Travel on Durable Surfaces

Minimal impact walking in natural areas

I think it is far more important
to save one square mile of wilderness anywhere, by any means,
than to produce another book on the subject. Edward Abbey

It’s tempting to cut corners on a bushwalking track, particularly if the track twists back on itself, but stepping off the track disrupts natural processes, and becomes particularly exaggerated if many people follow the same shortcut.

Straying from the track damages native vegetation and soil can lead to erosion. Vegetation stabilises the soil with root structures and protects the soil layers. Vegetation loss and soil erosion alter pollination processes, nutrient cycling and with potential knock-on impacts to other ecological processes. These impacts are particularly exaggerated in sensitive ecosystems, and that’s why park managers put so much effort into maintaining existing tracks. So regardless of whether the track is muddy or wet, stick to it.

The same goes for creeks crossings. Sticking to the intended track is usually the safest option but also minimises the amount of rock/sediments that get dislodged into the waterway, which can disturb aquatic wildlife.

Keep group sizes small (4-8 people). Split up larger groups so that the wear and tear on sections of the track is minimised.

Select break and lunch stops where the group will have minimal impact. Avoid soft areas and delicate vegetation. Look for rocks, worn areas or even sit on track itself (if this doesn’t disturb other walkers).

The one obvious exception to the stick-to-the-track guideline is finding a suitable spot to go to the loo. Move off the track at a point where digging a hole will cause minimal vegetation damage (avoid fragile surfaces such as muddy sites, soft plants and riparian zones). If multiple people need the loo, spread out in different directions to avoid creating new well-worn tracks.

Coastal walking How to have minimal impact on remote beaches

Many coastal tracks through natural areas follow remote shorelines and beaches. Often, the track is not designated along the beach.

In these cases follow these simple guidelines:

  1. Spread out and aim (as much as possible) to travel on durable sand surfaces.
  2. Walk at low tide where the group is more likely to encounter hard surfaces (e.g. gravel, hard sand or rock outcrops) and have less disturbance to the sand habitat. At high tide the group’s impact is likely to be greater because they will be forced to walk along fragile sand dune regions.
  3. Avoid crushing intertidal wildlife (e.g. oysters, barnacles, mussels) if walking on rock surfaces.
  4. Leave rockpool wildlife alone: do not touch or catch crabs or anything else living in the rockpools.

Further reading Some references on minimal impact walking

Pickering, Catherine M., and Ralf C. Buckley. “Swarming to the summit: managing tourists at Mt Kosciuszko, Australia.” Mountain Research and Development 23.3 (2003): 230-233.

Bennett, Mark, L. Kriwoken, and L. Fallon. “Managing bushwalker impacts in the Tasmanian wilderness world heritage area, Australia.” International Journal of Wilderness 9.1 (2003): 14-18

Cole, David N. “Impacts of hiking and camping on soils and vegetation: a review.” Environmental impacts of ecotourism 41 (2004): 60.

J. Whinam, N. Chilcott. Impacts of trampling on alpine environments in central Tasmania. Journal of Environmental Management, 57 (1999), pp. 205–220.

J. Whinam, N. Chilcott. Impacts after four years of experimental trampling on alpine/subalpine environments in western Tasmania. Journal of Environmental Management, 67 (2003), pp. 205–220

G. Dixon, M. Hawes, G. McPherson. Monitoring and modelling walking track impacts in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, Australia. Journal of Environmental Management, 71 (2004), pp. 305–320

P. Mende, D. Newsome. The assessment, monitoring and management of hiking trails: a case study from the Stirling Range National Park Western Australia. Conservation Science Western Australia, 5 (2006), pp. 285–295

Pickering, Catherine Marina, and Andrew J. Growcock. “Impacts of experimental trampling on tall alpine herbfields and subalpine grasslands in the Australian Alps.” Journal of environmental management 91.2 (2009): 532-540.

D. Sun, M.J. Liddle. A survey of trampling effects on soils and vegetation in eight tropical and subtropical sites. Environmental Management, 17 (1993), pp. 497–510

D. Sun, M.J. Liddle. Plant morphological characteristics and resistance to experimental trampling. Environmental Management, 17 (1993), pp. 511–521

R. Hill, C.M. Pickering. Differences in the resistance of three subtropical vegetation types to experimental trampling. Journal of Environmental Management, 90 (2009), pp. 1305–1312

Pickering, Catherine Marina, et al. “Comparing hiking, mountain biking and horse riding impacts on vegetation and soils in Australia and the United States of America.” Journal of environmental management 91.3 (2010): 551-562.