Leave No Trace (AKA How to Hike Like You Give a Damn)
Protecting the wilderness for future generations to come is the number one important thing we can do as stewards for the outdoors. If you hike, backpack and spend a lot of time outside (or anytime time outside), these should be your guiding principles and ethics. I’m gonna break them down one by one and talk about my preparation to leave no trace when I hike.
Why does it matter? With the higher influx of people enjoying the outdoors (which I think is a good thing), many are not educated on these principles. If mass groups of people are causing harm and damage to fragile environments, the results can be detrimental to the land and the impact can happen quickly. I want to protect these wild places for future generations to be able to enjoy. It’s really quite simple to follow these guidelines, so let’s get into it!
Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you'll visit.
This could involve researching is it dog friendly? How will you store your food (bear can, hang), how will you dispose of human waste, where can you camp, how close to water can you camp in that specific area, where are there water sources, what animals are in the area, do you need a permit.
Prepare for extreme weather, hazards, and emergencies.
Bring the 10 essentials
Schedule your trip to avoid times of high use.
This can be hard being a weekend adventurer and can’t always be avoided. If you see one hike being loved to death on social media, maybe skip out on it for some time and come back when it’s not so overused.
Visit in small groups when possible. Consider splitting larger groups into smaller groups.
Even when I do go out with bigger groups, we tend to naturally split up into a few different groups. Most wilderness areas have a max of 12 people in a group.
Repackage food to minimize waste.
I usually do this anyways to minimize weight. And I always carry out what I bring in!
Use a map and compass to eliminate the use of marking paint, rock cairns or flagging.
Sometimes cairns are set up by rangers to indicate the route. Besides this, we should not be building cairns ourselves. I use Gaia to navigate!
Durable surfaces include established trails and campsites, rock, gravel, dry grasses or snow.
This is one of the most obvious things we can do as backpackers to lessen our impact. Camping on fragile meadows will ruin them and have a long lasting impact.
Protect riparian areas by camping at least 200 feet from lakes and streams.
This one gets interesting as we don’t always have this option. You have to look at the rules for the specific wilderness area you are in. This rule is here so that we don’t contaminant the water for animals and humans.
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.
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.
Never leave any kind of trash behind. Be a good steward and pack out trash that you do find.
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.
Ahhhh pooping in the woods. This is one you need to research ahead of time depending on where you are going. Will there be a pit toilet? Will you have to dig? Will you have to bag it up and pack it out? This is important to know ahead of time and be prepared for how to handle your poo where ever you go.
Pack out toilet paper and hygiene products.
THIS ONE! I can’t stand finding toilet paper in the woods! Ladies- get yourself a Kula Cloth right now! No more toilet paper on trail (except for #2, but still pack it out).
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.
Preserve the past: examine, but do not touch cultural or historic structures and artifacts.
It’s so heartbreaking every time I see in the news cultural artifacts being destroyed. DON’T DO THIS! Just leave it be! Admire it from a distance.
Leave rocks, plants and other natural objects as you find them.
Don’t pick the fragile alpine flowers! You may think that just taking one won’t make a difference, but if everyone had that mindset it would cause a lot of damage.
Avoid introducing or transporting non-native species.
Do not build structures, furniture, or dig trenches.
Campfires can cause lasting impacts to the environment. Use a lightweight stove for cooking and enjoy a candle lantern for light.
This is one of my #1 pet peeves. There is usually many signs indicating no fires allowed. Usually this is above 5,000 feet in Washington (which is most backpacking). In the summer, this is very irresponsible as well for the danger of starting forest fires.
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.
Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow or approach them.
When this goes wrong you hear about it in the media. Don’t approach the bears. Don’t approach the goats. Don’t feed any of them while we’re at it. And for the love of god, do not feed the birds on Mt. Si ( a popular hike near Seattle). The last time I was up there, I couldn’t even break at the top because of their bomb diving and trying to get my food.
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.
This one I always try to research ahead of time. Research the area and know what you need to bring. Going to a national park? May need a bear can. Will there be trees to hang food from? My go to is the Ursak when I can hang food.
Control pets at all times, or leave them at home.
I have a dog and we do have him off leash sometimes, only when there are no other people and dogs or animals around. We don’t bring him anywhere with a lot of known wildlife. There was a recent accident in Washington between a dog and mountain goat in a place dogs aren’t allowed.
Avoid wildlife during sensitive times: mating, nesting, raising young, or winter.
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.
They just came out with a new one about geotagging specific locations. I’ve recently implemented this online with not tagging specific places, but tagging the wilderness area. The purpose of this is to help certain places not blow up and get loved to death.
What to do when you see others not following the rules:
Nobody is perfect. People don’t know these things when going on a hike for the first time.
I try to take the gentle, educative approach. I’ll say to someone “hey did you know ___ is the rule in this area” In person, this is the best we can do. If they still don’t comply, report the behavior to a ranger. They take breaking the laws seriously and will write fines.
Social media and the rise of social influence on the outdoors- this could be its whole own topic. I personally am really upset at the rise of large accounts (people with a lot of followers and influence) breaking the rules and blasting it on their page. I take the same approach as I do outside. I may private message them first and ask if they knew they were breaking this rule. If they still don’t care/ don’t take down the content, I may send it on to Unethical Outdoors. I love this Instagram account, they take a great approach to the matter with being respectful and not being an internet bully.
With this information, I hope you can feel confident to go outside and respect the land we recreate on. It is a privilege and honor to spend time in these wild places. Lets help keep them wild for future generations to come.
Resources: Leave No Trace website