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Beware of hitchhikers on your boots - each step of prevention counts for a kilometer of trail

Exploring BC`s wilderness is rewarding, and avid outdoor enthusiasts know that having the right gear and preparing properly can make all the difference. Along with the typical preparations, have you ever considered how your travelling feet can impact the wilderness long after you`ve headed home? Hiking boots are an ideal carrier for some of BC`s most unwanted invasive plants.

Invasive plants are aggressive hitchhikers that quickly take root in exposed soil and displace native plants and animals. This can cause permanent changes to local ecosystems that can be detrimental to biodiversity, which is needed to maintain healthy habitats. 

One way invasive plants spread is through seed dispersal. Tiny seeds get caught in boot tread and laces, especially if the ground is wet. Seeds can easily be taken to other locations and go unnoticed among the dirt and plant debris clinging to boots. Even if a year passes or you dust off your boots for an occasional outing, seeds can still be viable. With the right growing conditions, a new invasive plant can spring to life where it wasn`t before, creating a whole new, larger population if left unchecked.

Interestingly, a study by Dr. Matthias C. Wichmann of the Center for Ecology and Hydrology at Wallingford, England, found that invasive plant seeds can travel greater distances on boots than by wind. Seeds can travel upwards of five kilometers on hiking boots, and just 250 meters with the wind.

In the study, researchers looked at two invasive plants found along a popular hiking path in southern England. In the experiment, people wearing hiking footwear stepped in mud, then in a tray containing a specific number of seeds, and then walked a given distance, from one meter to five kilometers. Seeds remaining on the shoes were then counted. They found that most seeds fell off during the first 10 to 20 meters. But even with walks of five kilometers, a small number of seeds remained.

Invasive plants spread quickly, degrading the natural scenic beauty sought by recreationalists. Large infestations tend to displace attractive native flowers. The annual trek to see spring wildflowers may be disappointing when none can be found in a sea of garlic mustard. Favourite camping areas overrun by spiny or dense shrubs plants, such as gorse, Himalayan blackberry, or Canada thistle, can make it hard to find a good tent spot.

Since many invasive plants have thorns or spikes, trails can quickly become impassable over a single growing season; a good reason to consider hiking boots as a key pathway for spread! Luckily, hikers can help keep trails free of invasive plants with the following simple prevention measures:

  • Give your boots or walking shoes a solid brushing after each hike, removing any mud or debris that may contain invasive plant seeds
  • Include a whisk broom or brush as part of your hiking gear
  • Clean your clothing, backpacks and equipment before going to a new area to hike
  • If you`re camping, be sure to shake out your tent before breaking camp to dislodge invasive seeds or plant debris.
  • Don’t move firewood; instead, buy it locally. This will prevents the transfer of dangerous pest insects
  • Volunteer with your local invasive plant committee to help prevent and control invasive species.

These precautions can be a bit of a nuisance, but it`s worth the extra effort to protect BC`s wilderness in the long run – every clean boot is worth a kilometer of passable trail. Happy trekking.

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