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Farewell to the Red River Gorge

Farewell to the Red River Gorge

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” – Aldo Leupold,  A Sand County Almanac.


I am not saying goodbye to the Red River Gorge (RRG), nor should you.   However, whether we like it or not, we are all going to be saying farewell to the Red River Gorge as we currently know it.   For those that like to adventure in the RRG, you may have noticed that things are changing.  Some of those things are changing at a rapid pace.  I believe we can make some simple adjustments in an effort to continue enjoying “The Gorge” as we know and love it.   There are 5 main points to consider here.  I want to share with you some of the problems that many have recognized and offer solutions to those problems as well.

Natural Resource Destruction 


Carving or painting on trees and rocks is a negative action that will lead to severe punishment or government restrictions into our wild places.

It seems that there is an increasingly large number of both green and woody stem plant species, mostly trees, that are being destroyed for no good or apparent reason.  One avid hiker (Chance Gunter) snapped the photo you see at the top of this blog piece after he and friends made his way up to Cloudsplitter.  Disappointing isn’t it?  It is not only illegal but also, in my opinion, simply unethical to be doing such things.  I wonder if the increase in the survivalist and bushcraft movement has prompted such things?  As a professional gear consultant and reviewer, I can assure you that the number of axes and machetes that are being sold are phenomenal.  Since the RRG is such a beautiful place, I believe that many people are getting out and trying new tools.  Learning how to properly use your tools is a good thing.  However, I cannot support the destruction of live species of anything.  I have also seen evidence of people cutting live trees and attempting to use their harvest as firewood.  This indicates someone who is new to being outdoors and doesn’t have the appropriate skill set to be doing what they are doing.  The following are a few suggestions on how to overcome this.

  • The Daniel Boone National Forest personnel can implement a more strict access protocol to spending time in the RRG.  One that is based upon permits to the backcountry for any length of time.  These permits should be a few hundred dollars so that species that are destroyed can be appropriately replaced.  DOES SUGGESTING THAT GET YOUR ATTENTION?  Yeah, I don’t want that either.  So let us look at some other alternatives to fix this problem.
  • Simply make a rule for your self that you won’t kill anything that is alive while you are in the RRG.  If you don’t know how to tell if the wood is dead or alive then do the sound and feel test.  If you break a branch that you want to use for firewood, it should have an audible snap.  When it breaks it should break completely apart.  If you break a stick of any sort and it does not make that audible snap and it “sticks” (pun intended) together it should be avoided for use.
  • Don’t make fires at all.  I admit that I thoroughly enjoy a good campfire and this one is hard at times.  However, there are many areas that are being completely destroyed due to fire ring setups.  People place stones or logs together and then leave fires unattended after they believe they have put them out.  This has proven to be disastrous already and will again unless it is stopped.   Avoid fire rings altogether, or if you can’t pass it up, then please put your fire out completely with water and dirt mixed into it.  Place the stones where you found them.  If the fire is still smoking when you want to leave, just realize you can’t leave.  It is not ethical or safe to do so.  Gather more water and more dirt.
  • If you are wanting to try out new tools, do everything you can to find an experienced woodsperson to go with you.  They can show you how to find dead timber and utilize it for practice.   I teach hundreds of people each year in survival and bushcraft.  It is rather easy to avoid live species and in the end, the dead species will most likely do a better job of the task you are trying to accomplish.
  • Leave all artifacts, pretty rocks, and other similar natural features for the next person to see.  Take plenty of pictures, so that you can leave it behind.


Some recent garbage left behind in a rock shelter. This particular trash was brought out by Mr. John May.

Trash Left Behind

It seems each year that there is more trash being left behind at campsites or simply discarded along the trails.  This is the result of flippant laziness.  Pack it in, or pack it out is so cliche’, but is still sound advice.  If you can pack it in, your pack is still lighter when you pack it out because the contents of the containers have now been used up.  So pack those containers out and recycle them appropriately.   If you pack it out, most of those items can be recycled and when they can’t they are put into a landfill that is built to increase decomposition of materials.  Here are some suggestions to help this serious problem.

  • If you carry something in, then please carry it out.  It is that simple.
  • If you want to improve the gorge.  Carry a discarded ice bag, grocery bag, or similar to carry out garbage each time you go to the gorge.  If enough people are seen doing this, it could have an important effect on those around us.  It has been said that we are the average of the 5 people that we spend the most time with.  If you head into the gorge with some friends and carry out garbage each time, chances are they will begin doing the same.  That sort of thing will have a huge effect on the garbage that is currently there.
  • Learn how to visit the wilderness more simplistically.  This means you most likely do not need all the stuff you think you do when you head into the woods.  Find some time to go into the wilderness with an experienced outdoors person, or an ultra-light backpacker.  Much can be learned from these type of folks in how to go into the wilderness with less “stuff”.


A NRS alumni student keeping sharp on his wilderness navigation skill set.

Lost Proofing Yourself

Nature Reliance School has also been fortunate to train search-and-rescue (SAR) personnel on the federal, state and local level. I have the good fortune of having many good friends who are SAR volunteers.     These are the teams in the colored shirts that you see going into the gorge to rescue those that have gotten lost, injured, or worse in the RRG.  I queried several of them for this blog piece, here are some highlights that will help you to not get lost.

  • Whenever you go to the RRG (whether it is for a one hour or one week) make sure you pass on some important information to someone that is not going with you.  This person needs to be someone you know that is interested in your well-being.  You should tell them where you are going, when you expect to return, who you are going with, and the phone numbers of everyone in your party.  There are several reasons for this.  All of this information assists in helping SAR to find you should you not return at the designated time.  If you do not have someone such as this, then you can leave an approximate hike itinerary on the dash or front seat of your vehicle.  In an emergency, this information can be accessed to find you.
  • Know the name of the trail that you are hiking on.  Pay attention to the location of the parking lot in which you leave your vehicle.
  • Know the length of the trail that you are going to be on.  Verify with a map or app that a trail that is supposed to “circle back” actually does.
  • If you use an app on your phone (our favorite is Gaia) then make sure your location is determined by GPS rather than cell tower triangulation.  This means your GPS will continue to work even without cell coverage.  We recommend you turn the phone on Airplane mode while hiking.  This serves to conserve battery and still allows you to use the app.  Some apps may require you to download maps, if that is the case then do that before you go.
  • Always have a battery backup for your phone.  If for some reason you don’t and attempt to use your phone to call 911 or a SAR team, dont wait until it is nearly out of battery.  Better to call them early and they be able to communicate with you.  Please also note that while there are some areas in the RRG with cell coverage, there are many others without.  DO NOT go into the RRG thinking that your cell phone is your ticket to safety.
  • Always have a paper map of the area as a backup.  A topo map (and the ability to read it) is best, but at the very least pick up a trail map.


The author’s regular daypack with plenty of gear that weighs less than 15 lbs and is more than enough gear to make an unexpected overnight much more comfortable.

Always take basic overnight safety supplies…always

The exact number of stories of rescues in which someone went out for a “short day hike” and then spent a long and uncomfortable night outside without supplies is unknown.  Suffice it say that it happens often.  There are a few things that we recommend that you take with you, every single time you go into a wilderness area.

  • First aid kit.  The number one injury in the backcountry is a break or sprain below the knee.  Get some basic first aid training and know how to properly splint an ankle.   Don’t assume that you will be able to “man up” and just carry someone out.  It will not work out too well.
  • Shelter.  This includes proper clothing for the hike including the possibility you may stay the night unexpectedly.  A good rip-stop, nylon tarp is good.  A 55 gallon 3mil garbage bag is a better-than-nothing choice.
  • Firestarting Material.  A good lighter/ferro rod combo and some Fast Fire Cubes make fire making under problematic conditions easy to make with just a small amount of knowledge.  If it means your life depends upon a fire, there is no cheating.
  • Water.  You should start out any hike by being hydrated and then also carry water with you.  Take it a step further by carrying a water filter with you as well.  Make sure everyone in your party is utilizing this advice.  If you are well hydrated and someone in your party is not, then you will all have may have the need to assist that one person.
  • Incidentals.  There are a few others that will make life easier for you if you have to stay the night or wait on SAR to come get you.  They include a flashlight, bandana, cordage, and duct tape.  Each of these items have near endless possibilities for your use.

Get more out of your next trip

In an effort to conquer the next wall, trail, or find a new arch you have not seen, don’t forget to be in the moment.  So much effort is put on the conquering of wild places.   Although overcoming obstacles, working hard on goals, and doing amazing and improbable human feats are important.  I would say it is truly an American way.  However, let us not forget that we need to do our part to help maintain the viability of the RRG as a public place that we can all go to enjoy for generations to come.  Enhance your experience and your safety by having better situational awareness along the way, here are three simple tips to do this.

  • Look up and out often.   Sometimes we get focused on the ground in front of us, take time to pause and enjoy the views as well.
  • Ask yourself, “what am I missing?”.  Often times we get into our own thoughts and forget why we are out there.  Stop regularly and take a good hard look around you.  I guarantee that you if you do this, you will see something you were missing.
  • Ask yourself questions.  When you see unique rock formation, tree, plant or track, play the role of detective and try to figure out why it formed that way, what made it or similar.  The inquisitive nature of such things will need to a more enriched experience while you are there.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog.  If you felt it was meaningful, then please consider sharing it.  And as always, I hope to see you on, or off, the trail!

[NOTE:  Many thanks go out to John May, Tiffany Conway, Barbara Graham and Tracy Trimble who are all SAR volunteers in the RRG, they offered much advice for this piece.  Many thanks also to Mr. Kirk Gilchrist, RRG adventurer, who shared many helpful insights into the RRG and how we can all continue to enjoy it and leave it better than how we find it. ] 

UWG-139Craig Caudill is the Founder and Chief Instructor of Nature Reliance School. He specializes in teaching outdoor related topics to include, survival, tracking, nature awareness and more for private or public groups, and government agencies.  Craig is the author of two books, Extreme Wilderness Survival and Ultimate Wilderness Gear  and co-author of Essential Wilderness Navigation all from Page Street Publishing, distributed by Macmillan Publishing.  

Craig is a frequent contributor to TV outlets, blog sites, magazines, and writes a weekly column for The Winchester Sun.  He is a popular online outdoor educator on his YouTube channel.  Pick up the books, subscribe to him on youtube, or join Craig and the other NRS Instructors in a class so they can help you be more safe and aware in the outdoors.







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