How to Leave no Trace While Backcountry Camping


, by Greg Heil

Photo: DavideAngelini

There is no more complete escape from the stresses of our modern urban lives than planning a backpacking trip deep into the wilderness. Carrying everything that you need to survive on your back simplifies your daily existence from the world of houses filled with stuff (which inevitably breaks and needs to be fixed), cars to drive, offices to sit in and pretend we're working, down to only the gear most critical for our survival and the simple process of putting one foot in front of the other. 

When you lose cell phone service and leave the amenities of the front country—like pit toilets and campfire rings—behind, you're truly embarking on an epic adventure of the first degree, which has the ability to not only allow you to decompress from your day-to-day stressors but perhaps even reexamine the motivations that undergird your entire life in the first place.

But backpacking isn't just daisies and rainbows—camping in the backcountry is hard, and the difficulty of the experience doesn't remove your responsibility to ensure that you leave no trace so that the wilderness is just as pristine for the next person who needs an escape from urbanity. In fact, ensuring that you leave as little trace as possible is made all the more difficult in the challenging environs of the backcountry—especially in high alpine terrain.

Backpacking the Four Pass Loop. Photo: Greg Heil

Leaving no trace in these sensitive environments involves first educating yourself on best practices and then planning ahead to ensure that you're prepared for a true leave no trace (LNT) backpacking experience. To help understand the nuance of what goes into leaving no trace while backcountry camping, we spoke with Erin Collier, Education and Program Manager for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, to get her top tips.

1. Have a Poop Plan

One of the most significant (and disgusting) ways that humans can impact the natural landscape is by not disposing of their bodily waste properly. That makes having a poop plan "my top tip," according to Erin. The poop plan is "going to change depending on what part of the country you're in, depending on what type of trip you're taking, but have a poop plan and probably even a backup poop plan. I think it's always a good idea to have a Wag Bag with you just in case—you never know what's going to happen."

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. This method only applies in heavily vegetated sub-alpine environments, though, and in sensitive desert environments or high alpine environments, it's best to use a Wag Bag to pack out your waste.

RELATED: "Leave No Trace 101: The 7 Principles"

2. Pack the Right Gear for a Leave No Trace Trip

Above and beyond Wag Bags, you'll need to pack a number of critical gear items to ensure that you have an LNT trip. "Really think through, 'okay, how am I going to pack out my trash? How am I going to dispose of my dishwater if I need to wash dishes? What is my poop plan? What are the items I need to have for that?" said Erin.

You also need to pack for safety. While this might sound obvious, an unsafe trip often leads to high-impact practices. For example, if you don't pack enough warm clothes for unexpectedly cold weather, you might be tempted to build a fire in a place where the fire scar might last for many years, thereby leaving a trace. Also, if you need to be evacuated from the wilderness, some types of evacuation can leave an unnecessary impact on the landscape. Packing the 10 essentials will help ensure that you stay safe and happy and also leave no trace along the way.

3. Bring Appropriate Food Storage Based on Local Wildlife

A bear canister is required in many areas of the country—and even where it's not required, it's probably a good idea. Photo: Greg Heil.

Related to packing the right gear is ensuring that you bring proper food storage to protect your food (and yourself) from local wildlife. Erin recommends doing your research beforehand so you know "the type of wildlife you're going to encounter and what food storage is going to be necessary for that. A lot of times, people think of bears and have a plan for storing their food for bears, but mini bears like chipmunks and mice and other types of animals can still be attracted to our food and still pose some potential for impact."

While we always need to be cognizant of not impacting the wildlife, not protecting your food adequately can also prove to be a safety concern for you when you're in the backcountry. In bear country (and especially in grizzly bear country), attracting a bear with improperly stored food can lead to being mauled and killed in the most extreme circumstances. But even if rodents get into your food, they can destroy critical supplies that you're relying on for the rest of your expedition. If you find yourself deep in the backcountry with nothing to eat, you can suddenly be in a life-or-death survival situation.

In many places in bear country (like the Four Pass Loop), bear canisters are now mandatory. While it's always good to respect local regulations, there's a reason canisters are so highly recommended and sometimes required.

DID YOU READ? "Colorado's Famous Four Pass Loop Lives Up to the Hype"

4. Research Your Planned Campsites in Advance

What do you think: is this an LNT campsite? Photo: Danita Delimont

Erin recommends that you "really [think] about your campsite selection, thinking through where you plan to camp, maybe doing some research for beta on where campsites are." She mentioned that "sometimes there are designated backcountry campsites," such as I experienced on the Four Pass Loop. But other times, "you're going to be responsible for finding your campsite." It's good to know "a little bit about what type of surfaces to look for, [and] where campsites might be. It's always best to camp somewhere that's already been camped in. So reading trip reports and things like that can help [to know] where in that general location they're going to be."

When you're doing your research, you'll also learn whether or not a permit is required for your planned campsites or trip. In fact, when I backpacked the Four Pass Loop, securing the permits was one of the most difficult parts of the entire trip. "A lot of the time you're going to also need a backcountry permit, and that will give you a lot of that information of where camping is and where you should be looking for it," said Erin. That proved to be true for our Four Pass trip—after securing our permits and doing the associated research, we had all the information we needed to find fantastic, LNT-friendly campsites.

5. Examine Your Potential for Impact on a Case-by-Case Basis

While doing research in advance and following common rules, such as camping 200 feet away from the closest trail or water source, can help guide you in the right direction to leave as little trace as possible, sometimes you'll encounter a difficult decision where the answer isn't as clear. 

For example, on the Four Pass Loop, all backpackers are supposed to follow the 200-foot guideline to camp well away from the trail. However, there are dozens of campsites littered directly along the trail. In such a situation, which is better: camping in an already-established campsite in a place that goes against the "rules," or hiking off into the woods to establish a new campsite?

"Leave No Trace is not a set of rules, it's a set of guidelines," said Erin. "It really is meant to just be that kind of framework that you can put into practice and make those decisions, because there is a lot of nuance. There are a lot of [moments when] you are going to be weighing what is going to be the least impactful decision. So it's really thinking through what the potential for impacts are on that kind of case-by-case basis."

In the situation I outlined above, "the potential for impact, I would say most of the time is a lot higher. If you are going way far away from the trail, you are potentially creating a new campsite because historically, the kind of pre-made campsites or the established campsites are closer to the trail. Your potential for impact going off the trail and creating a new campsite is going to be higher than if you were just using one of those established campsites that is closer to the trail." That said, here comes the nuance: "Now you do want to think about, 'how busy is this site?' Are you causing potential impacts to other visitors? You want to think about what that established campsite is on—is it right on the edge of a riparian zone, and it's eroding into the water, or something like that? Does it fit your tent footprint? What are the potential impacts to wildlife? But most of the time, it's going to be less of an impact to camp in that established campsite than it is to go find one that maybe fits the criteria a little bit better, but you're creating it yourself."

There are so many red flags in this image! Photo: stocksolutions

Guidelines, Not Rules

As someone who has a difficult time abiding by long lists of rules, I love the idea of Leave No Trace as a set of guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules. These guidelines and frameworks can help all of us think through the many circumstances that we'll encounter in the backcountry that we couldn't foresee or anticipate beforehand. If we all do our best to leave as little trace as possible, we'll ensure that our beautiful wilderness areas remain pristine for generations of visitors to come who will undoubtedly need to escape from the pressures of urban life even more than we do!

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