What is Leave No Trace?
Chances are if you’ve been hiking, you’ve seen the Leave No Trace signage at the trailheads. But what does it mean? Leave No Trace is an ethical practice with a central idea that teaches us we should enjoy nature while minimizing our impact on it. This includes the impact we have on wildlife, overuse, erosion, and trash. We wouldn’t have life without nature, and we can make a difference in protecting this asset with the actions we take daily.
Practicing Leave No Trace
is not limited to the backcountry and trips into the forests- we should be practicing these principles whenever we are in nature. Whether you’re in a local park, on a neighborhood walk, or crossing the grocery store parking lot- practicing Leave No Trace makes a significant impact.
Don’t be a litterbug
The most visible impact we humans make on nature is leaving evidence of our presence in the form of trash, litter, and food scraps. Not only does trash take away from the beauty of our natural spaces but can have a lasting effect on our planet. Some plastics take hundreds of years to break down and end up breaking into small microplastics that are polluting our oceans.
Stay on the trail!
Leave No Trace teaches us that trail erosion and other human-created erosion have a lasting effect on our ecosystem. This includes damage that occurs when we go off trails, cut switchbacks, camp outside of designated sites, or otherwise trample sensitive vegetation. It can take up to 30 years for these fragile ecosystems to repair themselves.
Help keep wildlife wild – don’t feed the animals
We’ve all heard it before do not feed the wildlife, but Leave No Trace reminds us why this is so important. Feeding wildlife, even with the best of intentions, has a negative impact. First, it’s not healthy for animals to go away from their native foods. They begin to associate humans with food which can lead to an association of humans with food, potentially endangering themselves and us.
The 7 Principles of Leave No Trace – Backcountry
1. Plan Ahead and Prepared
Trip planning is key for you to have an enjoyable, safe, and limited impact on the natural space you plan to visit. Planning includes; where you are going to travel, terrain, conditions to expect, where you will camp, fire bans to consider and what you will eat. Leave No Trace teaches us that not preparing or having a plan could lead to poor campsite choices resulting in damage to vegetation. Food planning includes preparing what you will eat, how you will cook your food, a pack-out plan for any packaging, and limiting the potential for excess food waste.
2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
Durable surfaces refer to the type of surface vegetation or terrains you will be hiking on and their ability to withstand wear. Rocks, sand, and gravel offer the most common durable surface, while vegetation and living soil is not durable. Staying on an existing trail is the first step in traveling on durable surfaces. If you must go off-trail, try to stay on rocks or other durable surfaces.
If possible, when you are choosing a campsite, pick an already existing site since they likely have already lost their vegetation cover; even better, pick a site that naturally lacks vegetation. If you are camping in undisturbed areas, Leave No Trace teaches us to minimize our impact by spreading out our tents, camping at least 200 feet from water, avoiding repetitive traffic on vegetation, and avoiding moving camp every night.
The extra effort to help the site naturalize and recover faster should be made when breaking camp. This will include raking out matted grasses, covering areas with natural materials, and brushing out footprints.
3. Dispose of Waste Properly
Leave No Trace educates us that waste is much broader than packing out whatever we brought in, and waste includes human waste, trash, and wastewater. Part of planning and preparation should include learning what the specific rules for waste in the area you plan to visit and coming prepared.
Human Waste and its proper disposal are key to ensuring we are minimizing the spread of disease, keeping water sources clean, promoting decomposition, and avoiding the chance anyone else comes across it. Burying human feces is a generally accepted manner in most locations. However, some fragile environments require solid waste must be packed out.
Toilet paper should either be buried or packed out. Feminine products, including used tampons and pads, should be stored in plastic bags, kept away from camp, ideally hung in a bear bag not to attract wildlife, and packed out. Urinating at least 200 feet from water sources and diluting urine with water from a water bottle limits the salts in urine which attracts some animals.
Trash includes anything that could be evidence of humans, such as plastic packaging, coffee grounds, orange peels, sunflower seed shells, apple cores, excess pan grease, cigarette butts, or fishing line. Your gear should include a waste bag to take out any trash you generate as well as any other trash you may find along the trail. Any trash waste that has been in contact with food should be kept away from camp and hung in a bear bag.
Wastewater disposal includes dishwashing and wastewater from washing yourself. Both should be done at least 200 feet from water sources and ideally without or with minimal soap. This reduces the trampling of vegetation, lessens erosion, and reduces pollutants at the shoreline. Even biodegradable soaps can have an impact on water sources, so their use should be minimized. In fragile ecosystems with limited water, avoid swimming with sunscreen and bug repellant. Even our natural body oils can pollute these sources.
4. Leave What You Find
Nature and wild areas should be left as they are- meaning we are observers enjoying nature but not bringing it home with us. Areas should be left as you found them, such as rocks, plants, and any other items. This includes proactively trying not to damage or alter vegetation, habitats, or trees.
Also, flowers are not picked, rock cairns are not constructed, and absolutely no trees or rock faces are defaced with carvings. Other considerations should be made to ensure our actions are not furthering additional impact on the environment by dismantling campsites. In some situations, it makes sense to keep high-use sites as they are because rebuilding them would have a greater impact on the area.
5. Minimize Campfire Impact
Leave No Trace tells us there should be no evidence of a campfire. Careful consideration needs to be taken when deciding if you should build a campfire. For many, campfires are a tradition and essential to the camping experience. However, more and more of our natural spaces are seeing annual drought conditions and extreme wildfire danger. We need to ensure there is sufficient wood in the area so any removal will go unnoticed.
Standing trees, either dead or alive, are habitats for critters and insects. They should never be used for firewood. The best wood should be small deadwood that is gathered over a large area and away from camp. The best place to build a fire is by utilizing an existing fire ring. It should be kept small, supervised while in use, burned down to ash, or extinguished with water.
6. Respect Wildlife
Never approach, feed, touch, or pursue wildlife. Making contact with or feeding wildlife can be dangerous for both you and the animal. Observe quietly from a distance to avoid disturbing wildlife, so they are not scared. The exception to this is anywhere bears are known to be active; making noise is recommended so the bears are not surprised. Always provide animals with a wide berth, so they feel safe, giving them buffer space.
Campsites should always be at least 200 feet from water sources so animals have free access to drinking water. Garbage, food, and food scraps should be stored separately, ideally hung away from your camp so animals cannot gain access. Dogs should be under control, always leashed, or left at home.
7. Be Considerate of Others
Respect those you meet on the trail so everyone can enjoy their time in nature. A lot of visitors come for the solitude and peacefulness of nature. Avoid excessive noise pollution, including loud talking, obtrusive behaviors, and high music volumes, and consider how your actions may negatively affect others on the trail. Yield to pack stock and uphill hikers. Be sure to announce your presence when approaching others on the trail and before passing. Pick campsites away from other groups and off the trail to shield them from the view of others.