Saturday, June 21, 2014

Trail Etiquette, Revisited: Lessons from Chile

Lost-Brook-Tract-Ridge-Trail-300x225Last week’s column on trail etiquette provoked quite a range of reactions. Setting aside the number of you who decided from the column’s sarcasm that you knew me well enough not to ever want to meet me on the trail (a remarkable feat of judgmental sleuthing, that there is), there were quite a variety of strong opinions registered. I must say this intensity caught me by surprise. Coupled with the heated exchanges about dogs on the trail from previous columns, I sensed a pattern.

What struck me is that for some reason trail etiquette clearly intersects with questions of humanity, culture and self esteem in a different way than, say, campground etiquette (where the rules are better understood and apparently tolerated as a matter of course, there being accepted norms for standard campground functions and behaviors).

I think I understand the reason for this, or one of them anyhow: people clearly are sensitive to how they are casually met and evaluated. Indeed being on a trail involves intentional behavior (to get somewhere) that results in meetings that are unplanned. I think there’s some interesting psychology to be delved into here; it’s beyond my expertise, perhaps someone out there can write a paper. In any case it seems to me that on the trail we see ourselves clothed in our appearance and behavior, revealing our human nature, social status and cultural background; thus we are vulnerable, we are open to question or judgment by these unplanned but forced casual encounters.

This got me thinking that the idea of trail etiquette could be broadened to the benefit of the park, its visitors and the people who live here, by examining etiquette and conduct from a broader social and cultural standpoint instead of just from sets of rules intended to protect the environment. I considered that perhaps we ought to be talking about a set of Adirondack visitor guidelines.  By that I don’t mean a bunch of stringent rules and threats, but rather a set of values that compliment this special place and give voice to a way of thinking about park visits and activities that connects with peoples’ humanity instead of leaving interactions in the psychological realm of the unplanned, as in a chance trail meeting.

That may sound grandiose, but these idylls began after my friend Dave Mason sent me an email this week and I think they may be right. I think we have something to learn from Chile.

Here’s Dave’s description:

“I went to a remote park in southern Chile last winter. The use the term ‘wilderness’ to describe areas that are off-limits except for special permits. But inside the ‘wilderness’ there are trail corridors – called ‘human use corridors”. These are similar to high use trails here, but you are not permitted to go off wandering in the wilderness.

Camping areas are restricted… …the number of overnight visitors is limited this way…   …there are also fairly large areas when you are only permitted to go with guides who arrange the trip.

They have had terrible fires, and that is what brought about the current rules… …they also hand visitors a ‘how to behave here’ guide, that I’ll send Pete.”

Rather than try to explain my idea is for Adirondack guidelines, let me give you the Chilean one, which will do a better job than I could. Read it and I think you’ll see what I mean. The following was translated into English (not by me). I present it verbatim, save for minor spelling and grammatical corrections I made for readability:


Code of Conduct for Responsible Tourism


Help the Local Economy

When arranging your visit, use guides and tour operators that live in the areas you will be visit. Local guides can add a lot of value to your experiences here.

Buy locally produced items that contribute to our economy on a small scale. Avoid products that are obviously false copies made elsewhere.

Treat vendors and artisans with respect and friendliness and these will be fully returned to you.


Value Local Traditions and Customs

Before your visit, research local events and shows. These things will help you better connect to our special communities.

Respect and protect everything that makes an area different. It might be local history, architecture, food, religion or a special hidden spot in nature to fish, swim enjoy the quiet or a special vista.

Understand our Park is different than most – it is not entirely public land. If private land is ‘posted’ do not violate the landowners request for privacy.


Be Careful When Visiting Back Country Areas, Heritage Sites and Fragile Zones

Collect and return with any garbage generated during your visit, including organics. Littering the landscape affects the visitors coming after you. We use the phrase “leave no trace”.

Choose footsteps that cause the least impact on the landscape. Stay on existing trails. Take guided tours and walks – you will learn more and contribute to local jobs.

Do not feed wildlife.

Do not participate in environmental crimes. Know the rules and regulations for things like camping, pets, proper food storage and firewood. These rules were created to preserve the environment you came to visit.

Do not bring invasive plants, insects or aquatic species into our region. Wash boats on trailers when moving between lakes. Do not bring firewood from more than 50 miles away.

Contribute to the maintenance of the infrastructure and equipment by paying any solicited fees. Find out how to donate to local supporting organizations.

Be aware that weather conditions can change rapidly, especially in the mountains.

When hiking alone or in groups, be sure to register your trip in the books at all the trail heads. This can be critical information to search and rescue operations.


Minimize Your Waste and Carbon Emissions

Reduce, reuse and recycle solid waste during your visit. Use refillable water bottles and coffee mugs. Bring reusable bags to markets and don’t accept plastic bags – use other means to carry purchases. Avoid products with excess packaging.

Reduce consumption of water and electricity in local establishments. Don’t have your sheets and towels changed every day. Turn off lights and adjust heating/cooling when you leave your room.

Show a preference for group transportation and tourism that saves money and reduces carbon emissions.


Be an Informed and Respectful Traveler

Take account of local laws and regulations on public lands

Be aware that our Park is half private land and each landowner’s rules must be observed. If signs say “no trespassing” do not go there.

Find out how you can receive medical attention in an emergency. It may be some distance away.


As you can see, this is a broader and more holistic sense of what conduct is than anything we’re used to – at least in print – and it embraces a deep notion of etiquette. It invites people to see themselves in a richer context of the park that includes its culture, history and people. Most notably it broadens the idea of the welfare of the park from matters of where one’s feet fall to things like supporting the local economy and seeking out native expertise and knowledge in order to learn about that culture and history. It is positive, inclusive and immersive and it makes positive assumptions about people in a way that establishes them as part of the region’s community, not just as visitors.

I can imagine an effort being undertaken to fashion a similar code of conduct for the Adirondacks.  I could become a ubiquitous resident of the region – at trail heads, motels, village kiosks and so on. Because “code of conduct” sounds like something out of a boarding school for delinquents I would call it something else. But it could have the same positive impact that the Chilean version does. It would help to create a sense of park identity, a need many have pointed out (what to an outsider constitutes the Adirondack Park? Lake Placid? Lake George? Just the woods? How do you know you’re in a park besides brown and yellow signs?).

I think it is obvious that a more enlightened and holistic sense of the park, helping visitors behave in ways and make choices that embrace its unique history and culture, would mean that the environment was better treated as well. Perhaps thinking about etiquette and conduct – what we want to say about it, to whom and why – isn’t such a bad thing to do after all.

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

12 Responses

  1. Bob Meyer says:

    Exactly! I treat the entire Adirondack Park as if it were my own back yard. As for the people of the Park, the Chilean Code of Conduct says it best.

  2. Dave Mason says:

    They handed out the ‘code of conduct’ only in Spanish. My Spanish is functional, but far from perfect, so any awkwardness in the translation is my mistake. It made enough of an impression on me that I brought a copy home to share with Jim McKenna at ROOST – they may create a locally tuned version of it for area hotels.

    If we have such a thing here, it should be in English and also in French. In Chile, there were plenty of park visitors from all over the world who couldn’t read a word of the Spanish, reducing it’s effectiveness.

  3. Walt says:

    Pete wrote: “… a similar code of conduct for the Adirondacks. … It would help to create a sense of park identity, a need many have pointed out (what to an outsider constitutes the Adirondack Park? Lake Placid? Lake George? Just the woods? How do you know you’re in a park besides brown and yellow signs?)”

    Speaking of signs and “Park identity” …

    I like seeing the rare DEC signs that spell out the critical points in regulations (a kind of code of conduct). People just don’t know the law. (You see such signs far more commonly on conservation easements, with their varying rules.)

    Merely by its presence, signage also says, “We actually manage this property. We’re here. We care.”

    So I’d like to see many more signs about regulations, maybe alternating with ones about etiquette, too.

    Since there is so much more state land (and easements) in the Adks than in other parts of the state, ubiquitous presence of signs could be a part of the “Park identity,” and make them brown and yellow, of course. “You know you’re in the Adk Park when you see so many of those brown and yellow signs. They mean what they say, too.”

    Not free of course, but there’s always money around. The Park has businesses and organizations wanting to be front runners in building the Park identity. They get their own kind of signage. “Proud Sponsor of Adirondack Park Conservation Initiatives in partnership with […yadda].”

    Along with a “Chilean style” brochure, a separate document for broad distribution could be a copy of the basic DEC land usage regulations. For getting some ad space, businesses could sponsor the cost of both documents, for distribution by volunteer orgs (with ad space for them of course).

    Part of the Economic Park identity. Capitalizing on capitalizm. Proving where the heart of our business culture lies, if it does. Getting out the vote by dollar of those who want that identity.

    On campground vs back-country trail: visibility vs conscience.

    On the matter of “Park identity,” you ask “… what to an outsider constitutes the Adirondack Park?”

    Generally, “insiders” don’t respect the realities of the Park and behavioral conduct better than “outsiders.” For example: How much of our ATV eco-damage do you suppose comes from residents versus from non-residents? Throwing trash out the car window? Dumping? Contributing to the dangerous toxicity and disgusting sight of unauthorized “shooting ranges” on state land? I routinely use state land unknown or ignored by tourists, but for everything bad that tourists do off Route 73, the locals do it out here in the hinterlands that don’t have hotels, restaurants, and ski centers. Some local abuses are far worse than tourists even CAN do, because there’s nobody watching.

    In this context or any other I bristle at “insider-outsider” labeling, whether distinguished by street address or any other divider. Tourists, visitors, and guests — state and federal taxpayers making it possible for the “insiders” to be immersed in state land — are often “insiders” themselves. I live a long way from some parts of the Park, but my address is inside the Blue Line. I’m a tourist in those places, not a resident. “The Park” is not one homogenous entity, nor identity.

    We full-time residents have the same behavioral issues — and apparently identity issues — as our visitors and guests, who pay state and federal income and consumer taxes for the possibility of the existence of ANY Park identity (-ies) at all, and whose purchasing activity makes or breaks many businesses here. We could just eliminate ORDA, a part of the Park identity which cannot begin to exist at all without “outsiders.” I would say that the “identity” of that part of the Park is “THEIRS” more than “ours,” if insider-outsider is a real thing.

    Residents of the Park need rules, signage and codes as much as non-residents.

    Although these signs and documents are worthy ideas that I like a lot, I see higher priorities worthy of such efforts and dollars. Let the way we address those priorities be fundamental to our regional identity, if we can create one not given to us by non-residents.

    AND make the signs.

    • Paul says:

      You are probably correct, but all I can think of here is that song:

      “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign Blockin’ out (changed from “Fn-up”) the scenery, breakin’ my mind Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the signs”

      Read more: Five Man Electrical Band – Signs Lyrics | MetroLyrics

      Signs in some parts of the park appear to be mainly for target practice!

      Also I have seen a few Wilderness boundary signs with anti-APA stickers on them. That seems poplar.

      I saw one N0-MOTORIZED VEHICLES sign this weekend that must have been put on a tree by the DEC with a big latter to discourage removal. Problem is the sign is so high nobody can see it. I was looking for a bird and happened to spot it!

      • Walt says:

        Funny. Same song was in my mind.

        If we’re to do it, of course do it all in moderation, and, like I said, there are more important things.

        Whether it’s signs or anything else, it has to be largely, and sometimes entirely, privately sponsored volunteer work, because we don’t put enough DEC staff out there to do it all, and we never will.

      • Walt says:

        Yeah I often stand laughing in front of a sign that the installer must have laughed at, too.

        Why put big STOP signs on big yellow gates that make you stop anyway? And in some places (Debar Pond, for example), a couple hundred feet before that, within plain sight of the STOP sign and yellow gate, a little, overly high, obscure sign says, “Stop Ahead.” Whew. Good thing I saw that before I ran into the gate.

        I figure the sign making industry has clout.

  4. Wally says:

    You may be interested in the Principles of Birding Ethics developed by the American Birding Association ( Some similarities. And of course other user groups have them. You are suggesting a regional one that would cover all users, right? Interesting idea. The key would be getting people to absorb it.

  5. Will Doolittle says:

    It’s nice. It respects the intelligence of readers, because it doesn’t micromanage or impose individual ideas of etiquette on a general code.
    If you want people to read what you write, Pete, and react to it, it’s a bit much to then upbraid them for finding fault with your tone. People weren’t saying they know you in all your subtleties; they were saying they understood your tone — the one you chose for the piece you posted.

  6. Hawthorn says:

    There are sets of etiquette rules published various places and promoted by organizations like ADK and Leave no Trace. ADK does a lot of outreach work from their trailhead and via people like summit stewards. But, as you can see in recent discussions here, one person’s trail etiquette is another person’s big brotherism. We have to agree first on things like dogs, cell phones, walking in the mud, etc. There are many grey areas like bright clothing or noise on the trail. Personally, bright clothing doesn’t bother me in the least as it is invisible almost instantly as whomever hikes off into the distance, and I would rather be bright during hunting season. On the other hand, I find cell phones on summits maddening along with unleashed dogs. Etiquette is a tricky subject.

  7. Will Doolittle says:

    I think you can distinguish between things that are safety concerns (dogs) and environmentally damaging (litter) on the one hand and things that are matters of personal taste (clothing colors, cell phone use) on the other. I notice the Chilean code is silent on such things as clothing color and cell phone use. Of course, it’s better when people are polite and considerate. But it’s impolite and inconsiderate to impose your ideas of etiquette on everyone else, particularly on questions over which reasonable people can disagree. You should have very good cause to accuse someone of being rude, otherwise it is you who are the rude one.

  8. Paul says:

    “Because “code of conduct” sounds like something out of a boarding school for delinquents I would call it something else.”

    True, but most of these are common sense values that hopefully already exist in the Adirondacks. In my experience the vast majority of people are following the “code”.

    If you don’t have enough sense to follow these you probably are a bit of a “delinquent”.

    Thanks. Great article.

  9. Tony Charles says:

    These are the principles of ecotourism.

    Signs, pamphlets, etc. not needed. There are more than enough throughout the Park and “Wilderness Areas”. “Code of Conduct” seems too imposed/almost condescending.

    This is a visual, digital world now. The fine educational institutions in our beautiful park would do well to collaborate and publish a series of educational videos on YouTube discussing the values/principles of sustainable ecotourism for the Adirondack Park.

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