A love affair with privately owned land goes back to Jefferson, who thought that widely distributed private landownership was the key to freedom. Since America’s founding, many people associate private land with individual liberty and a productive society. But as a hiker, sometimes private land is associated with obstacles, safety issues, and an impediment to the freedom that a backpacking lifestyle affords.
When you are designing a never-before-done route, or hiking an established but incomplete trail like the Continental Divide Trail or the Pacific Northwest Trail, at some point, you will discover that the most direct route between Wilderness A and Mountain C has privately owned Ranch B between them. Hikers generally must walk public road—sometimes significantly out of their way—to avoid going on privately owned property. These sort of situations are what makes private land such a difficult issue for hikers.
Hikers and private landowners don’t always see eye-to-eye on private land restrictions. What some hikers may see as simply hopping a fence may be seen by private landowners like a blatant disrespect of a fundamental right of being American. Regardless of whether you agree with this idea, we as a hiking community need to be respectful of private property so that others can continue to enjoy the trails we love.
How do hiker’s actions on and around private property impact future hikers? Trail organizations who may be trying to finesse hiking access on private land will certainly find coming to an agreement with landowners a lot easier when hikers don’t trespass. It’s a lot easier for landowners to let hikers on their land when hikers aren’t causing problems. Since we hikers tend to all look (and smell) alike, one bad hiker’s actions can impact hikers for generations to come. Remember you are an ambassador on trail. When you’re on trail, it’s important to realize that you are neither the first nor the last to hike whatever trail you are on.
Here are a few tips to stay on the good side of the locals (and not get hit by a shotgun):
1) Plan ahead: Before stepping foot on trail, look at maps to determine what areas are public and private land. Create a route that utilizes public land. In areas with private land, route your trip onto roads that have public right of way. There is value in using multiple map sets—for example, Forest Service maps tend to show private land more distinctly than Nat Geo maps (which tend to do a better job of showing hiker resources like camps and water). Sometimes, roads that appear to be public on maps are actually privately owned—so talk with others who have been in the area to get a better idea of the landownership and right of ways. Reach out to organizations associated with the trail, as they are very good resources about what areas you may find private land issues.
2) Figure out your camps: Sometimes, the only way to connect two publicly owned areas is by walking a road that has private land on either side. Plan your days so that you can camp on publicly owned land—even if it means pulling big miles. If that just isn’t possible, look to see if there are any hotels or campgrounds where you can camp instead. Much land in the west is set up as a checkerboard of public and private land. Sometimes, if you are hiking on a road surrounded by private land, if you walk just a little further, you can camp in a publicly owned square on the checkerboard.
3) Respect the rules: Sometimes, private landowners allow hikers or hunters to walk across their land. In these cases, be sure to follow rules that landowner may have set. Many landowners ask that hikers do not stray from the trail. Others ask not to camp or build campfires on their land. Others may put restrictions on whether hikers can bring dogs with them, which is a request often on ranchland during calfing season. Other landowners may ask you not to map or put routes across their land on the Internet. Still, other may ask for you to walk across their land quietly. These requests may seem weird—but you are a guest in someone else’s house, so sometimes you have to go with the home rules.
4) When crossing private property where landowners have given hikers access, be especially careful to practice Leave No Trace: Pack out your trash. I try to not go to the bathroom in the woods if I can at all hold it, but otherwise, be sure to pack out toilet paper and to a really good job burying your business.
5) Use your eyeballs and be flexible: Sometimes, you get to a place on your route that you believe is publicly owned, but there is a big No Trespassing Sign on it. In these instances, it’s best to stay flexible and use your maps to find a publicly-owned corridor that will help you get where you want to go. Just because a route looked like it would work when you mapped it on your computer back at home doesn’t mean that you have to take that route. Be creative and maybe you will find an even better way of getting something to connect. This puzzle-solving is part of the fun of hiking a less-established route.
6) Be a good navigator: A good portion of the time when I hear stories of hikers who wander onto private land, it is because they are lost. Check your map and compass frequently and admit to yourself when you need to go back to where you started. Oftentimes, trying to bushwhack your way to your destinations or otherwise figure out a way to make a mistake into something that works actually ends up making things worse.
7) Respect the traditions and lifestyles of people who live along the Trail: In many cases in the West, people need the land to survive and are good stewards of the land. Along the CDT, ranchers’ “traditions are embedded into the history of these lands” and are what makes hiking the CDT feel like you’re going back in time to the Wild West—they give the CDT character. I’ve always thought that hiking is more than just mashing miles, but also about learning about the places where I hike and the people who live there. In many cases, landowners are more than happy to give you permission to hike across their land if you contact them ahead of time. You can use local landownership records or call local county offices to track landowners down and get details. Some trail organizations and hiking groups keep list of this info as well.
While I am a huge advocate for public land, I’m also a realist. When it comes to increasing the amount of access that we hikers have to open spaces, being respectful to private landowners is the building block by which we can make more places hikeable. In the meantime, supporting trail organizations and land trusts who dedicate themselves to providing access to open spaces is an important part of making it so that hikers will continue to be safe on new routes.
This post was contributed by Gossamer Gear Brand Ambassador Liz “Snorkel” Thomas.