It’s true. I’m a nature lover. A tree hugger if you will. I love it all: hiking, biking, camping. Experiencing the outdoors has been a part of my life since childhood and has had a hand in shaping me into the person I am today. The awe and wonder I felt as I walked over the soft bedding of pine needles was unrivaled. I can clearly recall the curiosity that filled me when I gently ran my fingers along a fern and it closed its leaves to protect itself and the excitement that had me endlessly searching for my favorite species of newt, the red eft. It was amazing and thrilling and I wanted my kids to experience it all. Once we began our outdoor adventures, obviously I wanted them to enjoy nature but I also wanted them to respect it. And so I taught them to “let nature be.” That was the phrase I repeated over and over until they came to understand the importance of being kind to their world and everything in it. Even as adults we need to be aware of how our presence impacts nature and what we can do to reduce any negative effect we have on the great outdoors.
So let’s talk numbers. In 2020 and 2021, over 50 million Americans went camping and there are roughly 57.8 million hikers in the U.S. That’s not a small number by any means and this level of encroachment on nature will only cause harm unless done with care and consideration. One of the biggest ways to show your love of nature is to adhere to the popular adage, leave no trace. Leaving no trace refers to leaving nature exactly how you found it. A number of easy ways to do this includes:
- Cleaning up all trash. (This includes things like food scraps, even fruit peels, toilet paper, and any trash. Anything you bring in, you take out!)
- Clean up any pet waste.
- If you find someone else’s trash, dispose of it properly.
- Don’t cut branches or hammer nails into them.
- Don’t carve initials into trees or rocks.
- Only use wood from dead or downed trees for campfires.
One of the biggest ways to leave no trace is to stay on the trail and to not take things like shells, wildflowers, rocks, plants, pinecones or any natural elements while you’re there. It sounds simple enough until you see a beautiful wildflower or unique rock just off the beaten path, but try to resist the urge to head off trail and remove these types of things from their natural setting. Doing so could cause significant damage to the ecosystem in a number of ways including extreme erosion and loss of habitat. Of course if you want to “take” a picture, go for it! If it becomes necessary to go off trail or if you just can’t resist, it’s always best to stay on durable surfaces like rock, sand, gravel and dry grasses and to avoid fragile surfaces like vegetation and soft areas near a water source.
Another crucial way to help preserve nature is to protect its water sources. Water is our most used natural resource, so it stands to reason that it is worth protecting. In order to preserve water sources use your own water to wash dirty camping dishes and make sure that you are far from streams and other shared water sources while washing, do not use soap in any water sources, and if there is no restroom use the following protocol: go to the bathroom at least 200 ft from the water source, dig a hole, and then cover the hole.
“Only you can prevent forest fires.” We’ve all heard the famous catch phrase of Smokey the Bear and he knows what he’s talking about! One of the highlights for many campers is sitting around the campfire with family and friends making s’mores but don’t forget to be safe! Here are some easy ways to take Smokey the Bear’s words to heart.
- Keep campfires small and safe
- Make sure there is a well built border
- Build on a bed of rocks or ashes
- Do not leave fire unsupervised
- Extinguish completely
And of course we need to respect all wildlife. When out in nature, it’s imperative to never touch or feed wildlife. Doing so is unhealthy for the animals and could lead to negative interactions with humans. It is also important when camping to use an established campsite in order to separate yourself from wildlife and to reduce damage to habitat. Preparation is also key. Research information such as what wildlife lives in the area and if bear-proof food is storage necessary. Other things to consider are keeping dogs under control and preventing them from chasing wildlife and storing food and trash safely to prevent interactions with wildlife. Using odor proof bags, refraining from burying trash, and utilizing reusable drink bottles and food containers go a long way when reducing trash and keeping wildlife away from any food.
Trash is dangerous for wildlife in any location whether it be in the country or the city. That’s why HAP has introduced the Pittsburgh Ploggers initiative. “Plogging” is the practice of picking up litter while jogging or walking outside. HAP has been partnering with student groups around the city to help clean up litter and working with the Clean Pittsburgh Commission to bring the Litterati app to our city in an effort to gather data on litter collected while plogging. The hope is that this data will help support policy decisions that will decrease the amount of litter that ends up in the local environment. Start your plogging journey by downloading the app from the Apple or Google Play store or consider donating to HAP so that we can continue to promote this wonderful initiative.
Enjoying and respecting nature go hand in hand. We have to take it upon ourselves to keep our world clean and beautiful and healthy or there won’t be much left in the future to enjoy. So remember, when you’re having fun hiking or camping or whatever you love the most…leave nature be.