Leave No Trace: How to and why it matters

We love our favorite outdoor spaces. We love these places so much that some want to share them and others want to keep them secret. Above all else, we do not want to love our favorite places to death. These wild spaces are affected by every visitor, every footstep, and every crumb we leave behind. Each visitor may seem like a drop in the bucket, but how heavy does that bucket become once it is full? 

Leave No Trace (LNT) principles are a series of best practices designed to maximize the enjoyment of every visitor to our precious wild places. The idea is to minimize each individual impact to slow the rate of cumulative impact over the years. When I first learned about LNT, it was boiled down to a simple phrase, “pack it in, pack it out”. There are seven principles of LNT that are now widely accepted. 

1.) Leaving no trace starts before you leave your home. The first principle of LNT is to plan ahead and prepare. This principle helps to ensure that you and your group will have the most fun and successful adventure, wherever you may choose to go. Some say that a failure to plan is planning to fail. Though that may seem harsh, having a plan, whether you stick to it or not, is never a bad thing. A solid plan should touch on the weather forecast, food, water, shelter, navigation, waste disposal, and emergency protocols. 

2.) Travel and camp on durable surfaces. This LNT principle can be applied to car, trail, and off trail camping styles. In the case of car camping, try to keep your tires on the road and choose tent sites on dirt or fast growing grasses. When on a backpacking trip, please travel on established trails. This principle can be difficult to stick to sometimes because of the sheer number of “established” trails. Chances are that only one of them is truly the official trail. Observe posted signs and make your best guess. Take note of and obey signs indicating revegetation efforts as well as sticks, branches or logs that obviously block offshooting trails. Again, place tents on dirt, or the most durable, flat surface available. Please do not create a new tent site if there is not one already marked and cleared. 

3.) Proper disposal of all waste is imperative to LNT. This is where the mantra “pack it in, pack it out” comes from. Do not leave anything along the way that you brought with you. In some cases, that means your solid human waste (No. 2). In all cases, carry out all extra food, packaging trash, and gear that you started with. Food can be packaged in preparation for your trip. Use durable, preferably reusable, containers to reduce the amount of trash accumulated on your trip. If you are using a product with tearable packaging, take extra care not to drop or lose any packaging material. Make sure to plan for a place to put any trash, like a zippered pocket or previously emptied food packaging. Now, what do we do with the other end of the digestive system? In some areas, it is required to pack out solid human waste. During your planning phase, it is recommended to do thorough research on the area of your planned adventure. There are many versions of how to manage solid human waste, but most commonly people use “blue bags” or a “groover”. Blue bags can be purchased, some ranger stations provide them, and a groover is a portable toilet system most commonly used on river rafting trips. “Know before you go” is a common mantra that encourages research that will make your trip run smoothly and potentially save you money. 

4.) Leave nature in its place for all to enjoy! What would the forest look like if each of the millions of yearly visitors just had to have a branch to take home with them? The forest would become a mangled mess with people scrambling over each other to see that one last healthy tree. To avoid this scenario, we enjoy what we find in the wild and leave it for others to enjoy. A common mantra to follow is, “take only photographs, leave only footprints”. I would like to add that leaving an area better than you found it by picking up trash benefits everyone that follows. What if we all went the extra mile to clean up and preserve our natural areas?

5.) Fire is a core aspect of camping as it is used for heat, cooking, and entertainment. Though fire is positive in many ways, it is a dangerous element in any setting. The LNT principle says to minimize campfire impacts. Consider the environment before starting a fire. Ask questions like, is this fire necessary, how dry is the forest, what is the fire danger level, and how are you going to put the fire out? The easiest way to minimize fire impact is to avoid starting one in the first place. If you decide to have a fire, the way it happens will look different depending on whether you are in an established campground, dispersed campground, or a backcountry situation. In established and dispersed camping areas, follow all posted regulations regarding fire and only use established fire rings. Do not build a new fire ring. Do not cut down living foliage to build your fire. Clear the area around the ring of flammable material. When fire danger is rising, only burn sticks and logs. Do not burn paper products, leaves or needles. These materials create abundant floating embers that can fly away and catch fire elsewhere. In a backcountry setting, your consideration to start a fire should be even more strict because your resources for starting, containing and putting out a fire are more limited. If possible, use an established ring. Research how to build an LNT mound fire in case there is not an established ring. A fire pan is also a viable option in many cases. There are many forms of fire pans, but they all limit the size of your fire while holding it above ground. This makes sure that you don’t scorch the earth and heat sterilize the soil. When putting out a fire, use water and lots of it. Covering it with dirt does not fully put it out and allows the fire to smolder long after you leave it.

6.) Respect wildlife. The lives of wild animals do not start and stop at the whim of your trip. The rule of thumb for viewing wildlife is that you should be able to close one eye and cover the animal with the thumb of your outstretched arm. Putting yourself too close to wildlife is potentially harmful to both you and the animal. Your presence, whether obvious or not, is stressful for the animals. This stress has a negative effect on the lives of wildlife, so negative in fact that it could reduce its ability to provide food for itself or its young. This principle seeks to preserve the experience of our wild places for the animals that live there as well as the humans that visit.

7.) Be considerate of other visitors. Outdoor experiences are an important part of our lives. When visiting natural areas and wildernesses, realize that people have made the trip to escape the hustle, bustle, and noise of “normal life”. Two major things to avoid are creating excessive noise and letting uncontrolled pets roam. This LNT principle pairs well with planning ahead and preparing. Knowing what to expect out of your experience based on the accessibility and popularity of the destination makes a huge difference in choosing when to go. Take note of busy seasons for your desired destination. If you are interested in a quiet experience, consider daily peak visiting hours and plan your trip to avoid weekend crowds. When camping during busy times, choose your campsite carefully. Do not make a site if there isn’t one available. The best option is to reserve your campsite ahead of time or research the area for quiet dispersed camping that is off the beaten path.

8.) Bonus! I know I said that there are seven LNT principles to follow, but this issue is too important to ignore. Conservation and LNT principles are based on reducing human impact on our wild spaces. Another way to help reduce human impact is to avoid spreading the word far and wide, without filter of who can see it. I am asking you to strongly consider how you geo-tag the media that you post to the internet. Outdoor recreation is a massively growing industry, which is awesome, but posts that detail the location of the photo open that place up to an audience of people that may or may not have the same consideration for the environment and the future of our planet that hold so dear. Whether people are Earth-conscious or not, keeping geo-tags out of posts will reduce the volume of visitors.

Thank you so much for reading! I love the Earth and its natural beauty so very much and these principles are important to the future of our world. I hope this essay was informative and helpful. For more information about LNT and to get involved in some really awesome programs, please visit LNT.org.





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