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Why do people leave the trail?

Tread Lightly! and NOHVCC are doing something about it.

By Karen Umphress

"We need to foster a respect and appreciation to our natural resources that seems to be disappearing."

This is a question that is often asked. While my husband and I were hiking in Mt. Rainier National Park, the Paradise trail became almost irritating with the number of signs located at the edge of the trail. They were spaced about 5 feet apart and alternated between, "Stay on the trail" and "Don't be a meadow stomper."

The reason for the signs on the trail was explained by a large sign at the trail head. This sign stated that there were 20 miles of legitimate trail and an additional 28 miles of trail that was created by people walking off-trail. During the same trip, we spent some time at Mt. St. Helens.

photo: reading
Reading the "Adventure Trail" safety book

After many programs and signs that told people how fragile the area was, we went to a trail head and watched parents letting their children run around in the meadow, picking the wildflowers. And yet another example is when we were hiking to Half Dome in Yosemite National Park and the people ahead of us continued to cut across the switch backs even though they did not gain any distance from us.

There are probably many different reasons why people leave the trail. Some of the blame can be placed on the people creating the trails, whether they are professionals or volunteers. If we do not give people the experience they are looking for, they will create the experience themselves.

If we put a trail close enough to a waterfall that hikers can hear it, but do not put a trail close enough to the waterfall where they can see it, the hikers will find the waterfall anyway. If we create a mountain bike trail that is mostly flat and the bikers are expecting elevation changes, they will ride off trail to find the elevation changes. If we build an ATV trail that is wide open and boring, the people on the ATV will create a challenge for themselves. It is part of human nature and is not dependent upon the type of recreation chosen.

However, the trail builders are not the only people that are to blame. We also need to foster a respect and appreciation to our natural resources that seems to be disappearing. There are places on the internet where people have posted in blogs or forums items that clearly indicate that they know that they are breaking the rules by traveling off-trail.

photo: Adventure Trail trailer
The Adventure Trail trailer from Tread Lightly!

For example, if you Google "Mt Rainier""Meadow Stomper" you can find a forum posting in which someone declares "remember, I am not a litter bug, just a meadow stomper." There is also a video of someone videotaping at Mt. Rainier and he sends his girl-friend off the trail so that he can get her in the video along with the view of the mountain. He says to her, "Go stand out there. You will need to be a meadow stomper".

How can we foster this appreciation and respect for our natural resources? We are all responsible for getting the message out that it is not okay to go off-trail regardless of whether you are hiking, cross-country skiing, or riding a dirt bike, etc. We also need to educate the younger generation of outdoor enthusiasts. I know of two good programs that the motorized recreational community has created that do just that.

photo: girls in the educational trailer
Inside the "Adventure Trail" safety education trailer

The first program is the Adventure Trail program created by the National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council. The program includes an Activity Book and an interactive CD which introduce young riders to Penny, Rascal, and AT. These characters and activities teach children about trail ethics as well as safety. The program also includes a mobile "Adventure Trail" which is a traveling truck or trailer that allows the children to go through the Adventure Trail and take a short quiz at the end of the trail. Correct answers are rewarded and incorrect answers are gently corrected. See for more information about this program.

Tread Lightly! also has a traveling trailer that takes environmental education on the road. It travels to major motorized sporting events and trailheads to spread their message. The focus for the trailer is to be an education center. In addition to the educational material the trailer also has local information such as trail maps and weather information. In additional to the trailer, Tread Lightly! has a web section designed just for kids called "Kid's Club." Their squirrel mascot, Lightfoot, educates kids with fun activities and tips on playing responsibly outdoors and reducing their impact on nature. See their website at

In the end, it is up to each of us to get the message across: Everyone— Stay on the Trails.

We'd like to hear from recreational organizations which also have similar programs or are working on similar programs. Contact American Trails and we'll be happy to publish an article and links on our website, and will consider news and articles for the American Trails Magazine.

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