Leave No Trace 101: The 7 Principles


, by Greg Heil

Photo: LNT.org

I remember when I was first introduced to the concept of "leave no trace" (LNT). Despite growing up in Central Wisconsin—hiking, camping, mountain biking, mountain boarding, downhill skiing, snowboarding, canoeing, hunting, fishing, you name it—so-called wilderness ethics were unheard of in the podunk backwater I grew up in. Granted, my father (who worked in forestry and recreation) and my other outdoor sports mentors thankfully brought me up with common-sense respect for the land, such as not littering, packing out what I packed in, and not damaging the vegetation or the landscape, true "wilderness" ethics were a learning experience that I didn't have until I was out of high school.

My LNT education took place at the age of 19 as I was training to be an adventure guide for a youth camp in Colorado. On the first day of our staff training backpacking trip (my first backpacking trip ever), we were taught about how to properly bury waste in the backcountry, how to fluff-and-duff a campsite, pack out whatever we packed in (including toilet paper), and so much more. This was all entirely new to me, as I was accustomed to having a pit toilet available at basically all times, at the very least.

But then, the education went to a whole 'nuther level. During the first lunch of the trip, we learned to make pita pizzas, and I spilled some pizza sauce on the pine needle-covered ground. My boss, Pete, looked at me and said, "OK, you have two options. You can either bag that up and carry it around in your pack for the next week, or you can get down and lick it off the ground."

"Seriously?!" I asked in incredulity. "Even a little pizza sauce is too much to leave in a Wilderness area?"

"Those are your options," Pete insisted. "You get to choose."

"Do it! Do it! Do it!" The rest of the group chanted. And as a 19-year-old guy, I naturally opted to get down on my hands and knees and lick the pizza sauce off the pine needles.

While living in a van full-time, picking up other people's trash in campsites was an almost daily chore. Photo: Christine Henry.

I'm still not entirely convinced that the pizza sauce was that big of a deal, but the LNT education from that first backpacking trip has stuck with me for the past 16 years. Unfortunately, as I moved to Colorado, traveled full-time in a van, and have gone on so many other incredible adventures over the intervening years, I have had innumerable first-hand experiences dealing with people (and their garbage) who do not follow leave no trace principles.

As I've dealt with the results of many disappointing examples of humans behaving poorly, I've realized that the pizza sauce on the ground wasn't the point: the mindset was the point. The point was taking responsibility for our actions and realizing that even seemingly minor infractions can, when compounded over the course of thousands of visits, have a major impact on the landscape.

Whether this is your first time hearing of leave no trace or your hundredth time, there are still lessons to be learned and nuances to uncover. In this 101 primer, I'll briefly highlight the 7 key principles of leave no trace, as outlined by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. Each of these 7 principles can be quite complex, and we plan to explore some of the most interesting aspects in future articles.

1. Plan Ahead & Prepare

Planning ahead is absolutely critical for high-consequence backcountry adventures and includes multiple facets, such as learning about the terrain you're planning to traverse, packing all the needed equipment and supplies, planning for contingencies (such as changing weather conditions), and so much more.

While planning ahead is critical for the safety and enjoyment of your adventure, poor planning can also have detrimental effects on the land. For example, "a poorly prepared group may plan to cook meals over a campfire only to discover upon arrival at their destination that a fire ban is in effect or that firewood is in scarce supply," according to LNT.org. "Such groups often build a fire anyway, breaking the law or impacting the land simply because they have not planned for alternatives."

2. Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces

Part of traveling on a durable surface is staying on the trail... even if the nearby alpine meadow might look flatter. Walking off trail creates trail braiding and increases erosion. Photo: Greg Heil

This principle is undoubtedly one of the most complex and nuanced of the 7, because exactly what constitutes a "durable surface" varies dramatically from place to place. But in general, the best rule of thumb is to always stick to the trail. Do not hike off trail, shortcut switchbacks, or walk around puddles.

Camping is an exceptionally high-impact activity, and LNT.org provides many recommendations on how to minimize your impact when camping in the backcountry. The most important rule of thumb is to camp 200 feet away from all water sources and trails.

However, if people before you have already created an impact by establishing a site, it's better to utilize the existing site than create a new impact in an undisturbed location. This may mean that you can't fully fluff-and-duff a campsite to leave it undisturbed or that you end up camping closer to a trail. Exactly how you navigate the vagaries of this decision-making process can be complex.

3. Dispose of Waste Properly

Photos: LNT.org

Disposing of waste properly is one of the most critical aspects of leave no trace ideology, and it concerns two main types of waste: trash and human excrement.

The most common method for disposing of human waste is digging a "cat hole" 6-8 inches deep, at least 200 feet from any water source, way off the beaten track, and subsequently burying your waste in the hole. However, in some sensitive environments, using a Wag Bag to pack out your waste is required.

With trash, the concept is very straightforward: whatever you bring into the woods, pack out with you. This includes the obvious, such as wrappers and plastic, but it also includes organic materials, such as banana peels, and soiled items like toilet paper. If you brought it with you, pack it out! Remember the pizza sauce incident.

4. Leave What You Find

"Take only pictures, leave only footprints," or so the saying goes. And whenever possible, as we saw in #2, try to avoid leaving footprints, too.

Common things that should be left where you found them include rocks, plants (such as flowers), archaeological artifacts, and... anything that you didn't bring into the wilderness with you. The only exception is recent trash left by other human beings—if you spot any trash, feel free to pack it out with you.

If this principle seems overly simple, that's because it actually is.

5. Minimize Campfire Impacts

An unattended campfire can turn into a wildfire frighteningly fast. Photos: LNT.org

The ethics of campfires are also quite complex and have only gotten more difficult in recent years due to frequent high-risk wildfire conditions. If you're considering having a campfire, you must evaluate many factors, such as the current fire danger, any fire restrictions or bans that might be in place, where you'll make the fire, and what you'll use to fuel it.

It's startling how oblivious some campers are to fire restrictions. I've mountain biked past hikers tending a blazing campfire in the backcountry during the middle of a fire ban, with a cloud of smoke rising over the next ridge from an actively burning wildfire. Sometimes, common sense isn't so common.

If you're traveling in the backcountry, building a fire often creates an immense impact on the natural area. Generally speaking, it's best to simply use a stove with fuel for cooking and to reserve campfires for front country camping in established fire rings.

Wherever you choose to have a campfire, be sure to monitor it closely and drown it completely when done. If you can't touch the ashes with your bare hand, you haven't put enough water on the fire.

6. Respect Wildlife

Give wildlife space, and don't interact with them at all. "Do not touch, get close to, feed, or pick up wild animals," writes LNT.org. "It is stressful to the animal, and it is possible that the animal may harbor rabies or other diseases." It is also possible that touching wildlife, especially young wildlife, might cause its mother or the herd to reject it, as illustrated by a recent viral story from Yellowstone.

Respecting wildlife also includes the proper storage of food and other smelly supplies. Never store food or scented supplies (such as toiletries) in a soft-sided tent, or keep them with you when you're sleeping. Instead, learn how to hang a bear bag if you're in the backcountry (or use a bear canister, especially where required). In the front country, store food in a metal food storage locker or in a locked vehicle.

7. Be Considerate of Others

All of the principles above help us take care of and protect our beautiful natural spaces even as use continues to increase in many areas. But this final principle regards being considerate to your fellow human visitors to the wilderness, which will allow everyone to enjoy their outdoor experience.

"Excessive noise, uncontrolled pets, and damaged surroundings take away from the natural appeal of the outdoors," writes LNT.org. Never play music on a speaker while hiking, and if you choose to wear earbuds, be sure to keep the volume down so that you can hear other people around you. Pets should always be under complete control (if they are even allowed in the respective area), and you must pick up and pack out any dog feces (see #3 above).

Finally, learn how to yield the trail properly. Downhill hikers or bikers are expected to yield to uphill hikers or bikers. Bikers are expected to yield to both hikers and horseback riders, and all other trail users are expected to yield to horses and those leading pack animals.

As the human population on planet Earth continues to explode, having recently passed the staggering 8 billion mark, our impact on the natural world continues to grow every year as well. By taking these simple steps, we can do our best to mitigate humanity's impact on the beautiful wilderness areas that we all love to visit. 

Photo: LNT.org

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