The gracious outdoors?

The Gracious Outdoors: We can all get along, if we follow the rules
The Sacramento Bee, April 2, 2004


A dusty trail is the last place you might expect to be told, “Mind your manners.”

The great outdoors is so great, in large part, because we get away from all the concerns and pressures that add so much stress to our civilized lives. So saying that manners matter in our outdoor activities – observing the proper “outdoor etiquette” – seems almost oxymoronic.

After all, isn’t going into the wild a chance to let loose our inner wildness?

Well, yes and no. As outdoor enthusiasts are quick to point out, we do get in touch with something deeper and wilder within ourselves when we get out there. But being considerate of others, and of the environment, can be even more critical in the outdoors.

Those who use the outdoors can have a greater effect on the environment than someone in a city. A fire left unattended, a bottle left on a biking trail, a flower taken from beside a trail, or even a can or wrapper dropped in a pristine place can have consequences for others.

So, as the outdoor season opens – with beaches, rivers and mountains beckoning – we spoke with people who work and play in the wild, and who have considered the need for outdoor etiquette.

Some of their advice is common sense, things-your-mother-taught-you stuff; other things are more counterintuitive. But all boil down to what Ann Westling, public affairs officer for the Tahoe National Forest, calls “the normal rules.”

“The normal rules apply,” says Westling. “You’re out in the wilds, and you feel you can just be totally free, but you must recognize the number of other people you’re impacting, as well as the habitat, the animals, the trails.

“What you do or don’t do makes a difference to everyone who comes after you.”

As the population of Northern California grows, so does the impact of visitors on wild areas, she says.

“So many people are coming from Sacramento and the Bay Area now,” she says. “They think they’re going to the wilds and there will be no one there, but it seems some weekends that the whole population of the north state is out there.”

Playing with fire
With increasing numbers of people comes the need to observe simple behavior rules in this fragile environment. Many are posted at entrances to campgrounds or wilderness areas, and if you’re going into a really unspoiled wilderness, you have a responsibility to know what is allowed and what is not. In some cases, you need a permit. Your understanding of those rules can mean saving money and even lives.

Chief of these concerns is fire.

“Never, never, ever leave a campfire unattended,” says Westling. “People are not putting their campfires out. Often, they’ll have a fire at night, the next morning they’ll see just black ash, and think it’s out. But underneath that ash are embers, and a little wind will pick them up and start a fire.

“People need to put their hands close to it to detect any heat, and stir it,” she says. “Pour water on it. Make sure it’s out. The same goes for people picnicking who dump their coals. Make sure they’re out. And don’t dump them on the ground. Put them in a garbage can or carry them out.”

Another tip: Don’t cut across switchbacks on trails, Westling and hikers say. That practice can cause erosion, which destroys trails and all the work and expense that went into their design.

When camping in one of California’s 15,000 state-operated campsites, other rules apply. These, too, come down to common sense, says Joe Rosato, a spokesman for the state park system.

“When you or anyone else reserves a campsite, you’re renting it, so it’s yours to use,” he says. “So don’t cut through other people’s campsites – it’s their home while they’re out there.”

He adds: “Keep quiet, respect quiet hours. And don’t use the woods as a restroom. You’d be amazed at what we find out there: tissue paper, prophylactics, feminine hygiene products, you name it.

“The bottom line is, leave it the way you would want to find it when you revisit the area.”

Be a good example
That leave-no-trace philosophy, common to both the Boy Scouts and the denizens of Burning Man, is rooted in the realization that real etiquette is more than just following rules: It is about being conscious of how we treat our fellow human beings, as well as the environment and its other inhabitants.

Tony Loftin is a longtime member of the Sierra Club and is the outings chairman for the Mother Lode chapter in Sacramento. He says that being considerate of others is key. And that consideration takes some perhaps-surprising forms.

“Stay within your abilities,” is the first thing he mentions. “It’s a matter of etiquette because if you get stuck out there, someone else has to come get you out. And if you’re in a group, everyone else has to turn around and go back.”

And Loftin sees his time on the trails as an opportunity not to assert his own rights, but to be generous with others.

“I always yield,” he says. “Yes, there are signs that show who yields to whom. Bikes are supposed to yield to people. But how hard is it for you as a hiker to step aside and yield to bikes, instead of making them have to stop and pull over? It’s a nice feeling when you step aside and they’re thanking you. It adds to good will.”

Greg Briski, owner of the Rest Stop store in east Sacramento, agrees. He says the same rules apply when doing outdoor activities in more urban areas.

“I’m big on politeness when cycling,” he says. “Politeness to cars, to other people. It makes a more civil society.”

And as he points out, it makes for a safer ride.

“On a self-preservation note, I’ve had some close calls with cars,” he says. “Losing your temper (at a driver) endangers not only your own life, but every other cyclist’s life down the road. Because while you may have gotten away with (angering) some motorist, you’ve created an impression that all cyclists are rude, and that can hurt other cyclists.”

Briski suggests stopping at lights, signaling and, yes, yielding to motorists, rather than blowing through lights and stop signs because it’s easier.

And, he says – with the caveat that this may anger some of his customers – “the bike trail (on the American River Parkway) is not for training. It is the wrong place to do pacelines.

“I’ve been run off the road by packs of bikers because they’re taking both sides of the trail,” he says. “This is inappropriate behavior. If you’re going to train in a pack, at car speeds, ride in the street.”

The bottom line: “If you’re going to be an example, try to be a good example.”

Share well with others
Being a good example is music to the ears of Dave Lydick, chief ranger for Sacramento County parks. Conflicts between bikers and pedestrians are a given.

“People need to be aware that they’re sharing the trail,” Lydick says. “Most conflicts are a little bit wrong on both sides, the biker isn’t willing to weave over, and walkers and joggers sometimes don’t follow the rules of the road, which are that walkers and joggers should be heading toward oncoming traffic, on the left side, so they don’t accidentally step out in front of someone. And they should stay on the shoulder of the trail, off the asphalt. In some places, it’s not possible; they have to hike on the asphalt itself, and bikers should be aware of that.

“Those trails are 12 feet wide, each lane is 6 feet,” he adds. “There should be enough room.”

Still, there isn’t enough room for bikers to ride two and three abreast, he adds, or for parents to let their kids ride wherever they please. But higher-speed bikers need to be aware that the speed limit is 15 mph, and that little kids need a place to ride, too.

“Everyone needs to keep in mind that it’s a recreational trail, it’s not just for commuting or exercising, so you’re going to have all levels of skill out there.”

Lydick’s other concern is the river, one of Sacramento’s greatest treasures and most popular spots. And because it is so easily accessed, visitors might not be so aware of the responsibilities to the environment – and to fellow visitors.

“When people are rafting, they need to be aware that not everyone wants to get soaked or hit with a water balloon, even if they’re on the water,” says Lydick. “We often end up with fights, and someone goes to jail.”

And Lydick emphasizes that there is an ordinance at the parkway against glass beverage containers, which can shatter and are responsible for numerous cut feet every year.

“We write a lot of tickets about that,” he cautions.

He also warns that public drunkenness is a crime on the parkway as well as elsewhere, and that drinking and rafting can end up badly … very badly.

“We have an average of six people a year drown out here, and many of (the drownings) are alcohol-related,” he says.

Don’t mess with nature
Still, while some issues are literally life-and-death, most are about everyone working together to maintain a level of civility – and a quality of environment – that makes outdoor places worth visiting, and revisiting.

One way to assure that is to take responsibility, even for mistakes made by others.

“There’s lots and lots of trash on trails,” says the Tahoe National Forest’s Westling. “But all people have to do is take it with them – it’s very easy. And bring an extra plastic bag for garbage. We welcome and appreciate everyone’s extra efforts to clean up after someone else. We all benefit.”

The Sierra Club’s Loftin agrees, saying, “It’s more pro- active. It makes me feel good.

“And really, it all boils down to everyone being considerate,” he says. “If it worked that way, you wouldn’t need all the rules.”