Leave No Trace is a huge part of life in the backcountry. Following Leave No Trace (or LNT) principles is how we ensure that the wilderness stays wild, not only so the next hikers can enjoy it, but so we don’t negatively impact the flora and fauna of the region. It’s vital that every hiker makes an effort to do their part.
Unfortunately, the world of LNT can come off as strict and overwhelming to those who have not been previously acquainted. As Not-A-Chance, from As the Trail Turns, puts it, “LNT is the like DARE program of the wilderness.” It just seems uncool.
I recently became a qualified Leave Not Trace Trainer, and I’ve become interested in making LNT feel more accessible for every hiker. Reading over materials can be daunting at first because the truth is, most hikers have violated LNT principles at some point or another, either from lack of understanding or lack of caring. Looking back, I’ve certainly violated rules I should have paid more attention to, like the time I got ticketed in the Smokies for camping at an undesignated site. Not cool! And on top of that, I paid a $75 fine.
Even if you haven’t been an LNT devout in the past, it’s OK to change your ways for the future. If you’re new to backpacking, learning and practicing the LNT principles is a great place to start. Without further ado, here are the LNT principles and how to follow them.
Plan Ahead and Prepare:
Get a good idea of where you might be camping, for how many days, how much food you will need, what the weather will be like, and so on. Of course, plans and weather can and will always change, but having a good base knowledge will help ensure that you don’t get into trouble.
It’s also very important to check local regulations before you leave. For example, along the Connecticut Appalachian Trail there are no campfires permitted and you can only camp at designated sites. So you wouldn’t want to bring hotdogs and marshmallows along and you would want to make sure you can realistically hike the distance between sites each day. Another example is that many national parks require the use of bear canisters for all backpackers. Don’t show up without one.
Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces:
This basically means stay on the trail while hiking and at campsites. Don’t cut through plant growth because you think you have a shorter way to water or up a mountain. Imagine if someone sees your tracks and follows them; it only takes a few people to create a new path. Anyway, usually the designated trail is the best way.
As far as camping on durable surfaces goes, the best thing is to stay at designated shelters and campsites. You definitely want to try to do this. Granted, sometimes it’s not possible and you get into a situation where you have to set up camp. Hike at least 200 feet off trail and find a spot that you think people are unlikely to ever camp at again. In the morning after you’ve packed up, move some branches and scatter dried leaves over your tent spot so it looks unappealing to future hikers.
Also be sure to camp at least 200 feet away from water sources. It might not seem like one person can impact a stream, but things like your soaps, bug sprays, toothpaste, or food particles can get in the water.
Dispose of Waste Properly:
This one is huge! In my opinion, it might even be the most important principle. It essentially means that whatever you pack into the wilderness, you need to pack out.
A common violation is people leaving trash, food, or unwanted gear at shelters, campsites, or along the trail. Sometimes people just bring too much stuff with them and want to abandon it. Food left at campsites usually gets picked over by mice or bugs before any actual person comes along who might want it. It’s definitely OK (and nice) to ask other hikers if they want extra food, but if you don’t have any takers then you need to carry it out. Same goes for gear items and other necessities. Leaving an extra roll of toilet paper in the privy might seem functional, but mice usually tear it apart for nests before hikers use it.
Another violation is burning trash. Burning plastic is especially unpleasant to smell and gross for everyone. It’s important to set a good example. If there’s beginner backpackers in camp, or kids particularly, they might see more experienced hikers burning trash and think it’s acceptable. Burning trash is also a slippery slope that leads to hikers just throwing trash in fire rings and leaving it for the next person to deal with.
As always, packing out toilet paper and tampons is important as well as going 200 feet off trail to poop.
You will probably see little bits of micro trash on the trail every now and then. It’s OK to pack out micro trash. You’re helping to preserve the trail you love.
Leave What You Find:
A few weeks ago, my nephews were hiking with me and they wanted to bring home a bright, orange newt and keep it as a pet. I had to explain to them that the newt was happy in the forest and had the best chance of survival in it’s natural habitat.
The same is true for objects you find. It can be tempting to snag a cool fossil or a Native American artifact, but then it won’t be there for others to enjoy. There’s a place in California called Glass Beach that I visited last summer. Years ago, locals would throw trash off the cliff. Broken shards of glass were eroded by the water and the beach was soon covered in smooth, colorful glass pebbles. I was excited to see it, but when I got there no glass pebbles were left. Too many people took them as souvenirs and now no one can enjoy the glass beach.
Minimize Campfire Impacts:
I know that campfires seem like a quintessential part of any camping trip. What’s more comforting than toasted s’mores and an evening of staring at the flames?
If you’re at a designated campsite with a preexisting fire ring and there’s no local regulations against fires, then go for it! However, it’s not a good idea to build a new fire ring. Even if you scatter the ashes and break the ring up when you’re done, the soil is still impacted and your fire may prevent anything new from growing in that space.
If you’re camping somewhere without a fire ring, I would recommend starting a new tradition of star-gazing. Laying on the ground and looking at the night sky is just as great as watching a fire.
The wildlife lives in the forest, and you’re just visiting. It’s important to remember that. Show them respect by giving them distance. Remember last year when the US Forest Service had to release a statement telling people to stop taking selfies with bears? It’s not safe for you or the bear.
Be kind to animals by not feeding them. It might seem cute to give a chipmunk a few pieces of your cookie, but feeding wildlife alters their natural behaviors and encourages them to seek out food from other hikers.
Another big one is to keep your dog under control while hiking. Check the leash laws before you go, and if you choose not to use a leash then keep your dog under voice control. It’s not fun for squirrels to be chased by dogs, and it’s not fun for hikers if your dog runs toward them barking and jumping.
Be Considerate of Other Hikers:
People come to the wilderness to experience nature and have a pleasant experience. Take others into consideration when making decisions. No one cares if you have a few beers in the evening, but they will be annoyed if you get drunk and loud with a rowdy group of hikers at a crowded campsite. Lots of people like listening to music when they hike, but be sure to use earbuds and not a speaker. Not everyone will enjoy your Dubstep music reverberating down the trail. Avoid using swear words when there is a family with kids present. I once saw a hiker smoking a blunt at McAfee’s Knob while there were children close by. That’s the sort of disrespectful, entitled behavior that gives hikers a bad reputation.
Everyone wants to have a good time while on trail. Just make sure that your good time isn’t ruining anyone else’s.