Leave No Trace - Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces - Part I

You're ready to hit the trail, your overnight backpack is packed, and it's time to have an adventure!

Are you aware though of the terrain you will be traveling through? Will you be traveling on established trails or cross-country? And, when you arrive at your backcountry home for the night, will you be camping on durable surfaces? What is a durable surface anyway?

A dirt path surrounded by wildflowers with trees and a mountain in the distance

The second principle of Leave No Trace is Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces. This is an important principle of the Leave No Trace ethics and the key to maintaining the beauty of our wilderness environments. 

We will be exploring this principle throughout the month. 

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Durable Surfaces - What Are They?

What is a durable surface anyway? Great question! A durable surface is roughly defined as any natural surface that is resistant to damage caused by human travel. This damage may occur through soil compaction caused by human feet and/or tents, erosion caused by damage to vegetation, disruption and/or pollution of natural water sources, and other impacts.

A key concept to responsible wilderness adventures is to minimize our impact, as much as possible, by limiting our travels to durable surfaces only. This helps to prevent unnecessary damage to the wilderness environments we hold so dear. 

To explore this further, let's break down natural surfaces into categories in order of most to least durable:

  1. Existing Trails and/or Campsites: These surfaces have already suffered high use and are not an area of concern of further damage. Existing trails and/or campsites already stripped down to the 'mineral soil' layer - inhospitable to plant life - are the preferred location for continued human traffic. 
  2. Rock, Sand, and Gravel: These surfaces are highly durable and can tolerate repeated trampling and scuffing. However, lichens that grow on rocks are vulnerable to repeated scuffing.
  3. Vegetation: The resistance of vegetation to trampling varies. Select areas of durable vegetation, or sparse vegetation that is easily avoided. Dry grasses tend to be resistant to trampling. Wet meadows and other fragile vegetation quickly show the effects of trampling. Alpine meadows are especially vulnerable as soil compaction can lead to the death of the plant(s) and disruption of their ability to create seeds. This can have severe impacts to meadow plant life and the animals that rely on these plants for food. Trampling also ensures that new travelers may take the same route and leads to undesirable trail derailment. Avoid vegetation whenever possible, especially on steep slopes where the effects of off-trail travel are magnified.
  4. Cryptobiotic Crust - Desert SurfacesCryptobiotic crust, found in desert environments, is extremely vulnerable to foot traffic. Cryptobiotic crust consists of tiny communities of organisms that appear as a blackish and irregular raised crust upon the sand. This crust retains moisture in desert climates and provides a protective layer, preventing erosion. One footstep can destroy "crypto". It is important to use developed trails in these areas. 
  5. Puddles, Ponds, and Tarns: Water is a preciously scarce resource for all living things. Avoid walking through puddles, mud holes, or disturbing surface water in any way. Potholes are also home to tiny animals. These small water systems are also highly vulnerable to pollution from human-borne chemicals like DEET and sunscreen. These chemicals can build up in smaller closed water sources and severely impact the plants and animals that rely on them. The exception to this rule is when surface water is on-trail and avoidance requires off-trail travel. (embrace those muddy boots!)

A working knowledge of durable surfaces and the potential impact of human travel is vital to the preservation of wilderness environments. Always select the most durable surfaces for your wilderness adventures and avoid impacting areas that may suffer from your passing. The preservation of our beautiful shared natural resources and the plants and animals that rely on them depends on all of us.

We will be reviewing additional aspects of 'Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces' throughout the month. A smart approach to this key concept can make all the difference for you, your group, and our shared wilderness resources. 


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