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The 7 Principles of Leave No Trace

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Day hiking in Canyonlands National Park leave no trace

If you’ve spent any amount of time in the outdoors, you’ve hopefully heard those three ubiquitous words: Leave No Trace. It’s the motto of outdoor lovers, travelers, and adventurers everywhere. Leave the great outdoors better than you found it. But do you know what all LNT entails? Let’s discuss the 7 principles of Leave No Trace, shall we?

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare

    As in, get your dang permits and don’t leave the map in the car, but also make sure you’ve packed everything you need for whatever kind of excursion you’re on. Being prepared will help ensure you won’t mess up on any of the other 7 principles of Leave No Trace.

    Be aware of where you can and can’t hike, camp, or wander, which means familiarizing yourself with the area. Planning ahead and preparing helps ensure you won’t start a fire where you’re not supposed to, camp where you’re not meant to be, or wander onto private property. Plus, it helps keep trips running smoothly and contributes to more enjoyable outdoor experiences.

  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

    That means don’t wander into the trees and pitch your tent on top of delicate root structures and disturb living soil and cryptobiotic crust that can take decades to recover. This kind of travel damages surface vegetation or communities of organisms when they’re trampled beyond recovery. The results in barren areas, which leads to soil erosion, which leads to crappier trails in the future.

    Don’t take switchback shortcuts, keep on the trail, even if it’s narrow, pitch your tent on durable surfaces like sand, gravel or large rock, camp at least 200 feet away from water, and if you’re not camping in a high-traffic campsite, try to preserve the landscape and when you leave, do your best to make it look like you were never there to begin with. Leave No Trace. Get it?

  3. Dispose of Waste Properly

    Pack it in, pack it out. All of it. No shortcuts. That means every scrap of cardboard, snack bag, plastic water bottle doggie poo bag, cigarette butts, you name it. Also food scraps from your campsite and any and all bits and pieces that may have broken off your gear. And don’t even think about pouring out stove fuel!

    As for dishes, wash them if you must, use soap only if you have to, (plant-derived unscented soaps are best) but dump the wastewater at least 200 feet from camp and water sources. If there are many chunks of food solids, strain them out with a cheesecloth or other fabric and pack them out. And don’t wash dishes (or yourself) in a creek or stream! Soap, sunscreen, bug spray, these can all contaminate the water for people and wildlife.

    As for human waste, burying it will usually do (unless you’re in a river canyon or sensitive alpine region, in which case, you gotsta pack that out, too). Dig a hole 6-8 inches deep and at least 200 feet from water, trails and campsites and go in there. Then cover it up when you’re done. Most times, you can bury your toilet paper in there, too, or just use leaves and rocks and stuff instead. As for feminine hygiene products, sorry, you have to pack it out. Which is why I recommend a Diva Cup–no waste and better for you and the environment.

  4. Leave What You Find

    That means no picking flowers, pocketing pretty rocks, or historical artifacts. But it also means you’re not supposed to move natural features around to suit your purposes. Don’t try to fashion tables and chairs out of rocks or fallen logs you find back in the woods. Don’t even think about cutting down limbs for firewood, nailing anything into trees, or, God forbid, carving your initials into anything!

    Anything you find, enjoy from a distance, but leave it for others to enjoy. Even if there seem to be an abundance of leaves or pine cones or some such, that could likely be food or shelter for local wildlife. Just leave it, OK?

  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts

    Growing up, camping meant campfires, but they’re not always feasible. First, some destinations, especially in desert areas, don’t allow campfires at all. If a park says no campfire, then no campfires. Easy as. If fires are allowed, if there’s a fire ring, whether a semi-permanent metal ring or one built with rocks that looks like it’s been there a while, use it. If not, and fires are allowed, first make sure there’s enough fallen wood in the area that if you utilize it, there is so much that whatever you use won’t be noticeable. If there’s no fire ring, pile dirt from an already disturbed campsite or trail on top of a tarp and build your small fire on top.

    Don’t cut any branches, twigs or trees for a campfire, instead, collect dead and downed pieces of wood–no larger around than your wrist–from a broad area around your campsite. Keep fires small and burn the wood completely. When you’re ready to leave or go to bed, extinguish them completely with water until the ash isn’t even warm. Scatter ash over a wide area when you’re done. Leave no trace that there was ever a fire there to begin with.

  6. Respect Wildlife

    Don’t follow a deer down a path not designed for humans. Don’t throw rocks at skunks. Keep your distance from momma moose and her baby. And for goodness sake, don’t feed the wildlife! Ever! That includes throwing apple cores and banana peels into the bushes. People food attracts wild animals and can even make them sick. Do not see how close you can get to animals, touch them, or try to pick up wild animals. You could injure them or make them sick, cause them to panic and react poorly (which could threaten your life), or encourage them to bite or scratch.

    You should also camp 200 feet away from water (noticing a pattern yet?) to give wildlife sufficient space to wander as needed around their water source. Remember, this is their house–they were here first. So treat them with respect and give them the space they need.

  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

    This one is hugely under-emphasized. Being respectful outdoors means many things. First and foremost: shut off your dang music. Nobody wants to hear what you think are awesome tunes. Most of us are outside to enjoy the silence, hear the birds, find our peaceful place, and we don’t like our revery interrupted by your garbage music. If you simply can’t spend time outdoors without your tunes, just wear earbuds. That goes for popular day hikes, backcountry treks, lounging by the river, you name it. If you’re outdoors, shut down the speakers.

    It also means giving the right of way to uphill hikers (or anyone, really, if you have a place to step off the trail and they don’t) and saying hello to fellow hikers. Personally, I assume it’s some city slicker’s first time in the outdoors if they don’t at least make eye contact and wave hello. Stop and have a chat if you’re on a longer hike.

Have we made Leave No Trace abundantly clear? Will you ever leave your trash behind, wander off-trail to pick a flower, or neglect to bury your toilet paper again? We didn’t think so. And if you ever pass me on the trail with classic rock blaring from the speaker in your hip pack, so help me if I don’t just push you off a cliff and steal your trekking poles. You’ve been warned.