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Leave No Trace is a topic that everyone should know and understand if they are using our public lands, be it a local park, unspoiled wilderness area, or anywhere in-between.
These eight principles are excellent guidelines for how we can preserve our public lands, respect wildlife, be courteous to other users, and ultimately leave a place in the same condition we found it.
Increasing your knowledge about Leave No Trace and sharing that knowledge with others is arguably the best way to preserve our public lands and maintain access for everyone who wants it.
Leave No Trace Principle #1: Plan Ahead and Prepare
This principle is more about your safety than about preserving our public lands. I’ve been in more situations than I can count where I’ve ended up having to help people who were devastatingly unprepared for the situation they were in. Sometimes stuff just happens no matter how well prepared you are, but much of the time these situations can be avoided with a prudent amount of planning.
What does planning and preparing look like? It means asking the right questions, giving honest answers, and moving forward accordingly. The questions are basically the same for all trips from a local park to a North Pole expedition, but the answers and required level of preparation will vary widely.
Do you have the maps, permits, and gear you need? Are you familiar with the terrain you’ll be traveling over? When is the local land management agency open so you can get up-to-date conditions? What does the weather look like? Is your group prepared for the potential conditions you could experience? Do you have enough food and water? Do you know the rules for the area you’ll be visiting? Does someone back home know the trip itinerary? Does your physical and mental fitness align with the goals of the trip? How about everyone else who will be participating?
These questions, and the associated answers, are applicable to all situations be it a front country interpretive trail or a backcountry epic and will get your group thinking about the best ways to stay comfortable and safe while enjoying our public lands.
No one wants to be stuck on an exposed ridgeline in a thunderstorm because they didn’t get the timing of their hike correct. No one wants to have to start rationing food and water at the end of the hike. No one wants to have to build an illegal campfire to cook dinner because they forgot a camp stove. No one wants to have to call for help and risk other’s lives because they got themselves into a situation they weren’t equipped to handle.
Do yourself a favor. Plan ahead and prepare. The effort you put in before a trip will pay serious dividends during the trip in the form of comfort, confidence, and good memories.
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Leave No Trace Principle #2: Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
Obviously part of Leave No Trace is…leaving no trace. When you travel through an area, the people who come after you shouldn’t be able to tell you were even there.
Trails are created by land management agencies to concentrate impacts and are designed and constructed to reduced erosion, avoid sensitive areas, and provide a convenient means for us to move through our public lands. Trails should be used whenever possible and not shortcut or widened for convenience. In areas without trails, one should always travel on the most durable surface available even if it isn’t the most convenient. The surfaces below cover many off-trail hiking situations:
Rock, sand, gravel: Most durable (except for lichens)
Ice/snow: Most durable
Forest understory: Durability varies, avoid sensitive areas
Vegetation: Durability varies, avoid vegetation whenever possible, off-trail groups should disperse impacts by spreading out
Living soil: Not durable, avoid if possible, but if not, walk single file to minimize impacts
Desert puddles/mud holes: Always avoid
Regarding campsites, Leave No Trace Center says it best:
“Selecting an appropriate campsite is perhaps the most important aspect of low-impact backcountry use. It requires the greatest degree of judgment and information, and often involves making trade-offs between minimizing ecological and social impacts. A decision about where to camp should be based on information about the level and type of use in the area, the fragility of vegetation and soil, the likelihood of wildlife disturbance, an assessment of previous impacts, and your party’s potential to cause or avoid impact.”
When selecting a campsite, choose one that is already highly impacted and won’t show signs of additional use. If that is not an option, camp should be set up on the most durable surface available and moved every night to avoid creating a permanent impact. Campsites should be located at least 200 feet from water sources unless camping in a river corridor with no developed campsites.
There are clearly many nuances to this Principle, so do your research!
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Leave No Trace Principle #3: Dispose of Waste Properly
Pack it in, pack it out. That’s all there is to it, right?
For the most part, yes! If you start a trip with something, you should end the trip with that same something, either on your body, in your pack, or in your stomach. That means packing out obvious things like plastics, wrappers, and cigarette butts, but also includes things like nutshells, leftover food, and fruit peels.
Burning trash is a big no-no. Burning paper is generally fine, but plastics, metals, and glass do not burn completely at campfire temperatures and will leave remnants behind in the fire pit, leach contaminants into soil and groundwater, and leave a mess for the next users.
It’s unreasonable to ask people to store days’ worth of food and water in their stomach or gut, so let’s talk about going #1 and #2 on our public lands.
It’s a highly nuanced topic and the correct way to dispose of human waste varies by location and climate, so if you have plans for a long hike that doesn’t have bathroom access, please learn what alternative disposal methods are acceptable in that area.
For pee, it is generally recommended to go at least 200 feet (approximately 70 steps) from the nearest body of water, trail, or campsite. If you have to poop, many sensitive areas require the use of a W.A.G bag or portable toilet. In other areas, a cathole 6-8 inches deep and 4-6 inches wide at least 200 feet from water sources, camp, and the trail is acceptable.
Although some areas have rich, organic soil and get enough rain to make burying a small about of toilet paper acceptable, the best practice is to pack out all toilet paper or use natural items like leaves, smooth rocks, or snow to wipe.
What about bathing during extended trips? Soaps—even those that claim to be biodegradable—should never be used in lakes, streams, or other natural water sources (with a few notable exceptions). If you need to freshen up, grab some water and perform your cleaning ritual at least 200 feet from water sources, where the soils can naturally filter and break down the soap, oils, bug spray, sunscreen that get washed off.
These guidelines vary from location to location, do your research!
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Leave No Trace Principle #4: Leave What You Find
Most of us learned in grade school that we shouldn’t take things that don’t belong to us and that if we do use something that isn’t ours, we should return it in the same (or better) condition than we received it. That lesson applies to our public lands as well, where plants, rocks, archaeological artifacts, and other items of interest should be left as they are found.
Trees and plants should be left unmolested. That means no carving into tree trunks, picking wildflowers, or nailing things into living plants. If you use a hammock, pick mature trees with thick bark to hang from, and be sure to use tree protectors. A one-inch piece of webbing is not sufficient.
Although tempting to take a rock, sand, or a deer antler home with you from our public lands as a memory, please leave them for others to experience. If you see something interesting, take a picture and share it with your friends rather than hoarding it for yourself. In National Parks and on many other public lands, it is illegal to remove natural objects, including cultural artifacts like pot shards and arrowheads, which are protected by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act.
If a site requires alterations for an activity such as camping, those alterations should be minimal and reversible. Moving pine cones and branches to clear a site is fine as they can be replaced when you leave, but using a shovel to level a site and dig drainage ditches is frowned upon. Good campsites are found, not made, so if a site doesn’t suit your needs, continue exploring.
Taking one rock, some sand, or picking a few wildflowers may not seem like a big deal, and on an individual level, it is not. But imagine if all 330,000,000 visitors to our National Parks last year removed a rock or wildflowers. That is an impact. So do your part and leave our public lands as you found them.
And this should go without saying, but leaving what you find means leaving it in the same condition you found it.
Carving initials into trees, spray painting rocks, throwing Holi powder everywhere, and building frivolous cairns damages our public lands and detracts from others’ experiences.
Leave No Trace Principles 5-8 to come.