Over the past several years, hiking and backpacking in the Catskills Forest Preserve has increased significantly. While it is great news that more people are exploring these incredible places in our great state, this increased usage, if not responsible, also means increased chances for negative impact on our pristine forests. Here’s a quick guide to everything you need to know to avoid paying $1000 in tickets while also protecting our wild forests and wilderness areas.
Before You Go:
Are you staying more than three nights in one spot while you knock out 10 of your 3500’ peaks? Then you need a permit. Are you staying overnight with 9 of your best friends? Yep, you need a permit for that. Here are a few of the main reasons you would need to contact the local ranger and get a permit before you go:
- Group size 10 and up
- Staying in one place for more than 3 nights
- Filming, research, weddings, etc. Check the DEC website for more information.
With increased usage of trails, small parking areas are being overwhelmed. Parking on the road is not a good option! This causes roads to deteriorate and can create unsafe conditions. You may also get ticketed, or even towed, which is really tough on a road where cellphones don’t work.
Here are a few good rules of thumb:
- Carpool! Either from the city, or meet in a nearby town, leave a few cars for the day, and drive to the trailhead in as few vehicles as possible. Check with local businesses. If you gas up or buy sandwiches, they'll (usually) happily let you park. You can even ask at the restaurant where you plan to have your post-trip meal.
- Have a backup plan. If that trailhead is full, go to your second choice. There are too many great trails to choose from to create unsafe conditions just to hit the peak you initially had in mind.
On the Trail:
Imagine you and two friends decide Friday morning to spend a weekend in the Catskills. After organizing the car, getting groceries, etc. you don’t pull into the parking lot until 10pm. After hiking half a mile in the dark, you’re exhausted. You find a lean-to, but it’s full, so you pitch your tent in the clear area right behind the lean-to and crash with the gentle sounds of the river next to the trail in the background. Only to be woken up at the crack of dawn by a ranger patrolling the trail. You’ve broken multiple rules: camping too close to the trail, to close too a lean-to, and too close to water. If he or she chose to ticket each of you for each offense at $275, that’s $2475 in fines to start of your epic hiking weekend.
Here’s what you need to know.
- No camping within 150 feet of trails, lean-tos, and water (any water, lakes, ponds, rivers, etc.)
- No camping above 3500’, except between December 21 and March 21
- No fires within 150 feet of trails, lean-tos, and water (any water, lakes, ponds, rivers, etc.)
- No fires above 3500’ in the Catskills
While the fines are intimidating, the truth is, the rules exist for a reason: to protect our trails and forests. In addition to avoiding fines, following the rules also helps keep the Catskills as wild and beautiful as they are. Everyone should know Leave No Trace practices any time they go into the woods, but here are a few basics to keep you on track:
- Use existing fire rings. Or build responsible fire rings and dismantle them after use.
- Don’t pollute the water! Wash dishes responsibly with biodegradable soap. Bury or pack out food waste, including orange peels, apple cores, etc. Wash hands and disperse dirty dish water far from camps and water sources.
- Dispose of waste properly. Human waste should be buried at least 6-8” and at least 150 ft from water and trails (200 ft by LNT standards).
- Be respectful of other hikers. Make sure you have a leash for dogs and don’t play music while you hike. You’ll scare away wildlife and disturb the experience for other hikers.
In general, be respectful of those around you. Part of what makes wild places so incredible is that they can be special to all of this. When you throw your orange peels on the ground at the summit or pitch your tent 10 ft from the trail, you’re not just causing problems with erosion and growth, you’re also removing the magic of the wilderness for your fellow hikers. The Catskills Park was one of the first protected wilderness areas in the country and set the standard for our national parks. Let’s make sure all future generations of wilderness enthusiasts can enjoy it the way we do.