A good naturalist will not only be able to interpret the environment while passing through a natural area. Naturalists practice outdoor ethics by leaving nature as he or she found it. Low impact hiking is a set of rules you can follow which will lead to the skill of walking lightly on the land, and thereby disturbing nature as little as possible. In this way, the next person, bird or breeze that comes by will have the chance to experience the same scene you just experienced.
First and foremost, follow the trite phrase parroted by all knowledgeable hikers: ” Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints. ” If you strictly adhere to this simple rule, you will be doing much to ensure that our natural areas remain in good condition, and that others will be allowed to experience their beauty without seeing candy wrappers, plastic baggies, aluminum cans or plastic bottles strewn throughout the forest. Instead, those who come after you in the forest will see the flower that you did not pick, the turkey feather resting near the trail that you admired, and photographed, but did not pluck from the ground and into your pack. If we all picked flowers along the trail, soon we would be hiking in a rather monotonous, colorless landscape, wouldn’t we?
Stay on the established trail. While often it is tempting, and very rewarding to stray from the trail, over time this causes damage. One or two people traipsing from the trail are unlikely to cause long lasting damage. However over time many people doing this same thing will compact the soil, wear down vegetation, and damage the scenic and ecological integrity of the area.
Stay on the trail even when it is muddy or obstructed. Go through the mud and over or under that log blocking your way if you can do so safely. This will keep a narrow trail from becoming a wide highway of mud and destruction. Furthermore, on narrow trails, walk single file to keep from making the trail wider.
When hiking, smaller groups are better. Not only does a smaller group create less ground disturbance as they hike along, a small group is also quieter. Less chatter makes for a better experience for all.
If you are hiking in an area that allows camping, and you plan to camp, select an area away from the trail, and do not damage vegetation in order to create a better spot for your camp. When you leave your campsite, scatter any ashes from your fire, and take any trash with you. Your goal is to leave the campsite looking like it had never been inhabited by a human being.
Follow these rules, and use common sense when you are hiking. You will be practicing low impact, responsible hiking. Those of us who will pass through after you will be eternally grateful.