As interest in the wilderness increases, so do the rules and regulations. Although it could be argued that the Sierra Nevada is much more lenient than many places, where a hiker must get every campsite approved prior to entering the wilderness, there are still opportunities to get yourself in trouble. Here are some simple ways to keep your interaction with Rangers pleasant and friction-free:
- Don’t build a fire where you shouldn’t, or in a way that is improper. With all the news about wildfires, does this even need to be said? Sure does. The last time I was at Purple Lake, at the same time that the Rim Fire was raging in the north, I saw a large group build a huge bonfire during a time when no fires were allowed at all. The rules vary based on the conditions, so ask about them when you pick up your permit. There are few rules you can break in the wilderness that might result in you spending the next several Christmases eating Nutraloaf and waiting for your turn to use the weight bench next to the guard tower, but this is one of them.
- Don’t camp where you are not supposed to. For most of the trail that means no closer than 100 feet from water and the trail. When you pick up your wilderness permit you will be informed of areas where camping is not allowed under any circumstances, like near the Thousand Island or Garnet Lakes’ outlet streams. You will also encounter areas that are closed so that they can recover. Staying on the right side of the law on this might sound easy, but it takes a little planning. Be sure to pick some primary and alternate spots before you start your hike. You don’t want to reach the end of the day, exhausted, with no good choices except for an illegal site.
- Keep your permit handy and be prepared to show it. I’m not sure why – perhaps because I am older; or carry relatively expensive gear; or because I’m 6′ 3″, weigh in around 200 pounds, and am industrial-strength ugly – but Rangers seem to be reluctant to ask me for my permit. In fact, in all my years in the Sierra Nevada, I think I’ve only been asked once. (I have volunteered my permit many times, and always get the feeling that the Ranger in question is relieved that I did so.) Don’t assume you will be so lucky. Have your permit handy. If you are traveling in a group, consider asking the Wilderness Center to split the permit into individual ones, so that everyone can carry their magic ticket, especially if you hike at different paces during the day.
- Beware of “day-hiking” the Happy Isles to Tuolumne section. For fast hikers, one alternative to solve the permit problem is to hike the first twenty-something miles as a day hike. Unfortunately, in order to do this you have to do something you probably shouldn’t. Your first choice is to do the hike with the full complement of your gear. The problem with taking your gear is that you may have trouble convincing a Ranger that you are really on a day hike. There are documented cased of hikers getting tickets in just this situation. The second alternative is to hike that stretch without your gear, which, in my view, violates the common sense notion that you should not be a dozen miles from any road or civilization without a shelter, warm clothes, extra food, etc.
- Bring a legal bear canister and use it. They may be a pain, but the evidence that they work is overwhelming.
There a lots of other rules, mostly revolving around Leave-No-Trace principles that will get you a ticket as well, but these five are the ones that will land you in trouble quicker than anything.
Good hiking, Ray
Thank you for this. Although I think the majority of people who hike the JMT want to do the right thing, I’ve seen some appalling behavior.
An 8 foot high fire at 10,400. When I very politely told them that fires weren’t allowed over 10k, they replied, “My taxes pay for this land. I’ll do whatever I want.”
I know 2 rangers, and the stories they tell are absolutely horrible. A backcountry ranger is more likely to be assaulted than any other law enforcement official, including ATF. The amount of crap they take is crazy, and I think some people forget they are commissioned law enforcement officers. There are lots of stories out there, about people claiming rangers “harass” them, but in my experience, they have to put up with a lot, and this sometimes makes them a bit guarded. I love that you volunteer your permit. That alone, will put the ranger more at ease, and yes, they are grateful. It would be wonderful if everyone volunteered their permit. After all, a JMT hiker should want the rules enforced, as that is what keeps these lands so beautiful.
I know it’s popular to bash the government with its regulations, and think it is an infringement on our “rights” to have to comply with the rules, but those rules are there to protect all of us. Anyone who remembers the solar latrine at Trail Camp, wishes that people would have followed the rules and not dumped their garbage there….we might still have that option, vs. the wag bags, (which a high number of people just dump on the trail). OK, descending the soapbox now!
Thanks for the great comment, Kathy. I certainly plead guilty to being one of those “bash the government” types, and I’ve worked for it for forty years! Nevertheless, if everyone took their jobs as seriously and approached it with the humility of a a typical Ranger we would all be better off.
LOL Ray. I think we’ve all been guilty of that!
I know it’s a little better for other rangers, but the backcountry rangers in SEKI work incredibly hard, for very little money, and no benefits whatsoever. My friend said the mental stress is terrible.
In a single day, he had to pick up a whole backpack full of trash, do a body recovery, and listen to a tirade from two hikers insisting that they were going to call their congressman and have him fired because he wouldn’t get them a helicopter evac. Why did they need the helicopter? Because evidently they didn’t feel like following the bear canister rules, and a bear made off with all of their food. For this, they expected the rest of us taxpayers to foot the bill and get them a helicopter ride out.
I personally, doubt I could deal with that kind of crap all day without blowing up once in awhile!