In the 1960’s the U.S. Forest Service began the development of a program to reduce the impact users had on USFS managed land. It was called “Leave No Trace.” Since then, the program has been expanded and refined substantially. In its most current form “Leave No Trace” is summarized in the following principles:
1. Plan ahead and prepare. An unplanned hike of the John Muir Trail will fail, and will fail in a way that is harmful to the environment through which you are walking. Make sure you understand the use of bear canisters, the rules for camping around water, the rules for fires, and the way to properly do in the woods what bears do in the woods. Be prepared and equipped for all of that.
2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces. Sadly, there are places on the trail where there are two—sometimes even three—trails to choose from as you walk through a meadow. This is created by people who don’t want to walk on the primary wet or muddy trail, and cut a new path. A single curving path through an unspoiled wilderness can be a beautiful thing. Two or three paths look horrible.
3. Dispose of waste properly. For the most part, if you carry it in, carry it out. The exception is human waste (although, near Mount Whitney, you’re required to even pack this out).
4. Leave what you find. For the most part this isn’t a problem on the trail. Do you really want to carry that pine cone or pretty rock one or two hundred miles? I don’t think so. Want a neat souvenir? Buy a Yosemite or Mount Whitney keychain before you leave and attach it to your backpack on day one. In the future, every time you pull that bauble out of your pants or purse to start your car you’ll be reminded where it, and you, have been together.
5. Minimize campfire impacts. My recommendation: start no fires anywhere unless there is already an established fire ring. During most years fires will be prohibited on most of the trail, anyway. Small, wood-burning stoves (where permitted) are fine, since they leave no trace.
6. Respect wildlife. The marmots are going to be the hardest to resist. They’ll waddle onto a rock and pose, sometimes within a few feet of you, and will then look at you with an expression that virtually screams, “Hey, do you think I do this for free! Cough up the goodies! I know they’re in that backpack.” OK, maybe I’m projecting just a little here, but I swear, that’s what I saw when I looked into their eyes. Don’t hassle or feed the animals; their presence on the trail adds so much.
7. Be considerate of other visitors. The various hiking forums are full of horror stories regarding unpleasant neighbors while camping. More on camp-site etiquette in a future blog post, but the number one complaint is usually noise. Some folks think of the Sierra Nevada as a temple to the beauty of unspoiled places. It may not be a church to you, but treating it that way will usually keep you from offending anyone.
Your hike planning should include a trip to the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics .
Good hiking, Ray