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How Do You Deal with Trail Trashers? Here's One Solution

My morning wander begins on a path bathed in sunlight filtering through majestic oak trees. A glisten of moisture catches my eye. "What is this lovely flower?" I focus my attention in the direction of the colorful dew only to discover a discarded aluminum can.

I'm angry! Some careless "trail trasher" has discarded their garbage on my trail. How could they?  

Roxy with trail trashMy waste awareness now heightened, I begin to notice more: a candy wrapper, a Styrofoam coffee cup, plastic bottles and more cans. My anger is turning to outrage. My morning meditation has been spoiled by these careless and uncaring individuals.

A week later, I'm hiking in the local wilderness. A Buddhist monk is whispering softly on my iPod about finding inner peace and calm through meditation and introspection in nature. Life is good as I practically skip along soaking up my surroundings. Distracted by nature, I stumble over something and look down only to discover...more trash. Now I'm fuming!

Who are these people that are casually dropping their junk in my wilderness? Haven't they learned the backpackers' "pack it in, pack it out" motto? Come on people, pick up after yourselves.

My mind spins off in a spiral of angry ideas about how I would handle these trail trashers. In my fantasy, there is a chain gang of orange-vested garbage offenders picking up their beer cans, cigarette cartons and candy wrappers. Somebody has to do something about this.

Putting my outrage on pause, I momentarily catch my monk mentioning "a path of service" and "finding compassion." I'm feeling some compassion right now, that's for sure!  I'd like to compassionately lock you up for being a litterbug you trail trashing...

Wait, now I'm beginning to get a message. "The path of service sometimes means humbly doing what others are unwilling to do," says the monk in my ear. I rewind my iPod and play it again. Did he really just say that?  

Anger shifts to introspection. "What are 'they' going to do about it?" becomes "what am 'I' going to do about it?"  And then the breakthrough occurs. I lean over and pick up the offending beer bottle before the next person will see it and experience my outrage.

My path of service has just begun.

Not much farther down the trail I discover the mate to the bottle in hand, and a short while later I'm sporting a trifecta of trail trash. If I've found 3 bottles, I'm confident I will collect the entire 6-pack.  Sure enough, I find the last of the 6 still sitting in the cardboard carton. My set is complete.

Now I'm smiling to myself. I've cleaned up the trail and the offender has provided a container to carry home the trash. I pass a couple of hikers and greet them heartily, filled with happiness that they will not have to experience this trash on their trail.

A hundred yards or so later that I realize that their look of confusion was probably related to the fact that they just saw me happily hiking home with an empty 6-pack of beer. "Talk about enjoying nature; that guy must be totally wasted!"

So here it was, my moment of truth. Some people will pack it in and pack it out, but there are plenty who won't. It was up to me to improve the experience of the people that come behind me on the trail. I vowed to myself to make a point of picking up trash from a place of compassion and service, not outrage.

Trimming back poison oakAs time progressed and I began leading people into the wilderness on day hikes, I realized there was more that I could do. Some of the trails needed trimming. Before I brought out a group, I began pre-hiking the trails patrolling for trash and poison oak, so that the trail was clean when they got there. A few of the hikers found out about this and offered to help.

I started to realize that others might want to pursue this path of service with me. An organizer by nature, I began putting together informal projects to pick up trash and brush some of the local trails. I was awed by how many people cared about the condition of our trails.

What began as a group of Facebook friends soon developed into a volunteer foundation and, ultimately, a local meet-up group dedicated to volunteer trail projects. Today our Santa Barbara (Calif.) Outdoor Volunteers Meetup has become a clearinghouse of volunteer trail opportunities shared by a variety of local trail volunteer groups.  

Volunteer trail crew
We also reach another 1,500 prospective volunteers through the Santa Barbara County Hikers, Central Coast Hiking and Santa Barbara Outdoor Adventure Meetup Groups. This has enabled us to help coordinate and publicize projects to people who may have never had the opportunity to pursue this path of service, but want to give back to our local trails.

You, too, can make a difference in your community. I'm still amazed at what was accomplished over an empty 6-pack of beer and an inspiring idea on my iPod.

Curt Cragg works part-time at the REI Santa Barbara (Calif.) store.

Posted on at 12:14 PM

Tagged: Hiking, litter, stewardship and trash

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Talloutdrsygal

Thanks for sharing, Curt! I am of the same mind...I pack more out than I pack in. I still get angry when I see all the trash left behind by uncaring individuals that find their way to MY wilderness, but I will pick up after them. May the person that follows after me have a more calm and joyful experience because of my actions....

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sdobie

Well good for you Curt. But before you go patting yourself on the back for your epiphany, answer this: what did you do with the cans, plastic bottles, styrofoam, etc that you encountered on your morning meditation hike? Clearly from your essay you left it laying where you saw it.

Did you just wake up from a California fog and go on a hike for the first time in your life? Regrettably, trash has been a problem most hikers have stumbled upon in metropolitan parks or remote wilderness for years. And every self-respecting outdoors enthusiast or nature lover I've ever encountered knew immediately what to do with it: they picked it up and hauled it out. They didn't wait for some divine intervention by a recorded voice on 'Hooked on Monks' to tell them the right thing to do. And they didn't write a blog about it seeking praise to be heaped upon their soul.

Well some people are slow learners, so good for you for picking up the trash, now be a responsible hiker and go back to the first trail and pick up all of the trash you left behind.

I agree that we should not have to pick up behind people who don't respect the outdoors and leave their litter behind. But it's a fact of life, some people are slobs and unappreciative of what they have, and we as good stewards of nature should do pick up their trash and help the parks services keep our public lands clean and pristine.

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Curt Cragg

Although I did not mention it in the article, I did in fact pick it up and then adopted that walking path as my own personal adopt a trail program. The point of the story was not to break my arm patting myself on the back, it was to motivate others to take action too. My apologies if you misjudged my intentions.

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CarolinaDrJoe

I have learned to always carry an empty grocery bag on all hikes. Have found myself needing more bags. Ugh!

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X-Lem

Wow - SDOBIE! I find it difficult to understand how anyone could write such negativity on an article intending to spread such a postive message.

Thank you Craig for writing an article that hopefully encourages a few others to begin taking out the trash for the inconsiderate slobs of the world.

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Trail-Hike dot com

I agree. I was inspired. When someone starts a meet-up group and keeps picking up the trash, he deserves a pat on the back. And your Monk does too. Thanks Monk!

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Rellikdog

I'm just saying Curt I'm ALL for the chain gang...

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SnowShoeIn

Just as you do Curt, I'm always packing out trash left behind by others. It's a part of the hike for me. After so many hikes you begin to expect it and prepare for it. I make sure there's room in my pack for the garb and just hope for good Karma.

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JuengelJ

I've hiked many trails with Curt, and learned of this practice from him. If a group of 10 hikers each picks up 3 pieces of garbage, for example, you don't even notice the extra weight, but others are sure to notice a cleaner trail.

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vplane

I do this too! One of the challenges is to find a good balance between picking up litter and actually getting to enjoy your hike. (Because, you know, you deserve to be able to look around and enjoy the scenery too, instead of scanning the trail for cigarette butts.)

So what I do is just keep the intention of "if I notice litter i will pick it up" in the back of my mind. And when my eyes fall on a candy wrapper or a soda can, I pick it up, but I avoid scanning for trash. I figure, "if I noticed it, then others would probably notice it...but if i didn't notice it, then maybe others would also be less likely to notice it."

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Kainr

Thanks for the article. In the past year as I have started to go on more climbs/hikes I have begun taking notice of trash and have picked up some on my adventures. This article makes me want to pick up that much more. When I take my kids on these trails and climbs I don't want them to see the outdoors as a dump.

I also truly feel bad for losing an entire power-aid bottle on Mt. Saint Helens. Slid down the mountain and out of sight.

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Essjay

Good for you Curt (and all the others like you). I canoe and camp in the back country, and the first thing I do at any campsite is scout around for trash armed with disposable gloves. We burn what we can and pack the rest out in our boat - usually end up with lots of bottles, cans and aluminium foil, some of which gets recycled when we get home.
My pet hate is toilet paper. I am on a mission to educate our canoe club in no trace ethics and I encourage them to carry paper bags to store used TP in for burning on the campfire/packing out. Not only does TP take a long time to break down animals seem to love it and it gets shredded and spread around and is generally an unsightly mess that most people will feel just a little reluctant to clear up (hence the disposable gloves)!

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Eagle Scout Patrick

As an eagle scout I was taught by great men to "do good". I carry a trash bag or backpack to collect trash and other unsafe items while I hike. I find it relaxing to pick up the trails. Thanks for making our trails enjoyable for everyone. Great job.

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