As more people start to enjoy the outdoors, the potential for human impact on our wilderness areas increases. More feet, more trash, and more fires all leave their mark on the natural world in one way or another. The seven Leave No Trace Principles are the cornerstone of a program and movement intended to minimize that impact and ensure that people can enjoy the beauty of our wilderness areas for many years to come. By educating yourself and helping to further the movement, you can help conserve our most cherished places and can inspire others to do the same. In this article I briefly explain each of the principles and suggest ways you can put these into practice.
1. Plan ahead and prepare
Proper planning and preparation helps backpackers and other wilderness users to accomplish trip goals safely while also minimizing damage to the environment. Poor planning, on the other hand, often results in damage to wilderness areas, unhappy campers, and even the occasional rescue callout. How do you avoid putting yourself in such a situation? Follow these steps:
Do thorough research
Research the area you plan to visit. Speak to land managers and consult maps, guidebooks, and online resources. Try to answer all these questions:
- Are there any restrictions around fires or firewood?
- Are there any issues around land access?
- What are regulations concerning the disposal of human waste?
- What can you expect from the terrain?
- What are weather conditions likely to be like?
- How will adverse conditions affect the terrain?
- Where can you expect to find water?
- Where will you find cell signal if you need it?
- What are the abilities of group members?
Pick a goal that matches the group’s ability
Once you know what your group’s abilities are – leave nothing to chance – you can pick a goal that matches their skill and fitness level, bearing in mind that this will have to be within the ability of the weakest person in the group. And be honest about your own abilities. Many rescues are a direct result of people overestimating their abilities and underestimating their objective.
Make a plan
Every objective needs a plan, although the scope of that plan will depend on the ambition of the enterprise. Trips lasting days will require you to figure out daily distances to be covered, extraction points to be used if something goes wrong, and alternative plans for bad weather. Finally, don’t forget to leave your itinerary with someone who can notify search & rescue authorities if you aren’t back by a certain time or date.
Compile a kit list
Once you know what to expect from weather and terrain, you can compile a kit list. Clothing and gear should be sufficient for the worst conditions you are likely to encounter. Don’t skimp on warm clothing unless you are absolutely sure of a fair-weather window and have sufficient experience at getting by with minimal gear. The same goes for everyone else in the group. Your research should also tell you whether you will have to bear-proof your food supply or pack out human waste.
Too little food will mean going hungry, and too much food will result in waste. There’s an art and science to prepping meals for the backcountry trips, and I have an entire article dedicated to the topic. For now it should suffice to say that for every full day on the trail you want to plan three meals that, with snacks, will collectively meet the daily calorie requirements of an active person. Ideally these would be meals that require no cooking or one-pot meals that can be cooked over a stove.
2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
The goal of leave-no-trace travel is to pass through and enjoy wilderness areas while limiting one’s impact on the landscape. There are a few ways you can do this.
Stick to the trail where possible
It’s better to have one well-designed route than many poorly chosen paths, and by sticking to established trails, you’ll reduce the likelihood of other trails developing and scarring the landscape. Where that is not possible, walk only on durable surfaces. ‘What’s meant by durable surfaces?’ you ask. Durable surfaces are those that can withstand repeated trampling and scuffing, like sand, gravel and rock. Cryptobionic soil is the opposite of durable in that it is easily damaged and takes a long time to recover
Use trekking poles with care
The steel carbide tips on trekking poles provide a solid point of contact between you and the ground, but they can also scar rocks and damage vegetation. On very popular trails like the Appalachian Trail, the scarring of metal tips is so extensive that the thousands of little white marks are easier to follow than blazes. Swapping steel carbide tips for rubber tips is one solution, but these too can leave thousands of little punctures in the soil – enough to muddy the trail or make it look freshly plowed. On very busy trails, one of the best ways to reduce your impact is to put your poles away when you don’t really need them.
3. Dispose of waste properly
This is probably the most obvious way in which you can preserve the natural appearance of wilderness areas. Pack out all trash and dispose of human waste in a way that complies with the regulations in that area.
Pack out trash
Litter is not only ugly; it can also be harmful. Plastic bags, cigarette butts, bottles and empty food packing can contaminate soil and water sources and can attract animals to a campsite. A simple plastic bag will usually suffice for packing out trash, but if you know you’re going to have to pack out smelly or greasy food packaging, rather use a ziploc bag. Before leaving a camp or rest stop, search the area for micro-trash such as stray pieces of wrapper and food, including seemingly ‘harmless’ organic trash such as orange peels and pistachio shells.
Dispose of human waste safely
If not disposed of properly, human waste can pollute water sources, spread disease, and simply spoil someone’s day when they find it. In some places, you’ll be able to dig a cathole or latrine. In other areas, you’ll have to pack out all human waste. Land management agencies can advise you of specific rules for the area you plan to visit. Toilet paper should be used sparingly and disposed of properly. As with solid waste, it should either be buried in a cathole or packed out. My article on pooping in the woods explains how you can do this as ‘safely’ as possible.
Wash up away from water sources
Disposing of waste properly also means being careful with what you do with water used to wash yourself or your kit. To wash yourself or your dishes, carry water 200 feet away from the water source and away from your camp – especially important if bears or other wildlife is a concern – and disperse the dirty water over an area that will drain (not rock). This will ensure that the soil filters out contaminants before the water reaches a river or stream. On that note, use soap sparingly. Even biodegradable soap can affect water quality, so use only as much as you need.
4. Leave what you find
Aim to leave areas as you find them. Ideally, you’d do nothing to change a campsite or rest stop, but if you do, just return the place to its original state before you leave.
Leave a campsite as you found it
Before leaving, return the campsite to the state you found it in or better. Rudimentary tables and chairs made from logs and rocks should be dismantled and their materials returned to where they were found. If you had to dig a drainage ditch around your tarp or shelter, make sure that you fill it in before you leave.
Leave natural objects in place
Picking a few flowers wouldn’t leave much of an impact if it were only you who did the picking. But, if every visitor took just a few flowers, a popular area could look very different. Non-living natural objects should also be left in place. Antlers, petrified wood, and colourful rocks add to the beauty of the backcountry and should be left there so that others can experience the same sense of discovery upon finding them. In national parks and many other protected places, it is illegal to remove natural objects.
5. Minimize campfire impacts
Nothing warms the mood of a campsite quite like a fire. Unfortunately, fires also have the potential to degrade the natural appearance of wilderness spots if overused or used incorrectly. Here’s what you can do to mitigate that impact.
Stoves are low impact
The development of lightweight camping stoves has encouraged a shift away from using fires for cooking. Stoves are fast, efficient, and fuss-free. They can be used in any weather, and don’t require you to create a fire ring or to go looking for firewood. It’s no surprise then that they’ve become essential equipment for leave-no-trace camping. See my gear guide on camping stoves to learn how to choose the best camping stove for your needs.
Lessen the impact of fires
If you have to have a fire – maybe you want to BBQ – there are some things you can do to lessen the impact. Build a fire. in an existing fire ring if there is one. And create one if there isn’t, remembering later to return rocks to where you found them. Avoid building fires next to rock outcrops where the black scars will remain for many years. And when the fire is burning, keep a close eye on it. Wood should burn completely to ash, after which the fires should be extinguished with water. Finally, eliminate any trace by sprinkling the wet ash over a large area.
It’s best to not make a fire in areas where there’s only a little wood: higher elevations, popular campsites, and desert areas. The harshness of alpine and desert environments make for harsh growing conditions for trees and shrubs. As a result, the regeneration of wood sources often cannot keep pace with the demand for firewood in these areas.
Consider the following before deciding to make a fire:
- Are there restrictions that prohibit or limit fire making?
- Is there so much wood that its removal won’t be noticed?
- Would you damage the surrounding area in making a fire?
- Do group members have the skills needed to lessen the impact of a fire?
- Is there a risk of wildfire? Late summer is a bad time to be lighting fires.
6. Respect wildlife
Human encroachment is stressful enough to animals without them having to worry about strange-smelling bipeds also chasing them all over the place. Of course, it can also be hard to know what animals see as threatening. When you don’t know what would disturb an animal, it's best to err on the side of caution.
Do not approach or disturb wildlife
Do not approach wildlife just because you want to get a better look. Observe wildlife from a distance they are comfortable with – that which does not cause them to flee. In hot or cold weather, a disturbance can affect an animal’s ability to withstand the rigors of the environment, and you could unwittingly endanger an animal by causing it to move. Even if an animal does not show signs of avoidance, do not touch, get close to, or pick it up. Sick or wounded animals can scratch, peck, and bite, earning you a trip to the doctor for a rabies shot.
Travelling in bear country
Generally, it’s best to travel quietly. Besides preserving the peacefulness, you’ll also have a greater chance of seeing wildlife. The exception to this rule is bear country, where you want to create a little noise so as to warn bears that you’re in the area. The usual call is “Hey bear”. It’s also important to dispose of waste properly when there are bears around and to bear-proof your food supply – know how to use a bear canister or bear bag. Attracting bears to your camp with the smell of food or food waste can create problems for you, other campers, rangers, and the animals themselves.
7. Be considerate of others
As more and more people start using outdoor spaces, it becomes even more important to be considerate toward other trail users. Excessive noise, uncontrolled pets, and a reluctance to share the trail can all make for an unpleasant outdoor experience.
Right of way on shared trails
The general rule on a narrow trail is that hikers (anyone on foot actually) headed downhill will step aside for uphill hikers, while walkers will yield to equestrians. Mountain bikers will generally yield to both unless they’re on a purpose-made bike trail. Become familiar with the rules when on new trails, and when you wish to pass, politely announce your presence and intention. If you need to take a break, do so on durable surfaces well off the designated trail.
Leave the portable speakers at home
Many people get outside to find some peace and quiet, and then there are others who won’t share your taste in music. Portable speakers are not a good idea unless you and your group have a campsite or rest spot to yourselves. Earbuds can be a less obtrusive way to enjoy music, but if you have the volume turned up so high that you can’t hear someone behind you when they want to pass, your preference for music will again affect the experience of other trail users.
Thank you for doing your bit
Our wilderness spaces are precious, and it takes a collective effort to protect them. Thank you for doing your part and helping preserve them for current and future generations. If mother nature could give you a high five, she would.