Leaving No Trace

Leave No Trace Series


Take only photographs; leave only footprints.
     –Sierra Club dictum

The snow has all melted and warm air fills the nostrils.  It is finally Spring!  Time to lace up the hiking boots, waterproof the tent, put air in the bike tires, and get outside again.

There are some great advantages to spending time in the outdoors:  the fresh air is not only wonderful but it can have benefits for the mind and body as trees release healthful chemical aerosols; physical activity is good for the body and mind and sunlight helps the body produce vitamin D; park entrance fees and camping fees are considerably less than other attractions and hotels or resorts (sometimes free!).  However, before entering the wilderness, there are some things every responsible outdoorsperson should know–outdoor etiquette.

There are many outdoor ethic codes that state a few basic principles of how to use the outdoors properly.  Growing up as a boy scout myself, I followed the Outdoor Code–As an American, I will do my best to be clean in my outdoor manners, be careful with fire, be considerate in the outdoors, and be conservation-minded.  There are a few European “country codes” which include proper etiquette for leaving gates, going over hedges, crossing farmland, and keeping dogs under control.  These codes, as considerate as they are, leave some gaps and loopholes and are ultimately up for interpretation.  The most concise and scientifically backed outdoor ethics guide I have seen is Leave No Trace.

Leave No Trace (LNT) is a non-profit organization founded in 1994 and based in Boulder, Colorado.  Originally a program operated by the Forest Service in the 1960’s, LNT gradually became more popular in other government agencies as public land use was also popular, but outdoor ethics was lacking.  Nowadays, LNT is spreading its environmental message in the United States and other countries through trainings, educational tools, and information.  I have even heard that the LNT program is used by the US armed forces in wilderness survival training to evade enemy pursuit.  I came into contact with LNT through the Boy Scouts of America–which adopted the LNT program to provide stronger support for their own Outdoor Code.

Leave No Trace is–in a very simple way of putting it–a program with seven principles aimed at guiding outdoor users to make conscious decisions about outdoor ethics and proper use of public lands.  I use these seven principles nearly everyday, sometimes whether I am outdoors or not.  These seven principles are also not just for camping and hiking, they apply to a wide range of outdoor activities–kayaking, backpacking, geo-caching, canoeing, biking, watersports, picnicking, car touring, rock climbing, and much much more.  All outdoor activities can utilize LNT.

The Seven Principles of LNT are outlined here in their usual order:

Plan Ahead and Prepare

  • Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you’ll visit.
  • Prepare for extreme weather, hazards, and emergencies.
  • Schedule your trip to avoid times of high use.
  • Visit in small groups when possible. Consider splitting larger groups into smaller groups.
  • Repackage food to minimize waste.
  • Use a map and compass to eliminate the use of marking paint, rock cairns or flagging.

Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

  • Durable surfaces include established trails and campsites, rock, gravel, dry grasses or snow.
  • Protect riparian areas by camping at least 200 feet from lakes and streams.
  • Good campsites are found, not made. Altering a site is not necessary.
    • In popular areas:
      • Concentrate use on existing trails and campsites.
      • Walk single file in the middle of the trail, even when wet or muddy.
      • Keep campsites small. Focus activity in areas where vegetation is absent.
      • In pristine areas:
      • Disperse use to prevent the creation of campsites and trails.
      • Avoid places where impacts are just beginning.

Dispose of Waste Properly

  • Pack it in, pack it out. Inspect your campsite and rest areas for trash or spilled foods. Pack out all trash, leftover food and litter.
  • Deposit solid human waste in catholes dug 6 to 8 inches deep, at least 200 feet from water, camp and trails. Cover and disguise the cathole when finished.
  • Pack out toilet paper and hygiene products.
  • To wash yourself or your dishes, carry water 200 feet away from streams or lakes and use small amounts of biodegradable soap. Scatter strained dishwater.

Leave What You Find

  • Preserve the past: examine, but do not touch cultural or historic structures and artifacts.
  • Leave rocks, plants and other natural objects as you find them.
  • Avoid introducing or transporting non-native species.
  • Do not build structures, furniture, or dig trenches.

Minimize Campfire Impacts

  • Campfires can cause lasting impacts to the backcountry. Use a lightweight stove for cooking and enjoy a candle lantern for light.
  • Where fires are permitted, use established fire rings, fire pans, or mound fires.
  • Keep fires small. Only use sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand.
  • Burn all wood and coals to ash, put out campfires completely, then scatter cool ashes.

Respect Wildlife

  • Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow or approach them.
  • Never feed animals. Feeding wildlife damages their health, alters natural behaviors, and exposes them to predators and other dangers.
  • Protect wildlife and your food by storing rations and trash securely.
  • Control pets at all times, or leave them at home.
  • Avoid wildlife during sensitive times: mating, nesting, raising young, or winter.

Be Considerate of Other Visitors

  • Respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience.
  • Be courteous. Yield to other users on the trail.
  • Step to the downhill side of the trail when encountering pack stock.
  • Take breaks and camp away from trails and other visitors.
  • Let nature’s sounds prevail. Avoid loud voices and noises.

From: https://lnt.org/  (Seven Principles and bullet points)

This is a rather general overview of the seven principles and they can be exhausted in-depth, however, I feel it is better to take a look at each one individually before attempting to be a hardcore LNT-er.  Being ethical in the outdoors means changing from the way you are indoors to a different way of living in the outdoors.  It is hard and some of what the seven principles ask of the outdoorsperson sounds outrageous or seems utterly uncivilized.  However, these are more like guidelines to change old outdoor habits and develop better habits that result in a better experience and a healthier relationship with the natural environment.

In some of my upcoming posts, I will take a look at one of the seven principles and explain as much as I can about what it means to leave no trace and why it is important.  I encourage everyone to visit the Leave No Trace website (https://lnt.org/)–which is where much of my information came from–and explore the seven principles and the outdoors on your own.  The best way to learn, is to do!

Author: astanyoung

I'm a natural history educator and outdoor enthusiast. I want to help people understand and enjoy the natural world that we live in.

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