Picture it—you’re sitting in front of a calm lake in your new favorite hiking or camping spot, admiring the reflection of the mountains on the water. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, the warm breeze is rustling tree leaves and you spot a deer leaning down to take a drink from the lake. Could this moment be any more perfect? Unlikely. Could it be any worse? Absolutely.
Just then, some jerk comes hiking down the trail, blasting music from a portable speaker, and posts up in front of the lake to livestream a video of how epic their life is. The deer runs away and you have a hard time hearing the birds over the person’s voice. You hope they get their Instagrammable photo ops and continue on their merry way but, instead, the person sits down to have lunch at the lake. As they open up granola bars and bags of nuts, the breeze grabs the wrappers and carries them off into the woods. Realizing there are no bathrooms along the trail, they do their business next to the lake instead of hiking 150 feet off-trail to avoid polluting the water.
Those of us who spend considerable time outdoors have witnessed this scenario far too many times. And, though we’re thrilled that the COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged new interest in the outdoors, we’re extremely concerned about the threat it poses to our natural resources. Not only is jackassery a threat to wildlife and the environment—and to the experiences we hope to have outdoors—innocent ignorance is also a threat. Unable (or uninterested in) booking international flights, record numbers of Americans are flocking to national parks, state parks, national forests, and other outdoor spaces, often for the first time, completely unaware of how to prepare for their trips.
During a two-week hiking, biking, and rafting trip in Wyoming and Montana this May, I saw multiple people hiking through snow in shorts and sandals (yes, there’s still snow in high-elevation areas through June); parents having their kids pose for pictures with mother bears and their cubs, and campers (“cabiners” really) abandon their campfire before properly extinguishing it. I also saw dozens of people hiking in Grand Tetons National Park and Glacier National Park—prime grizzly bear country—without any bear spray. And yes, I also encountered a few jackasses hiking with speakers blasting, and several groups of what I call “selfie hikers,” who carried a selfie stick in front of them, filming and narrating their entire hike.
Please don’t do that.
When I first started hiking and camping, I didn’t have a lot of outdoorsy friends to teach me the rules so I’ve made my fair share of jackass mistakes. I peed and pooped too close to rivers and lakes; I buried my toilet paper, wrongly assuming it would quickly decompose and not cause any issues; I got too close to wildlife to get selfies and, instead of bringing a water filter, I was forced to buy bottled water then tossed the empty bottles onto overflowing park dumpsters. It wasn’t pretty. If you’re new to camping, hiking, kayaking, cycling, or whatever it is you plan to do this summer, that’s OK. You’re not expected to know everything when you’re just getting started, but it’s your responsibility to educate yourself on responsible outdoors practices and to respect the rules set forth by the entities charged with protecting our natural spaces.
If you’re planning on spending time outdoors this summer, here are some things to consider:
Visitor Centers May Be Closed
Due to COVID-19 and staffing limitations, many visitor centers are out of service so it may be harder to find bathrooms, drinking fountains, and rangers who can give personal recommendations about the park. Always bring extra water with you (even better, bring a water filter so you can refill it in rivers and streams), and be prepared to use port-o-potties, outhouses, and all-natural “facilitrees” (more on this later).
Put Out Campfires
First off—before you even start the fire, confirm that fires are allowed. Campfires are prohibited in some areas and even if they’re allowed, they’re often restricted to designated areas and existing fire pits, meaning you can’t just build one wherever is most convenient for you. When you’re done with the fire, extinguish it completely; don’t let it just die out on its own. Smokey the Bear was right when he said that “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.” Given the massive droughts that much of the West is experiencing, it’s especially important to respect fire safety rules this summer.
Stay on the Trails
Trails are there for a reason. Not only do they guide you from point A to point B, but trails are also meant to keep you OFF protected plants, sensitive species, and the soil that’s holding everything in place around the trails. In some cases, there will be a sign that says “rehabilitation/reforestation area—keep off.” But sometimes there is no sign. Just because there isn’t a sign that specifically says to stay on the path, you still need to stay on the path. Don’t go off-trail because you’re sick of hiking and want to try a shortcut—doing so could also result in your getting lost. And really don’t go off-trail and start stomping on plants because you think it would make for a killer social media post. That is absolutely the worst reason to go off-trail. And while we’re talking about protecting plants, can you please not carve your initials on any trees, either? Thanks. (Going off-trail temporarily to go to the bathroom, however, is different. See below.)
Stay Away from Wild Animals
Part of the appeal of getting outdoors is being able to see animals up close, in their natural environment. I get it. That’s a huge draw for me as well and I fully support wildlife watching but just think about the name—WILDlife. These animals are wild and you need to keep your distance. While it’s true that bears aren’t nearly as dangerous as most people think—most are afraid of humans and will run away if they see a human coming—they still are wild, dangerous animals. If they feel startled or threatened, they may attack and it’s highly unlikely you’ll outrun a bear.
Keep in mind that bears aren’t the only dangerous animal. A moose, elk, bison, or other large animal can trample, gore, or kick you to death even if they’re not trying to kill you. Their sheer size and strength mean that their version of a “gentle” warning kick or nudge could be enough to do serious damage.
Josh Metten, a professional naturalist with EcoTour Adventures in Grand Tetons and Yellowstone national parks in Wyoming, has witnessed visitors approach a 2000-lb., bellowing bull bison to get an iPhone photo, and leave their cars running in the middle of the road to run towards a grizzly bear with cubs. When leading wildlife-watching tours, Metten tries to avoid these negative encounters by using binoculars and spotting scopes to safely view the animals from a distance. When animals are close to the road, he recommends remaining in the vehicle. Professionally guided tours tend to be the best way to find the animals (after all, the guides are out there every day), but if group tours aren’t your thing, you can also get custom adaptors for your phone that let you get close-up pictures and videos.
Grand Tetons National Park is known for its bear population and, while there is a designated area where bears often hang out and volunteer staff help manage crowds to safely observe from a distance, it’s possible you’ll encounter a bear when there are no park staff around. Though I didn’t witness it myself, a couple I met hiking told me they saw a family posing for pictures with a mother bear and her cubs. Apparently, the parents were urging their kids to get closer to the bear family for the picture, seemingly unaware of (or perhaps just ignoring) the danger. I thought it was common knowledge that wild animals will go to great lengths to protect their young. Apparently, I was wrong, so if you didn’t know, now you know.
Before heading into bear country (or any area with large, potentially dangerous wildlife), do some research on basic safety practices. Stop in the visitor center, speak with rangers, or chat with staff in outdoorsy stores. Though I’m used to hiking in black bear country in upstate New York, this was my first trip to grizzly country and I was terrified that I’d be attacked by a bear while hiking alone. As such, I visited several outdoors and “sportsmen” stores in Wyoming and I asked a store employee to show me how to properly use the bear spray, which I then tested out in the parking lot before my hike. I took several guided wildlife tours in Wyoming and Montana and asked the guides about bear safety, slowly gathering the opinions and strategies of multiple experienced professionals to build my confidence and knowledge bank. The National Parks Service is a good resource for bear safety tips (hike in groups, speak so the bear knows you’re a human, pick up small children, don’t let bears get your food, make yourself appear large, etc.). Here are some other tips learned along the way:
1) Only use bear spray if a bear is going to attack you—don’t “preventative spray” if the bear is chill because that could provoke him/her.
2) Make sure the bear spray is easily accessible (I had a hip holster and a wrist holster).
3) Know how to use the spray. If you encounter a bear, you’ll likely be afraid, so that’s not the time to just start learning how to use the spray. You want to try it out in advance and, when you do, spray down to the ground so the wind doesn’t carry the pepper spray into your eyes (this happened to me in Alaska and, trust me, it burns).
4) Bears are especially dangerous when they are eating, which is why parks will close down an area if there’s an animal carcass that bears may feed on.
5) Bears will have a harder time hearing you while they’re eating or if they’re close to running water (like a river) so you’ll have to make enough noise for them to hear you over surrounding sounds.
6) You want to make noise so that bears know you’re coming so it’s less likely they’ll be startled (a startled bear is more likely to attack). Talk, sing, wear “bear bells,” and/or bang sticks.
7) If you see a bear, back up very slowly and don’t take your eyes off him/her. Have your spray handy and slowly get out of there. Do not run.
In the end, I didn’t see a bear close up until my last day in Glacier National Park, and the lazy bear, completely unconcerned with my presence, just sauntered across some logs to the other side of the lake.
Don’t Feed the Animals
Obviously (or perhaps not so obviously, since it happens too frequently), it’s not safe to feed wild animals. As mentioned in the previous section, getting close to wild animals is dangerous for you, but feeding wildlife can also be dangerous for the animals. According to Metten, the naturalist and wildlife guide in Wyoming, when bears learn that people are a food source, they begin spending more time near or in developed areas. In order to prevent negative encounters with food-seeking bears, this often leads to the animal being euthanized, which recently happened with two grizzlies in Grand Tetons National Park.
“Throwing apple cores, seed shells, or other food waste out the window is not only littering,” says Metten, “but it also attracts animals to the side of the road, leading to more collisions.” It's not just with large animals, either. When roads become littered with food waste, rodents will appear more frequently, which attracts birds of prey, which wind up getting hit by passing motorists. As the Teton Raptor Center says, "Don't feed the highways." For more tips on planning a safe and sustainable trip to Wyoming, check out the state’s WY Responsibly campaign.
Don’t Be Annoyingly Loud
National parks are beautiful, so it’s OK if you want to take a bunch of pictures and videos, and it’s understandable if you want to share the moment with loved ones but please be reasonable. Many of us go to national parks to enjoy the beauty and serenity of the place and it’s really disruptive to have the people around you FaceTiming and livestreaming their entire visit on social media. Two summers ago, I visited Arches National Park and witnessed one of the most spectacular sunsets of my life. Just before the sun set, some jackass shows up and starts shooting an Instagram live about the epic sunset that he wasn’t really enjoying because he was staring at his phone. When the signal proved too weak to livestream, he called a friend and excitedly shouted how amazing the experience was. He then called another friend and had the same conversation. Don’t be that person. Everybody hates that person.
Also, don’t hike with a speaker; just don’t do it. If you’re hiking in backcountry wilderness and you’re the only person for miles and you want to put on some music so bears hear you coming, that’s one thing. But don’t just go strolling down popular trails playing the Top 40. It’s not cool, it’s not fun, it’s not OK. It’s kind of like when teenagers blast “rebellious” music around adults to show how cool and edgy they are. Do you really want to be acting like a teenager?
Minimize Trash Produced
Many parks and forests have limited budgets, so just because additional visitors are swarming in with loads of trash doesn’t mean the park, all of a sudden, has additional staff to constantly empty garbage cans. Minimizing your trash is better for the park (and for the environment, in general) and is quite easy to do with some pre-planning. Bring water bottles to refill at sinks, water fountains, restaurants, and rest areas. I frequently ask permission to refill my bottle with water from the soft drink dispensers in gas stations and fast-food restaurants and, to date, have never been turned down. Carrying a water filter is best (I swear by the Grayl purifier), but it’s also a good idea to keep a gallon of water in your car for emergencies. Remember, with visitor centers closed, it may be harder to find places to refill your water.
Instead of buying snack-size and single-serving chips, nuts, and dried fruit, buy larger bags and refill reusable containers each day. If you plan to be in the same hotel/B&B for several days, you can also buy perishable food from local supermarkets to keep in the fridge overnight. Not only does this typically result in less waste, but it’s also cheaper than eating all your meals out. I tend toward bananas, family-size yogurt, jars of peanut butter, crackers, hummus, and bags of baby carrots and cauliflower; but blocks of cheese, jerky, and lunchmeat sandwiches are also good options. I’m also a big fan of ordering an extra meal at dinner. I’ve been bringing my own takeout containers to restaurants for years so I just throw the extra food in my metal tiffin (plastic and glass also work), store it in the hotel fridge overnight, and carry it in my hiking backpack the next day.
Keeping a set of reusable utensils means you can skip the plastic silverware that most restaurants and hotels hand out, often without first asking if you need it in the first place. I typically carry a set of bamboo utensils that are specifically intended for travel but when I’ve forgotten to pack them, I’ve borrowed actual silverware from my hotel or B&B to take on day hikes.
Outdoors Bathroom 101
If you’re going to be spending time in the outdoors, you’re going to have to get comfortable with peeing and pooping in the woods, AKA using the “facilitrees.” Never do your business directly on the trail; instead, walk off-trail and make sure you’re 150 feet from trails, campsites, and water sources. Bring your own toilet paper and a re-sealable plastic bag to put the used toilet paper in to carry out with you. Not only will you not find bathrooms in the woods (though you may find the occasional outhouse or privy toilet), you also won’t find garbage cans so it’s up to you to carry your trash out.
Enjoy the summer, friends!