Sunday 30 November 2014

Go Lightly In The Hills

Walkers on a hill path in the Crianlarich hills

Here’s a piece I wrote on minimising impact for The Great Outdoors over a decade ago. The advice is basic but I think it still stands.

A Saturday on Skiddaw. An almost continuous line of people head up the main path to the summit. Considering the numbers who use it the path is in surprisingly good condition though it is quite wide in places with eroded edges and the steeper sections are worn down to bare scree and rock. Spur paths have appeared in places too along with grooves in the hillside where walkers have taken short cuts in descent. The problem is numbers. With so many people some damage is inevitable. The Lakeland hills are so popular that eroded scars rather than paths are found in many places. Some wild camping spots, such as Styhead Tarn, are over-used too and look worn and shabby. Yet everyone who walks and camps in the Lakes loves the hills and the landscape. It happens elsewhere too. In fact go to any popular hill and there’ll be signs of damage on the main paths. It’s called “loving it to death” and it’s a growing problem throughout our hills.

A well-used path in the Lake District
Much of the damage is done through ignorance. Many people simply do not know how to treat wild country with respect. Some of the ways to minimise your impact are not that obvious and even experienced walkers can do unthinking harm. In the UK not enough advice is given on how to walk and camp softly in the hills, leaving little or no trace of your passing. In the USA there is a whole organisation for this called Leave No Trace (LNT) that publishes leaflets and books and trains people in LNT techniques. LNT is a great scheme but it relates to the American wilderness and not the British hills so some of the advice is inappropriate. More emphasis in the UK on minimum impact (a phrase I prefer to “leave no trace”, as the latter is only possible if you stay out of the hills) is sorely needed.

The basic principle is to take nothing and leave nothing. All litter should be taken home and it can help if you carry a plastic bag to put other people’s rubbish in too. That’s a start but on its own it’s not enough.


Hill paths are a mixture of purpose built paths, old stalkers’ and shepherds’ paths, sheep and deer tracks that walkers have turned into paths and paths that have arisen because walkers have followed each other, usually up and down the quickest, most direct route. Well-located and well-constructed paths can withstand countless pairs of boots. However most paths are not well designed or built and are easily damaged.
A narrow path in the Torridon hills

The ideal path is only wide enough for one person, as that has the least impact on the land. To ensure narrow paths stay like this walkers should go in single file. Walk side by side and you break down the edges, widening the trail, damaging vegetation and leading to erosion and unsightly scars. Multiple trails through bogs and soft ground mar too many places. Often the cause is a desire to keep your feet dry. The original line of the path slowly sinks under the pressure of boots and, sometimes, mountain bike tyres and water begins to collect in hollows, forming puddles and muddy sections. To avoid the expanding bogs people walk round the edges, widening the path and allowing the water to spread. Over time the trail becomes a wide muddy morass with many bypass trails curving out to the sides as walkers try to keep their feet dry. To avoid this think of the path rather than your feet and stick to the main line even if it does mean muddy boots and possibly damp feet. Where the old path is impossible to find in the deep churned up mud try not to spread out at the sides but stay on the already damaged ground. If you really want to keep your feet dry wear waterproof footwear, gaiters or waterproof socks rather than tiptoeing round the edge of boggy paths. Alternatively, splash through the first puddle and get your feet wet. After that it doesn’t matter.

Some paths are so eroded they can be seen from miles away. This one is on Carn Liath, Beinn A'Ghlo.
Zigzags or switchbacks are often found on stalkers’ paths and paths that have been realigned. They are easier to ascend and less likely to break down due to erosion than paths that go straight up. A zigzagging path can be a joy to climb and is much easier on the knees in descent than a steep one. However too often people choose a direct line and cut the corners of zigzags. This damages the vegetation, which results in the soil breaking down and ruts appearing, down which water runs, soon turning the shortcut into a wide scar. On some paths it can be hard to follow the original line so many shortcuts have been made. As well as not using shortcuts you can block them off with rocks or stones to discourage others from using them so the land has a chance to heal.

Path maintenance and construction is costly and many agencies have little money for this. Where path repairs are being undertaken following the requests of the work party can prevent further damage being done. And when repairs have been done please stick with the new path so that damaged areas can recover. New paths can stand out and may initially appear worse than the scars they replace but in time they should weather and blend into the hillside.


Leaving paths behind can be exciting and adventurous. It also brings you into a closer contact with the land, no longer held at arms length by that strip of brown earth or grey scree. However the potential for damage is greater too. The main thing to avoid is creating a new path. This means not building cairns that others might follow. A group should spread out too and not walk in single file, as this could leave the beginnings of a path. Quite a few paths developed because a few people took a particular route and others then followed the faint trail they made.

A good low impact site in the Cairngorms
Regularly used sites in the hills are all too often very obvious due to the rings of stones on the ground, patches of bare dirt or flattened vegetation and litter sticking out from under rocks. Often there is network of paths too, leading to the nearest water, back to the main path and off into areas used for toilets.

When using a site like this the aim should be not to spread the damage and, if possible, to reduce it. Not using these sites may seem a good idea but if all it means is that you camp close by it could spread the damage, which would be even worse. If possible well-used sites should be tidied up and any litter removed. Rings of stones, often used to hold down tent pegs – usually unnecessarily – can be broken up and the stones returned to the nearest pile of rocks or put in the nearest stream. Rings of stones pockmark vegetation and destroy the wild feel of a place. Over the years I must have spent hours dismantling such rings.

Much wild camping takes place on little or never before used sites. With these the idea should be to leave no sign of your camp.  Firstly, this means camping on durable ground that won’t be easily marked. Dry ground or at least well-drained ground is best for this as soft ground is easily marked. Grass is ideal. Such sites are more comfortable too. If your site does start to flood move rather than dig drainage ditches.

A good site is found not made. If you need to clear vegetation or rocks to turn somewhere into a campsite it’s better to go elsewhere.

When walking round a site or going to fetch water stick to hard ground if possible and try not to create the beginnings of paths. If you carry a large water container you can collect all you need in one go so you don’t tramp back and forth to the nearest stream or pool, possibly damaging the bank and making a path that others may follow. In bad weather this makes camping more comfortable too as you can stay in your tent.

Unless there’s no choice don’t camp right next to water however, especially small upland lakes, as you may disturb animals and birds that live there and depend on this habitat.

Wild sites should ideally only be used for one night. If you want to stay in the area longer move your camp unless it’s on a really durable surface such as bare ground. Staying in the same place for several nights can damage the vegetation under your tent, leaving a scar, and a string of little paths round the site.

Before leaving a site check nothing has been left behind, including any scraps of litter, and fluff up any flattened vegetation. It should look as though no one has camped there.


Campfires are traditional, romantic and potentially very damaging. First there is a general fire risk in dry conditions, especially in areas with much peat or in woodland. Then there is a shortage of fuel in many wild areas and what dead wood there is should be left for the animals, birds and insects that live in it. No standing wood, alive or dead, should ever be used for a camp fire.

An example of what not to do - fire burnt into grass, a ring of stones, branches ripped of living trees, half-burnt logs. This appalling mess was in Glencoe.
Unless carefully built and sited fires leave scars too, blackening rocks and leaving patches of bare burnt earth in meadows. The only place it’s really acceptable to have a campfire is on the seashore or below the high water mark on a stony river bank if there is plenty of washed up wood. Away from such water cleansed places fires should only be built on mineral soil and there should be no trace left afterwards. Instead of a fire it’s best to rely on a stove for cooking and clothing for warmth.

Low profile stoves can scorch vegetation however so it’s best to find a flat rock to stand them on or else carry something to use under them. If the midges and the rain let you cook outside your tent porch look for a kitchen site that will stand being used regularly. Bare ground or rock is ideal. Soft vegetation is easily damaged.
A good minimum impact kitchen site
Alterations to kitchen areas should be unnecessary. If you want a seat sit on a rock or your foam pad. Try and keep the kitchen area clean as spilt food and litter may attract scavenging birds like crows and gulls that may then prey on local species. If you do drop or spill anything it’s best to pick it up straight away. It’s easy to forget otherwise. (This applies to lunch and snack stops too. There is evidence, for example, that the crow and gull population in some parts of the Cairngorms has increased in part because of food scraps left by walkers). Food scraps includes food that has burnt onto your pan. Scrape this off and into a plastic bag and take it home for disposal. Wash dishes and pans away from water too and dump the wastewater into vegetation.


Too often at a wild camp site or a good lunch spot one of the first things you see is the unappetising and ugly sight of strands of pink toilet paper creeping out from under a shit stained rock. It’s even worse if this is in the middle of the site or next to the stream you are planning on drinking from. As well as unsightly it’s potentially unhealthy. We still have clean water in our hills. If we want it to stay this way then sensible toilet practices are essential. What this means is burying faeces and toilet paper or, preferably, carrying the latter out in a sealed plastic bag. (Loo paper can be burnt but only if there’s absolutely no chance of starting a fire.) Toilet sites should be situated at least 30 metres from running water if possible (difficult in some wet areas). They should also be well away from paths and anywhere people might camp or stop for lunch. Carry a small trowel to dig a hole (a large tent peg can be used too). In winter an ice axe can be used – though there’s no point is just burying excrement in snow that will melt in the spring so you’ll need to find some bare ground or somewhere where the snow cover is thin. Or else bag it and carry it out.


We have beautiful hills to walk and camp in but they are under pressure from ourselves. The more people who follow the guidelines outlined above the less the hills will look worn out and over-used.


  1. Great post Chris. I note the picture of the track from Angle Tarn, Langdale. Remarkable given how different it is today thanks to Fix The Fells. In a good way I mean of course.

  2. Chris... You're right. The article is as relevant today as a decade ago. It will still be relevant in 100 or 1000 years time. Thanks to articles like yours I have learnt how to minimise my impact on the environment when in the hills. So I am grateful for that, but pity so many other walkers I see who have not learnt the wisdom of "leave no trace" etc. For example, I spent a few weeks in the Pyrenees and hooked up with three Englishman and for them it was a badge of honour to shout out "SHORT CUT!!!" and leave the zig-zag path, thereby eroding the land and creating new paths. They were proud and boastful about it. They weren't evil bastards, just a bit ignorant.

    Another classic example: Sitting atop Catbells, I counted 27 other walkers ascending the hill. ALL of them were walking on the grass verge next to the path. Perhaps they didn't notice there was a path beside them? I've even had other walkers scoff at me "you dont want to walk on the path, walk on the grass next to it.... Saves the knees!".

    But I think erosion is nothing compared to the overall ecological damage of our hills. I see eroded paths and inappropriate campfires, but what I see more is an ecological disaster.... Deforested landscapes burnt heather patches scarring the land, conifer plantations, beautiful species that are conspicuous by their absence - wolves, bears, lynx, wildcat etc.

    I did a few weeks volunteering with the NT in the Lakes, and they were so frustrated that they would spend a fortune flying in stone by helicopter for path repair, and what do people do? They dismantle the said path by picking stones to build a pointless cairn as apparently " its the tradtion".

    I've approached the TIC in the Lakes and suggested a poster in the area suggesting that stones belong on paths, not cairns. But their response was that it is not their responsibility to tell people how to behave in the hills. Make of that what you will.

  3. Timely post Chris and hope people apply it.

  4. Good reminder Chris. Increasingly I put a plastic bag in the side pocket of my rucksack to pick up the litter of others on paths. Tissues are particularly unsavoury. It's also distressing to see how poor toilet etiquette has become more common. I tend to purify all my water now with a Sawyer filter. You just never know.

  5. Thanks for the comments everyone. Fix The Fells does a good as do other path repair companies. Jay, I agree that industrialisation is the biggest threat (and I include forestry plantations and grouse moors in this) is the biggest threat and has caused the greatest damage.

    The cairns thing goes back a long way. On school trips in the 1960s I was told it was tradition to put a new stone on every cairn, which we all dutifully did. I'm more likely to dismantle them these days!

  6. Blog packing light - I am going to do the same, carry a bag and pick up other peoples rubbish. Its no good me moaning about other people's behaviour if I don't help solve the problem. I think there is a need for peaceful activism, such as how we succeeded in overturning the government's policy to sell off our forests a few years back. Just simple measures to inform the public on how to respect our wild places. But I'm aware I could make myself seem a policeman by saying that. It can be an emotive issue: I don't want to get on my soapbox and lecture people, but I do think National Parks and TICs could do more to inform the public of ways to help protect our wild places. People are open to advice, as I said in my post above, they're not evil bastards. For example, when I walked Wainwright's Coast to Coat with my friend, he would pick a stone from the path and place it on a pointless cairn. I explained, gently, that those stones didn't just happen to be there. A lot of money and man hours went into maintaining that path. He soon understood and would dismantle cairns along the way. So people are open to advice. I think Chris's article should be on a billboard in all our TICs. People will take note.

  7. Chris, I wondered what your views are on paths which have been engineered, but with good intentions? I'm thinking of - just as an example - the one which heads over towards Bynack More from Strath Nethy; it's generally been kept fairly narrow, does restrict erosion, and local materials have been employed; but it is visible as you approach from the direction of Glenmore.

    I tend to think that in some cases judicious intervention might be the lesser of two evils.

    1. I agree with you Oss. Such paths are the lesser evil. Also, in time they tend to darken and become less visible. The one over the shoulder of Bynack More is pretty new.

  8. I agree with your post Chris. These paths that can be likened to the urbanisation of of our hills are perhaps necessary and the lesser of two evils. I feel quite emotive about this, as some of the Fix The Fells work has created, in my humble opinion, unnatural scars, in unnatural lines, but hopefully will darken with time? I'm as guilty as anyone for contributing to footpath erosion, so maybe I should appreciate more the work Fix The Fells do?

    1. I think it's a question of usage Jay. In popular areas like the Lakes I'd much rather see a well-constructed path than a wide eroded scar. Paths can really stand out when new but they do usually blend more into the landscape as they age.