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Dirt. Trail. You Walk on It.

23 January 2009


low tech writer

These essays are now also available in book form, printed on real paper


We live in a world where hiking-boot manufacturers have been compelled by some misguided sense of environmental responsibility to sell low impact tread on their boots, as if walking on a dirt trail with boots might hurt mother earth. Worrying about the erosion that walkers cause in the wilderness strikes me as wasting good environmental energy on a non-issue. So: you buy your gear, made in a developing country by poor labor (or worse, child labor), drive all day to the mountains in your V-8 SUV, leaving a trail of to-go cups behind you, and then, because you are environmentally sensitive, you try to not leave footprints on the trail. The dirt trail. Like every dirt trail that humankind has been walking on since the dawn of time …. sheesh, since every wild animal in the world has been walking on since the dawn of time. Should we go barefoot? Maybe Bighorn Sheep should wear booties to minimize the impact of their mountain climbing? Maybe packhorses should be shod in Crocs?


I’ve backpacked and hiked close to 1500 miles in California’s Sierra Nevada and in other places in the world, and I’ve seen a lot of trail. The kind of boots we used to wear (in the 70s and early 80s) were heavy leather and took a hundred miles or more to break in … they also had quite a bit more tread on them (Vibram!) than the boots you can buy today. You needed that tread to survive the salt-and-pepper granite of the Sierra high country–like walking on the coarsest sand-paper–and to keep your footing in the mud when carrying 80 pound packs. And yet with all that tread underfoot, the only time I saw trails suffer from erosion was when a trail had been poorly laid. Some trails became creek beds after a rainstorm, if they were laid along a natural runoff. And I remember one spot in the Emigrant Wilderness, where a trail had been laid right along the floor of a meadow, instead of along its sloping edge, and had, over the decades, become a four lane highway in the soft dirt: as each “lane” became too deep to walk in, hikers would walk next to it, making a new trail. But almost everywhere else in the mountains (and everywhere else I’ve hiked) trails appeared almost unchanged from year to year. I know there was always trail work going on to repair damage from water runoff, fallen trees, etc. But I can’t say I ever saw that the presence of humankind was especially hard on the dirt along a trail. Sure, at times, there was litter, or initials carved in tree trunks–people impact the environment negatively. But walking? … Sorry. Walking, even in boots, is a perfectly natural thing to do that the earth is perfectly capable of surviving. Thank you very much for your concern.

Reducing the tread on hiking boots to minimize our impact on the dirt trails in the wilderness is wasted technology. It’s a tech solution for a non-existent problem. The real problem is the incursion of civilization into wild areas. The problem is sprawl and the spiritual distance between people and unspoiled wilderness. The problem is roads and internal combustion engines and plastic packaging and sin. If you want to know what the problem is NOT, the problem is not the desire of a single person to walk on some of the unspoiled dirt that remains in the world. The presence of footprints does not spoil the wilderness. If you want to know what spoils wilderness, just look at the wilderness buried under your favorite city.

Find a dirt trail, preferably one with no view of anything concrete or glass or metal, and preferably out of earshot of any industrial noise, and walk on it with no guilt whatsoever.