Fact or Fiction – Hiking and Camping Tips and Tricks
There are many tips and tricks for getting out and exploring our public lands. Here in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area we have some special rules, mostly in our protected Wilderness areas. The rules for our Wilderness areas can be easily followed by practicing the Leave No Trace Principles. Leave No Trace is an organization that has defined 7 principles to help people care for the outdoors. They are focused on educating people and have partnered with US public land organizations like the National Park Service and the Forest Service to help visitors enjoy these lands respectfully.
Leave No Trace Principles
- Plan Ahead & Prepare
- Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Here are some common thoughts or ideas on how to act outdoors in the Sawtooths. We’ll let you know if they are true or false, although some have some grey areas or depend on where you are!
“Wet wipes/baby wipes are great for backpacking.”
- While wet/baby wipes can help you stay cleaner when you are recreating and in the backcountry, they are often scented which means they need to be stored with food and other scented items in a bear bin or bear hang. You are not just protecting bears when you use a hang or special food bin, many critters are attracted to strong smelling items like wet wipes. Also, you can not bury them as they will take hundreds of years, or longer, to decompose and will only become litter. This means pack it out! Even if you’ve used it to wipe your bum! Here in the Sawtooths, we are in an alpine environment where things take a long time to decompose. All types of toilet paper needs to be packed out as well!
“I can toss my apple core or banana peel into the woods because it will decompose.”
- False – the Sawtooths are in a high desert, so organic matter takes a very long time to decompose here. Follow the principle of pack it in, pack it out, even food scraps and peel are considered litter. Composting at home is great but not in the wilderness. You also don’t want to introduce new plants or encourage wild animals to look for human food.
“If squirrels and chipmunks come up to me looking for food it is because they are hungry.”
- False – There is plenty of natural food for wildlife. They do not need to be fed human food. It is unhealthy for them and will make them more habituated to humans. Even though they are cute little critters, respect them by not feeding them.
“Covering my poop with a rock works.”
- False! – All human waste needs to be buried in a hole 6-8 inches deep and then covered with dirt. Do not bury toilet paper or anything else used as toilet paper. Holes need to be dug far away from water and other campsites (200 ft). Be prepared to walk for a bit to find a suitable site in most places in the Sawtooths. Do not burn toilet paper. Multiple wildfires each year are started by burning toilet paper. Again, toilet paper must be packed out. If you are looking for another way to minimize your impact while you are recreating in the Sawtooths consider bringing restop or wag bags with you to pack out all human waste. This helps minimize impact in places like Saddleback Lakes that sees high use and has very little soil to dig into. Dog poop can be buried as well just make sure it is 6-8 inches deep or packed out in bags. Please don’t leave your dog poop bagged on the side to the trail. It will never decompose then! New to packing out your toilet paper? Search online for various methods. Here’s one from the Center for Outdoor Ethics: https://lnt.org/how-to-pack-out-toilet-paper/
“If there is a fire ring it means I can have a campfire.”
- This depends on where you are! In developed and designated dispersed campgrounds where there is a metal fire ring the Forest Service has installed and you may have a campfire as long as there are no seasonal fire restrictions in place. You will encounter many user-made fire rings in Wilderness and backcountry areas. They are usually made from rocks. These are illegal in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and fires are not allowed. You can help by removing the rock rings and scattering the ash. In some areas of the Wilderness you are allowed to have a campfire, but only if you use a fire blanket or fire pan. In many places, you can not have a campfire ever. This is why you should always travel with a camp stove that uses liquid/gas fuel. That way if you were planning on preparing a meal over a campfire you have a backup, which is a good safety practice anyway. Check with a Forest Ranger or SIHA staff member to learn about current fire restrictions.
“Forest fires scar the land and should always be put out immediately.”
- False – Forest fires are a natural part of the ecosystem in the Sawtooth region. Many plant and animal species rely on fires to help them with seed germination or to create new habitat to live in. Lodgepole pine seeds need heat to germinate and begin growing. Other plants need fire to help reduce competition so they can grow. Naturally caused fires in Wilderness are usually left to burn naturally as long as a fire is not threatening human infrastructure. Human-caused fires are usually put out and this takes a lot of resources. Because humans have been preventing fires for so long, there is a larger fuel load that has accumulated in the forest so fires burn hotter and are more devastating. Not only are campfires a risk of starting a wildfire, but they also sterilize the soil. The soil has so many living organisms in it that are needed for plants to grow and to decompose. Fires burn and scar the ground and, when this is repeated many times in an area, nothing can grow. This leads to erosion and an even greater impact in these beautiful areas. There is also very limited wood and nutrients in alpine environments. What fuels there are need to be left to decompose and recycle the nutrients in this environment.
“I can collect small pieces of dead wood from the ground for my campfire.”
- True, usually! – As long as campfires are allowed you may collect your own firewood. However, only collect what you will burn. A good rule of thumb is to follow the four D’s: dead, down, dinky, and distant! Firewood collected should be already dead, on the ground, small (no larger than your wrist) and gathered from a distance. If you are in front country campgrounds you can easily buy wood from a camp host!
“I can leave my food in my car.”
- True – A hard-sided vehicle is a safe place to store food from bears and other animals in the Sawtooth National Forest. There is a new Bear Storage Order that requires all food, garbage, and bear attractants to be stored in hard-sided vehicles, bear resistant containers, or by using a bear hang in Sawtooth National Recreation Area front country. In some places, bears have learned to break into vehicles, however, this is not the case in the Sawtooths. Your car is a safe place to store food. Each year many bears are euthanized because humans have not stored food properly. A fed bear IS a dead bear.
“Following user-made trails is okay.“
- It depends! – There are many user-made trails throughout the Sawtooths that go to unnamed lakes and a few peaks. Following user-made trails in the Sawtooth is a great way to explore some of the backcountry. However, if there is a maintained trail stay on it! There are many user-made trails that cut switchbacks, especially on more popular trails. Do not use these! They create erosion, destroy sensitive vegetation, and create a larger impact on the environment. The switchbacked trail was built for a reason and is a much more sustainable trail. User-made trails are not maintained and often braided and hard to follow. If you choose to leave the maintained trail make sure you are prepared with a map and compass and know how to navigate.
“When in the Sawtooths you can bury dog poop instead of bagging it and carrying it out.“
- True! – Disposing of dog waste like human waste in a 6-8 inch deep hole is okay! It will save you carrying out dog waste. Just make sure it is buried properly away from water sources. If you bag your dog poop and leave it on the side of the trail it will never decompose! Plastic bags don’t biodegrade. This becomes litter that someone else has to pack out, yuck!
“Use existing campsites even if they are close to water.“
- True! – It is good LNT practice to camp at least 200 feet from water sources. Here in the Sawtooths this is not always possible since steep cliffs and rock talus slopes usually end in or near by lakes. Many of the lakes throughout the Sawtooths have camp spots that have been established by repeated use. It is best practice to use these already disturbed sites even if they are within 200ft of water. This helps minimize the impact by concentrating use. When possible pick the established site farthest from the water. Don’t camp in meadows, on vegetation, or anything living, camp on dirt or rocks.
“Picking up trash you see along the trail is a great way to be a steward of nature.”
- True! – This is a great way to help be a steward of the Sawtooths and nature in general. It is better to pick it up than think that someone else might come along after you and pick it up. Litter is litter, no matter how small!
“It is better to leave horse poop on the trail than spread it off in the woods.”
- True! – This may seem contradictory but the idea is that if there happen to be seeds from weeds or invasive plants in that horse poop they will be less likely to germinate, grow and spread if they are left on the packed hard trail. Those seeds are more likely to find a suitable home scattered off to the side of the trail or in the woods. Weed free feed is required on all federal lands but who knows what the horse was eating before it arrived in the forest!
“The water in the Sawtooths is clean and fresh and safe to drink if its from a clear stream.”
- False – The water here is incredibly clear, fresh, and cold but it is never safe to drink untreated or unfiltered water. Animals live everywhere in the Sawtooths even up high in the mountains. Humans, stock, and dogs travel throughout the mountains and valleys as well. You never know what may be in the water or have come in contact with the water.
“You don’t need a Wilderness permit if you are just going for a day hike in the Sawtooths.”
- False – Any time you enter the Sawtooth Wilderness you need to fill out a permit. It is free and easy to do on all the trails at all the Wilderness boundary. The permits help track usage of the area and they help the Forest Service receive funding to maintain the trails. If you are entering the White Cloud or Boulder Wilderness you do not need a permit, you just will need to sign the trail register.
We hope these tips have helped shed some light on a few of the special regulations you need to follow when you visit and recreate in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. Any time you are visiting public lands please plan ahead and prepare! Do some online research and call the local Ranger Station or visitor center if you have specific questions. It is up to all of us to reduce our impact on public lands. We challenge you to leave no trace on your next outdoor adventure!