Backcountry campers more likely to stray from 'leave no trace' principles, U of A study shows

If a backcountry hiker feeds the wildlife, does anybody notice? It’s a question that could be asked following a University of Alberta study that shows frontcountry campers seem to be more committed to following best practices to preserve the environment.

But overall, Alberta park visitors in the study scored better than those in Ontario

Reservations for campgrounds in many national parks open this week. In Alberta, Jasper bookings opened Tuesday while Banff reservations begin Wednesday. (Parks Canada)

If a backcountry hiker feeds the wildlife, does anybody notice? 

It's a question that could be asked following a University of Alberta study that suggests frontcountry campers seem to be more committed to following best practices to preserve the environment.

The result was a surprise, lead researcher Clara-Jane Blye told CBC Radio's Edmonton AM on Tuesday.

"I don't think it's that they're not devoted or that they're not really passionate about the environment," said Blye, a PhD student at the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation, who interviewed backcountry campers as part of her research. 

"I think it has more to do with being out in nature, so far away from our rules and regulations of everyday life, and being so far away from enforcement officers and parks staff and other people who actually enforce some of these quote-unquote rules."

The 2015 study surveyed visitors in Alberta's Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and Ontario's Algonquin Provincial Park. It was designed to test people's knowledge of and attitudes toward the main principles of Leave No Trace, an education program that has been around for more than 50 years.

The principles are centred around planning and preparation, travelling and camping on durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly, minimizing campfire impact, respecting wildlife, leaving what you find and being considerate of other visitors. 

The massive Algonquin park was the first in Canada to establish a formal relationship with Leave No Trace in 2011. The much smaller Peter Lougheed park, established in 1977, uses an educational campaign that was developed in-house by Alberta Parks.

Alberta park visitors score better than Ontario's

The survey found that backcountry campers were twice as likely to rate themselves as having expert knowledge of the Leave No Trace principles. 

However, when the survey presented scenarios such as pitching tents on undisturbed areas or keeping dogs on leash, the responses of frontcountry visitors scored better, she said.

"When we asked them specific behaviours, folks in the frontcountry were more likely to have attitudes in line with Leave No Trace — things like travelling on established trails, or having your dog on leash, or having a campfire when there is no existing campfire ring," she said.

The comparatively smaller number of backcountry travellers do keep their environmental harm to a minimum, she said.

"But at the same time, we're seeing more and more people enter the backcountry, especially with the use of technology — things like GPS mapping on your phone and, of course, Instagram," she said. 

"Potentially, we could be seeing these effects magnified and multiplied by people not following some of these rules." 

National park campsite reservations underway

As well as the differences between front- and backcountry campers, the survey also discovered that Alberta park visitors had better outdoor ethics than their Ontario counterparts.

Blye thinks that is a credit to the Alberta Parks' educational program, which highlights the risks of making poor choices.

"Alberta Parks … actually talks about the 'why' — why you have to follow proper bear safety and proper fire safety," she said. "The messaging is really tailored toward some of those bigger risks and those important behaviours."

It it turns out the deeper campers go into the woods, the less likely they are to follow the golden rule to leave no trace behind. I'll talk to a researcher who looked at camping attitudes in the front country and backcountry. 5:38

This week, Parks Canada is opening up its online reservation system for frontcountry campsites across the country

In Alberta, bookings opened for Jasper National Park on Tuesday. Parks Canada spokesperson Steve Young said 8,611 reservations were processed within the first two hours, compared to 6,500 last year.

"To give you an idea of how busy that is, we're within 100 of our total for the first day of 2019," he said.

The enormous traffic spike caused some navigation problems for approximately 10 minutes when reservations came online at 8 a.m., but Young said quick adjustments to the server solved the issue.

On Wednesday, online reservations can be made for Banff National Park, while the rest of Alberta's national parks will open for bookings on Thursday. 

Reservations for backcountry camping spots in Jasper and Banff will begin on Jan. 22. 

Blye's study is published in the March edition of the Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism.


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