It depends on how one conducts themselves on their hike and where they hike. An individual who hikes probably does not do damage from their individual hike. However, the hundreds or thousands of hikers may do incremental damage to a fragile ecosystem over time. Some things to remember when hiking is to hike in small groups, stay on the trail and don’t leave waste. Following these and other steps will minimize the environmental impact of hiking.
With any relatively harmless activity like hiking, the damage caused is fractional. If a plant is trampled by a hiker once, it will grow back – if it’s trampled repeatedly, it will not. Littering and other forms of direct deterioration of the environment are obviously harmful, but even the most environmentally respectful hikers will impact pristine environments with repetition. Studies have shown (link below) that impact is immediate, recovery is slow, and that more damage is done by one person hiking a trail for the first time than thousands hiking a trail that’s already been traveled upon.
It depends very much on the hiker and where your hiking. If you are hiking on trails – as long as you stick to the marked trails you will do minimal damage to the surrounding area. Damage can be done in areas where the hiker may not be aware of protected status or environmental concerns for that area. Additionally, damage can be done in areas that are heavily hiked or where hikers do not clean up after themselves. Frequently damage is done by hikers that remove items from the area because they find them interesting or beautiful, but don’t understand that by removing the item others cannot enjoy them. Human waste is also an issue when hiking. The most important things to remember when hiking are to be prepared for the area your hiking in for your own safety as well as being prepared to leave as little trace of your presence as possible.
If hikers are following the seven principles of Leave No Trace ethics, then it should not hurt the environment at all. The Principles are:
to dispose of waste properly; to leave what you find; to minimize campfire impacts; to plan ahead and prepare; to respect wildlife; to travel and camp on durable surfaces; and to be considerate of other visitors.
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