Leave No Trace
Imagine this…you’ve hiked several miles into a remote wilderness area, and you have finally reached the end of trail. You know that over the next ridge there is a gorgeous waterfall. However, when you finally reach your destination, you are horrified to discover that the area is littered with beer cans, plastic bags, uneaten food, and most disgustingly, a dirty diaper! Wouldn’t that be a huge disappointment? When you are hiking and backpacking, you have a responsibility to create as little impact as possible on the environment. You owe it to the people who will come to the area after you, to the animals that call the area home, and to nature itself.
How can you enjoy nature without disturbing it? The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is an organization that is dedicated to low-impact hiking and camping. Their philosophy and principles, known as Leave No Trace, have been adopted by many hikers and backpackers. Leave No Trace principles address two primary concerns: environmental impact and aesthetic impact. The basic philosophy of Leave No Trace can be summed up in a well-known slogan: Leave only footprints, and take only pictures.
In practice, Leave No Trace consists of seven principles that guide how you should conduct yourself when hiking and camping. Here are the seven principles:
§ Plan ahead and prepare: Planning ahead can help you reduce your environmental impact. Make sure you know what the rules are for the area you are traveling in. Most of the time, these rules and regulations are there for a reason: to keep the area in an attractive, natural state. For example, fire regulations are in place to keep you from starting a wildfire, which could burn down the forest and endanger wildlife and other campers.
§ Travel and camp on durable surfaces: You may not think of setting up a tent as a harmful activity, but tents can impact the area you camp in by crushing fragile vegetation. Fires burn hot and can scorch the earth, and moving rocks to create a fire ring disturbs the creatures that live under the rocks. So, choose your campsite carefully. Look for areas that are free of vegetation, or camp in sites that someone else has already used. If you are camping in area where no one has camped before, try to alter the area as little as possible. When you leave, try to use leaves or pine needles to erase footprints and other areas where vegetation has been removed and soil exposed. Stick to existing trails unless the trail has been blocked by an obstacle such as a fallen tree-creating your own “shortcuts” by circumventing switchbacks harms vegetation and creates erosion.
§ Dispose of waste properly: Out of all of the seven principles, this one is probably the most important to follow. There are two types of waste that you will need to be concerned about in wilderness areas: trash and your own waste. As far as trash is concerned, follow this simple rule: You pack it in, you pack it out! This includes any and all plastics, cardboard packaging that has been marked with colored ink, soda cans, beer cans, etc. If you are strong enough to drag a six-pack of beer out into the woods, you are obviously strong enough to carry out the empties! Even better, try to create some good karma by packing out trash that other people have left. As far as using the bathroom goes…when you have to pee, just find an out of the way place to do it. When you have to go do “number 2,” you will need to dig a cathole. A cathole is the preferred method of disposing of solid waste because it keeps it out of the way of other people and animals as it decomposes. In most cases, the cathole needs to be 6-8 inches deep. However, in the desert it should be shallower, only 4 to 6 inches. Make sure to fill in the cathole with dirt after you’re done! Also, location is important-make sure that when you use the bathroom you are at least 200 feet from the nearest water source!
§ Leave what you find: Wilderness areas are full of treasures: dainty wildflowers, interesting rocks, possibly even artifacts such as old arrowheads. It can be tempting to take souveneirs, but you shouldn’t remove items from natural habitats. Also, try to leave natural areas as you find them-including your campsite.
§ Minimize campfire impacts: Leave no trace often means forgoing a campfire completely in favor of a stove and a lantern or candle. However, if you are going to have a campfire, you should try to minimize its impact. For example, only have a fire if you are in an area that has enough wood to provide ample firewood. If wood is scarce, that’s a sign that either there is not enough natural firewood available to make having a fire practical, or the area has been over-harvested. Only use a fire ring if there was already one there when you arrived at the campsite-don’t build them. If possible, use a metal firepan instead or build your fire on top of a mound of dirt, at least 3-5 inches thick. Once the fire is completely extinguished, scatter the ashes. Also, make sure to consider fire safety: check the regulations for the area you visit first, do not leave a burning fire unattended, and extinguish it completely with water when you’re done. Remember, this is not only a matter of preserving wilderness, it’s a matter of personal safety for you, the firefighters that would be called in to fight a fire, and the people that live nearby. Finally, if you start a forest fire you could be held liable for the cost of putting it out.
§ Respect wildlife: If you are lucky enough to encounter an animal on the trail, observe it from a distance but leave it in peace. Don’t follow the animal, chase it, or allow your dog to chase it. Make as little noise as possible so as not to frighten the animals.
§ Be considerate of other visitors: In addition to avoiding environmental impact, someone committed to Leave No Trace ethics also tries to avoid creating an aesthetic impact on natural areas. Don’t play loud music, scream, run, or fight-this can disturb other visitors to the area. Choose campsites that are out of sight of the trail-ideally, other visitors should not be able to see you. Also, don’t use gear that is brightly or unnaturally colored-try to blend in with the natural surroundings. However, use common sense-this particular Leave No Trace principle should be modified during hunting season. If there is a chance that you might encounter a hunter on the trail, you should NOT try to blend in to the area. Wear hunter orange, and a lot of it. If you are bringing your dog with you, the dog should also have something orange on.
Using the Leave No Trace principles as ethical guidelines whenever you are out in the wilderness can help you minimize your impact on the earth, preserving the wilderness experience for other hikers as well as for future generations.