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Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

Posted by on November 14, 2019

Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces


In the Backcountry

Traveling and camping on durable surfaces while in the backcountry limits damage to surface vegetation, preventing excessive surface erosion and the development of unnecessary and redundant trails. Trails are in and of themselves an impact, but they are a necessary response to our perpensity for travel in backcountry areas. It’s better to have one well-maintained trail corridor than a web of poorly chosen paths. To maintain the value and integrity of established trails:

  • Don’t shortcut trail switchbacks
  • Choose durable surfaces just off the trail when taking breaks
  • Allow enough time at the end of the day to choose a responsible campsite rather than settling for something less than ideal just because the weather is bad or you’re tired
  • Choose high-use campsites first, preferably away from water sources and the trail
  • Confine your use to the areas that are already developed to avoid growing the area of impact
  • When along a river corridor, choose developed campsites, beaches, or sandbars below the high-water line.

When travelling off-trail, whether it’s far away from any designated trail corridor, or while searching for a place to use the bathroom next to a developed campsite:

  • Choose surfaces that can tolerate trampling like rocks, sand, and gravel, or if it can be done safely, travel on ice and snow because they are temporary surfaces that will not negatively impact soils and vegetation if trampled and packed-in.
  • When travelling through vegetation is inevitable, avoid steep slopes where the effects of off-trail travel are magnified, choose more durable vegetation like dry grass over wet meadows, and spread out if in a group to avoid unintentionally creating new, well-packed trails that the next person can follow.
  • Watch out for biologial soil crusts when travelling in the desert. These soils are critically important for life’s existence in the desert, and because water availability is, by definition, very low in desert areas, the colonies of microorganisms that make up soil crusts take a really long time to grow and recover.
  • Same goes for puddles and pot holes in the desert. Don’t walk through or disturb a water source, or even the dried out soil from a seasonal pot hole, because that might be the only one for miles around and there are delicate microorganisms still living in that dried out soil.
  • At camp, minimize the number of times any location is trampled by collecting all your water just once, and cover the evidence of your impacts so others are not encouraged to further impact that site.

Andrew Skurka also wrote a great 4-part series on what he calls “Five Star Campsites”, where he goes into a characteristically thorough amount of detail on how to pick campsites and travel responsibly whether on or off trail.

JB Strollin through Harriman State Park

Big Picture

Transportation and housing represent some of our largest collective impacts globally. Due to our reliance on fossil fuels, transportation is currently the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, and our urban areas are growing at an unprecedented rate. With a continually growing population and a deeply entrenched reliance on fossil fuels for transportation, here are a few large-scale solutions for minimizing our global impacts:

  • Renewable fuels and electric vehicles can greatly minimize or eliminate the amount of CO₂ produced from transportation
  • Technologies in modern engine and transmission components, catalytic converters and diesel filters can greatly improve the efficiency of our vehicles and significantly reduce emissions.
  • Compact housing development is the way to go. Dispersed, large-lot housing has tripled the rate of urbanization of rural land and of vehicle miles traveled, relative to the rate of population growth. With our communities literally closer together, things like public transit, bike lanes, and pedestrian walkways are made much more affordable, saving us time, money, and emissions in owning and regularly using vehicles. Access to transportation options also contributes to stable housing values, particularly important for those whose homes are their primary asset.
  • Green building materials, techniques, and appliances can save us energy, the cost of which is proportionately much greater for people with low-income. They can also save water, which is critically important in areas of growing population that are already experiencing drought.

The EPA has tons of data and helpful information on the topics of transportation, and they have a great page about their strategy for housing development they call the Smart Growth Approach. It is important to remember that our access to affordable, green housing and transportation is not distributed evenly. The NAACP’s page on environmental justice explains well why climate change disproportionately impacts the health, and resource availability of people of color, particularly in cities.

Direct Household Emissions, photo found here

For Me

Given that my whole route is designed around ecosystems with their own unique biological and geological history, as well as their own history of land development, concentration of urban, rural, and suburban areas, and land and water access policies, I’ll have to consider a variety of different options regarding the on-road, on-trail, and off-trail corridors I’ll follow, and the locally available durable surfaces to sleep on through within the following biomes:

  • Coniferous forests
  • Broadleaf forests
  • Pine/oak forests
  • Mixed forests
  • Deserts and Xeric Shrublands
  • Grassland
  • Taiga
  • Flooded Grasslands and Savannahs

Elevation, latitude, climate conditions, and my specific location in space and time will determine how to best Leave No Trace, so I’ll have to use my experience and prior knowledge to make the best decisions possible based on the present conditions.

Breakfast at Camp in Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River

Ask me anything, tell me something I don't know, or just say hi!