Craig Hill: When it comes to trail poop and pack speakers, what’s rude? What’s OK?

Ben Lawhon of Leave No Trace says cleaning up after dogs means packing out your pet’s waste and not leaving it in sacks on the side of the trail or flicking it into the woods.
Ben Lawhon of Leave No Trace says cleaning up after dogs means packing out your pet’s waste and not leaving it in sacks on the side of the trail or flicking it into the woods. Staff file, 2010

After descending Pass Mountain and rejoining the trail, the first thing we heard sounded alien in Arizona’s otherwise quiet desert.

It was an electronic noise coming our way. It wasn’t until it was a few feet away that my wife and I could better deciphered what we were hearing. It seemed to be the musical tale of a trip to a strip club.

The music was blaring from a Bluetooth speaker affixed to the pack of a solo male hiker who appeared to be in his 50s.

Encounters like these are becoming more common on the trail and as jarring as they might be, there are no rules forbidding hikers from making noise.

This, however, doesn’t mean it’s OK to check your manners at the trailhead.

Whether it’s cleaning up properly after your dog or horse, or augmenting your hike with a little Bruno Mars, Katy Perry or Ira Glass, there are a few things to keep in mind, says Ben Lawhon. He is the longtime educational director for Leave No Trace, the widely accepted authority on outdoor ethics.

He says hikers should think of the environmental impacts of their actions and ask “How are my actions impacting other people?”

With that in mind, we decided to run a few questions about trail manners by Lawhon. See if you can pick the correct answer to each scenario. (Hint: The correct answers are C.)


SCENERIO: You want to enjoy music or a podcast while hiking.

YOU SHOULD: A. Strap speakers to your pack and share your love of bluegrass with the world.

B. Resist the urge and find entertainment in the sounds of nature.

C. Use headphones.

THE EXPERT SAYS: First, let’s address a common excuse for blasting music on the trail: It keeps away the bears.

Not likely, Lawhon said.

“Maybe you think it will, but it’s like bear bells,” Lawhon said. “It just gives you a false sense of security and might cause you to let your guard down.”

The best way to keep wildlife away is loud sounds like clapping or singing, Lawhon said. If you play music loud enough to scare away bears, you may also be unnecessarily scaring other wildlife. He gave the example of a heard of elk startled by noise and getting injured while running away.

Lawhon said noise may also have more subtle impacts on wildlife.

“Just Google ‘fox finding mouse in the snow,’ ” Lawhon said. “We know that animals utilize noise for survival. I’m not saying your music is going to keep a coyote from eating. I’m just saying we need to be cognizant of the fact that the noise may have an impact that’s not just social.”

So what to do? Choosing to hike with music is a personal choice, even if many suggest it can be a safety issue.

Lawhon, who says he does sometimes hike with headphones, says consider where you are hiking. And if you want to listen to music, use headphones. If they inhibit your ability to hear potential hazards or other trail users, take out one of the earpieces.


SCENERIO: Your pet decides to make a trailside dog log.

YOU SHOULD: A. Bag it, leave the sack on the side of the trail and then pick it up on your way back.

B. Use a stick to flick the dog dirt off the trail.

C. Bag it, then carry the bag in your pack until you find an appropriate place to dispose of the waste.

THE EXPERT SAYS: This summer, Leave No Trace plans to conduct a study of hiker’s attitudes and beliefs about doggy doo.

“It’s a huge issue,” Lawhon said.

The best way to dispose of pet waste is to collect it in a plastic bag, toss it in your pack and later discard it in an appropriate place. The appropriate place might be a trailhead trash bin or it might be your home trash can.

Some hikers bag their pet’s waste and set it on the side of the trail with the intention of retrieving it on their way back to their car. This is not a good plan, Lawhon said.

Not only is it aesthetically unappealing for the hikers behind you, but it can start what Lawhon calls “a domino effect.”

“People see a bag of poop and think, ‘Oh, that’s what I should do,’ ” Lawhon said. “They rationalize that others are doing it or that a ranger must come through and pick it up.”

This is not true. “It’s pretty easy just to pick it up and pack it out,” Lawhon said.

People see a bag of poop and think, ‘Oh, that’s what I should do.’ They rationalize that others or doing it or that a ranger must come through and pick it up.

Ben Lawhon, education director for Leave No Trace

What about flicking it off the trail with a stick? This is also a bad idea, Lawhon said.

“It can have a real ecological impact,” he said.

Dog dumpings can spread disease to wildlife and promote the growth of invasive plants that might not otherwise grow in the area, Lawhon said.

“People say, ‘What’s one pile of dog crap?’ ” Lawhon said. “But it adds up.”

But what if you’re deep in the wilderness and it’s not practical to carry multiple days’ worth of pet waste?

Follow the same rules humans should in that situation. Dig a 6- to 8-inch hole at least 200 feet from water, trails and camps. Then bury the waste.


SCENERIO: Your horse deposits a fresh bushel of trail apples.

YOU SHOULD: A. Affix a manure collection bag to the back of your animal.

B. Dismount your horse and kick or shovel the horsepucky off the trail.

C. Clean up after your beast to the extent that is feasible.

THE EXPERT SAYS: We’ve addressed this one before, but the answer didn’t sound quite right to me.

The Backcountry Horsemen of Washington follow Leave No Trace guidelines. When I talked to Karen Johnson, director of the Capitol Riders, she said horsemen disperse manure piles at the trailhead and camps, but that it was unrealistic to clean up every deposit horses leave on the trail.

This, I thought, sounded like an excuse to avoid getting out of the saddle and provide the same courtesy as dog owners.

“I can see why you would think that if you don’t ride horses and you’re stepping over, around or in it,” Lawhon said.

But Johnson is correct. “We say you should clean up after horses to the extent possible,” Lawhon said.

“A lot of people say, ‘But you go to a park in Chicago and the police horses have a bag on the back,’ ” he said. “But what are you going to do when you get to camp and you have 5 pounds of horse apples? You’re going to have to dig a pretty big hole.”

Horsemen get a different set of rules for a few reasons. Horse manure consists of more natural materials than the waste from an Alpo-eating dog. Horse waste dries quickly and breaks down faster than other animal droppings.

It can be irritating but put yourself in the other people’s shoes.

Ben Lawhon, education director for Leave No Trace

And unlike other animals, it’s not uncommon for a horse to relieve itself without its owner knowing. Especially, if the owner is using a string of pack animals.

“It can be irritating but put yourself in the other people’s shoes,” Lawhon said.

And if a hiker wants to be extra helpful when coming across a pile of meadow muffins, that’s the time when it’s OK to use a stick to clean the trail.

“If you are so inclined, that’s a good thing,” Lawhon said. “But, of course, there’s no obligation.”