How to ‘Leave No Trace’ When Trail Riding

Lessen your impact on the trails to help preserve them for future use!
J Dan/Flickr/CC

J Dan/Flickr/CC

The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics’ mission is “to protect the outdoors by teaching and inspiring people to enjoy it responsibly.” While most trail users — whether they’re hikers, mountain bikers or horseback riders — would love to enjoy the woods in a way that’s responsible, ethical and helps preserve them for future use, not as many trulyunderstand just what that entails. Leave No Trace has created a list of seven principles that makes this goal much easier to attain, and we’ve applied these principles to horseback riding:

1. Plan ahead and prepare.

This principle is all-inclusive: planning ahead includes looking at trail maps and conditions to plan your route, checking the weather to make sure you’ve brought adequate gear, and having a backup plan in case of emergencies. Riders should also check maps and postings at trail heads or park headquarters to update themselves about any special circumstances: are any trails closed for particular reasons? Is there an event going on in the same area that riders should know about? Doing a little homework ahead of time to make sure you are prepared for the particular trail can save you lots of time, headache and stress later and allow you to enjoy your ride fully.

2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces.

This principle isn’t always as easy to uphold as it sounds — have you ever ridden your horse around a wet spot on the trails by ducking up into the trees and back down again? If you answered “yes” (and I am guilty of this as well) then you’re breaking this principle, which can aid erosion and spoil sections of the surrounding environment off the trail. While this might not seem like a big deal to have one or two horses dodge off the trail for a few strides, the reality is that multiple horses will likely do the same thing, causing long-term damage. Stick to the marked trails for the good of the terrain and the woods.

Horses are much heavier than hikers, and continued passage over muddy terrain can damage a well-established trail, even if you’re responsible not going around all the wet spots. Consider finding a drier route for equestrian use.

3. Dispose of waste properly.

“Pack it in, pack it out” — including your snacks and your lunch. If you’ll be out on the trail for an extended period of time, familiarize yourself with human waste practices (digging a “cat hole”) and make sure you are 200 feet or more away from a water source. It’s a little harder to control where your horse is dropping manure, but if you are camped off the trail for any amount of time, scatter manure piles to help break them up.

J Dan/Flickr/CC

J Dan/Flickr/CC

4. Leave what you find.

If you’re lucky enough to be able to ride at a historic or cultural site, temptation can be strong to pick up a found object or artifact and bring it home with you (when I led trail rides in Wyoming, it was hard to say no to guests who wanted to pick up found Native American arrowheads.) However, you should leave the environment as you found it, whether it’s a cool artifact or a beautiful flower. (Removing objects from certain locations, such as preserved battlefields, is actually a federal crime.) This principle extends to moving objects as well — please don’t build rock walls or cairns along the trail, or drag branches and small logs to build jumps!

5. Minimize campfire impacts.

While most equestrian campsites are set up with grills or designated fire pits, backwoods overnight campers should pay careful attention to fires: keep fires small if you need to have one. If possible, bring a stove and a battery-powered light for your needs instead. Build a fire ring if possible to contain your fire; make sure the fire is burned to cold ashes. Spread the ashes to make sure they’re cold and totally extinguished. Pay special attention to fire bans in dangerous conditions.

6. Respect wildlife.

A natural part of any trail ride is encountering wildlife, from birds and squirrels to deer and coyotes. Respect the wildlife by observing it from a distance, and definitely don’t feed any wildlife (no matter how cute that begging chipmunk is that’s learned where you stop for lunch every weekend.) This includes both intentional and unintentional feeding — refer back to principle #3 and pack out any leftover food or food waste. If you’re overnight camping, review bear protocol to properly store your food as well as horse feed. If you trail ride with your dog, be especially vigilant around wildlife to keep your dog from giving chase.

7. Be considerate of other visitors.

For multi-use trails, equestrians receive the right-of-way. In case other trail users don’t know this, please be respectful and pass courteously: it’s probably not a good idea to thunder past a group of hikers at a rolling canter. If you are in the backcountry and run into pack stock, the pack string receives the right-of-way always. Yield on the downhill side of the trail to stock. If you should meet another party of horseback riders coming uphill, the uphill party has the right-of-way.

If other trail users are uneducated about sharing nature with horses, take encounters as an opportunity to respectfully and politely educate them about trail courtesies. While there are always isolated frictions, most hikers and mountain bikers will gladly share the trails and often enjoy their equestrian encounters. Many will be over-cautious in giving your horse passing room, so be sure to thank them for yielding. The trails are here for everyone to enjoy together.

How many of these principles do you already practice? What are your favorite trails to hit up in the spring?

The Seven Principles are reprinted with permission. (c) Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics:


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