Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Backcountry Ethics: Leave No Gear Behind

Left Behind Tent StakeNever leaving a man behind is a common motto in the military world; it is even incorporated into the U.S. Army’s Soldier’s Creed. The saying is equally apropos for Adirondack backcountry adventurers, whose hobby has some commonality with the military way of life, except for the lack of gravitas. Although the prospect of leaving behind a comrade is unmatched in seriousness, it is not the only situation where leaving something behind in the backcountry arouses feelings of loss and guilt.

Despite the appropriateness of the motto in the backcountry, it rarely has much bearing on most adventures. Although groups separate on occasion, sometimes with disastrous results, this is not a common occurrence for most people. At least, I hope it is not; otherwise, rescuers would be constantly crawling throughout the backcountry, and/or bodies would be more common than deflated Mylar balloons.

In my over twenty years of hiking, backpacking and bushwhacking trips, I never left anyone behind, at least not for any significant amount of time. Groups separated occasionally, but no ever turned up unaccounted for at a trailhead upon the conclusion of a trip. In the last few years, I mostly travel into the backcountry solo, as my bushwhacking trips require traits found only in the hardiest and most adventurous souls, or the criminally insane. On these trips, the only person I need concern myself with leaving behind is me.

Leaving someone behind in the backcountry may not be a frequent concern, but leaving something else there is another matter. Whether it is litter, footprints, or poorly located campsites, there are a plentiful supply of things available to leave behind in the wake of a backcountry adventure. One of the worst, other than coming up short during a headcount, is gear.

Obviously, everyone knows leaving behind gear in the backcountry is a bad thing. Backpacking gear costs good money, often an excessive amount, especially for those obsessed with name brands or ultra-lightweight equipment. Backcountry gear does not grow on trees after all, and neither does the stacks of cash it costs as my parents reminded me often when I was younger. Assuming one works hard for their money, and who of us is willing to admit they do not, there are many hours of toil invested in gear, so getting as many years of use from it is paramount.

In addition to the cost, leaving equipment behind is just another form of littering. Unfortunately, some events necessitate leaving stuff behind, as more than a few tangled food lines dangling from tree limbs around popular campsites can attest. In addition, accidents happen, where items leap from pockets or backpacks, especially for those hobo hikers who attach items on the outside of their packs.

In all my years of backpacking, I never found a lot of gear in the backcountry. Usually, these items were tent stakes at well-used campsites, apparently left behind in the hustle and bustle of an early morning departure. These peoples’ loss has been my gain, unfortunately, as now I am stuck with a shoebox of tent stakes cluttering up my closet.

The most significant piece of gear I ever recovered was during one of my first short solo bushwhacks during a backpacking trip through the Siamese Ponds Wilderness many years ago. My desire for a loop throughout the area forced me to bushwhack from the southern end of the Kings Flow East Trail southeast to the northwestern end of the Siamese Ponds.

Sunshine Pond campsite areaObviously, I was not the only person to get this bright idea, as in the middle of my bushwhack I discovered a black foam sleeping pad lying on the forest floor. Apparently, it had been there for quite some time, as the bungee cord that kept it rolled up had rusted, and the local rodents gnawed off several chunks along its outer edge in search of insulation. To this day, I still have the sleeping pad, although now cut into several pieces.

I cannot judge those who accidently left behind gear too harshly, as I have been guilty of it on occasion too. Most of the cases were somewhat out of my control, as a food line stuck in a tree or something torn off my person while climbing through blowdowns. I usually attempt to keep my gear on a short leash, which is required for keeping gear while bushwhacking. Despite doing my best to keep my equipment organized and within close contact at all times, I managed to lose a few items over the years, though nothing as large as that full-length black sleeping pad.

This past spring, I once again broke the “leave no gear behind” rule, although completely inadvertently. Following a day of prime bushwhacking through the Pepperbox Wilderness Area in a futile attempt to surpass last year’s Birdathon total, I ended the day at Sunshine Pond in the late afternoon. After birding the entire day from Cropsey Pond, I decided to enjoy a low-key evening of birding in the immediate area.

Once my usual campsite preparations were complete, I settled into the routine reserved for setting up my tarp. The Golite tarp is super lightweight, due in part because of its lack of poles. Instead of carrying the traditional aluminum ones, this tarp requires either two trees spaced a perfect distance apart, two limbs collected from the forest floor or a couple hiking poles, or some combination of the three options.

After unpacking the tarp and spreading it flat on the ground, I crammed the small stuff sack with my titanium stakes in my pocket and started the search for some adequate sticks to use as poles. The forest contained little understory in mid-May, the nascent bracken ferns were just emerging from the old decaying foliage, not yet concealing the rather scarce supply of sticks.

Scouring the area, I found two able-bodied sticks that could easily do the trick, so I returned to my tarp and started the process of putting it up. The darn thing requires 12 different stakes (although some are not completely required), which I pulled from the stuff sack as I needed them. When I got down to the last few, I noticed something so shocking, so terrifying, that at first I could not believe my eyes.

There were only 11 stakes total. One was missing!

After the shock and confusion wore off, I went about retracing my steps, scanning the forest floor as I went. After I spent an obsessive amount of time with the search, and with nothing but a few stake-like sticks to show for the effort, the lower light levels of early evening demanded I retire my quest until the next morning. When the next morning yielded the same results, I reluctantly concluded the stake must be elsewhere.

Early evening at Cropsey PondSince I never took the stakes out during the entire day of bushwhacking, the likely place was back at Cropsey Pond, where I packed up the tarp during the morning before. Unfortunately, I was on a schedule and had to be out of the backcountry to report my finding for the Birdathon by noon, leaving no time for a return trip to Cropsey Pond for a look-see. A conclusion to this story, for good or ill would have to wait for another day. The poor eleven stakes would continue to worry about their lost sibling until I had time to return to the area another day.

Fortunately, the traumatic wait was short. Within two weeks, I made a special trip back into the Pepperbox Wilderness on one of the most important trips of my illustrious career; a rescue mission if ever there was one. I was not about to give up until I eliminated every possible location, plus it gave me an excuse to return to the area, as if I needed one.

Upon my arrival at south shore of Cropsey Pond, I headed straight for the exact spot of my past encampment. It took less than a minute before I spotted the lost stake, as its silver sheen easily contrasted with the natural tans and browns of the leaf-covered forest floor. My relief was overwhelming, but nothing compared to the glee I imagined the other 11 stakes felt to have their sibling back.

Not all my leaving gear behind experiences have happy endings though. Some nylon twine hanging from a tree branch along the Sand Lake shoreline in the Five Ponds Wilderness, a length of parachute cord tangled in a tree east of Sampson Bog in the West Canada Lakes Wilderness and a nylon instep from my Shortie Gaiters somewhere between Crooked Lake and Sitz Pond can all attest to that. Unfortunately, retrieval of these items was largely impossible, at least not until the limbs fall from their trees or the forest opens up and spits out the lost instep.

Although leaving behind a fellow backcountry adventurer is by far one of the worst feelings possible, the despair of leaving gear behind is traumatic in its own right. Thinking and retracing your steps are crucial to retrieving the wayward equipment lost unintentionally, although rescue may not always be possible. In those cases, it is probably best to try to forget the emotional attachment to the gear and buy a replacement. That is why we toil away at dull day jobs instead of spending all the time in the Adirondack backcountry, is it not?

Photo: Tent stake left behind at Cropsey Pond, area around Sunshine Pond campsite and early evening at Cropsey Pond by Dan Crane.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

15 Responses

  1. BushwhackJack says:

    We’re all guilty of occasional”accidental littering” but have we done everything possible to minimize it? Do we pack our sleeping pad INSIDE out pack, do we pack our water bottle INSIDE our pack? Have we done everything possible to not be a “hobo hiker?”

  2. Curt Austin says:

    The absolutism of “Leave no trace” disturbs me. It creates guilt just for being in the woods, since it is an impossible goal. It’s behind the view that backpacking is wrong, that only day-tripping is acceptable (nuts, I say). It seems to be a cornerstone of the view that it isn’t wilderness if a human is present (except ourselves, maybe). Absolutism is extremism; extremism leads to weirdness. Aren’t we already weird enough, fending off black flies in search of inner peace?

    The wilderness will not be crowded out by piles of lost tent stakes. Bits of shiny mylar packaging material, yes.

    Keeping the woods clean is mostly a matter of removing more than you leave. It’s all we can do, anyway. As long as you don’t drop those mylar bits, you are welcome in the woods.

    • John Warren says:

      So having goals creates “guilt” therefore we shouldn’t have goals? Someone put their grumpy pants on this morning.

      In my view, a little appreciation of the fact that many visitors come to the mountains with little or no experience or training in woodcraft is in order. Given the number of wilderness-ignorant visitors who visit wild places every day, having something as simple as the leave no trace philosophy is not only fairly effective, it’s the responsible thing to do for those who promote access.

      • Bruce says:

        I agree, John. If you can carry it in, there is no possible reason it can’t be carried out.

        There was one incident in the 50’s or early 60’s when Fred Bear was hunting deep in the wilderness of BC. Him and his partners had this device called a Merry Packer, a one wheeled, engine driven platform with handles on each end like a wheelbarrow they could use to pack a lot of gear from the bush plane to the camp in one go. When they came out, it was left behind because it would have cost more to fly it out than to just leave it. Get a copy of “Fred Bear’s Field Notes”. They tell you where it is if you want to go get it.

  3. rdc says:

    Bring it in/bring it out. It’s that easy.
    But if you lose something, don’t lose sleep over it. I’ve lost a few things and found a few things – although I think I’m up in the overall standings at the moment (small hunters saw last weekend).

  4. Hawthorn says:

    I too have retraced my steps to find a lost piece of gear. One of more memorable retrievals was the wire part of an old three-pin X-C binding that popped off along the snowy shoulder of the road near Tongue Mountain. Discovered it missing when I took the skis out of the car at home, drove back 30 miles, found it in the snow after 30 minutes of searching along the shoulder of the road.

  5. Hawthorn says:

    By the way, an interesting article might be on the oddest items found in the woods. It wasn’t wilderness, but on some local nature trails near here I found a full-sized bowling ball deep in the forest miles from any road. Who carried that bowling ball there and why?

  6. Gillian says:

    I’ve gone back for dropped gloves (easy to see: black on white snow), but abandoned a brand new Camelbak bottle lost somewhere between Hadley and Roundtop (off-trail). I’m hoping someone else stumbled across it. I have a perfectly serviceable pack I will replace soon because the side bottle pockets are so stretched out the bottles fall out with increasing frequently. 99 percent of the time I notice when it happens… that time I didn’t.

  7. John M. says:

    When I’m traveling light, I don’t bother with the stakes. A couple of minutes will find enough small sticks laying on the ground for the purpose at hand, and leaving them behind is not a problem. Weight of 12 titanium stakes is still a couple of ounces.

    John M.

    • Paul says:

      I don’t know. I have been in some storms where I am glad I was well staked down!

    • Bruce says:

      John M, I assume you pull those little sticks when you are done with them. I know someone who stepped on just such a stake left standing in a campsite and it poked through a flip flop, injuring the person. The homemade tent stake was only about an inch or inch and a half high. They are also trip hazards.

  8. common sense says:

    I once found a pair of skis. How do you lose a pair of skis?…and not go back for them when you realize it.?

  9. Paul says:

    I left those with my bowling ball (see above). can I also have them back?

  10. Nancy says:

    For some reason, I seem most likely to find clothing out in the backcountry. The most common items are dirty, nasty socks, usually cotton, and men’s cotton underpants (tighty whiteys.) Packing these back out is gross! My best score was a balled-up pair of ultralight rainpants; selfishly, I ousted the spider who had made her home in them and I now carry them on all of my backpacking trips, canoe trips and shoulder season day hikes.

    A ranger in the Pharaoh Lake area once told me that he had seven or eight brand new Wenzel tents at home. Apparently, inexperienced people buy these heavy tents and pack them into wilderness areas and then leave them there. The ranger’s opinion was that people who left significant gear in the backcountry did so because, with their limited skills, they actually perceived it as a survival issue and that carrying it back out would draw on reserves they didn’t feel they had. Unfortunately, there is no way to pre-educate or screen these people without becoming far too restrictive.

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