Record numbers of people have been venturing into the “great outdoors” during the pandemic.

This seems to be a positive trend, but the potential negative consequences should be considered and monitored. A recent experience my family had while hiking in a central Texas state natural area illustrates the challenges such increased activity can create.

A family of four was taking a break at a small natural spring as we walked up. The mother urged her two kids not to throw things into the spring and told them to stop building a small rock dam in the water flow. But the father said it was fine – “nature always finds a way,” he declared, as the rock-stacking continued.

A natural spring surrounded by rocks.

(Photo: Zach Dawes Jr.)

After they left, my son (age 6) removed the rocks (see here and here for why rock stacking is problematic), as I collected some water from the spring for us to filter and drink while trying to disturb the area as little as possible.

Soon after, a man and his elementary-age son arrived while we were finishing up filtering the water we collected.

He casually flopped down on the rock ledge surrounding the pool, dangled his hiking boots just above the water and cracked open a canned beverage while his son began tossing leaves and rocks into the water. His manner conveyed a mindset of “this is my space to do with what I want.”

We spend a lot of time outdoors together as a family, seeking to educate ourselves about how to be responsible for the places we visit. We are not perfect, of course, and more well-versed folks might observe what we think are proper, responsible practices and silently pass judgement on us like I did with the people we saw at the spring.

I hope this isn’t the case often, or at all, given our efforts to research and follow best practices codified as “leave no trace.” Nevertheless, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that we’re not experts and we’ve likely made some outdoor faux pas without realizing it.

I’ve always assumed that most people get outside to disconnect from the frantic pace of daily life and to experience and appreciate the beauty of the world around us. Thus, I naively assumed such actions would be done in a responsible manner and that it would be a net-positive experience for humans, animals and the natural world.

Yet, if the environment (and the non-human creatures that cohabitate this planet with us) could speak, we’d probably hear a vastly different perspective on our activities.

The non-human world would likely make us aware of how frequently a mentality of domination, rather than cultivation, underlies humanity’s outdoor adventures. I fear that the human tendency toward conquest and exploitation of resources subconsciously informs even those times when our conscious goal is to “get in touch with nature.”

For example, it’s troubling to see how much trash is left by people who, presumably, love being outside and should want to help maintain trails, parks, forests and waterways.

Beyond the more obvious items like cans and bottles, once you start looking, you develop “eyes to see” litter everywhere – and you realize how poorly many people treat the places they visit for exercise and rejuvenation.

I read a news story last year about a young man who committed to pick up trash left by hikers at Eaton Canyon in Los Angeles Country. It took him 589 consecutive days until he couldn’t locate anymore trash to pick up.

He plans to expand his effort to other nearby parks, while returning weekly to Eaton Canyon to remove any new trash left behind by others.

A plastic grocery bag filled with trash seen from above.

(Photo: Zach Dawes Jr.)

While not as dedicated as this man, my family tries to keep a trash bag handy on our hikes. It’s shocking how much trash you encounter on some of the more highly trafficked trails.

This isn’t an effort to pat myself on the back – it’s literally the least we can do other than simply ignoring it – and we’ve observed (and thanked) others doing the same.

In addition to the negative environmental impact of improper outdoor usage, a 2018 article in Outside magazine highlighted instances in which lands and locations sacred to Indigenous peoples are being accessed and traversed in problematic ways.

This raises another set of issues, but the ultimate point is the same: people should be more informed and conscientious about how they conduct themselves outdoors.

It’s wonderful that so many want to go hiking, biking and paddling, but it is important to take the time to learn how to do so safely, sustainably and sensitively.

Macro-level challenges like climate change rightly get a lot of attention and emphasis regarding human impacts and responses, but we should also pay attention to the micro-level degradations our collective actions have.

I believe most who venture into the woods or onto rivers have a sense of gratitude and responsibility for the natural world. Even so, conscious, concerted effort by everyone is necessary to adequately preserve and protect our world for future generations.

We must not desecrate sacred spaces and degrade the natural world in our efforts to stay in shape physically, mentally and emotionally.

Most faith traditions urge adherents to be caretakers of the world in which we live. So, we need more people of good will, and of good faith, to follow the guidance of their sacred texts by embracing a “leave no trace” mindset – not only when they’re hiking or paddling but in all areas of their lives.

After all, we’re creating and leaving a world to those who come after us, so let’s ensure it is a legacy we can be proud of.

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