15 Environmental No-No’s of Backpacking

As time has elapsed, opinions on environmental protection have shifted. More and more people are standing up for their environment, and no one is free from the burden of their own impact. Not even hikers. 

I am certainly not innocent. I have done things I should not have. I’ve tolerated fires where they weren’t supposed to be, kept my lips sealed when hikers flicked their butts on trail, walked past trash on the ground without picking it up, thrown compost, built cairns, and even plotted new stealth sites. I’m no angel, and I wouldn’t ask anyone to do anything outside the bounds of reasonability.     

Last week’s post stirred much more attention than I foresaw. With this came many comments on social media. For the ones of sound basis (you’d be amazed at how many people just comment on the grounds of the title of an article without even reading it), I tried my best to heed so that I can construct and better this blog.

Having said this, these posts are biased and subjective. Nothing about this compromises the mission of the blog. In fact, it is what we are all about (No Filter, No Scrutiny, No Agenda). I am a two-times thru-hiking alumni, so although I try to cater my posts to backpackers and hikers of all kinds, my posts tend to steer in the direction of long-distance hiking. 

Without further ado, here is a list of all the things you should NOT do as a backpacker:

1. Littering Cigarette Butts

Environmental

Smoke the butt. Flick the butt. It’s a motion smokers have practiced and passed on for decades. When in civilization, this is something most wouldn’t even think twice about doing, never mind bystanders saying something about it. But when in the wilderness, smokers need to think twice about it, and bystanders can perform their willful duty by speaking up. If you’ve never seen someone flick a butt on trail, you’re lucky. A system of packing away bulk trash and flicking cigarette butts onto the ground is a fallacy hikers are deluded into. 

Cigarette butts are the most littered item on the planet, and they can take up to ten years to decompose. Though they seem to be cotton, these filters are actually made up of plastic fibers. They never biodegrade. Not only this, but the filters leach toxins such as the chemical that is found in rat poison and lead, posing a threat to wildlife. Cigarette butts have also been found to inhibit plant growth. 

2. Feeding Animals

Environmental

This one is the crime of the ignorant, because I imagine only the sickest of people would feed an animal with the intent to harm it. Each year, nuisance animals become a bigger problem. On hiking trails, bears and deer have become infamous for this. In modern day, it should be the disposition of these animals to flee upon the sight of humans, but feedings by uninformed outdoorsmen have altered the behavior of these animals, causing them to be bolder around humans. 

I’ve had deer poke their heads underneath my tent fly, swiping against the mesh siding in the process. One of these mammals even ran off with my pole in its mouth. This should not happen. To hikers’ fortune, however, deer do not have the capacity to bite off a person’s hand in a split second. Bears do. This has led to stringent tolerance policies being implemented by the forest service, entailing euthanasia after a certain number of failed attempts to deter the animals from nuisance behavior. I’ve had my rodeos with nuisance bears. They were all terrifying. 

Nuisance-behavior molding aside, feeding an animal can also degrade its foraging skills. Whatever it is you want to feed to an animal, it does not need it. Just like bread can cripple ducks, the food you want to feed to animals can do the same. It is also unlikely this food will have anywhere near the adequate amount of nutrients, or the proper nutrients, for that matter. Feeding animals can also contribute to the spread of disease.       

To read about my experiences with nuisance animals, check out the anecdotes “Cookie the Bear” and “The Deer That Stole My Pole” in this post: https://boomsplayground.com/2021/09/23/craziest-things-ive-experienced-while-backpacking

3. Throwing Away Empty Fuel Canisters When There Are Other Options

Environmental
Jetboil’s “CrunchIt” Tool

I had to add “When There Are Other Options” here because as I brainstormed and researched for this article, it became apparent there often may not be. I’m not an expert on cooking as it’s not part of my backpacking, but it doesn’t take an expert to realize throwing these canisters into the trash isn’t good for the environment.

Many outfitters have canister exchange programs. In other words, they’ll take your old canisters from you and recycle them properly. I have also seen this at hostels, and it may not be as hard to recycle these receptacles as you think. Most municipalities will let you recycle these pods if they are pierced. This way, they can confirm there is no fuel left. In the bibliography of this post is a Youtube video demonstrating how you can pierce canisters with an ice axe.

Don’t worry though. You won’t need to carry an ice axe just to recycle your canisters. Jetboil now has a “CrunchIt” (pictured above) recycling tool that punctures the pods for you. Whatever you do, just don’t be the person who leaves an empty canister in a shelter. We’ve all seen it, and if you’re like me, a ball of resentment for the unknown perpetrator coils up in your stomach when this happens. If you can avoid the disposal of fuel pods, avoid it.       

4. Not Picking Up Sanitary Trash

Environmental

This is one I’ve been especially guilty of. “Because I didn’t feel like bending down to pick it up with my big pack on,” I’ve said to justify my failure to abide by this simple rule of ethics. The truth of the matter is that if you’re a person who has backpacked for any length of time, it is likely you’ve dropped trash by accident. We all do it. That Clif bar wrapper in our pocket just happens to slide out, or a tendril of the package from our ramen wafts away in a gust of wind. 

When I begun to take note of the unaccounted-for trash I no longer had, picking up scraps became habitual for me. It doesn’t kill me to bend over with a pack on. What could kill me, though, is a continuance of the demise of our planet from bad habits like these. If the former has any chance of preventing the latter, I’ll do it.

I’m not asking anyone to pick up toilet paper or unsanitary products. You don’t have to expose yourself to excrement or other body fluids. I have heard of hikers who are devoted to picking up all waste, regardless of what it is, to whom I praise. Trash sucks. Scoop it and pack it out if you can.   

5. Not Abiding By Privy Rules

Environmental

Not all privies are the same. Most seem to request that hikers urinate outside of them, but I have also used ones that requested the opposite. Regardless, abiding by the rules of a privy can only benefit the environment. These amenities encourage proper and expedited decomposition of waste, reducing the impact of high concentrations of cat holes.

On the contrary, improper use of these privies can actually harm the environment. If waste in a privy can not decompose properly because of something such as over-urination or improper items being disposed of in them, the stagnant waste can actually pervade the surrounding soil, causing it to lose its fertility.      

6. Leaving Trash in Fire Pits

Environmental

C’mon. Don’t be this person. How many campsites have you been to that had at least one piece of trash in the fire pit? “Someone will burn it later” is an unacceptable justification unless you plan on sticking around until that person comes to do so. There is no guarantee trash will stay in a fire pit, and these rock-formed circles are not a barrier from wildlife, which can be negatively impacted by this sitting litter. It seems some people think cans and bottles burn as well, because I’ve seen these in fire pits too.   

7. Leaving Items in Shelters

Environmental

Logbook and posted propaganda aside, there are few shelters on the Appalachian Trail free of stray items. Often these items are fuel canisters (It’s empty now! Guess I’ll just leave it behind), but I’ve seen items included but not limited to clothes, shoes, books, canned food, stuffed animals, miscellaneous gear, and even day packs.

Shelters are not hiker boxes. While it may be true that a future hiker may find the item you left behind useful, the wilderness is not an appropriate place to leave it, and if the shelter is a lean-to, there is no barrier from the environment. Would you want a squirrel nibbling on that book with ink you left behind?

I believe there is especially a problem with this in Maine’s coveted 100-Mile Wilderness. Inexperienced hikers take out their misbegotten adventures on the shelters. If you can carry whatever it was you want to abandon to the shelter you’re at, then you can carry it the rest of the way, and if you can’t, well dammit, call for a helicopter rescue so you can take the tolling item with you. At least this would be at your expense. 

Lastly, if you feel you need to leave stuff in shelters that badly, at least do what you can to avoid it being food. My hope is that I don’t have to explain why you shouldn’t leave food in shelters.  

8. Creating New Stealth Sites

Environmental

I get it. I’ve been there. You were a tad over-ambitious and now you’re hurting. The ground here looks flat and all you have to do is remove a couple shrubs…STOP. Don’t do it. Sure, one puny tent site isn’t going to dissolve the entire biodiversity of the forest, but have you ever noticed how there seems to be an increasing number of stealth sites on prominent trails each year? This is precisely because of all the others who have been in the exact same scenario and have done the same thing. 

As the number of stealth sites exponentially increases, so does the destruction of vegetation, vegetation that is key to sustaining the environment. It is ironic that in immersing ourselves in nature we also deplete it. Just like littering begets littering, stealth sites beget stealth sites. There are plenty of places to camp. Choose one, and commit to it.     

9. Straying from Trail in Alpine Zones

Environmental
Alpine Zone in Vermont

Have you ever wondered why trail crews put in so much effort to mark trails in alpine zones? With their abundant signs and fancy stanchions? It’s because alpine tundra provides a unique biome where rare vegetation grows, vegetation that is even more crucial to the environment than the plants in a to-be stealth site. Some of these plants can take up twenty-five years to flower.

By staying on designated trails, we reduce our impact tremendously. This is why it is imperative to leash dogs in these areas. This does not mean that rare alpine plants aren’t growing on the trail. They are. For this reason, it is important hikers in alpine zones do their best to avoid stepping on any vegetation at all.  

10. Making Fires in Prohibited Areas

Environmental

Whether it is in the name of a drought, elevation, recent fires, or preference of a trail club, there is always a valid reason for fire bans. Abiding by campfire rules is one of the simplest things you can do. To make it even easier to follow these rules, many wildernesses that ban campfires allow for stoves, so you can still have that hot meal. Other wildernesses will request that a permit is obtained for the use of fires so they can estimate the potential impact.

In high-elevation mountain ranges, it is not uncommon for fires to be banned over nine-thousand feet. A bleak environment can turn a miniscule flame into a raging forest fire in less than an hour. If campfires are a staple of your backpacking, be sure to devise your trip around fire mandates as to assure your fire is lawful and safe. Obviously, you should always follow fire-safety protocol and should never, under any circumstances, go to sleep with an active fire.    

11. Polluting Water Sources with Contaminants

Environmental

I think most hikers can agree that bathing on trail is a bougie activity. Most of us would rather just push to town and bathe in a place where clean and dry clothes await us, or even a pizza. People going the distance are not apt to carry dish soap, either. These hikers tend to be content with washing their dishes (if they have any) with water alone and doing a more thorough wash when in town.

Regardless, it is important to use only biodegradable soaps if there’s any chance they’ll be submerged in a natural water source. It may not seem like a big deal to leak a drop of chemicalized soap into a seemingly incessant body of water, but chemicals are chemicals. They are harmful to the environment.     

12. Burying Wipes

Environmental

Wipes are NOT biodegradable. Do NOT bury them. Just like cigarette filters, they exude harmful chemicals. The Pacific Crest Trail Association does not allow for the burial of toilet paper, so wipes are a common replacement, but it is imperative that these wipes are packed out. If you don’t want to do this on the PCT, I suggest trying a bidet. And no, flushable wipes are not an exception, nor are wipes advertised to be “biodegradable”. I’m sure these wipes decompose faster than others, but they are not good for the environment. It is the very nature of what makes a wipe a wipe that also makes them harmful.   

13. Throwing Compost Onto the Ground

Environmental

One of the most common misconceptions about the environment is that it is okay to litter compost. After all, it is biodegradable, isn’t it? While you may be right about this, and though it’s not the worst of environmental crimes, compost can hurt the environment. Fruit peels and cores can take up to two years to fully decompose. 

This littering can also inadvertently feed animals. When animals feed off our waste, they lose their natural guard to people, which can ultimately cost them their life. Litter begets litter. When hikers see peels and cores on trail, they are more likely to toss these things themselves. And I’m no expert, but if you toss the compost of a fruit that grows in the tropics into the wilderness of a temperate forest, in what way is this natural? Is this not invasive? Pack out the compost. I know it can get gross. Put it in a designated Ziploc, and if you need to, double bag it.   

14. Building Unnecessary Cairns

Environmental

I remember the first time I ever read anything suggesting cairn building was bad for the environment. I chuckled scornfully. Really? I didn’t think I’d ever seen something more ridiculous. 

I know it’s fun, but you shouldn’t do it. Rocks in their natural position play a vital role in the environment. Lichens rely on rocks to grow and breathe. When rocks are moved, the soil is disturbed and plants may no longer have the fertile soil they need. If nothing else, extra cairns can mislead hikers, causing them to stray from trail and step on precious plant life. 

I have hiked for many miles that I know would have only been navigable via these cairns, especially in my home territory of New England. Cairns can be a magnificent thing, but they can also be the opposite. I know it may be hard to resist the temptation to build these rickety and sentimental structures, but you can do it.   

15. Compromising Leave-No-Trace Principles

Environmental

And we’re back to the basics, the great rules that envelop every “No-No” on here. LNT. The trite and fundamental code of ethics for hikers around the world. But the fact that this list is hackneyed doesn’t make it any less veracious. From Boy Scouts to thru-hiking, I’ve kept this code at my core, and you should too. Plan your hike, camp where you’re supposed to, pack out your trash, don’t steal artifacts of nature, be responsible with fires, leave the animals alone, and have regard for the hikers around you.

Afterword

If you’re out backpacking, you’re already making a huge difference. Many of the things we do that are harmful to the environment root from societal living. When we backpack, we don’t do the things we normally would to harm Mother Nature like driving and using utilities. Therefore, we’re already making a huge difference. But the additional things we can do to protect our environment are small, and require little effort. It is hypocritical to indulge in the wilderness and not take action to protect it. 

We need our planet, and it needs us. Thank you to all my readers. 

 

By entering your email and hitting the subscribe button below, you will receive new articles in your email. Nothing else. Be sure to check your email to confirm the subscription. You can cancel at any time.

Thank you for subscribing.

Categorized Sources:

Cigarette Butts

http://www.longwood.edu/cleanva/ciglitterarticle.htm

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/cigarettes-story-of-plastic

https://truthinitiative.org/research-resources/harmful-effects-tobacco/why-are-cigarette-butts-most-littered-item-earth

Feeding Animals:

Fuel Canister Disposal:

https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2015-3-may-june/ask-mr-green/hey-mr-green-how-can-i-recycle-my-camp-stove-fuel-canisters

Alpine Zones:

https://www.hikenewengland.com/ArticleAlpineZonePreservation071128.php

Wipes

https://www.ddcdolphin.com/blog/biodegradable-compostable-wipes-its-vital-to-know-the-difference

Compost

Cairns:

Published by Nicholas J. Devlin

I'm a freelance writer from western Massachusetts. Horror, comedy, and all the unholy things my parents told me to stay away from are my favorite. Oh and I like the outdoors. boomsplayground.com/ fulldarkfever.com

7 thoughts on “15 Environmental No-No’s of Backpacking

  1. I cannot stand trash in firepits. Unless i have paper plates or pizza boxes in hand to burn in the fire right now, throwing anything of the sort- burnable or not, and leaving it in a fire pit is just NO. Don’t even get me started on aluminum cans people carelessly throw in there only to have them crumple and burn then just…. be there. Lol. Nice post

  2. I can’t stand when people leave trash in fire pits. Unless I have paper plates or pizza boxes in hand to burn now, throwing them in and leaving them is just NO. Don’t get me started on people who throw aluminum cans in the pit, let’s see how they crumble up and burn a little bit, then just Sit there till someone fishes them out or hopes that the next fire completely disintegrates them. Anyways, good post! My 2 cents.

  3. Good post. My Boy Scout son (15) and I backpacked about 55 miles through Michaux State Forest (Pennsylvania) this past summer to wrap up his “backpacking” merit badge. For the required service project, we collected trash. We certainly found plenty, but by far the worst was when we checked out sites that were near forest roads, i.e. that were accessible by vehicle. I guess some peoples’ idea of “camping” is driving up with a case of beer and leaving all the cans in the fire ring. The whole COVID situation certainly encouraged a lot of people to get outside over the past two seasons; some of which do not belong there!

    This is a good list. We’re not perfect, but we consciously try to be a good Scout/Scouter team. Two other things/outdoor sins we don’t like to see – ripping up huge sections of moss to throw onto a log for a soft seat, and poorly-strung bear bags!

    1. Thanks for reading and engaging, Scott! My experience with backpacking comes mostly in the form of through-hiking, which entails long days on trail and imminent sleep upon my arrival at camp. If my itinerary was less stringent, I would cook all day, but I don’t have a stove, and I’m not apt to buy one just for one trip.

      1. Yes I totally get it from a thru-hike standpoint. With our longest trips being four nights or so, the stove is nice to have but I can’t imagine trying to re-supply canisters, or fiddling with an alcohol stove all the time (seems like I set my arm hairs on fire every third time I use one…!)

      1. I agree; Michaux is beautiful – not the Rocky Mountains by any stretch but a lot of variety and super-accessible. We live about 20-30 minutes from our favorite entry points so it’s a great local playground for us.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: