As a fair-weather walker I frequently find myself on routes that have suffered from erosion due to the large numbers of people hiking along them. I wish to cause the least possible amount of further problems of this sort and I wondered what was the best way? Ought I to stick to the worn path, minimising the extent of the damage, or bypass the badly-affected areas, minimising the intensity of the erosion. Or is there some other better way?
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The only real way to stop erosion is of course not to walk on them at all - but that's not really a viable solution per se!
Realistically, I'd stick to the marked, worn path. Most people will do that anyway, so you'll be treading on well worn ground which has two main advantages over trudging elsewhere:
There's no real hard and fast rule of course and some people's strategies may differ. The other thing to remember is that a lot of erosion is seasonal, and therefore not as bad as you might think - in summer for instance, paths tend to get eroded a lot, but in the less popular walking seasons they're often repaired and recover.
The Leave No Trace (LNT) principles actually cover footpath erosion and give specific guidelines to minimize the impact of hikers on trails.
First and foremost, travel on the trail.
Second, choose where you thread on a basis of durability. How much will the ground you are walking on be affected by your footsteps?
In order of Most to least durable:
I have no direct evidence to support this, but I believe that wearing minimalistic shoes like moccasins or Vibram toe shoes reduces trail damage, as does learning to walk and run barefoot.
Soft-soled shoes conform to the terrain rather than gouging in. You also learn to walk with less impact when wearing this kind of shoe.
Going barefoot, even if not while actually hiking, teaches one not to twist, drag, or skid his feet as this will cause blisters. Once learned this smoother motion should carry over to hiking as well, at least in soft shoes that are conducive to the stride.