By R. Grimsby
Trail maintenance groups work hard to mark and maintain trails for two reasons: To help people avoid getting lost or injured in the wilderness, and to preserve the natural ecosystem.
When hiking, it’s a good idea to stay on the trail. Trails are usually marked on maps, so hikers can see where they are in relation to rivers, towns, and other important landmarks. Additionally, if a hiker sustains an injury, they are more likely to find help from fellow hikers by staying on the trail. If a hiker breaks a leg while bushwhacking miles from the nearest trail, they might really be stranded.
Hiking on the trail harms plants and animals directly on the trail, but protects the rest of the ecosystem in the region. Many hikers take the appearance of a bare soil surface on trails for granted, but there is actually a very interesting phenomenon that causes the vegetation on trails to die off. Foot traffic tramples the above ground part of the plant, but this isn’t what destroys the vegetation. The real damage occurs below ground, and not only kills plants, but prevents future vegetation from taking its place.
This phenomenon is soil compaction. Soil, the growth medium for plants, is very fragile, and can be crushed as easily as china. Even light foot traffic over one area compacts soil, eliminating pores needed to hold water and air for plant roots. When the pores are gone, the plants dehydrate, and the root system dies off. Young roots of new plants cannot forge their way through dense, compacted soil, so new vegetation fails to grow. Left alone, a soil will regain porosity from freezes, thaws, and burrowing animals. However this process takes years, sometimes centuries.
Vegetation serves as the foundation of an ecosystem by providing food and shelter to animals. The destruction of vegetation is negligible when limited to the trail, which is why the trail system effectively protects the environment. If all hikers bushwhacked instead of staying on the trail, the parks and forests would see catastrophic vegetation losses, not to mention plenty of lost hikers. Abiding by the trail system allows hikers to stay safe while enjoying nature in a respectful way.