Tread Gently

The Environmental Impact of Trail Running

1st in a 3 part Series

Words by Kim Stephens

There is no denying the growing pressure on our natural environment at present. Global wildlife populations since 1970 have declined by 58 percent, according to the 2016 Living Planet assessment by the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London. And among vertebrates, the loss could reach two-thirds by 2020. Pollution, climate change and human activity such as habitat destruction have contributed, with the biggest impact on animals in rivers, lakes, and wetlands. One in five of the planet’s plant species faces a threat of extinction, according to the State of the World’s Plants report released in 2016. The biggest threat to plants is habitat destruction for farming at 31 percent, followed by deforestation at 21 percent and building and infrastructure construction at 13 percent, and climate change at 4 percent, according to the report.

One of the bleakest stories of 2018 was the report of a 6-ton sperm whale washing up on the shores of southern Spain with 64 pounds of plastic in its stomach; a grotesque sign of the alarming rate at which our reliance on single-use plastic is affecting the planet. The plastic crisis is a truly global one, and the numbers are staggering: A 2015 study found that between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons of plastic makes it into the ocean from land each year. By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by weight.

If the above does not compel you to take a careful audit of your own life, and measure your personal environmental impact, then you are living with blinkers firmly in place. In South Africa, we are blessed with an abundance of outdoor environments where we can enjoy relatively untainted biodiversity and an abundance of plant and animal life. But these outdoor spaces require our urgent and educated care and protection if we are to continue to have the privilege of experiencing their beauty as trail runners.

How can the trail running community tread more gently? We interviewed Kyle Smith, a marine ecologist and part of the research division of SANParks. Kyle is also a passionate trail runner.

Image result for kyle smith sanparks

  1. Stick to the paths – this is an obvious one and yet I am amazed at the number of people I see moving off trail to get a “better view”. I don’t know any trail runners who do, but don’t take short cuts – in particular on steep descents. These will quickly become erosion spots. (And people are like sheep, once one person has done it, others will follow and before you know it you will have a spider work of side trails).

  2. Jump over the puddles when possible rather than going around them. Going around puddles leads to a widening of the trial. This basically applies to most obstacles, when possible rather go over than around.

  3. Unless you have really dodgy knees or you are doing an ultra, rather leave the trekking poles behind. The points dig into the trail surface (more than your soles) and can exacerbate potential erosion spots. Unfortunately, these are often used on ascents and descents where the chance of erosion is higher but where the benefit of the trekking poles is at their greatest.

  4. If you have done a trail event, it does not mean the trail is necessarily open for the rest of the year to runners. You may now have a GPS track of the route but that doesn’t mean you can re-run the route. Event organisers often obtain special permission to link various routes to provide a novel experience. The approval may come with restrictions on the number of entrants or the time of day and season the event can occur. Some routes may be paid hiking trails and are then by default not open to the general public in order to provide a certain experience to the hiker (remote, wilderness, personal etc).

  5. Don’t litter – again a no brainer. But this should also relate to your apple core or banana peel. Yes it will breakdown in time but it may also attract wildlife like baboons to the trails. Rather take it away with you.

  6. If it’s a paid trail or you need a permit– then pay your fees and get a permit. You may not think so but that money does assist in trail maintenance.

  7. If there is a logbook, then sign in. This is also important simply for safety purposes. For example in the case of fires these books will be checked to get an idea if people are on trails in the area.

  8. Respect your fellow trail users. Here I am not talking about the human kind but rather the feathered and four footed kind. I have on many occasion come across bushbuck on my runs but the total list of encounters includes bush pig (with piglets on one occasion), caracal, honey badger, baboons, monkeys, zebra and eland through to smaller encounters like otters, large spotted genet, shrews, frogs, etc. These are special moments, moments that I cherish and moments that take precedent over pace, distance and duration stats. If you see them ahead, slow down and enjoy the moment. Let them move out of the way rather than you chasing them off the path. Whilst training for Otter, I was coming back from the waterfall quite late in the evening and coming around a corner I saw a family of 4 bushbuck on the path. I had been pushing myself to see how fast I could cover the last technical section but upon seeing the bushbuck I slowed, stopped and spent about 30 minutes with them as they continued to feed along the path. With the sun setting, no one else around and the bushbuck calming feeding about 5m away from me, I was extremely content.

  9. Clean your shoes. Especially if you are going to be running in a protected area. We are all carrying seeds on our shoes which we can then transport into new areas. We are particularly concerned around alien invasive species. Yes this implies to hikers and mountain bikers as well.

“I suppose in the end our behaviour on the trail comes down to our values, what sort of relationship we want with the trail and how we see ourselves in nature. For me a large part of trail running is to be immersed in nature and to experience the trail. Being aware of our intentions and actions and mindful of how these can have an impact are important reflections for all of us.”

In our next newsletter, we chat to Blake Dyason of Love our Trails. In this article we unpack exactly what is being left behind on our trails, and how we can assist in removing litter and graffiti.