If you head into the wilderness I’m sure you know to that if you pack it in, you should pack it out. But what else do you need to know to protect nature (and avoid being an a-hole)? Learn how to Leave No Trace when hiking and camping to keep the wilderness wild.
What is Leave No Trace?
After noticing increased impacts on trails, the US Forest Service developed the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace in the 1960s. The idea behind the principles is to leave nature as unchanged by our presence as possible, so that future generations can enjoy it too. In essence, the purpose of Leave No Trace is to keep the wilderness wild.
Why is Leave No Trace Important?
As more and more people chose to hike and camp and camp in wilderness areas, lessening our impact is becoming more and more important. In many areas some trails are getting loved to death by large crowds, garbage and environmental damage. I firmly believe that nature is for everyone. Both experienced outdoors-people and newbies deserve to experience the outdoors.
But in order for that to happen, we all need to learn a bit more about how to be responsible hikers and campers. Remember that we were all beginners once. On one of my first backpacking trips I washed the crusty noodles out of my pot… into a tiny alpine stream. I was surprised when they just sank to the bottom instead of magically flowing away (like they would in my sink at home). I knew I was doing it wrong… but I didn’t know what else to do. It was an important moment for me. I realized that I didn’t know what I didn’t know.. and that I needed to learn more about how to treat the wilderness.
I did some research and learned about the Leave No Trace principles. I’ve been a certified Leave No Trace trainer since 2006, but you don’t need to be an expert to teach others how to Leave No Trace. Anyone can do it! Share your knowledge about Leave No Trace with others. Talk about the Leave No Trace principles with your friends on your next hike. When you post pics from your trips on social media, include info about how to Leave No Trace.
And if you see a stranger doing something not-so-ethical, consider talking to them about it. Be friendly and give them the benefit of the doubt. Don’t be the finger-wagging bad cop. Speak to them as you would a friend. Remember that we are all in this together, and we were all beginners once.
The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace
It’s important to know the seven principles of Leave No Trace. And knowing the “why” and “how” behind each principle makes it a bit easier to understand and apply the principles and to teach them to others.
Plan Ahead and Prepare
What: Research trail info, weather forecasts, park rules, and trail conditions before your hike.
Why: When you do some research before your hike, you are more likely to have a fun and SAFE hike. You will also minimize damage to nature.
- Check the weather forecast and trail conditions to make sure you have the right gear and you are up to the challenges of the trail.
- Check local regulations to find out about closures, permits, fire regulations or other policies.
- Bring a first aid kit and the 10 essentials in case not everything goes according to plan.
- Avoid getting lost: bring a map and compass, a GPS and a trail description to stay on track.
- Repackage food to create less waste on the trail.
READ NEXT: 16 Things to do Before a Hike
Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
What: Hike and camp on durable surfaces like rocks, gravel, and snow.
Why: Some surface like alpine meadows, marshes and bogs are just too fragile to withstand much impact. The vegetation in those areas can take years to grow, and then be destroyed by a few boot-prints.
- Stay on the trail to prevent trampling vegetation. Walk through mud, not around it to avoid widening the trail. Don’t cut corners on switchbacks since that causes erosion.
- In areas with no trails, spread out your tracks to spread out the impact and avoid creating a new trail.
- Camp in a designated campsites or ones that have been used before. Remember the best campsites are found, not made. (You don’t need to dig trenches or cut trees.)
- If there are no designated or previously used campsites, camp on gravel, bare dirt, snow or dry grass to minimize your impact.
- Try to camp at least 200ft/70 m from water sources. The plants by lakes and streams very fragile. Animals need to access water to drink and your presence may scare them off or cause conflict.
Dispose of Waste Properly
What: Pack out all garbage. Learn how to poop and wash the Leave No Trace way.
Why: Animals who learn to eat people food or human waste may stop eating their natural food. It can also make them sick. Garbage, poop and soap can pollute water, making it unsafe to drink or killing plants and fish. Plus garbage and poop on the trails looks disgusting!
- Pack out your trash, including fruit peels and eggshells. They can take months to biodegrade and in the meantime they attract animals.
- Never burn your trash in a campfire. Some materials don’t burn very well so you might leave a mess.
- Wash dishes and yourself in biodegradable soap using your largest pot as a sink. Strain out any large particles then dump your dirty dishwater 200ft/70m from a water source. (Just because soap is biodegradable doesn’t mean it’s good for fish or plants so it shouldn’t go directly into the water source.) Try going without soap – sometimes a wet cloth or a scrubber is all you need.
- When possible, use an outhouse or pit toilet.
- If you have to poop and there is no outhouse, pick a spot 200ft/70m away from trails, campsites and water sources. (This keeps water sources clean so people won’t get sick.) Use a small trowel, a tent peg or a stick to dig a hole 6″/15cm deep, then bury your poop.
- Pack out your menstrual supplies. Learn more about how to camp and hike with your period.
- Pack out your dog’s poop in a plastic bag or bury in it just like you would human poop. Wild animals like to eat dog poop but it is full of bacteria and parasites that they aren’t used to. (Get more Leave No Trace tips for hiking with dogs.)
- Bring a ziploc bag to pack out your used toilet paper. If you packing it out grosses you out, be sure to bury it with your poop. Another alternative is to use natural TP like moss, leaves, rocks or snow. (Snow is particularly refreshing!)
Leave What You Find
What: Leave natural and historical items where you find them. Don’t move them or bring them home with you.
Why: Leaving the trail the way you found it lets others enjoy it too. It also keeps ecosystems intact.
- Leave flowers, rocks and historical artifacts where nature put them. Take a photo and then leave them for others to enjoy. If we all picked a flower or brought home a rock, there wouldn’t be any left.
- Good campsites are found, not made. Avoid building structures, cutting trees or digging trenches.
- Graffiti is never acceptable.
- Don’t build extra inukshuks, rock stacks or cairns unless they are necessary as trail markers. (Did you know many insects and animals live under rocks? When you move them you destroy their homes.)
Minimize Campfire Impacts
What: Plan to cook over a stove, not a fire. If you do build a campfire, learn how to minimize your impact.
Why: Campfires can have negative impacts. They damage the soil and can lead to excessive firewood harvesting in sensitive areas. Plus forest fires are pretty terrible.
- Always bring a backpacking stove instead of planning to cook on a fire. It’s quicker, more fuel efficient and has less impact on the wilderness.
- Consider having a campfire-free night by using a small lantern instead.
- Check regulations before you go to find out if fires are allowed. Many areas have fire bans in place during dry spells or to protect sensitive alpine ecosystems where fires are not appropriate due to fragile soils, short growing seasons for plants and a lack of firewood.
- If you do make a fire, use an existing fire ring and avoid building new ones.
- Keep your fire small.
- Use dead wood that is already on the ground to avoid harming trees. (It burns better too.) Choose small sticks that you can break up with your hands.
- Put your fire out completely when you are done.
What: Give animals some space, and make sure your dog does too. Don’t let animals have human food.
Why: The wilderness is the animals’ home and it deserves respect. They need enough space to maintain their natural behaviour and may attack if provoked. Dogs love the outdoors too but their prey-drive means they may harass wildlife.
- Never feed animals. Your human food isn’t healthy for them and if they develop a taste for human food, they may lose their ability to find food naturally. Some cute animals like squirrels and whiskey jacks have learned to beg for food. Don’t give in!
- Don’t let animals have access to your food. Never leave food unattended. When camping safely store your food for the night inside a food locker or bear canister or learn how to properly hang it in a tree.
- Observe animals from a respectful distance. Use binoculars or the zoom lens on your camera to get a better look.
- Keep your dog on a leash and under control so they don’t chase or bother wildlife. You might think that it’s not a big deal for your dog to chase a squirrel… but if they chase a bear both you and your dog might think it’s a big deal! Research local rules before you go to find out if dogs are allowed and if leashes are required. (Get more tips for Leaving No Trace with your dog.)
Be Considerate of Other Visitors
What: Consider the experience of other visitors. Learn and follow trail and camp etiquette.
Why: We all need to share trails and campsites in order to let everyone experience the wilderness. Some people go hiking for fitness, others to socialize and others hike to spend time in nature. Respect the way that other people wish to experience the wilderness and try not to let your experience negatively impact theirs.
- Yield to other users on the trail. Step off the trail to take breaks so you aren’t in someone’s way.
- Give other groups space at viewpoints or in camp. If there’s a popular photo spot, snap a few pics, then move aside so someone else can have their turn.
- Keep your voice low and avoid yelling. Keep your group together to avoid shouting back and forth. (You’re safer that way too.)
- Leave the music at home (or wear headphones if your life requires your own personal soundtrack). Most hikers and campers want to hear the sounds of nature, not music.
- Keep your group small to create less impact, take up less space and make less noise. A good guideline is no more than 8-10 people.
READ NEXT: 15 Ways to Avoid Crowded Hiking Trails
This is just a broad overview of how to Leave No Trace when hiking and camping. If you are interested in learning more about Leave No Trace you can visit leavenotrace.ca or lnt.org. On those sites you can also find listings for Leave No Trace awareness course providers in your area. Keep Leave No Trace in mind when hiking and camp so we can all keep the wilderness wild.
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