Vail Daily column: Tread lightly on our local trails | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily column: Tread lightly on our local trails

Donny Shefchik
Valley Voices

As the snow-line recedes and our expectations for summer hiking begin to occupy our thoughts it is important to remember how damaging early season hiking can be to the trails we enjoy. Braided trails are not only unsightly but they add to trail erosion and vegetation loss. The hiking trails that help guide us into the wilderness are fragile areas that need to be used mindfully, cared for and maintained.

Although trail degradation happens throughout the year, springtime hiking can cause the most damage. Saturated soil from snow melt and spring rains drastically increases our impact. Remaining snow on the trail, mud, newly fallen trees and swollen streamlets generally cause us to go around these obstacles the result being the beginning of a braid from the original trail. Some of this may be inevitable and unavoidable but as I see the changes in our local trails over the years and the tremendous increase in use, especially early season, I think we need to be much more aware of the damage caused and the visual impact of braided trails.

Forest Service personnel and volunteers have the endless job of maintaining and in some cases rebuilding trails that have either been overused or neglected for some time. Budget cuts throughout the agency have put fewer "boots on the ground" for upkeep on even some of the most popular trails. Kudos to the volunteers and student work groups that spend their summers building, repairing and mitigating the myriad of braided trails throughout the forest.

This brings me to us, the trail users. Seekers of solitude, lovers of mountains, exercisers in the outdoors, passion-driven enthusiasts, who one footstep at a time can turn a serene winding path into a heavily damaged trail with more braids than a Swiss farm girl. There are things we can do to lessen our impact on the trail. Knowing the Leave No Trace ethics, as well as spreading the word that our trails need to be respected and tread on lightly can go a long way to solving the problem. Gear and awareness are things we can do now and every time we step onto our favorite trails.

Our gear choices should dictate where we go and what we do. Hiking on wet, muddy, snowy trails should require special items that will provide extra safety and cause less damage to trails. The most important piece of gear is appropriate footwear. Sturdy shoes/boots with an aggressive tread pattern and moderate stiffness in the sole will help tremendously for slippery areas of mud and snow. Using footwear that is designed to go through mud and snow will greatly lessen our need to go around these areas which is one of the main causes of braided trails. A common item in the past that I seldom see these days are leg gaiters. Those wrap-around leggings that protect boot, ankle and calf. Aside from keeping your pants or legs clean and scratch free they give a sense of invincibility when hiking through mud and snow.

Mindfulness: "The quality or state of being conscious or aware of something." I believe that most of us look to the mountains as a place to be mindful, a place where the natural world is appreciated and respected. We can carry this mindfulness with us when we are hiking by being aware of the impact that each footstep may produce. If I were to condense all of the things that we might do to lessen our impact into one idea it would be that we "try to stay off of all vegetation that is on and next to the trail." By doing this we will leave existing vegetation on the trail lessening erosion, and not make additional braided trails adjacent to the main trail.

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Carry your mindfulness as you would carry your backpack, knowing that you have with you the resources, skills and appreciation for a place, and then be able to leave it unaffected by your presence.

Donny Shefchik is field director and senior guide for Paragon Guides.