Something we can all do, every walk, to help the hills

Something we can all do, every walk, to help the hills                                          By Duncan Aitken


At the recent Glenwalk Leaders’ Forum, we were treated to an interesting and informative talk from Helen Lawless, the Hillwalking, Access & Conservation Officer of Mountaineering Ireland (MI). One of Helen’s topics was how to minimise the adverse effect of our own footprints on our hills and mountains. This is also the subject of one of the Leave No Trace principles, “Travel and Camp on Durable Ground”.


It seems to me that this is an area where each one of us can make a contribution every time we go hillwalking. We’ve all seen wide paths on the hillsides, visible for miles around, and large muddy patches. These didn’t appear of their own accord, of course – they were caused, at least in part, by hillwalkers like us. But the good news is that it’s easy for each of us, individually, to minimise the risk of our own walking contributing to eyesores such as these – simply by where we choose to tread.


And this is, indeed, about choices. One memorable thing Helen said was that in a 12km hillwalk, a typical walker will take around 15,000 steps – so, as she pointed out, that’s 15,000 decisions about where to tread. For most of those 15,000 steps, we will have a genuine choice. So how can we choose wisely?


The first thing to be aware of is that “best practice” in this area depends on whether there’s a track or not.


Most of the time on our hillwalks, we tend to be on a track of some sort – anything from a tarmac road (or even a concrete one!) to a narrow line through the vegetation. That narrow line is, of course, usually the result of human (or animal) impact. So do we avoid walking on it, to avoid making the impact worse?


No – on the contrary. A track tends to be less fragile than the land around it, because broad-leaved vegetation (most fragile) wears away to leave grasses and more resilient vegetation, which in turn may wear away to reveal soil (less fragile) and, ultimately, rock (least fragile). So if we stick to an existing track wherever possible, we are minimising the additional impact of our passing.





Are the people in the picture sticking to the track? No, they’re not. “Stick to the track” means “right ON the track itself”, ideally as close to the centre of the track as possible. And, in particular, avoiding walking on the grass right next to it, because this will widen the damaged area – and that’s what causes those eyesores I mentioned earlier.


Of course, this means we will often find ourselves walking on rock or mud – even if it means getting our nice new boots muddy! But rock and mud are usually safe and practical to walk on (although, of course, we must always use our own judgement in those respects).


In addition, there are a few simple things we can do to make it easier for ourselves to stick to the track:


– In her talk, Helen mentioned the use of gaiters to protect against mud.


– Using poles can minimise the impact on our joints when going downhill on rocky ground. And when we’re not walking downhill, is it really any more uncomfortable to walk on a rocky surface? Especially if it’s over only a short distance.


– When there’s water lying across the track, it may be possible simply to step over it, or safe to walk right through it – avoiding lengthy diversions (which also, again, widen the damaged area).


So much for when there’s a track.


But if there isn’t a track, each walker in a group is usually faced with a choice – do I follow directly behind the person in front, or not? Normally it will make little or no difference to us. But from the point of view of the hills themselves, it does make a difference.


In trackless areas, we’ll usually be walking on vegetation such as grass. And vegetation is much more likely to recover from one footprint than from many.


So the guidance from Mountaineering Ireland and Leave No Trace is to adopt a different approach where there’s no track. Instead of following directly behind one other, as we might when following a track, it’s best to spread out sideways in this case, to avoid damaging vegetation irreversibly or creating new tracks. But again, safety is important, so we must make sure we don’t spread out so much that we lose contact with the group, either visually or audibly – especially in adverse conditions such as fog, strong wind or heavy rain.


Of course the hills are infinitely varied, so we will sometimes come across unusual or borderline situations where these simple principles don’t give a nice clear answer and we will need to use our judgement. But most of the time, the basics will be enough to guide us. None of us is going to get it right 100% of the time but, regardless of whether a judgement call is needed or not, an awareness of those basics will mean more of those 15,000 decisions are good ones.


I’d like to thank both Helen Lawless and the Glenwalk Committee for reviewing this blog entry before publication and suggesting improvements. And thanks also to Helen for permission to use the pictures, which were taken from her presentation.