The instant health officials declared outdoor activities among the safest forms of COVID-era exercise, folks laced up their hiking boots en masse and set out on the trails.
While it’s awesome to see everyone enjoying the great outdoors, there’s been some less-than-awesome fallout in the form of litter, poor trail etiquette, and campfire mishaps.
I’m choosing to believe it stems from ignorance rather than ill intent, so let’s all take a step back (staying on the trail, naturally) and review how to respectfully enjoy Central Oregon’s outdoor spaces.
From biking to bowel movements (yep, we’re going there) here’s what you need to know about responsibly recreating in the wilderness.
Don’t forge your own trails
Great care and forethought goes into planning where trails pass through forests and other outdoor spaces. Land managers account for things you and I may not consider, like migration patterns for local wildlife.
When you’re hiking or biking on Central Oregon’s trail systems, trod only on established trails. That means no “social trails” and no forging your own path through the wilderness. Not only does that erode the fragile forest landscape, but it can literally kill wildlife. Baby elk have been known to wander onto social trails and become separated from their mothers.
Don’t kill elk calves, and don’t wreck the forest: Stick to marked trails. If you need help finding good ones, check out our hiking page, or stop by the Bend Visitor Center to grab maps and hiking guidebooks.
Make Smokey Bear proud
Things are always a bit dry in the high desert, but right now, Deschutes County is officially in a state of drought emergency. With forest fire risk at dangerous levels, fire safety is an absolute must.
As of June 26, open fires (including wood stoves and charcoal briquette fires) are prohibited except in designated campgrounds and established fire rings. This article has some excellent details on rules in place to help curb wildfire danger, and this page will give you the inside scoop on wildfires springing up around the region.
If you do build a fire in an area where it’s permitted, make absolutely, positively certain it’s out before leaving your campsite. We’ve had more than 100 human-caused fires in wilderness areas around Deschutes County since the start of the COVID crisis, so it’s clear folks aren’t following through on extinguishing every last ember. It’s your job to drown that fire pit until there’s no trace of heat. Bring a bucket for water and pack a fire extinguisher as part of your emergency gear.
Keep in mind all fires must be at least 200 feet from any body of water. Also, please remember that fireworks are never, EVER allowed on State or Federal forest lands, or in parks and campgrounds.
If the lot’s full, move on
It’s tough when you’ve got a bucket list of hikes and attractions you’d like to visit and you show up to find the parking lot full.
Don’t give in to the temptation to create your own parking spot atop a patch of grass or those delicate seedlings at the edge of the lot. This creates an incredible amount of damage to our fragile forest landscapes.
The best solution is to flesh out your bucket list so if you show up to find your first choice packed, you move on down the road to choice #2. Also consider visiting in off-peak hours like early morning or late afternoon.
Give folks some breathing room
With more folks flocking to Central Oregon’s wide-open spaces, they’ve become decidedly less wide open. Odds are good you’ll pass at least someone on the trail, and in the era of social distancing, it’s important to give a wide berth.
The general rule of thumb is to yield to uphill traffic. That holds true whether you’re on horseback, bike, or foot. Since not everyone will know that rule, communication is key when you’re approaching another trail user. Communicate your intent with a smile or a wave and a friendly “on your left” or “after you.” If you absolutely must step off the trail, do it as gently as possible to keep six feet of distance between you and your fellow trail user.
If you’re on a trail shared with hikers, bikers, and horses, remember that horses have top priority. Step off the trail, preferably on the downhill side to avoid looking like a hulking monster towering above them. Speak softly to avoid startling both human and horse.
In the bike vs. hiker conundrum, it’s up to cyclists to yield to other forms of conveyance. If you’re on foot and sharing a trail with bikes, keep your eyes and ears open, and once again, communicate.
With COVID-19 throwing us all into a tailspin, throw an extra mask in your pack to protect yourself and others if trails turn out to be crowded.
For more info on trail etiquette, check out this post.
When you’ve gotta go…
If you’re camping or hiking in established areas, odds are good you’ll at least find a vault toilet where you can do your duty. I’ve been wildly impressed by how BLM and Forest Service staff have worked to keep them clean amid the COVID crisis, and I swear you could eat off the floor of the outhouses in LaPine State Park or Chimney Rock Campground (though I don’t recommend it).
But what if you’re miles from the nearest trailhead restroom and nature calls?
One option is to follow Leave No Trace principles and pack it out like you would with Fido’s canine landmines. But keep in mind human waste is illegal to dump in regular ol’ trash cans, so you’ll need something like Wag Bags designed for this purpose. Tuck a couple in your pack just in case.
If that’s not an option, start by making sure you’re equipped with a small, lightweight trowel. Find a suitable location at least 200 feet (roughly 80 steps) off the trail and away from water sources, campsites, or picnic areas. Dig a hole at least six inches in diameter and eight inches deep.
Next…well, do your thing. If you use wipes or TP, tuck it in a baggie and pack it out. Leaves or moss will also work, or even a smooth rock.
Once you finish, bury everything and place a large rock on top to keep animals and other humans from digging it up. Clean your hands well with that bottle of hand sanitizer you’re already carrying because you’re practicing good hygiene during the coronavirus pandemic.
Congratulations! You’re a champion nature pooper.
A word about eBikes
I love eBikes. My kid has one for daily commuting, and I adore the eBike tours offered by Bend Electric Bikes. They’re fun for cruising around town, but be aware there are serious limitations on trail use.
With Forest Service land, eBike use is restricted only to roads that allow motorized vehicles. It’s also not permitted on most BLM trails unless signage specifically states it’s okay. In other words, It’s illegal to take your eBike out to the singletrack at Phil’s Trail, and you’ll be run out on a rail if you try it (and rightfully so). There’s a hefty fine for riding any motorized vehicle on trails where they’re not allowed, so ask a local bike shop if you’re unsure where you can go.
Routes designated for gravel riding are much more open to eBikes. Go here to learn more about the Cascades Gravel Scenic Bikeway, which includes several trails perfect for eBiking.
Leave no trace
You’re likely familiar with Leave No Trace principles, which urge outdoor lovers to respect wildlife and outdoor spaces by being kind to the environment. One of the most vital practices is properly disposing of trash. This not only means packing out your own gum wrappers and soda cans, but organic materials like banana skins and orange peels (go here to learn why it’s not cool to leave those behind).
Leave No Trace also means you don’t snap off small sapling limbs to frame up that Instagram photo or smoosh that field of wildflowers with your picnic blanket.
Carry your water in reusable bottles and make sure you have a small trash bag to pack up those granola bar wrappers and snack baggies.
Want to take environmental responsibility to the next level? Carry a small trash bag when you hike and pick up litter that’s not even yours. It’s a nice way to leave the trails better than you found them.
Stay safe out there, guys! And thanks for helping to keep Bend’s wild places clean, safe, and special.