As is my workday habit, I listen to Colorado Public Radio while pushing bits and bytes.
One of my favorite segments is the Colorado Matters show that covers many local Colorado issues. Be it issues of the outdoors, legalized marijuana, or the pressures rural areas of Colorado face, I’ve always enjoyed these extensive and well-done interviews.
A recent segment discussed the popularity of 14ers and the impact all the users are having on these iconic Colorado peaks. And the efforts to rehab the trails to be more sustainable for the increased amount of users.
A brief portion of the interview mentioned how the trails should not be left.
As the person being interviewed means this mandate in the context of 14ers, there is no disagreement.
However, I’ve noticed this a commonly held belief among many for trails in general. People will often ask the questions of Is it allowed? Is it safe?
And at a Colorado Trail talk, I gave last year; someone gently chastised me because I mentioned my enjoyment of off-trail hiking. Furthermore, she stated that I should not mention off-trail pursuits.
In short, people view off-trail hiking with skepticism even beyond extremely high use areas.
The question, therefore: As an active outdoors person, should I be hiking off-trail or even advocating it?
My answer is a hearty yes, but with caveats.
First, I make a distinction between off-trail hiking and bushwhacking. All bushwhacking involves off-trail hiking; not all off-trail hiking involves bushwhacking.
The entry-level for off-trail hiking is harder than most people may want to experience. There is nothing intrinsically difficult about off-trail hiking per se for the experienced outdoors person. But most hikers are more comfortable with a defined path and route. Even looking at maps to find ways that use existing trails is an activity that is not in the comfort zone for many.
In short, merely mentioning hiking off-trail is not going to make the Colorado masses leave the existing trails to go off-trail. Route finding, map reading, performing micro navigation, and comfort with leaving a defined route behind are skills not common for many outdoor users.
I enjoy off-trail hiking as I get to see intriguing areas beyond the familiar paths. And I feel my outdoor skills are honed more by getting off the beaten path. In the increasingly crowded Front Range Urban Corridor, going off-trail lets me explore pockets of wild places. I find places that are beyond the five-mile radius that is the characteristic length of the more popular day-use demographics. (Though, to be fair, even on-trail, most hikers seem to be within five miles of the trailhead at the most. Perhaps even 2 or 3 miles more likely.)
However, a person who enjoys off-trail hiking has some obligations to respect the wilderness and other users. Perhaps more so. Our actions can impact the places we love in many ways.
- The utmost point is to respect the local regulations of the area. Such extremely high use areas as some famous 14ers have local jurisdictions that discourage or outright ban off-trail hiking. Likewise, certain fragile areas such as wetlands, wildlife corridors, historic districts, etc. do not allow off-trail hiking. These local regulations supersede any desire to hike off-trail. And areas that do allow off-trail hiking sometimes require a permit. Do your research, plan accordingly, and follow the regulations as appropriate.
- Do you have the correct preparation, skill level, and fitness for the route selected? These points apply to any outdoors endeavor, of course. But when going off-trail, where people are scarce and SAR may have difficulty reaching you, having your outdoor skill set dialed in is very important. An off-trail tundra ridge walk is no more challenging, and sometimes even more relaxed than most trails. A Class 3 scramble with route-finding may not be in your comfort zone. Only do what is safe, comfortable, and enjoyable for you or your group. Remember, the skill set needed must not exceed that of the least experienced member. You may have done solo free climbs of Gnarly Rock, paddled the Amazon, and rescue puppies from burning buildings. But you may have people on trips who have never even hiked across tundra off a trail. Be aware of the needs of the group overall. Or go solo. See the first point about being prepared if solo travel is safe. 🙂
- If you are organizing a group trip, keep the group size small. I was part of an outdoor group in the past that, much to my to chagrin, did not always follow this precept. And we’d get the stink eye from other outdoors people. 🙂 When I started organizing outings of my own, I’d try to keep the size smaller. As the years went on, my groups became even smaller to the point where anything more than four is too large for me. 😀 A bit more seriously, there is no magic number for the optimum group size. A rule of thumb? See what the local land agency allows for group size and cut that number it in half for off-trail travel. In other words, if the local management agency states no more than twelve people total, perhaps allow six people at most for off-trail pursuits. This rule of thumb seems about right.
- And if you are hiking in a group off-trail, spread out! Hiking in a single file has more impact versus being spread out. Of course, if there is already a social path in an otherwise off-trail area, follow the existing track. An exception for spreading out is in specific areas such as the desert with its crypto soil. Or, again, go solo. Simple solution! 😉
- Then there’s the philosophical part with no easy answer: How much to publicize off-trail endeavors? The absolute and most straightforward solution is not to write any darn thing, of course. But for a mixture of both selfish reasons (I enjoy writing, it is a healthy outlet for me, and helps me organize my thoughts) and for selfless reasons (I enjoy educating, people seem to enjoy this crap and find it useful) I will continue to write. Many of my fellow outdoor enthusiasts who write, I suspect, have similar reasons.
But there has to be a balance. From the start, I was almost always vague about detailed information for off-trail routes. I did not know the skill level of the person reading my entries. I also did not want to bring too many people to an otherwise underused area or I am too lazy to write very detailed guidebook-like descriptions in complete honesty. As the years progressed, this vagueness has become more of a trend for me with all jaunts.
Another view: A friend of mine publicized a well-known route he put together. His balance was keeping the route information just to the basics and without the specific breadcrumbs. But, even he was a bit surprised at the relative amount of people now hiking this route.
The key is finding a balance between entertaining, informing, and assisting, without changing what was enjoyed about the area in the first place. What is the balance? Somewhere between giving the specific steps (here are the campsites, look for this rock to get over the pass, walk 500′ and then turn) and absolutely no information at all. Each person has to find the balance for themselves. And write accordingly.
So, is off-trail hiking ethical? Absolutely. It is a way to see some unique areas away from the more popular and busy areas. But it must be done only where allowed. And the person hiking off-trail must be mindful of their group size, safety, abilities, and the impact they will have on the area itself.
And that is how to keep off-trail hiking ethical.