My favorite place to be is outside. In fact, I have a t-shirt that says, “Visit Outside – Where real stuff happens,” and I honestly couldn’t agree more. There is something centering about breathing fresh air, being warmed by the sunshine, not constantly looking at my phone, and quite often, becoming physically active too. It’s real & it keeps me sane. I’m not just saying that either. There have been several scientific studies that outline how important spending time outside is for your overall health, even if it’s just a walk around the neighborhood. I believe our souls need it. We need to feel connected to the “real” things of the earth.
As we all know, this year a lot of people’s regular travel plans have been interrupted. Consequently, it seems more people have turned to doing things outside. This has caused the not-so-surprising phenomena of our National Parks, National Forests, and Bureau of Land Management areas seeing increased attendance. In fact, as one who loves camping, I was kind of dismayed when throughout the summer, I couldn’t find places to camp because SO MANY others also had the same inclination. In spite of my wanting to go & not having a place to go, in general, I feel this is a good thing. I feel as we actually get outside & learn to appreciate the natural world, we will take better care of it & preserve our beautiful places for future generations.
However, I’ve noticed there is a significant learning curve when it comes to how you approach exploring our public lands. I agree with Michael Frome when he said, “A national park is not a playground. It’s a sanctuary for nature & for humans who will accept nature on nature’s own terms.” Don’t get us wrong, some of the most fun I have ever had has been exploring these places. However, there is a right way & a wrong way to enjoy our public lands & unfortunately, the more people that enter into those beautiful places, the more likely those places are of being damaged due to the ignorance of the masses, who are often only aware of the next great Instagram shot they want to take. So, let’s talk about a few very simple ways that you can respect & protect our beautiful places.
One of the biggest mistakes I see from novices of the outdoors is not being prepared for the environment they’re entering. These beautiful places are not Disneyland. You can’t just run to the next churro cart & buy a snack & some water when the mood strikes you. You need to be willing & able to take care of yourself in the environment you’re entering. If you don’t know how to do that, it is your responsibility to educate yourself BEFORE you go. A few things I can guarantee you’ll need anywhere you go: Lots of water, food, good footwear, appropriate clothing & an understanding of your limits. Just a few weeks ago I was hiking in Bryce Canyon National Park. Our group had stopped about halfway through our 5-mile hike for a snack. A volunteer ranger came by & started praising us for our snacks. She told us her job is to hike around looking for people who didn’t come prepared and essentially save them from themselves. She had a huge backpack on which she told us had water, electrolyte drinks & snacks for those that didn’t prepare themselves in advance. You do NOT want to be the person she has to rescue. There’s no need for that. Know your limits & be prepared for your environment. These beautiful places can leave you battered & bruised (or worse), if you’re not prepared.
Leave It Better Than You Found It
It’s snack time! As previously mentioned, eating and drinking, especially outdoors, is so important. It can literally save your life in some of the unforgiving environments our beautiful places are found. Do you know what is also important? Cleaning up after yourself! That means everything. Fruit snacks wrapper? Take it with you. Orange peel or apple core? Take it with you. Empty water bottle? Take it with you. Literally everything. Take it with you. Not only that, but I challenge you that if you see someone else’s trash around, do the world a favor, and pick it up. There is nothing more disappointing than going into a pristine place to find that someone decided to leave a trail of trash for everyone else to deal with. Don’t be like that.
Best Not to Make Your Own Trail
Our beautiful places are that way because the touch of humans has been limited. On all public lands, the governing entities have often worked very hard to build trails so you can enjoy what the area has to offer in a way that is safe for you & the environment. When you make your own trail & take a “short cut” between switchbacks, or you wander off the beaten path, you could potentially be destroying fragile ecosystems while also putting yourself in danger. Not only that, but your bad example will inevitably lead to more people following you & perpetuating the problem. Pay attention to where you are walking & make the conscious choice NOT to make your own trail. If you need examples of why this is important, go ahead and do an internet search for accidents in Yellowstone when people go off the trails. Then you’ll get it.
No One Cares that You Were Here
“This place is amazing! I want people to know I was here! I’m going to scratch my name into the wall.” That’s dumb. Honestly, no one cares that you were here. In fact, most of us would like “here” better if we didn’t know you had already been. Take a picture & move on with your life. “But everyone is doing it!” Also, dumb. I think there is a “jump off a bridge” analogy that would work well here. Most people probably wouldn’t spray paint a wall when they’re traveling, but are you aware that scratching your name into the rocks, trees, bridges, benches or walls is just as bad? Even stacking rocks along a trail is vandalism if they aren’t being used as an official trail marker. Vandalism takes many forms and many tourists excuse their behavior because others have done it too. For example, here in the western United States, we are lucky enough to have beautiful Native American artwork from thousands of years ago both etched & painted onto rock faces. It’s a wonderful thing to see, but nothing ruins it like the words “S & A 4ever ‘18” scratched into the rock right next to it. Well, but there’s also a “Wanda was here 2006” scratched right next to it, so it must be ok, right? WRONG! Two wrongs don’t make it right, it just means there are multiple people who left their brains home and who are selfish enough to ruin culturally significant sites for their own pride. It is wrong and you are literally ruining these significant & beautiful places for no reason. Please, stop.
As previously mentioned, I’m a huge advocate for everyone getting outside & loving the beautiful places all around us. So, by all means, go & explore our public lands that belong to all of us. I only ask that you don’t treat them like a playground or theme park while you’re there. Enjoy, but think of how you can make it better. Think of how you could share your experiences without putting yourself & the fragile ecosystems at risk. Get out. Breathe. Explore. But be smart about it. Become a protector of our beautiful places.