Leave No Trace
When you first start out hiking you might hear a phrase that seems simple and common sense, Leave No Trace. While the concept is simple in its base level, when I started looking into it a bit more I found so much more information than I could imagine. I found out that even though I tried to be a good citizen of nature, I was making some unintentional mistakes.
The Experts of Leave No Trace
I wanted to get the answers to some of the common issues I was discovering so I decided to bring in the experts. Brice Esplin and Erin Collier are Traveling Trainers with the Leave No Trace organization and have graciously agreed to answer some questions today.
What is Leave No Trace
FatMan: Brice and Erin, thank you so much for helping educate people about Leave No Trace. Can you start by just briefly explaining what Leave No Trace is all about?
Brice and Erin from Leave No Trace: Leave No Trace is a national nonprofit organization, and an international movement. Using the power of science, education and stewardship, Leave No Trace is on a mission to ensure a sustainable future for the outdoors and the planet.
The Importance of Leave No Trace
FM: Why is Leave No Trace so important? Does it help nature regrow or just prevent damage?
LNT: The majority of the recreation related impacts in our outdoor spaces don’t happen intentionally. They happen because we are unaware or misinformed about these impacts and how to minimize them. By providing an opportunity for education, we empower everyone to become stewards of the places they love. This stewardship creates sustainable use of our outdoor areas both by minimizing future impacts, and by restoring areas that have previously been impacted.
FM: What are the 7 principles of Leave No Trace.
LNT: The 7 principles are how we put Leave No Trace into action in our own lives. They are:
- Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Plan and Prepare
FM: Ok let’s break these down a bit more, The first principle is Plan and Prepare. I can see how that is important from a safety standpoint but how does it actually affect Leave No Trace?
LNT: Plan Ahead and Prepare is our first principal for a reason. It is hard to do the other six without first taking this step. You can’t respect wildlife by storing your food properly if you haven’t researched how to do that in the area you are visiting. We want to research how to have a safe trip AND a Leave No Trace trip.
Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
FM: The second principle is Travel and Camp on durable surfaces. Here is one where I have a specific question. If I am hiking on a trail and I come upon a muddy spot is it ok to step off the trail to get to less mud or should I try to stay on the trail and walk through the mud?
LNT: This is a common misconception in Leave No Trace. It is actually better to go straight through the mud. Going around it can damage the vegetation and compact the soil on the sides of the trails. We always want to stay on the trail, as that is our most sustainable option. If the trail is too wet and we can’t just go through the mud, it might be best to wait for the trail to dry out. If you’ve ever been hiking and all of sudden the trail spreads out wide, chances are a puddle is there during other parts of the year.
Dispose of Waste Properly
FM: Dispose of waste properly is one that I think is a bit misunderstood. It should be common courtesy if you bring trash into nature to take it out with you. If I have a wrapper for a bar or some beef jerky, I should throw it away. But I like to eat apples and oranges for the quick energy on the trail. These are natural so surely I can throw those in the woods right?
LNT: Even natural trash items should be packed out. Things like orange peels can last up to two years when left as litter, but the bigger issue is that these attract wildlife. Food scraps and natural trash can be harmful to wildlife as it is not their natural food, and can start the food habituation process.
Other items such as aluminum cans can last 80-100 years, fishing line can last 600 years, and plastics can last forever. This is why packing things out is so important. Everything lasts much longer than we would like to think and has undue effects in nature.
FM: As far as waste goes, if my dog poops but it isn’t on trail do I really need to clean it up? I mean animals poop in the woods all the time and it’s not on the trail bothering people so what is the big deal?
LNT: Wildlife eat things that are already in that environment whereas our dogs (and us) eat items that are not natural to that ecosystem, as well as processed ingredients and things like copper sulfates (a preservative) and food dyes. When they poop, these are what are left behind. Their waste can contaminate water, cause algae blooms, and spread diseases to wildlife. This is why their waste should always be packed out or buried in a cathole if on a longer trip.
FM: How about when humans have to go on the trail. There are a lot of people with different opinions on that one. Could you explain what the proper rules for that are?
LNT: Our poop contains over 100 active pathogens and protozoa that can contaminate water and spread disease. We should Plan Ahead and Prepare and check local guidance on how to dispose of it. Often the best option is to bury it in a cathole, a 6-8 inch deep hole that is 200 feet (or 70 big steps) away from water, trail, and campsites. In other areas such as caves, many desert ecosystems, and high use trails, we are required to pack out our poop using a WAG bag or other approved method.
Leave What You Find
FM: The fourth principle is to leave what you find. So that means don’t pick flowers right? What about gathering sticks, rocks, leaves? Also, there are trees that everyone has carved initials into, since there are already initials in there does that mean I can do it?
LNT: The things we find in nature have a role to play, and this is why the visitation numbers really come into play. It might seem harmless to take home one flower, rock, or stick, but with 13 billion visits to our natural areas each year in the US, even if we all take one item, that can add up to cause changes in the ecosystem. Sticks break down to add carbon and nitrogen to the soil, flowers provide food for pollinators, and rocks provide habitat for many different species.
That is not to say we can never forage, but we want to check local guidelines, and be sure to do so in a sustainable way that creates the least disturbance.
When it comes to carving into trees, many folks don’t realize that bark is like a tree’s skin, and a carving is like an open wound. These make the trees more susceptible to disease and can be very harmful.
Minimize Campfire Impacts
FM: The fifth principle is to minimize campfire impacts. Fire is pretty simple, can you explain this a bit more?
LNT: The risk of wildfire is growing increasingly high as our climate changes. It is our responsibility to be safe with fire, to check conditions and if fire bans are in effect, and to never leave a campfire unattended and always extinguish them completely. This means the ash should be cool to the touch.
When we think outside of the catastrophic wildfire situations campfires also sterilize the soil below them. This is the reason it’s best to never build our own new fire rings and rely on existing infrastructure. Collecting firewood can also have adverse effects on soil composition of an area. Soil samples from inside a campground, where visitors collect firewood, will often have significantly lower levels of carbon and nitrogen in them and be less healthy. It’s great to take all of these factors into consideration before having a fire.
FM: The sixth principle is to respect wildlife. Does that mean keep a distance but its still ok to take pictures? If one of those cute little chipmunks comes up looking for snacks is it ok to give it some? What else can you tell me about respecting wildlife?
LNT: There are three key practices to respect wildlife: keep a safe distance from them, never feed them, and always keep food, trash, and anything with a smell out of their reach. We can still observe them, take photos, etc., but we should stay a safe distance away. If our presence alters their behavior, it is time to move on.
Getting food from humans impacts animals’ health and changes their habits. We never want to feed them, and to help us avoid this, it is important to keep our food, trash, and anything with a smell away from them. Sometimes this means storing these items in a bear can, sometimes it means keeping them in your car. Plan ahead and prepare to know the local guidance.
Be Considerate to Other Visitors
FM: Finally, the 7th principle is to be considerate to other visitors. What are some ways I can improve how considerate I am to others in the parks and trails?
LNT: A smile goes a long way! It is important to remember that the outdoors are for everyone, and we want to strive to create a safe, welcoming, and inclusive space. Consider how your actions might impact other people’s experiences. Invite new folks into the outdoors with you. Understand that we all connect with nature in different ways, and no one way is better than another. We all have a shared interest in keeping our natural spaces healthy and its important to remember that.
Final Thoughts on Leave No Trace
FM: Anything else that I am missing that you want to tell people?
LNT: There is always more to learn! Leave No Trace can be different depending on the ecosystem, activity, and area, so always do your research. Have a learners mindset and know that the 7 principles are not meant to be rules, but a framework to help us minimize our impacts. It is not about perfection, but doing the best we can as often as we can. We don’t need a handful of people practicing Leave No Trace perfectly, we need all of us practicing Leave No Trace imperfectly and perpetually improving.
Wrapping up Leave No Trace
Brice and Erin thank you so much for all of this great information. There is so much to learn about Leave No Trace and I just wanted to ask some of the common questions that new hikers may come across. Make sure to check out the Leave No Trace website and the guidelines for each of the areas you hike before you go for more information.
More Getting Started Tips
I have compiled a few other “Getting Started Tips” guides to help you on your journey. I have topics such as clothing, weather, and shoes for the hike. For the pre-hike prep I have articles about snacks, diet, and exercises. These can all be found on the Getting Started Tips section of the website.
If you have any questions, comments or have a topic you would like me to cover you can email me at Fatmanlittletrails@gmail.com. Or you can follow along at the below social media platforms. Happy Hiking!