Save Our Parks: Keep on the Path!

Wandering off the path causes more damage than you might think. Photo:

Question: Why does it matter if I stay on the trail while hiking in the woods and parks?

Answer: People love to be outdoors, and soil is an important contributor to a good outing, whether you are hiking, mountain biking, painting, or just enjoying nature. But humans can have significant impacts on the soil. When we walk on soil, our body weight compresses the soil. Soil compaction occurs when soil particles are pressed together, reducing the space between them. This has several effects.

Uncompacted, loose soil has more pores for air and water between soil particles.

In the figure to the right, you can see that soil particles come in various sizes. In between the particles are open spaces, or “pores”. These pores allow air and water to move through the soil. Air is important because microbes living in soil pores use some of the nitrogen and other elements from air as “food”. And soil holds water and nutrients for plants to use in the same pores. You can see in the figure that compressing the soil limits the amount of air and water soil can hold—and that’s not good for soil microbes or the plants living in the soil.

Heavily compacted soils contain few large pores. This means that water does not move as easily through those soils. Large pores are more effective in moving water through the soil when it is saturated than smaller pores. A very compacted soil will actually repel water during a rainfall, and this vital water will run off into nearby streams and lakes. So, even though it may rain, the plants in the woods remain “thirsty”.

Check with the park office for a trail map when entering parks. Ask the staff which paths are easy, moderate, or difficult, and choose the ones that fit your physical abilities. Natural obstacles like fallen trees may make staying on the path difficult, but it’s important for soil microbes and plant life to obey the signs.

This article by Mary Beth Adams of U.S. Forest Service is from the excellent site Soils Matter, Get the Scoop! of the Soil Science Society of America, a go-to source for valuable and honest information on the soils we garden in.

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

2 comments on “Save Our Parks: Keep on the Path!

  1. Back before Phytophthora ramorum spread as much as it did, some of those who hiked word different boots in areas where the disease was established, and areas where it was not.

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