Low impact use of walking and skiing areas

  • Getting there
  • Being there
  • Traffic damage
  • Campsites
  • Water supplies
  • Human waste
  • A low impact action list
  • Campfires
  • Rubbish

State and national parks are a great resource shared by an ever-increasing number of people. Although many of these areas are vast, most use is often restricted to a few small areas, campsites, tracks, ridges and waterways. This rise in popularity and concentration of use has caused damage to many places of great beauty. Unfortunately, some recreationists are oblivious to this degradation. Others blame 'less sensitive users' for the damage and deny they are part of the cause. However, every outdoor recreationist has an impact on the environment they use and the resulting damage is the cumulative effect of all activities in an area.

Minimal impact

Minimal impact strategies are now widely adopted by land managers and recreationists to reduce the impact of our presence, and it is the responsibility of every party leader to guide and encourage their groups in these matters. If the natural resources of this planet are to survive, care must be taken to limit the effects of our adoration.

There are eight main ways that people have an impact on the environment they love.

Getting there

Try to limit cars to the number needed to transport everyone in reasonable comfort. Excessive cars cost money and have an unnecessary impact on the environment. Park only in defined parking spaces, and in locations which do not obstruct others. Stay on roads, and do not drive on roads that are closed to private vehicles. If the condition of an access road is such that driving a convoy of vehicles on it would cause damage, do not try to drive to the very start of the trip, but park and walk or ski to minimise damage.

Being there

Just being there creates a disturbance. Before you go, consider whether a less fragile or less remote area will satisfy the activity and participants. Why trample a vulnerable area when a more hardy one will do? Plan the activity so that suitable recognised campsites, lunch stops and trails are used, rather than creating new ones. Limit the party to an appropriate size, which in fragile areas may be no more than four to six. Large parties are more difficult to manage, noisier and impact more on vegetation, wildlife and others in the area. Avoid areas of highest use. Be adventurous and discover new, little known points of interest, or visit high use areas at a time when others are not. This will minimise the impact of users on a particular environment and allow time for the area to recover.

Plan to see the country, rather than be seen in it. The use of bright clothing is an important safety issue but can annoy others in the area and disturb the lives of the animals and birds you came to see. Similarly, unnecessary noise and inappropriate behaviour interferes with other users and frightens the local fauna.

Leave pets at home. They have no place in areas being managed for conservation. Pets can interfere with the enjoyment others get from a natural environment, and cause damage and disturbance of wildlife.

Traffic damage

Tracks are corridors for pathogen and weed invasion. The proliferation of tracks leads to fragmentation of ecosystems. If there is a trail through an area, use it rather than creating a new one. Follow tracks through their rough and muddy sections, rather than widening the path. Avoid walking on the trail edges or creating a new path around a problem. Do not cut corners, particularly on zig-zag sections in steep country, as this increases erosion and visual scarring. Do not collect flora or fauna—it increases impact, and is illegal in virtually all conservation parks. Make sure you and your boots are not carriers of weeds or disease. Wash your boots to remove soil, particularly if you have been into an area affected by soil-borne diseases such as phytopthera cinnamonii. In open and untracked country, spread out and disperse the impact. Plants are more likely to survive being walked on by individuals rather than whole parties. Stay on rocks and hard ground wherever possible and avoid sensitive vegetation and bogs that are easily destroyed by trampling. Do not mark trails, blaze trees or build cairns. These only concentrate the passage of later groups and leads to the rapid development of new tracks. Match your footwear to the terrain, and use lightweight boots or runners where conditions are less demanding. If at all possible, avoid particularly sensitive, vulnerable areas such as:

  • Sand dunes and dune vegetation.
  • Pockets of vegetation in otherwise rocky areas.
  • Sphagnum and other bogs.
  • Soils and vegetation near waterholes and springs.
  • Ground nesting sites or colonies and nesting sites on rock or cliff faces.
  • Beach-nesting birds (usually on open sand between high-water level and vegetated areas) are very vulnerable, and the hooded plover, fairy tern and little tern all have recovery programs underway.
  • Bluffs and rock faces may be nesting sites for peregrine falcons and other birds easily disturbed by climbers.

Campsites

Campsites can develop and expand rapidly to form a visual blot on a landscape and are starting points for weed colonisation. Plan to utilise established campsites rather than create new ones. Move camping equipment rather than manipulating the camp-site, and resist the urge to remove inconvenient vegetation and features. Sandy or hard surfaces are better campsites than boggy or vegetated areas. Use modern self-supporting tents with waterproof floors and use a mat to spread your weight while sleeping. The use of plants for tent poles and bedding is obsolete, destructive and, in most conservation parks, illegal. Digging trenches around tents is unnecessary and causes erosion. Plan to spend a maximum of two nights at any campsite—any more makes it difficult to erase the marks of your presence. Avoid trampling the campsite with unnecessary movement and use smooth-soled shoes to protect the vegetation. Leave no mark of your presence. Remove any rubbish, structures and unnecessary fireplaces left by others. In untracked areas where there is no campsite, camp at least 30 m from any watercourses.

Water supplies

Many bush water sources and streams have become infected by parasites and pathogens due to unsatisfactory methods of human waste disposal. People are now advised to treat all water with caution. The washing of clothes, utensils, bodies or hands always should be at least 50 m away from any water source. Even biodegradable detergents, toothpaste and soaps harm fish and waterlife. Scatter all used water at least 100 m from streams and lakes, so that it can filter through the soil before it returns to a water body. Use gritty sand and scourers to clean dishes instead of soap. Do not discard food scraps into any water supply as it is unsightly and off-putting as well as unsanitary. Chapter 28 gives more information on safe drinking water.

Human waste

Incorrect disposal of excreta, toilet paper and feminine hygiene products is offensive and environmentally destructive. There are a number of alternatives for the disposal of human waste:

  • Always use toilets provided by land managers. Always close the lid to reduce the chances of toilets becoming breeding havens for flies.
  • Where there are no toilets, groups should either bury their excreta and toilet paper, or carry it out. All groups should carry a trowel for burying excreta and be informed on how and where to use it. Excreta should be buried within the soil’s organic layer, in a hole about 15 cm deep and at least 100 m from any campsite or water. Mixing excreta with loose soil before the hole is filled enhances recycling.
  • In fragile, wilderness environments, places of high use or where there are no suitable burial places because of snow, rock or proximity to water, carrying out excreta is the best option. ‘Poo tubes’ made from 100 mm PVC pipe are a good option. You carried it in; you can carry it out.
  • Sanitary pads, tampons and condoms contain non-biodegradable compounds, and removal is the only environmentally friendly option.

Particular care is required with vomit and diarrhoea—these are the most harmful excreta in terms of spreading disease to others. At the time, the person affected rarely feels concerned to bury the waste correctly in a hole dug in the soil’s top layer. Appoint someone to help the ill person in these matters.

A low impact action list
Pre trip planning
  • Evaluate the suitability of the area for your activity
  • Visit little - used areas, or high use areas in the off season
  • Keep the party small
  • Take a stove
  • Take a trowel and/or 'poo tube'
  • Take a sealable rubbish bag
  • Minimise packaging and cooking
  • Minimise the number of vehicles transporting participants
When camping
  • Use an established campsite if possible
  • Choose a good campsite and avoid modifying a poor one
  • Refrain from using vegetation and rocks as camping constructions
  • Stay a maximum of two nights in any one place
  • Avoid unnecessary trampling of vegetation
  • Avoid using soap or detergent and washing directly in any water bodies
When travelling
  • Stay on tracks where they exist and don't make new ones
  • Avoid fragile areas such as soft, marshy ground or steep, unstable dunes and hillsides
  • Spread out in untracked areas
  • Don't blaze or mark trails or build cairns
  • Regularly clean your boots, clothes and gear of soil and plant matter
  • Match your footwear with the arduousness of the trail
Fires
  • Use a stove if possible
  • Use established fire sites if available
  • Keep the fire small
  • Avoid tree roots, stumps and overhanging trees
  • If there is no established fire site, light the fire in a trench and replace the top layer when finished
  • Share a fire with others
  • Thoroughly extinguish the fire when finished
  • Scatter ashes and unburnt wood
Toilets
  • If a toilet is provide - use it
  • If there is no toilet - always bury excreta or bring it home
  • Keep excreta far from water supplies
  • Ensure ill party members have help to deal correctly with diarrhoea and vomit
  • Wash your hands away from water
Throughout the whole trip
  • Be considerate of other groups - especially with noise
  • Leave an area cleaner than you found it

Campfires

The stripping of burnable material from campsites and their surroundings and the proliferation of fire scars has led to ‘fuel stove only’ areas in many popular walking and ski touring locations. Campfires are banned in these areas and portable stoves are the only method of cooking or heating permitted. Although many conservationists warmly support this policy, others argue that the safety, warmth, morale boosting and group bonding advantages of a campfire should not be ignored. This denies the fact that a portable stove can do almost everything achieved by a fire. If the use of fires is to survive in a future of increasing park use, their impact needs to be minimised. Stoves should be used when and wherever possible and fires reserved for emergencies, special occasions or forests adapted to regular burning.

Fires should be restricted to fireplaces constructed by land managers or built in accordance with the regulations for the area concerned. Fires should be small, be kept burning for only as long as needed and then be thoroughly extinguished. Burn only the easy to collect, long dead, fallen timber. Dead timber is an important part of the natural environment, providing home and shelter to many species of small mammals, ground-nesting birds, reptiles and invertebrates.

In desert and semi-desert, it takes a very long time for timber to build up, and in high use areas only a very short time for all dead timber to be burnt. Much of the drier country should be treated as ‘fuel stove only’ areas. Save on weight and leave axes and saws at home. In areas of little use, dig a small trench, carefully removing the top layer for later replacement. The cold ash should be dispersed and the site of the fire returned to its previous condition. Consider sharing your fire with other parties, as this will reduce scarring and improve networking within the outdoor-user community.

When camping close to roads or on base camps, if it really is necessary to have a fire, bring firewood from home.

Rubbish

Always pack to avoid rubbish—it saves weight, and the environment. Do not take potential rubbish such as bottles, cans and excess packaging on trips. Don’t ‘burn, bash and bury’ your rubbish or food scraps. This only disturbs the soil and vegetation and encourages vermin and unbalanced animal populations dependent on the waste of recreationists. Always take a sealable plastic bag for rubbish removal. If you carried it in, you can carry it out. Make an effort to remove all rubbish, including items like cigarette butts, aluminium foil, plastic wrappers and orange peel. Discarded, uneaten fruit and food can take years to decompose, and can introduce damaging microbes and species to an ecosystem. In some high-use areas scavenging by wildlife has resulted in animals with dietary deficiencies from unbalanced diets. Overly enthusiastic kangaroos, emus, dingoes, pelicans and other animals can be intimidating and cause problems for visitors. Do not feed the animals.

Unfortunately, at some stage of your outdoor experience the discards of other users will confront you. Minimise such experiences by removing other peoples’ rubbish whenever possible.