With Instagram and other social platforms blowing up with gorgeous outdoor photos we have all been hearing more about “Leave No Trace” and how social media may have a negative impact on our beloved natural areas. It almost feels like Leave No Trace is the trendy thing to talk about right now [honestly, being awesome to Mother Nature should always be trendy…]. So, let’s talk about it. Not because we’re trendy [I’m not, trust me], but because it is a very important topic. Our ability and willingness to embrace the Leave No Trace principles really does have an impact on the world we love to explore on foot.
Have you seen the ‘pack it in, pack it out’ signs at busy trail heads or on national park websites? Have you hiked with friends who tell you that you must walk *through* muddy sections of trail, rather than around? Do you know why? More importantly, are you curious about why everyone seems to care so much about ‘leave no trace’?
So, let’s tackle some of those questions and help you take on the trails with sustainability in mind!
What does Leave No Trace mean?
Leave no trace essentially means that when you head outside you should quite literally ‘leave no trace’. 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.
Why is Leave No Trace important?
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…
What can we do to Leave No Trace?
There are seven principles to Leave No Trace, so let’s take a look at each one of those principles + how it will help us be better outdoor stewards.
1: Plan Ahead + Prepare
Know where you’re going, prepare for the weather and emergencies, and travel in small groups whenever possible. In general, groups should be kept to fewer than ~10 people, for 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.
2: Travel + Camp on Durable Surface
In short, 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.
3: Dispose of Waste Properly
Take all trash with you, pick up trash on the trail and take all leftover food with you. This is important because…well, littering is bad. Yes, even if it is technically biodegradable! Nature’s biodegrading takes time and during that time the plants, animals and other humans are negatively affected by what is carelessly left behind.
Have you thought about the impact any of your left behind food has on the animals in the area? Yes, 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. This doesn’t take into consideration how a massive change in diet affects the entire squirrel population. This is the case with all wildlife, squirrels are just a great example because they will happily scavenge your scraps, even stealing food right out of your pack.
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.
Never, ever leave behind your 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]. Yes, I know toilet paper is “just paper” and easily biodegradable, but it is gross and ugly to see on the trails so pack it out!
Get some great tips on relieving yourself outdoors in this Instagram discussion with Katie Boue! She talks about wag bags, where poop biodegrades fastest, what environments really can’t sustain decomposing human poop and more. Go beyond her words to check out the comments…so many great tips. Including many people who love the Kula Cloth for your pee breaks!
4: Leave What You Find
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.
5: Minimize Campfire Impacts
First things first — make sure campfires are allowed in the area you’re camping. With the ongoing droughts throughout the US many areas have bans on campfires, so check with the land managers before you head out. 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 a fire.
If you are in an area that allows campfires keep in mind that fire has a HUGE impact on the environment, even if it is contained. 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. I personally prefer to bury it, which 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. Another option is to distribute the COLD ashes throughout the area…just be sure the ashes are completely and unquestionably cold or this may result in a forest fire.
6: Respect Wildlife
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. This will negatively impact the animals in many ways. 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, which no one wants to be responsible for.
7: Be Considerate of Other Visitors
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.
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.
Now that we have addressed the basics of the leave no trace principles, let’s start putting them to use on our outdoor adventures. Better yet, let’s start sharing our knowledge with the others so we can all continue to enjoy the great outdoors together for years to come!