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This past year, Americans have ventured outdoors in record numbers. Across the nation, running and cycling have grown in popularity, and the number of day hikers was up 8.4% last summer compared to 2019, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.
This uptick in outdoor activity is here to stay: A recent Penn State poll found that many people who developed new outdoor hobbies during the pandemic plan to continue these habits in 2021 and after COVID-19 subsides.
“We’ve seen so many people visiting trails, which is great,” said Briget Eastep, a Southern Utah University professor who holds a doctorate in parks, recreation and tourism and who specializes in Leave No Trace principles.
However, she said she also believes that an awareness of trail etiquette, safety precautions, and conservation best practices is essential for responsible engagement with Utah’s natural spaces.
With more residents and visitors than ever exploring trails and recreation areas across Utah, enjoying the outdoors now involves respectfully sharing space, protecting the environment and open lands, and keeping ourselves (and others) safe.
Tribune readers are full of practical experience and, in response to a recent poll, shared their best advice on how to “recreate responsibly.” Their tips centered around five key topics to keep in mind while exploring the beauty of Utah’s outdoor spaces this summer.
1. Trail etiquette
When uphill and downhill hikers meet on a narrow stretch of trail, a traffic jam can ensue.
Knowing basic trail etiquette will protect hikers from committing an outdoor faux pas.
“Uphill always has the right of way,” writes Trib poll respondent Kat Stevens. “In narrow areas, downhill should stop on the side.” Stevens is correct, according to a right of way guide from the REI Co-op Journal. Uphill hikers have a limited field of vision and may have established a rhythm as they chug up the mountainside, so it’s best to let them pass, the guide states.
The rule isn’t set in stone, however. Sometimes, uphill hikers will welcome the chance to stop for a break on the side of the trail. “If you just make eye contact and say hello, you can figure out who needs to go first,” Eastep said.
Trail etiquette can get complicated in multi-use areas, however. What about mountain bikes? Horses? To learn the minutiae of mountainside manners and become an outdoorsy Emily Post, guides from the American Hiking Society and REI Co-op Journal can help.
Respondents Susan Dunlap, Nathan Winn, and Sahara Hayes all stressed the importance of being friendly and respectful while using public trails. According to Hayes, kindness and mutual support are a big part of the outdoor community.
“People on trails are wonderful and will help you out if you need it,” she said. “There is always going to be somebody who has a spare Clif Bar.”
2. Leave no trace
Almost every single reader who responded to our poll wrote some version of the well-known outdoor proverb “leave no trace.”
“The general goal of Leave No Trace,” Eastep said, “is to be out in the natural world without harming [it].”
Leaving no trace involves cleaning up your trash (and for overachievers, trash that other groups have left behind), staying on designated trails, not carving on trees or feeding wildlife, and taking nothing but pictures.
“In Utah, leaving what you find is important,” Eastep said. Flowers attract pollinators, making them an essential part of the ecosystem, and removing cultural artifacts, like arrowheads, is disrespectful.
Ray Bloxham of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance stressed the importance of fire safety. Currently, no open fires are permitted on Utah’s public lands — except within established facilities on designated campgrounds — due to drought-induced fire restrictions. But even when such restrictions aren’t in place, Bloxham asked campers to consider forgoing the fire.
“The myth that [campfires] are part of the camping experience is really impacting places,” Bloxham explained. He recommended using a fire pan and emphasized the negative impact of hacking at nearby trees — even dead ones — to collect firewood. “We’re seeing places being denuded because [campers] think they need a fire,” said Bloxham.
According to the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, leaving no trace also involves a detailed set of seven principles. These principles help outdoor visitors minimize their environmental impact and enjoy the natural world safely. Visit the Leave No Trace website for more information on proper waste disposal, best practices for outdoor cooking and the importance of planning ahead.
3. Smart timing
Readers Heidi Hart and Rachel Klein suggested hiking before 7 a.m. to avoid crowds and heat. But for those who find themselves hiking in the heat of the day, Sindy Elamrani recommended a “cooling neck wrap.”
Andy Hoffmann said he opts for low-traffic days and times. Popular outdoor sites get packed on weekends and holidays, which can lead to parking problems in narrow, winding canyons.
Klein added that pulling off into the underbrush and parking on a blind curve “just drives all of us nuts in Cottonwood Canyon.”
However, inconvenience is not the only reason to avoid recreating during high-traffic times. According to Bloxham, overcrowding can have significant negative impacts on natural areas.
During heavily trafficked periods, there often aren’t enough campsites and parking spaces to accommodate the number of visitors in public lands. “[People] decide ‘We’re going camping this weekend,’ so they’re going to find a camp,” he said, even if there isn’t a designated site available.
This overflow of visitors creates “expanded high-use areas.” Just because one vehicle (or hiker, or campsite) went there doesn’t mean you should as well, Bloxham said.
Another way to help prevent overcrowding is to avoid tagging outdoor locations on social media. “People want that same photo,” Bloxham said. “As [places] are being tagged, you see endless lines of people.”
4. Be prepared
Klein, who has been exploring Utah’s trails for the last 14 years, encouraged new hikers to be cautious and prepared.
“It’s not Liberty Park when you’re out in the woods,” she said. “If you’re out there by yourself, especially in this heat, you could end up in a life-threatening situation.”
Eastep said she packs a set of essentials, including a headlamp, emergency blanket, sunscreen, and extra food and water, even on day trips. These supplies keep her safe in case of emergencies and allow her to help other hikers who might be in need of assistance.
“Make sure someone knows where you’re going and when you’ll be back,” wrote reader Julia French.
“The biggest thing is making sure I pack enough water,” added Sahara Hayes. She researches weather, distance and elevation before going out to ensure that she can keep herself hydrated. One liter of water for every two hours of hiking is a good rule of thumb.
5. Tips for dog owners
Many poll responses included tips for dog-loving hikers who want to bring their animal best friends into nature.
Sahara Hayes said she started hiking a few years ago to bond with her “stepdog,” her boyfriend’s pet, and is now a regular hiker.
“Knowing about leash regulations is deeply important,” she said. “There are going to be shy dogs or reactive dogs that don’t want to be approached.”
Another common theme, mentioned by Hayes and several other respondents, was the importance of picking up after dogs. The age-old outdoor maxim “pack it in, pack it out” applies to poop bags, too.
Doing advance research before venturing into nature is always a must, but this is doubly true when bringing a pet. Dogs aren’t permitted in watershed areas, which supply the valley with clean drinking water.
“If you have dogs, check the place you are going to see if they allow them,” wrote reader Sarah Luing.
Ultimately, most outdoor recreation guidelines are about respect, both for the environment and for the plants, animals, and people that rely on it.
“I look at it as a way to be kind to the places that we love,” Eastep said.
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