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Leave no trace essentially means that when you head outside you should quite literally ‘leave no trace’ of your time spent in the wilderness. There is also an organization called Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, which outlines the seven principles that will help you leave no trace when you venture outside.
The great outdoors is a fragile place with delicate plants, sensitive animals and intricate ecosystems. When we head into the outdoors we have an affect on these things…often an negative affect. While we do want to head outside to enjoy what Mother Nature has to offer we need to be careful about how much of an impact we have. The principles of Leave No Trace are there to help keep our impact in check. These principles address everything from where you hike to how you interact with animals to what you do with your poop. Let’s dig in…
The first principle is to essentially know before you go. Know where you’re going, prepare for the weather and emergencies by packing the appropriate ten essentials, and travel in small groups whenever possible. In general, groups should be kept to fewer than ~10 people. This will help with both environmental impact and overall group safety [it’s hard to keep track of 10+ people and skill levels/comfort zones vary a LOT]. This principle helps keep you safe for the ‘what if’ mishaps and the impact that comes with being lost or hurt and needing rescue. If you’re fully prepared for all the possibilities of your adventures you’ll be far less likely to need Search and Rescue services…which actually have a very big impact on the wilderness.
In short the second Leave No Trace principles encourages you to stay on the trail and camp in established campsites. Yes, even if the trail is muddy or the campsite doesn’t have a perfect view. Sticking to the established areas will reduce the amount of nature that is trampled by human feet. When camping near a lake or stream be sure to set up camp at least 200 feet away from the water’s edge. The ecosystem near the water is delicate so it’s important to protect it. If you are lucky enough to camp in an untouched area spread out your groups’ tents and avoid making trails from point to point. This will keep your impact from being localized and long-lasting.
The third principle of Leave No Trace sounds simple but it encompasses a lot of our actions in the wilderness. When you’re disposing of waste that includes common litter, micro-trash and human waste.
Take all trash with you, pick up trash on the trail and take all leftover food with you. Nature’s biodegrading takes time and during that time the plants, animals and other humans are negatively affected by what is carelessly left behind.
Squirrels may eat peanuts, orange peels or chips…but if you are out there leaving behind scraps of food all summer, what happens when the squirrels’ full bellies override the instinct to store up food for the winter? The squirrels end up with a very hungry winter that may be their last.
Another form of waste we need to dispose of properly is our own waste — pee and poo. Did you know there is a proper way to go about peeing or pooping in the wilderness!? There is! This is because urine and feces has a negative impact on the environment, especially in large quantities. When you’re using ‘the facilities’ in the great outdoors be sure you’re at least 200 feet away from water sources. For solid waste, dig a 6-8 inch cat-hole to bury the waste.
If at all possible do NOT leave behind any toilet paper! Even if you’re digging a cat-hole to poop in it is best to pack that toilet paper out. If you must leave it behind it should be *under* the poop you’ve left behind [use a stick to rearrange it all before you bury it]. Toilet paper is “just paper” and easily biodegradable, but it is gross and ugly to see on the trails so pack it out! A “bio bag” [resealable bag wrapped in duct tape] is a great way to hide away toilet paper or personal hygiene products. If you’re a lady a great alternative to toilet paper during wild pee breaks is the Kula Cloth. The Kula Cloth is a reusable pee cloth designed for thru-hiking and essentially a must-have for ladies on the trails!
Fourthly…leave it as you found it! Or better yet, leave it better than you found it! Everything in the great outdoors is there for a reason, so leave it there [aside from that trash you find along the trail, take that back with you!]. Don’t pick flowers, don’t take rocks home with you, don’t take anything more than photos!
This is one of the harder principles to enforce, in part because of the temptation and gray areas…flowers are so tempting to pick, pine cones look great on holiday wreaths, etc. It is worth noting that foraging is allowed [and even encouraged] in some areas. This applies to antler sheds, mushroom foraging, Christmas tree chopping and so on. There are many things our public lands can offer us and we are right to take advantage of these opportunities. Just be sure to do it responsibly and within the limitations set by local districts and agencies.
First things fifth — make sure campfires are allowed in the area you’re camping. With the ongoing droughts many areas have bans on campfires. Check with the land managers before you head out [ie: National Forest Service, Ranger Districts, National Parks, etc.]. Sometimes this is as simple as reading signs along the highway of popular areas, but don’t let this be your only resource. Everyone using public lands is responsible for knowing what type of land they are on and what is allowed in that area, which includes knowing what type of fires are allowed. When in doubt, be sure to bring along food that won’t require an open fire [contained camp stoves are often allowed when open campfires are not].
If you are in an area that allows campfires keep in mind that fire has a HUGE impact on the environment. When you are camping in the backcountry keep your campfires small and in control. Do not depend upon them for heat [that requires a much larger campfire!]. Only burn dry logs/sticks and trash that is completely burnable [ie: paper, TP…not styrofoam, cans or plastic]. Before you pack up to leave do what you can do erase the campfire. The best option is to bury your fire. This is very easy if you dig a small fire pit before starting your fire. Burying the fire will also help ensure it is 100% out.
The sixth Leave No Trace principle involves the creatures you’ll encounter along the trails. If you have the pleasure of coming upon wildlife while you’re outside, keep your distance. Do not try to get up close or touch the animals. Do not attempt to feed the animals. Respect the fact you are in their home.
A good rule of thumb, literally, is to give the animal a thumbs up. Hold your thumb up at arms length and close one eye — if the animal is completely hidden behind your thumb then you’re a safe distance. If you can see the animal around your thumb you need to back up!
Interacting with wildlife may seem harmless in the moment, especially when you’re near birds or chipmunks. However, prolonged and repeated human interaction makes the wildlife comfortable with humans. Smaller animals may come to depend upon human food in an unhealthy, unsustainable way. Larger animals may become provoked during mating or calving seasons, or just aggressive about getting to human food. This can result in the animals being euthanized for simply following their instincts.
Finally, no matter where you are going, be conscious and courteous of other trail users! This is especially important if you’re adventuring in an popular area. In general, be kind to other trail users. Uphill hikers and riders have right of way, always yield to horses and avoid being noisy along the trail or at camp.
Another simple way to be considerate to other trail users is to know the trails you are on. Some trails have alternating single use days [ie: bikes on even days, pedestrians on odd days] or one-way routes. Much of this information is listed on the public land websites or on various trail apps such as AllTrails or The Hiking Project.
One big way to have a positive impact on other visitors [both humans and animal] is to partake in all of the previously mentioned Leave No Trace principles.
The Leave No Trace principles were created as a guide to help keep the wilderness wild. By following these seven principles you’ll be able to get outside to enjoy nature while also reducing your impact during your adventures.
There are a lot different ways to ensure you leave little to no impact on the wilderness. From the Kula Cloth to a bio bag to creative camera angles to minimalist camping…you can do so many things to be sure you’re leaving Mother Nature better than you found her!