use
“Visits to popular wildlands during peak use periods, such as holidays, weekends and during the fall colors, are often fraught with traffic, crowding, delays and conflicts with other groups.  Instead, visit at other times, such as mid-week, for a less-crowded experience.  Make reservations and obtain permits well ahead of time to avoid unpleasant surprises.  Don’t travel when environmental conditions, such as muddy trails, make recreation impacts more likely or severe.”

Use Proper Gear
Prepare for extreme weather, hazards and emergencies.  Know the range of conditions you may encounter and bring appropriate clothing and equipment.  At a minimum, carry “The New Ten Essentials – A Systems Approach” (navigation, sun protection, insulation, illumination, first aid supplies, fire-starting equipment, repair kit & tools, nutrition, hydration, emergency shelter)  Certain items can help minimize our risks as well as our impacts.  A camp stove provides a quick and easy meal without the lasting impact of a fire.  Gaiters help us travel through wet areas without stepping off the tread of the trail and damaging vegetation, promoting erosion and widening the trail; conscientious trekking pole use also helps lessen these impacts.  A ground sheet under our tents helps us camp on already impacted ground and minimizes wear and tear on our tent.  Collapsible water carriers aid in minimizing traffic to and from a water source.

Plan Your Meals
Bring only what you’ll need and repackage food to minimize waste.  Leave wrappers, cardboard, glass and heavy packaging at home to lighten your load and reduce the odds that they inadvertently become litter.

Develop the Skills
Knowing First Aid, how to navigate and self-rescue, and having good physical fitness should all be a part of your plan.  Practices vary geographically, so take the initiative to learn about the area you’ll be visiting.  Understand and respect fragile areas like alpine zones and wetlands.  Plan to arrive at the trailhead and each campsite well in advance.  Poor decisions are often made when a person is pressed for time and their energy levels are low.  There are great trainings available for both new and experienced outdoor enthusiasts on a multitude of topics.  Take one (or more).

Take Responsibility
“Take responsibility for your own safety by practicing self-awareness, caution and good judgment.  Minimize risks by planning a trip that matches your skills and expectations.  Be prepared to rescue yourself from tough situations.  If you carry a communication device, it should not be a substitute for adequate preparation and common sense.”  GPS is a complement to carrying and knowing how to use a map and compass, not a replacement.  Check current information at the trailhead.  Sign in at the register.  Stay with your group.  Leave a copy of your detailed itinerary with a friend or relative along instructions of what to do if you don’t return on time.  The itinerary should have emergency plans including intended, alternate and evacuation routes, contact information for emergency personnel, location of the nearest hospital, and pertinent medical histories of group members.

Good planning and preparation maximizes enjoyment of precious time in the outdoors, minimizes impacts to resources – land, vegetation, air, water and wildlife – and ensures high-quality experiences for those who come after us.