Growing up in Florida, I didn’t do a lot of camping, hiking, or backpacking. When I moved to Colorado and started hiking I admittedly didn’t know all the “rules”. My trail etiquette needed some major improvement. Though I noticed all kinds of signs, rules, and regulations on maps and signs near the trailhead, I wasn’t sure what it all meant. I kept seeing three words: Leave No Trace. And, in an effort of solidarity between myself and my new home, I decided to educate myself on what that meant.
Unfortunately, there sometimes seems to be a disconnect between enjoying the outdoors and respecting it. Wild places or protected open spaces are being compromised every day both intentionally and unintentionally. I’m going to operate on the assumption that most people aren’t actively trying to ignore signs, deface natural things, leave trash on the ground, or blatantly ruin these wild places we have the privilege of enjoying—mostly for free—and that more than anything, most just haven’t been educated on the principles of Leave No Trace in detail. Before you hit the trails this summer, here’s an important refresher on the principles of Leave No Trace, and why you should care.
What is “Leave no Trace”?
To put it simply, LNT refers to the practices all people should follow to protect our natural spaces while enjoying them in the process. These principles started as rules for people exploring the backcountry but apply more than ever to your day hikes as well. Millions of visitors flock to national and state parks, national forests, city open spaces, parks and more each year, which takes a serious toll on the ecosystems that reside there. Animals and plants suffer from litter, erosion, polluted water sources, and more, mostly at the hands of an invasive species—man. And with the erosion and destruction of these places comes the chance that our privilege to use them will have to be revoked to protect them. LNT is comprised of seven principles outlined by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, an organization that conducts service projects and educational programs across the world.
Before you lace up your sneakers, be sure to brush up on the seven LNT principles below.
1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
It seems like an obvious statement, but we’ve seen firsthand just what a lack of preparation can do. When you walk into the outdoors unprepared, you’re more likely to make a mistake or exude a lack of judgment that could be dangerous to both you, your fellow hikers, and the ecosystem. Know the regulations of the place you’re visiting. If camping, know whether or not the area allows open fires. Visit in small groups and stay on the trail. Minimize the waste you bring in and plan to pack it out. Use a map to eliminate getting lost off trail.
2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
Ideal surfaces for camping include already established camp spots, rock and gravel, dry grass or snow. Be sure to camp at least 200 feet from all lakes and streams and attempt to keep campsites small. If you camp in a larger group, be sure to disperse to avoid erosion to one area.
3. Dispose of waste properly
Hopefully you’ve heard the statement “Pack it in, Pack it out.” Be sure to pack out all trash, food, waste, etc. Leave it as good (or better) than you found it. Remember to have a trowel on hand to dig holes at least 6-8 inches deep for human waste. Use biodegradable soap to clean dishes and do so 200 feet away from streams and lakes in order to prevent contamination.
4. Leave what you find
Take care to not move—or in some cases, touch—natural things. Leave rocks, plants and other objects just as you found them. Do not build furniture or structures unless and emergency calls for it. And, again, this shouldn’t have to be said but this includes not spray painting your name on a rock or etching your initials into a tree. It’s not cool; don’t be that person.
5. Minimize campfire impacts (be careful with fire)
At campsites where fires are permitted, be sure to use the rings provided. If you are in the backcountry and fires are permitted, keep them small and use dead sticks found only on the ground, burning all wood and coals to ash, then putting it out completely and scattering the ashes. Avoid bringing firewood that has been treated and can introduce new diseases and pests.
6. Respect wildlife
Again, this seems self-explanatory, but you’d be surprised how many people can’t seem to follow this rule. Wild places are not petting zoos, meaning you should observe animals from a safe distance and do not approach or follow them. When bringing your own pets on hikes or backpacking trips, you should be able to control them at all times and keep them safe and away from wildlife. Don’t let your dogs chase animals like prairie dogs or squirrels. Abide by food storage rules and keep rations in bear contained where specified. Finally, for the love of all that is wild, please do not feed the animals. Whether it’s handing a nut to a chipmunk or leaving your food out for a bear to find, this is not only unsafe for humans, it’s downright dangerous for the animal’s wellbeing.
7. Be considerate of other visitors
Not everyone appreciates you blaring music on your hike. Nor do they appreciate your group of eight shoving them aside because you didn’t know to yield. Be respectful of others. Yield to others on trails, camp a far distance away from others, avoid being overly loud or obnoxious, and manage your pet (and its mess).
There is only one planet. And, as much as Elon Musk wants to colonize Mars, there is no “planet b” we can jet off to once we’ve destroyed this one. Small changes in your everyday habits while enjoying the outdoors can make a big impact on the livelihood of ecosystems we spend time in. Leave No Trace should be an integral part of your outdoor experience. Let’s all work to do better…together.