Outdoor enthusiasts often prefer visiting different types of locations. Some love trekking high into the Appalachian Mountains, while others enjoy paddling through the river-carved rocks of the Southwest. Some may like to explore the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, while others enjoy ambling about aimlessly amid the grass-dotted dunes of the Gulf Coast.
You like forests; your buddy prefers prairies. One of your kids likes the beach; the other prefers the bayou. But these various locations all share one uniting characteristic, one about which all outdoor enthusiasts can agree: They offer you the chance to spend some time in an unspoiled place, which has suffered only a minimal amount of human impact.
Whatever types of places you prefer for hiking, trekking, camping, Nordic walking or paddling, you surely appreciate that these activities all give you the opportunity to spend time in untouched wilderness areas. However, careless use of these places will quickly ruin them. After all, they’re becoming more and more popular by the day. If those who visit these pristine places aren’t careful, they’ll destroy the very thing that they sought in the first place – natural, untarnished beauty. Fortunately, a lot of outdoor enthusiasts have already begun taking steps to protect these places, and you can join right alongside them. You just have to embrace Leave No Trace Principles.
What Does Leave No Trace Mean?
Leave No Trace is an ethical framework designed to help conserve wild spaces. It is not only important for the people who visit these places, but for the habitats themselves. And this includes all of the plants, animals, trees, rocks and microbes dwelling in them.
The thrust of Leave No Trace is often distilled to the following sentence: Take only photographs (or memories), leave only footprints. Essentially, you’ll want to leave the wild spaces you visit exactly as you found them. However, the Leave No Trace ethic is best exemplified by the Seven Principles. We’ll discuss these – and what they mean to the average outdoor enthusiast – below.
Leave No Trace: Seven Principles
The Seven Principles of the Leave No Trace conservation framework include the following:
1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
In most cases, a well-planned hike or camping trip will cause less environmental damage than a poorly-planned adventure will. People often end up in precarious situations when they’re poorly prepared, which may force them to do things they otherwise wouldn’t.
You may, for example, be forced to cross vulnerable habitats if you become lost, or otherwise disturb ecosystems to extricate yourself from the situation. In a worst-case scenario, you could find yourself stranded or injured. This may necessitate some type of rescue operation, which may cause even further environmental damage.
Accordingly, you’ll want to be sure you do your homework before leaving home. Learn all about the park or forest you are visiting, including the most common natural and environmental threats you’ll face. Contact the local ranger station (or relevant authority) and inquire about any special rules or regulations in effect and be sure to heed the advice given.
2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
Popular trails may endure tens of thousands of footsteps every day. All of this foot traffic will eventually wear away the soil, potentially altering trails and larger landscape features. So, you’ll want to walk across the most durable surfaces possible while making your way through the wilderness.
This means sticking to the designated trail, doing your best to avoid soft and muddy spots, and don’t cross meadows and other delicate habitats. Similarly, when you set up a campsite, try to select places with firm, hardpacked soil. If there are pre-established tent pads present, use them. It is true that erosion is a natural process that occurs in all natural habitats. However, natural erosion occurs on geological timescales – not the course of a summer. So, do your best to tread lightly and avoid exacerbating any erosion already present.
3. Dispose of Waste Properly
Perhaps the most obvious of the Seven Principles, you should always dispose of trash and other types of waste properly when enjoying the great outdoors. For starters, embrace the “pack it in; pack it out” mantra. Always pack out anything you can’t eat, drink or burn and dispose of it in a proper receptacle. Many (if not most) popular campsites have trash cans near the trailhead, so just bring a small garbage bag with you and collect any trash you created when you’re packing up and heading out.
You’ll also have to dispose of human waste properly. Make sure that you dig latrines the recommended distance from nearby water sources (it varies from one location to the next, but 100 yards is a good rule of thumb) and throw in some dirt every time you use it. Toilet paper should be burned, rather than buried. Even the most biodegradable varieties will still take quite a while to break down. Animals may dig it up before it has a chance to decompose, which creates quite an eyesore and a legitimate health hazard.
4. Leave What You Find
You’ll surely encounter a variety of beautiful and interesting artifacts on a given trip through the wilderness. You may stumble across beautiful flowers, fascinating river rocks, or cultural artifacts, left by prehistoric people. In all cases, you must resist the urge to take these types of things home as souvenirs.
No, you won’t single-handedly ruin a forest ecosystem by taking home a particularly pretty pinecone you find, but you aren’t the only one wandering through the forest – if everyone did the same, problems would inevitably occur.
Leaving what you find also means leaving the wilderness in the same state that you found it. This means you shouldn’t make any unnecessary changes to the habitat – don’t dig ditches, nor construct shelters. Try to ensure that the trails and campsites you visit look the same way they did when you arrived.
5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
Campfires are a time-honored tradition, and they’re certainly fun to build and enjoy; however, campfires can become very dangerous if they’re not monitored carefully. Always be sure to set up a proper fire ring if one is not already built and avoid building campfires under overhanging trees. Additionally, you’ll always want to have a bucket of water on hand for safety purposes.
It’s also important to avoid harming the surrounding habitat while collecting firewood. Never cut living branches off trees – it’ll not only harm the tree, but it’ll also make for terrible firewood. Instead, stick to dead wood that has already fallen to the ground. And although some campers may be tempted to bring firewood with them, this is actually a very bad idea, as tree pests are often spread in this manner. In fact, if you really want to leave no trace during your next camping trip, skip the fire entirely. Doing so will not only help protect the environment, it’ll provide you a chance to enjoy the kinds of sights and sounds the fire usually obscures or scares away.
6. Respect Wildlife
Of the seven principles established under the Leave No Trace ethical framework, perhaps none is more tempting for hikers and campers to break that this one. Of course, those who do break this rule rarely mean to do so, they just fail to appreciate the ramifications of their actions.
For example, few hikers or campers would ever deliberately harm a deer, squirrel, rabbit, bear or butterfly. But respecting wildlife means respecting all wildlife – not just the cute, cuddly critters. This means that you’ll want to relocate the spider you found crawling in your tent, instead of squishing him. And you should certainly leave the garter snake crawling through camp unharmed.
Respecting wildlife also means keeping a safe distance from the animals you encounter. Never feed wild animals, as this can cause them to view humans as a food source. In the case of bears and other large animals, this can lead to accidents, which may, in turn, require officials to euthanize or relocate the animal in question. At the end of the day, respecting wildlife means enjoying the encounters that occur, keeping a respectful distance, and avoiding any actions that may harm or threaten the animals living in the wild.
7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors
In addition to treading lightly on the environment, respecting the living organisms that call wild spaces home and cleaning up after yourself, you’ll want to ensure that you don’t prevent other outdoor enthusiasts from enjoying the natural world. This essentially means being considerate and courteous and embracing the Golden Rule.
For example, you’ll want to remain relatively quiet while hiking and camping. People travel to the wilderness to hear babbling brooks and singing birds, they don’t want to hear your conversations from three campsites away. Similarly, refrain from playing loud music, and keep campfire songs to a reasonable volume.
It’s also important to practice good wilderness etiquette. Among other things, this means moving off the trail when you are taking a break, sharing the trail and trying to situate campsites in non-obtrusive places. Additionally, experienced hikers and campers should yield to inexperienced hikers and campers whenever prudent. For example, if you encounter a family that is obviously new to hiking, you may want to point out the easiest river crossings or provide any helpful advice that would benefit them.
The Value of Leave No Trace Principles: Tangible Impacts
It is often hard for outdoor enthusiasts to appreciate the tangible benefits of Leave No Trace principles to achieve. But that’s primarily due to the entire goal of the Leave No Trace ethos – natural areas should look exactly like the same as when you found them.
However, one of the best ways to appreciate the accomplishments of the Leave No Trace movement is by simply visiting different parks. High-traffic parks often experience significant environmental degradation over the course of a summer (or whatever the busy season is for the location). By the end of the season, you’ll notice trash alongside the trail, broken limbs near campsites, and footsteps leading through fragile meadows and fields.
However, if you visit a park where the visitors employ Leave No Trace principles, you won’t see any of these things. The land will look untouched, and you won’t notice signs of campers who came before you. In fact, you’ll surely enjoy such well-respected parks and forests, as they’ll provide exactly the types of natural surroundings most outdoor enthusiasts seek.
Actionable Steps: Seven Things You Can Do During Your Next Outdoor Adventure
Lofty goals and broad initiatives are great, but they can leave your average hiker or camper without a clear idea about what to do. But most people should be able to employ some (or all) of the steps recommended below during their very next outdoor adventure.
- Bring a small trash bag with you every time you hit the trail. It doesn’t take much time or effort to pick up a few pieces of litter you see while enjoying the trail, particularly if you bring a bag with you to carry it back to the trailhead.
- Participate in voluntary cleanup programs. Most major metropolitan areas will have regular, volunteer-oriented park cleanup programs in which you can help do your park to keep natural areas clean. You may not be able to volunteer at your favorite camping location, as most people tend to travel long distances to reach wilderness areas, but you can surely pitch in at your local park.
- Avoid using switchbacks. Properly designed mountain trails are designed in a serpentine This helps limit the amount of erosion that takes place and keep the trail in good condition. However, unscrupulous hikers often go off trail and create “switchbacks” that essentially form shortcuts for the trail. While it may be tempting to shave off any unnecessary steps on the trail, you’ll want to avoid using switchbacks, as they’re very destructive to the trail system and hillside.
- Employ good outdoor bathroom etiquette. In addition to setting up your latrine a safe distance from water, be sure that you don’t set it up directly upwind (or within sight of) other campsites. Utilize shrubs, trees, boulders and other natural items to keep latrines out of the sight of your fellow campers.
- Keep your pet on a leash. While pets often enjoy the great outdoors as much as their owners do, it is important to keep your pet leashed anytime you are in the wilderness. This will not only keep your pet safe, but it will ensure that your dog doesn’t chase and harass local wildlife (or other campers).
- Turn your radio down. Music can help make a camping trip even more fun than normal, but not everyone wants to hear your tunes. So, you’ll want to keep the volume on your radio down, or better yet, use earbuds when enjoying your music.
- Walk single-file on the trail. Whenever possible, try to walk single-file when traveling along unpaved trails. Doing so will help limit the erosion you create, and it’ll also help allow other hikers and campers to pass you easily.
Leave No Trace principles are pretty easy to employ, so every outdoor enthusiast should strive to embrace them. By doing so, you’ll help to protect and conserve the places you love visiting, and thereby allow future generations to enjoy them too.