Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Dog poop bags littering the side of the trail, toilet paper flowers decorating the base of a boulder, pistachio shells leading the way to your project. All signs lead to increased human impact on our trails and crags. But what do we do about it?
The answer is imperfect activism, a form of advocacy in which we acknowledge the flaws and inevitable mistakes made during our efforts to effect change within our communities and environment. While it’s unlikely I’ll stop driving completely, I’ll make an effort to bike or carpool when possible, or upgrade to a more fuel efficient alternative when feasible. Our imperfect yet educated efforts can still be impactful, and each mistake is an opportunity to learn and improve.
Here, we confront the rivals, slinging critiques like, “Your efforts are menial if you’re still burning fuel to drive to the crag!” In essence, if your efforts aren’t all in, what’s the point? Well, I want to climb 5.15, a lofty goal, so I’m going to have to commit to smaller, more attainable steps along the way. Similarly, our day-to-day efforts to care for our crags, while not immediately earthshaking, do make an impact over time.
We all appreciate walking up to a clean crag, which means we have to clean up after ourselves. As quoted by competitor Ben Hanna, a member of the 2021 US National Bouldering Team, on a poster hanging in my local gym, “This isn’t your house, and your mom isn’t going to clean up after you”.
With that inspirational mantra in mind, I bring you seven actionable tips for being a better member of the climbing community.
1. Research & respect Indigenous land. Let’s start off with a tip from climber and runner Ashleigh Thompson, of the Red Lake Ojibwe tribe. Before you venture to a new zone, or even return to your favorite crag, spend time learning about the history of the land and the tribes who hold the land sacred. Many Native groups have local protocols. A visit to the tribe’s website will inform you about the best practices to honor and respect the land you’re climbing on.
In one well-known example, Devil’s Tower, also known as Mato Tipila or Bear’s Lodge, in northeastern Wyoming, is voluntarily closed to climbers during the month of June. During this time, over 25 tribes, including the Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, Eastern Shoshone, Crow and Kiowa, hold spiritual and cultural ceremonies surrounding the summer solstice. While the closure of Bear’s Lodge is voluntary, refraining from climbing the sacred formation during the month of June shows respect for the Native people and acknowledgement of their seasonal rituals.
Ashleigh adds that another way to support indigenous communities, if you’re traveling through or climbing near a reservation, is to fuel up at their gas stations, or make a purchase from a local gift shop or cafe.
Acknowledging the history and traditions of indigenous communities is a form of intersectional environmentalism, in which we advocate for social equity through our efforts to protect the planet.
2. Pay attention to local closures and permitting. From trail closures for powerline maintenance to broad seasonal closures for bird nesting, be sure to research local guidelines and land use regulations prior to your day out. Crags on private land may require a casual check in with the landowner, or you may need to abide by a formal permit system. Check the website of your local climbing coalition, or even the facebook page of a crag or regional advocacy group for up-to-date information. Your misstep, intended or not, could jeopardize climbing access at a specific crag, so make sure you’re in-the-know.
3. Know the road. The US offers a broad range of climbing terrain, although many areas are tough to access. Private utility companies often maintain 4×4 roads, while other routes of access may not be maintained by anyone at all. Misuse of roads can cause damage to dirt tracks. For example, The Fins in Idaho require a steep ascent up loose gravel. Climbers who attempt the climb in vehicles without off-road capabilities regularly rut out the road in failed attempts to get to the top, even jackknifing and blocking other traffic. Arrow Canyon, outside of Las Vegas, requires a high clearance vehicle, and approach instructions warn climbers not to ask the local landowner for help if they get stuck. While access can be prohibitive, try to carpool with a partner who has successfully made the trek before, or knows their vehicle won’t get stuck.
4. Choose your compost bin wisely. For starters, the base of the crag does not qualify. Sure, those pistachio shells, bits of orange peel, and apple cores will decompose eventually, but not quickly enough for you to leave the inedible bits of your lunch in the dirt. Collect your scraps and feed them to the organisms in your dedicated backyard compost pile or local compost collection.
5. Poop correctly. Ok, I’m not going to tell you how to poop, but there are specific ways to dispose of your waste. Forget what you think you know: digging a cathole, or a hole to poop in, is not always the best method. As crags and campsites become busier, the land available to dig without disrupting the local ecosystem is growing ever more limited. Instead, consider packing it out.
Don’t be alarmed, it doesn’t have to be gross! Compostable dog poop bags are cheap and easy to carry around. One of these, firmly knotted and placed in an airtight container dedicated solely to packing out your waste will do just fine. No risk of leaks, smells, or digging your hole in the exact place some other climber has chosen.
The same applies to cleaning up after your pup. And don’t leave that unsightly poop bag on the side of the trail—you likely won’t remember to collect it on the hike down anyway.
Bonus Tip: A powdered peanut butter container makes for a conveniently-sized, lightweight waste receptacle.
6. Leave the trail cleaner than you found it. I learned this tip from an enthusiastic clinic attendee at the Red Rock Rendezvous a few years back. “My grandma always told me, ‘leave the trail cleaner than you found it,’ so I always bring a trash bag to pick up rubbish as I hike’, he informed the group. I think of his recommendation often and try to keep an old grocery bag or bread sack in my pack. We’re a lot more willing to pick up other users’ trash if we have a planned place to put it. A friendly trash collection competition with your partner could determine who buys the post-climb brews.
7. Leave no trace. While the previous tip covered other climbers’ blunders, how about simply picking up after ourselves? A good rule of thumb is, “if everyone did this, how would the crag look?” If your chalk bag tips over, no big deal. Collect your spilled chalk and, if too contaminated to put back in your chalk bag, use the waste receptacle or trash bag we recommended in tips #5 and #6. Another common culprit is that tiny bit of climbing tape we rip off our fingers in moments of frustration after falling off our project. Round up all that tape – plus the duct tape wads from your knee pad – and pack it all out.
That poster I see in the gym receives many sideways glances and re-reads. It’s an odd quote for a poster, sure, but the sentiment rings true; neither your mother, nor your community are responsible for cleaning up your mess. So go make your bed and pick up those pistachio shells. It’s our responsibility to keep our crags clean and respect the history and land on which we climb.