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You’re cruising along a trail, high in the mountains—just you, the forest and the sound of your feet hitting the ground. Moments turn to minutes, turn to hours. It’s trail running at its best, and it’s both healing and downright addictive.
Those moments don’t happen by accident, however. Behind our best trail-running experiences are years of hard work by trail crews, thoughtful stewardship by land managers and considerate use by other visitors.
As trail runners, we play an important role in that story. Our interaction with both the environment and other visitors has a lot to do with what kind of experience we’ll have, and what we’ll leave behind for those who come after us. As a growing user group, trail runners also need to make a good impression, so we can be assured access to trails in the years ahead.
There are others who benefit, too—notably the animals and plants who call public and private lands home. It’s worth remembering that when we trail run, we’re visiting their homes. Being a good guest will make their lives easier, and ours, too.
Geotags—specific location markers—can funnel visitors into especially photogenic and potentially sensitive locations. Overcrowding can not only hamper our enjoyment of great trails, it can also harm ecosystems through trail damage, litter and trampling delicate ecosystems. Consider these Leave No Trace social media guidelines.
– Think before you tag. Pick a general location, or, better, none at all.
– Send the right message. Be sure your images support LNT principles and stewardship.
– Make a difference. Encourage positive conversations about outdoor ethics, public-lands issues or share interesting facts the ecosystem.
– Encourage giving back. Consider captions that highlight trail-work days, safe trail use and LNT principles.
As an athlete, if you spend time on public land, this matters. If you care about climate, this matters. If you care about justice for all and preventing damage that can’t be undone, this matters. Stay engaged in local politics, and read up on environmental policies.
Set aside time to do trail work, and to support local groups who do trail building and maintenance. Connect with advocacy organizations like Protect Our Winters, The Wilderness Society and Trail Runners For Public Lands.
RESPECT THE ENVIRONMENT
Respecting the environment can be trickier than it sounds. It’s more than just a matter of packing out your trash. It requires planning ahead and solid on-the-ground skills.
For example, some of the worst erosion happens when poorly equipped hikers and trail runners find themselves on an icy trail in the “shoulder” seasons of the spring and fall. Unable to stay on the packed and icy trail, they’ll head off onto the edges, clinging to branches for stability, damaging soft ground and widening the trail. The ideas that follow will help you take care of the environment while also taking you one step closer to a great day on the trails.
Plan Your Run
Getting ready to run? Avoid hassles on the trail, and protect the environment by asking yourself these simple questions:
How am I getting there?
It may not be a direct impact on the trail, but the transportation choices we make do affect our experience on the trail. Many trailheads have limited capacity, so carpooling can reduce overcrowding at the start and finish, and make life easier for land managers. Carpooling and using public transportation also reduce your carbon “footprint” and amount of pollution generated.
TIP: Carpool, or take public transportation at least part of the way.
What are the trail conditions?
In many areas, trails are dry and ready to handle the pounding that will come from visitors. But not always. In winter, skiing and snowshoeing can create a packed, icy ridge down the middle of the trail, forcing trail runners off the trail. The “shoulder seasons” of spring and fall, when soils are saturated with water, are when trails are most vulnerable to damage. In fact, in some regions, the trails are so fragile that land managers will temporarily close them to any use.
TIP: Trail run when and where trails are driest. You’ll have more fun, and you’ll be protecting the trails you love. When trails are wet, switch gears and use “hardened” surfaces like rail trails or multi-use trails that are either paved or graveled. If it’s muddy enough that you’ll leave a footprint, it’s too muddy to run.
Will the weather, time of day, elevation or aspect impact the trail conditions?
Looking out your window, and seeing blue skies and dry, bare ground? Don’t assume that’s what you’ll experience on your run. Conditions may be dramatically different on a trail a few hours later, a few thousand feet higher, and with a different orientation. The beginning or end of the seasons can vary as much as six weeks in the same area, based on a trail’s exposure to the sun and elevation. A trail that’s north-facing and higher in elevation will hold snow and mud longer than one that’s lower and exposed to full sun. South- and west-facing slopes are often the driest.
TIP: Stack the deck in your favor. Pick options that are more likely to be snow and mud-free, which usually means lower-elevation, south-facing trails.
Do I have what I need to run down the middle of the trail?
Once you’ve picked your trail, you’ll want to stay on it. When you veer off a trail, you can quickly find yourself on fragile terrain, such as alpine areas, ridgelines or shoreline. These surfaces are easy to damage—the alpine zone, for example, is home to tiny mountain flowers like Diapensia and Moss Campion that can be killed by a single footstep.
Most of the time, staying on the trail is easy. But, when you hit unanticipated mud or ice, it can be tempting to hop off. Instead, plan ahead and consider bringing trail-running gaiters, which will keep your feet dry as you plow through mud and pools of water. If conditions may be icy, be prepared by wearing trail-running shoes with metal traction, such as the Salomon Snowcross or Inov8 Arcticclaw.
TIP: Buy gear tailored to the shoulder seasons and winter, such as winter trail-running shoes and gaiters. A pair of trail-running poles will help keep you on the trail, too!
Am I planning for a safe experience?
As trail runners, we operate on thin margins, often bringing just a few essential items. If we get injured, unlike many hikers, we can’t get into a bivouac sack and stay warm. The right to run for miles in remote areas places a great responsibility on us to know what we’re getting into when we hit the trail.
Safety issues are covered in detail in SAFETY, but it’s worth pointing out that there’s another victim when someone gets in trouble and needs rescue: the environment. Contrary to the popular image, most rescues are not carried out with a helicopter. Instead, they involve a dozen or more volunteers, who carry the injured person out to the trailhead. That impact of rescuers on the sides of the trail causes trail widening and damages structures like waterbars. Avoid getting in trouble, and you’ll also be taking a big step towards protecting the environment!
TIP: When making plans, pick up the phone and call the land manager—often the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service or state park. Most offices have a backcountry specialist who more often than not is someone who loves to be out on the trails. The right contact can be a wealth of information regarding trail closures, recent conditions and other on-the-ground info.
ON THE RUN
Ready to run? Great! On the trail, there are plenty of steps you can take to help take care of the land. In doing so, you’ll also be setting a great example for others, and helping to create an ethic of stewardship that will preserve the experience for future visitors. Keep these points in mind, as you leave the trailhead behind:
Use the Trail Work
This is where the rubber hits the ground—literally and figuratively. Staying on the trail is about more than not getting lost. When we keep to designated routes, we’re using trail work structures like rock steps, wood or rock staircases and bog bridges. One of the main goals of this trail work is to keep visitors on the path, so they don’t widen the route, causing damage. Land managers “harden the surface” of the trail, so it can handle lots of use. Keep your eyes open for trail structures the next time you’re out. They may be hard to find—the best trail work is blended into the environment so as not to be obtrusive.
TIP: Trails are gently sloped across the “fall line”—the direct line that water would take down the mountains—to minimize erosion. When we go straight up the “fall line,” we create an indentation to which water gravitates, beginning the process of erosion. That’s why it’s so important to not cut switchbacks.
Got to Get Off? Use Durable Surfaces
Sometimes it’s unavoidable. You have to step off the trail—when nature calls, or for that cool photo you simply have to snag for social media. When you do, stay on durable surfaces, which usually means rocks, sand or gravel. During spring and fall, snow (deeper than four inches) and ice are great surfaces to travel on, since they protect vulnerable plants and soils. Otherwise, do the “rock hop.”
Unfortunately, the most fragile areas are often where people like to congregate—alpine view points and shoreline, for example. In these locations, trail “braiding” can occur, where multiple trails wind in and out to the same location. You can reduce trail braiding by staying on the obviously impacted areas, so you don’t create new “braids.”
Dispose of Waste Properly
Poop happens! The good news is, when it happens during a trail run, it’s usually no big deal. Get at least 200 feet off the trail for the sake of other users and for your own privacy. (For most of us, that’s about 90 steps.)
Use a stick, trail running pole or your shoe heel to get into the top soil but not below—six to eight inches is ideal. Don’t go too deep—the top layer of soil is where microbes will break down your waste. If you have TP with you, the best option is to pack it in a ziplock bag and dispose of it after your run. Otherwise, bury it deeply as well, so it doesn’t end up on the surface and become a nasty find for the next person. If you don’t have TP or if you’re game to be a little adventurous, use leaves or a snowball, instead. Bury any natural TP that you decide to use deeply in the hole, too.
Pooping into a six-to-eight-inch deep hole avoids the “fecal plume” that results from above-ground waste washing downslope in the rain. In addition to the smell that results, the microorganisms in waste can pollute ground water and make both animals and people sick.
TIP: It’s more fun to poop when you can read the latest Trail Runner, than hanging your butt over a log! So, avoid the hassle and plan ahead. Caffeinate as soon as you get up in the morning. (Good news: this is your excuse for a second cup of coffee!) If it doesn’t happen on your home throne, use trailhead facilities.
Leave What You Find
Trail running past old mines, logging roads or other historical artifacts is pretty cool. Artifacts from another era remind us of the rich human history of a region. Preserve that experience for others, and don’t disturb artifacts.
The same goes for natural discoveries, like interesting rocks. Leave them so others can have the same great experience. Take photos, instead. Besides, do you really want to carry that rock in your trail-running vest pocket for half the day?
TIP: Rearranging rocks into piles, or “cairns,” can mislead other visitors, so leave them as you found them. When you arrange natural objects, you’re also creating a reminder for the next user that someone was here before you.
As trail runners, it’s inevitable that we’ll surprise wildlife. That has consequences for your safety, which we’ve covered in SAFETY. But, it also has implications for the animals, too. Unlike many of us, most animals aren’t trying to shed extra calories—quite the opposite. Trail runners are perceived as potential threats. That means animals will have a stress reaction to your presence, burning valuable energy. For their own sake, give them lots of breathing room, and restrain your dog, which may be perceived as a predator. Remember: We’re the visitor in their homes. How would you feel if someone ran through your living room? (Unless it’s Anton Krupicka or Emelie Forsberg, we’re guessing you’d be pretty unhappy about it!)
TIP: Restraining four-legged trail-running pals can be a challenge when there’s something exciting in the woods. Consider buying a trail-running-specific leash, which retracts into the collar when not in use. Be sure to bury or pack out your dog’s waste, too.
Use Poles Thoughtfully
Think twice before trail running with poles in areas with muddy or thin soil. Poles add extra impact. Jeff Marion, a research scientist for the USGS, has found that carbide-tipped hiking and trail-running poles can cause significant damage to the soils adjacent to trails.
TIP: Use the rubber tips that came with your poles, and save the carbide for when you really need it. You’ll reduce the erosion by 50 percent.
When you’re trail running, you’ll encounter other users: climbers, backcountry skiers, hikers and hunters, for example. Respecting their experience includes more than not inducing a heart attack as you cruise past at warp speed. For example, research shows that being passed by several smaller groups is less impactful to a hiker’s experience than meeting one big group. Other studies show that the “social carrying capacity” of public lands is increased when we wear colors that blend with the environment, so as not to be visible from miles away. In other words, there’s more to trail etiquette than meets the eye! Here are our tips.
Act Like You’re in a Cathedral.
The late wilderness advocate Edward Abbey asked us to imagine that we’re in a cathedral when we’re in the woods—and there are some things you just don’t do in a cathedral. Yelling is one example, or playing music out loud. Noise can be a form of impact—it breaks the silence for other visitors, and disturbs wildlife.
TIP: The woods are special, in part because they are so peaceful. Before you yell across a ridge line, or put a friend on speaker phone, ask yourself, “Would I do that in a cathedral?”
… But Make a Little Noise.
Trail runners can come up quickly on other trail users who are often moving at a very different speed. Slow down when you’re approaching, and let others know you are closing in. Besides, it might save you from having to start CPR!
TIP: Often, trail conversations give us away as we approach, but, if you’re solo, consider making a little noise to politely alert others.
Keep It Cell Free.
Think before you whip out your cell phone. Is your call absolutely necessary? Most folks on trails are there to escape from the noise and hyperactivity of our busy lives, of which cell phones are a powerful symbol. If you are bringing a phone, turn the ringer off. Time your trip so you’re not having to make calls. If a call is truly urgent, step off the trail and out of earshot. Save the social media for later, too.
TIP: When you’re leaving the trailhead, get in the habit of putting your phone into “Airplane Mode.” In addition to not ringing and beeping when you’re trying to chill out, you’r phone will stay charged longer, since it won’t be searching for a cell signal.
Clean Up after Yourself—and Others.
After you stop for a snack, take a final glance to make sure you have everything. The old adage of “Pack it in, pack it out” is as true today as it was 50 years ago. Leave the trail better than you found it.
TIP: Bring a Zip-loc for “micro-trash,” such as empty gel packets and energy-bar wrappers. Having it quickly accessible as you run will make it easier for you to deal with your litter as you run.
Keep It Small.
The size of your group has been shown in studies to directly impact the perceived experience of other trail users. Social research tells us that breaking a large group of, say, 10, into three smaller groups, results in a perception of fewer people on the part of those you meet. However, even these smaller groups tend to meet up again in fragile areas like alpine summits. So, consider keeping your group small to start. An added benefit? Since a group can only move as fast as its slowest member, you’re likely to move faster!
TIP: Land managers often have group-size regulations, particularly in federally designated wilderness areas, national parks and other fragile lands. Check before you go.
Keep It Wild
As trail runners, we’ve made a conscious decision to head away from roads and challenge our mind and bodies on trails. The reasons for that choice are personal—but one common theme is that we’re seeking a quieter, wilder experience.
We’re fortunate to have that opportunity. With it, comes responsibility—to ourselves, to the land, to others. We’ve shared a few examples about how we can do our part. But, this chapter is just a starting point. We encourage you to develop a routine that includes these guidelines, and new ones, too, based on the unique circumstances of your local trails. Think of ways, big and small, in which you can further these goals because, more than ever, we need a healthy backcountry in which to enjoy great trail runs.
Finally, spread the ethic of stewardship and share your good habits with fellow trail runners. Our sport, our wild spaces and our experiences will benefit.