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5 Tips to Hike SoCal’s Trails Responsibly

Parker Mesa via Los Liones trail | Sandi Hemmerlein
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In Southern California, we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to year-round hiking opportunities.

We’ve got our choice of exploring urban parks, beach trails, mountain peaks, grasslands, deserts and chaparral on foot — sometimes transitioning from one habitat to another within a single hike.

But with such powerful access to the outdoors comes great responsibility — especially given how wild some of our trails are, with little shade and likely zero water. 

In the warm seasons, we’ve got to dodge rattlesnakes and other venomous serpents, ticks and other insects, even poison oak (especially after a couple of rainy months). 

The entire year we can expect to encounter coyotes, bobcats, bears and even a mountain lion — much to our delight and, occasionally, dismay.

First and foremost, that means consider skipping the hike if you’re not feeling well. The backcountry is the last place you want to be if your condition worsens — and there’s nothing to disrupt the serenity of the outdoors like sniffling, sneezing and hacking up a lung. 

Local health orders, protocols and directives from governing agencies are put in place to keep us safe — but when it really comes down to boots on the ground, we hikers are responsible for ensuring our own safety and not endangering those around us. 

So, whether you’re a nature-naïve newbie or a well-worn walkabout warrior, here are five of the most important tenets of the trail that’ll help you get the most out of your hiking experience — without ruining it for yourself or anybody else. 

1. Choose Wisely

Wildflowers bloom at the Santa Monica Mountains
Wildflowers bloom at the Santa Monica Mountains

You determine your hiking fate the moment you start planning for it — and that may mean setting the alarm a little earlier than you’re used to. Scheduling a sunrise hike will get you on the trail before the crowds arrive, and it’ll get you off the trail before the temperatures really start to rise and the sun starts blasting down on your neck and shoulders. And since timing really is everything, check trail agency websites and social media channels for guidance on when is the best time to avoid crowds and inclement weather, too! 

The idea of spontaneously trekking your way through the wilderness may sound romantic — but you can face disappointment if a popular trailhead is mobbed (or, worse yet, closed). Park overuse was a concern before “stay at home” restrictions limited our recreational opportunities. Now that trails have reopened and Southern Californians feel a little more comfortable recreating outdoors, the floodgates have opened at certain popular hiking spots. 

“I don’t think anybody enjoys themselves in an overcrowded environment on the trails,” says Dash Stolarz, director of public affairs for Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, whose parks include many of those found in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Fortunately, many open spaces and parks have several starting points for their trails, despite one or two being more frequented than most. For the best experience, research the various trail routes, closures and public health and safety guidance before visiting.

As a general rule of thumb, you’ll probably get plenty of space to yourself (including those six feet needed for social distancing) on the notoriously wide trails and paved fire roads found in L.A.’s Griffith Park, for instance, or in the Verdugo Mountains. For those looking to really escape city life and be one with nature, here’s a bit of advice from Casey Schreiner, founder and editor in chief of ModernHiker.com and author of the guidebooks “Discovering Griffith Park: A Local's Guide” and “Day Hiking Los Angeles: City Parks / Santa Monica Mountains / San Gabriel Mountains.”

“If you have seen a trail on a Top 10 list, don’t go there,” he says. 

But that doesn’t mean you can’t go hiking — just have a Plan B, Plan C and/or Plan D. You can get lots of ideas from printed guidebooks and local hiking bloggers that you trust and know. 

The National Park Service also encourages visitors to be prepared to adjust their plans if circumstances change — and not just in terms of how crowded the trails are, but also inclement weather, road hazards like rockslides and trail hazards like an overgrowth of poison oak or peak rattlesnake season. 

There’s plenty of open space to choose from throughout Southern California — but keep in mind that beginners tend to start out with the hikes that are easiest to find. 

If any one trail or park is buckling under more visits than it can handle, the agency that oversees it will close it. And that’s the last thing we want to happen. 

2. Be Prepared

Parker Mesa via Los Liones trail | Sandi Hemmerlein
Parker Mesa via Los Liones trail | Sandi Hemmerlein

Unfortunately, many hikers overlook the responsibility they have towards maintaining their own safety just by being woefully unprepared. You know all those helicopter rescues you hear about? Many of them could’ve been prevented if the hikers had been carrying a paper map or a spare battery for when their cell battery went kaput. Consider carrying a GPS device that gets its signal from satellites in space and not from cell phone towers that don’t always reach all areas of wilderness. 

That’s not to say that you need to load up on designer gear that’ll load you down. It’s amazing how much mileage you’ll get out of lacing up some sturdy shoes (not flip-flops), donning a hat and sunglasses and slathering on some sunscreen. Don’t forget that you can still get sunburned when it’s foggy or overcast, like during “May Gray” or “June Gloom.” 

One of the most common ways that hikers endanger themselves is by not bringing enough — or any! — water. The standard recommendation is at least 1 liter of water per person, per hour — but in high heat and desert conditions, or high altitudes, you’ll need more. 

You can find a list of the 10 essentials to bring with you for help in the event of minor injuries, sudden weather changes or unexpected delays on the National Park Service website. It’s a good place to start, but it’s not comprehensive for every situation. Assume that trailhead and trail facilities are minimal, especially during a public health crisis like the novel coronavirus pandemic — and be pleasantly surprised when they’re not.

Given the current health concerns, those essentials also include bringing — and wearing — a face covering to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Different parks have different rules about when you need to put a mask (or scarf or bandana) over your nose and mouth, so check with local authorities before you go. There’s one guidance they all agree on, though: If you can’t maintain six feet of physical distance from other people who aren’t in your household, cover your face.

Remember to not hike alone, even if you’re very experienced. Bring a buddy (like a member of your household or a “quarantine buddy”) to share the adventure with. And as a backup, always tell an emergency contact who’s not going with you exactly where you’re going, the route you’re taking and when you expect to be back. That way, if you are in distress and need help, there’s someone who knows to start looking for you.

But most of all, don’t overestimate your ability. Remember that you — and your dog — can get overheated even on a low-difficulty trail on a hot, sunny day. 

3. Be Kind

A chipmunk in Big Bear | Sandi Hemmerlein
A chipmunk in Big Bear | Sandi Hemmerlein

There are no hard-and-fast rules about kindness on the trails. But you can file a lot of it under the categories of common sense and common courtesy. When you’re out there getting some solitude, you’re still sharing the trail with other hikers (as well as flora and fauna). 

“Be considerate and respectful of the environment and the other people who are out enjoying nature,” advises Irvine Ranch Conservancy Communications Manager Scott Graves.

That means following generally accepted trail etiquette — like minimizing group size, warning others of your presence when you’re trying to pass, giving the right-of-way to an uphill hiker when you’re headed down a narrow trail, deferring to people on the trail who have disabilities and yielding to equestrians and their horses. This is particularly important when you’re trying to maintain social distancing on single-track trails that don’t give much wiggle room (especially not a six-foot buffer). 

Keep in mind, however, that not everybody in SoCal grew up having access to the outdoors — and some might be unaware of these and other hiking norms. 

Chris Morrill of California Wilderness Coalition reminds visitors in his May 2020 Executive Director’s Report that two good places to start are “being forgiving” and “assuming that people don’t have ill intentions.”

For Redlands Conservancy Executive Director Sherli Leonard, that means greeting your fellow hikers cheerfully — “even the ones not being responsible users.” 

Better yet, you can lead by example. “Follow all the recommended trail use protocol and show gratitude to others who do the same,” Leonard says.

Don’t forget that trail access often requires going past private homes and their residents, who’d also appreciate not being subjected to excessive noise (like one of those music-playing backpacks) or uncontrolled pets and not getting blocked into their driveways by hikers’ parked cars.

4. Leave No Trace

"Stay Safe, Recreate Responsibly" poster | NPS/Matt Turner
"Stay Safe, Recreate Responsibly" poster | NPS/Matt Turner

The principles of “Leave No Trace” — as standardized and publicized by the Center for Outdoor Ethics — accomplish a lot with the simple premise of leaving only footprints and taking only photographs. Not only do they keep the public outdoor space — and the trail itself — clean and unlittered, but they also protect wildlife (which will surely try to eat whatever you leave behind) and reduce wildfire risk. 

At the core of “Leave No Trace” are practices related to “pack in, pack out” — meaning that you should bring everything you need with you, and bring all of it back out to properly dispose of. Even items that seem “natural” or even biodegradable — like orange and banana peels, apple cores, nut shells and doggie doo-doo — can disrupt the ecosystem, pollute bodies of water and make the experience unpleasant for other hikers who are trying to enjoy the trails. 

Instead, bring a garbage bag for your waste and place it in a designated receptacle. And when you scoop the poop from your pup, don’t leave the plastic bag behind! As Modern Hiker’s Casey Schreiner puts it, there’s “no trash fairy” following you around on the trail. The outdoor experience, he says, isn’t like Disneyland where there are fleets of staff ensuring a pristine experience. 

Likewise, don’t pick flowers or plants — even the ones you think might be invasive. Leave trail maintenance to designated volunteers and professional crews, and leave the plants in the ground where they belong. Taking home a bunch of wildflowers is not only unlawful — it’s also just rude to others who’d like to enjoy them for themselves. Also, don’t remove wildlife or take “souvenir” rocks, shells and artifacts like arrowheads or pottery shards. 

And while you may leave footprints behind, respect trail closures and stay on established trails rather than cutting new trails — the latter of which does more harm than good, as those “shortcuts” lead to trail erosion, and often, trampled plants. Research shows that an ecosystem could take 10 to 30 years to recover from off-trail hiking.

Fortunately, most well-meaning hikers won’t break the rules unless they’re following someone else’s lead. 

“If you do the right things,” says Bennett Russell, Non-Motorized Trails program manager at the non-profit Southern California Mountains Foundation, “people see and catch on.”

5. Share Responsibly

Two women ride on horseback in Griffith Park | Sandi Hemmerlein
Two women ride on horseback in Griffith Park | Sandi Hemmerlein

The emergence of social media has changed the way we interact with the outdoors — and we need to understand how posing for photos and posting online ups the risks of enjoying our favorite wild spaces. Your smartphone or camera won’t protect you from any wildlife that gets stressed by your presence — so think twice before setting off a flash in the face of a wild animal or getting close enough to take a selfie. 

The animal may move towards you instead of running away, but that doesn’t mean it’s “friendly.” Keep a safe distance and back up slowly from any approaching wildlife. 

Gerry Hans, president of Friends of Griffith Park (where the lone resident mountain lion P-22 resides) reminds us, “Never crowd a wild animal to the point it puts it into a defensive posture.”

While you’re backing up — maybe to get that perfect shot of a beautiful view — be aware of your surroundings, and don’t expect guardrails out in the wild. Let your phone, camera, GPS, or any other devices be a handy tool but not a distraction. 

Focus on where you are and what’s happening around you — that is, “stay in the moment,” as they say. You can share your experience with the world once you’re back to safety. 

When you do post on social media, reconsider tagging your location or including detailed maps. While many natural areas appreciate the free advertising and want word-of-mouth to bring more visitors to their properties, social posts have unfortunately brought an unwanted amount of attention to sensitive areas that can’t withstand a lot of foot traffic or are particularly vulnerable to trespassing and vandalism. 

And if you find something fascinating or unusual while wandering off-trail (which hopefully you’re not doing), don’t geotag it with the GPS coordinates. Let other visitors find it on their own instead of pointing a big digital arrow right to it. It helps to include a message of stewardship by using hashtags like #RecreateResponsibly and #LeaveNoTrace, which show you’re respectfully enjoying nature and help set a good digital example for others. 

Top Image: Parker Mesa via Los Liones trail | Sandi Hemmerlein

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