One of the phrases you will begin to hear as you embrace outdoor recreational sports is ‘LEAVE NO TRACE.’ Those three words alone are pretty self-explanatory. Simply: Leave the environment through which you travel exactly as you found it.
That doesn’t stop heated discussions on outdoor enthusiasts message boards. Some people argue that it is OK to dig a cathole and bury human waste, while others demand that true ‘Leave No Trace’ requires you to carry, or ‘pack out’ everything and leave absolutely nothing behind.
There is always going to be a debate on the specifics, but Tramposaurus would like to offer this handy guide that covers everything you need to know about the fundamentals of Leave No Trace’ and if you can follow the these basic guidelines, your trip, and the environment, will benefit.
As increasing numbers of people seek the beauty and exhilaration of outdoor recreation, our collective mark on the environment and natural resources increases. Pollution, litter and disturbance to vegetation, wildlife and other visitors are all indicators of the need to develop universal ethical guidelines that protect wild and scenic areas.
Leave No Trace depends more on attitude and awareness than on rules and regulations. Minimum-impact practices must be flexible and tempered by experience and judgment. Techniques are continually evolving and improving: consider the variables of each place (soil, vegetation, wildlife, and the type of use the area receives) and determine what recommended techniques to apply. Your trip will be even more enjoyable knowing that you are minimizing your impact on the land and on other visitors.
Carefully designing your trip to match your expectations and outdoor skill level is the first step in being prepared. While impact concerns are clearly secondary to visitor safety, careful planning can go a long way toward ensuring that tradeoffs between the two are unnecessary.
Leave No Trace planning. Ask local tourism offices about the popularity and character of your intended destination. Learn about terrain difficulties, such as whether swollen rivers are uncrossable early in the season or what time of the year snow cover might make your intended activities impossible. The information gathered can assist you in planning your clothing, equipment, food and fuel.
Think about your goals and expectations for your trip. Many designated wilderness areas suffer from overuse; alternative locations can often provide more solitude. If you plan a route that follows trails in a popular area, expect to see other hikers and plan to camp in established campsites. If you are planning to hike off-grid in the backcountry, be prepared to camp in “pristine” (not used previously) sites and practice stringent Leave No Trace techniques.
Small groups and if possible, travel during seasons or days of the week when outdoor activities in your area are not as popular. Visiting less-popular areas minimizes contact with others and enhances opportunities for viewing wildlife, but requires an extra commitment to travel lightly on the land.
Leave No Trace practices strive to balance safety concerns with ecological and social impact concerns. Please seek specific information about potential for bear encounters and preferred safety techniques from local tourism offices, National Park offices and visitor centers, or on trailhead signs.
When traveling in an area with potentially dangerous wildlife, camp organization and cleanliness take on a whole new significance. The primary concern is safety, both for the visitor and for the local animals. Personal safety is the first priority; a bear can be a vary dangerous animal if provoked or habituated to humans. Safety of the bear is also a concern. Once a bear is habituated to people–usually because it associates people with food, it can rapidly become a “problem” bear and will have to be dealt with accordingly, often at the expense of its life. The saying goes: “A fed bear is a dead bear.”
For example, gaiters protect your feet and boots, enabling you to stay on the main trail when it is wet or muddy. Changing into soft soled shoes in camp can reduce impact to the surrounding area. Lightweight camp stoves and free-standing tents allow flexibility to camp in the most impact-resistant site available. A small garden trowel is almost indispensable for digging a minimum-impact cathole to bury human waste. Certain equipment can also reduce impact to wildlife. Binoculars and high-powered camera lenses enable you to observe or photograph wildlife from an unobtrusive distance.
Plan your meals carefully, factoring in the remoteness and accessibility of an area. Repackage foods from boxes, bottles and cans into reusable containers or plastic bags. In addition to saving weight and space, this will reduce the amount of potential trash or litter you bring into the backcountry. Recycle packaging when possible.
Wherever you travel and camp, it is best to confine your use to surfaces that are resistant to impact. Specific practices appropriate for popular and remote areas are described below.
When in popular or high-use areas, utilize well-established campsites and trails. These areas have been compacted, or “hardened,” and continued use causes little additional impact. Focusing your use in these areas preserves the natural condition of the surroundings.
Leave No Trace hiking. To minimize disturbance to wildlife, soil and vegetation. Hiking outside the established trail to avoid rocks, mud, snow or overhanging vegetation tramples plants and contributes to erosion. Whenever possible, cross directly through muddy stretches and puddles to avoid creating additional paths. Short cutting switchbacks is never appropriate. Short cutting saves little time and causes erosion and gully formation.
During rest breaks, try to find a durable surface such as rock or bare ground that is well off the trail. This enhances the feeling of solitude for you as well as other travelers. If the vegetation around you is thick brush or delicate plants, take your break at a wide spot in the trail so others have plenty of room to pass. Some judgment is required to minimize both social impacts and damage to trailside vegetation.
Leave No Trace camping. This is perhaps the most important aspect of minimum-impact backcountry use. Arrive with enough time to scout so you can select a durable and safe site. Some popular backcountry areas have officially designated campsites. Other areas have obvious established sites that have lost their vegetation cover. Further careful use of these sites will cause virtually no additional impact. You may also find a naturally durable site, such as an area of exposed bedrock, sand or gravel, or snow, one of the most impact-resistant surfaces of all.
In bear country, it is advisable to separate the sleeping and cooking areas by at least 100 yards and to position these in areas with good surrounding visibility. While it is important to consider your visual impact on other visitors, it is more important not to surprise a bear at close range. Camping on gravel or sand bars with the cooking area down wind is a recommended practice. Remember to watch for rising water levels from nearby rivers.
So rain water can drain. Trenching around tents should be avoided since it can disturb roots and soil. Never scrape away or “clean” sites. Organic litter helps to cushion trampling forces and reduces the erosive action of rainfall and water runoff.
Be flexible when choosing a campsite. If the area where you planned to camp is crowded and all the established sites are taken, look for a naturally resistant site. If none exist, be prepared to move on. Avoid having making unnecessary impacts: arrive at your destination with time and energy to spare.
Once a site is established, you can minimize your impact by placing tents, traffic routes and kitchen areas on already hardened or resistant areas. Use existing paths, and wear soft-soled shoes around camp to minimize further trampling.
Leave No Trace food management. Store food so that it is unavailable and uninviting to bears and small mammals. “Food” includes garbage, canned food, stock feed, pet food, and scented or flavored toiletries. If possible, avoid bringing scented personal items into the backcountry. Place food in air tight bags or bear resistant containers and then in the designated cooking area. Protecting food this way helps prevent habituating these animals to human food sources. If left out, even boots, backpacks or clothing can be chewed on by marmots or other small animals.
Make sure your camp is as clean or cleaner than when you arrived. Dirty sites encourage future campers to choose new, undisturbed sites that may soon become trampled and left without vegetation.
Remote or “pristine” areas typically show little sign of human use. Often these areas are referred to as “cross-country” or “off-trail” areas. Visit pristine areas only if you are committed to and knowledgeable of the techniques required to Leave No Trace in that particular area. If in doubt, stay on established trails in areas that are frequently visited.
The quantity of pristine lands, whether in 100 acre or 100 square mile parcels, is growing smaller everyday. Consequently it is essential that we challenge ourselves and others to preserve these remaining wild places. Keep the following ideas in mind when traveling off trail.
To minimize physical and social impacts. If you are camping with a large group consider traveling in smaller groups during the day. A group of four to six people strikes a good balance between bear safety and environmental concerns.
To avoid fragile terrain or critical wildlife habitat. The most impact-resistant surfaces are exposed bedrock, gravel and snow. Well-used wildlife trails are also good route choices, but be aware of surprising wildlife. Minimizing the amount of foot falls in any one place helps prevent new trails from forming. Don’t build cairns, leave flagging, or mark your route. Allow others travelers the same sense of discovery you enjoyed on your trip.
Many ecosystems contain vegetation that is highly sensitive to trampling. The damage that occurs to vegetation happens quickly, generally within the first five to 10 days worth of use per year, and can be severe and long term.
Since stepping on some vegetation is unavoidable, it is important to learn which plants are most resistant to trampling. Grasses and sedges can withstand considerable hiker traffic due to their flexible stems and quick growth rate. Leafy herbs, such as spring beauty and monkshood, are easily crushed but can grow back if left undisturbed. Woody stemmed ground covers, such as heather and Labrador tea, are fragile. They are easily broken and recover slowly from trampling.
If the ground is saturated, all plant types become fragile and should be bypassed. Areas where vegetation is just beginning to be established are common and should also be avoided, especially as camping areas.
Researchers have found that once a lichen colony or mat is trampled by hikers, soil beds that may have taken hundreds of years to develop can be lost to erosion. As a result of their low productivity rate, lichens recover from trampling extremely slowly.
Sites such as rock, snow are best. Sleeping pads can make cold, gravel, sand, and rough surfaces comfortable for sitting or sleeping.
Established areas of resistant grasses and plants can also make a suitable campsite for one or two nights if particular care is taken to minimize trampling and trail formation.
Since the kitchen area usually receives the most use, try to find a rock or gravel area for the kitchen even if the tent is pitched on vegetation. Vary your route to the cooking site and avoid fragile vegetation. This helps minimize the concentrated trampling that can cause lasting damage.
While sand and gravel bars near large rivers are resistant to impact, lake shores and the vegetated banks of small streams are fragile and easily impacted. Choose a site that is at least 200 feet from lakes and small streams. In these situations, a collapsible water container can minimize the number of trips to the water source.
Avoid unearthing rocks embedded in mossy ground, as this practice can injure fragile root systems. Surface rocks that must be moved should be replaced when the site is vacated.
Look for signs of bears such as tracks, scat, or diggings before settling in. It is often best to move to another campsite if you see evidence of recent bear activity. This is particularly true when there is evidence of a dead animal in the surrounding area.
To prevent long-term impact by naturalizing the spot. Cover scuffed-up areas with native materials, brush out footprints and rake matted areas with a stick to help the site recover and make it less obvious as a campsite. This extra effort will help hide any indication that you camped there and make it less likely that other backcountry travelers will camp in the same spot. The less often people use a remote campsite the better chance it has of retaining its pristine qualities.
Most campsites can recover completely from a limited amount of use. However, a threshold is eventually reached where the regenerative power of the vegetation cannot keep pace with the amount of trampling and continued use will cause the site to deteriorate rapidly. The threshold for a particular site is affected by many variables, including vegetation, soils, and length of growing season. Keep the following ideas in mind.
These are best left alone to regenerate. In places with no well-established campsites, camp on durable pristine sites; in popular areas select preexisting campsites.
Allow time for recovery. If they receive no further use, campsites and trails can revert back to their natural state. With care, both high-use areas and less popular locations will contain only essential campsites and trails.
Trash and garbage have no place in the backcountry. Consider the words “Leave No Trace” a challenge to take out everything that you brought into the backcountry. Pack out all of your litter. On the way out when your pack is lighter try to pick up litter left by others.
When preparing for your trip, repackage food into reusable containers and remove any excess packaging. This simple practice lessens the chance that you will inadvertently leave litter behind.
“Trash” is the non-food waste brought into the backcountry, usually from overly packaged products. Trash that appears burnable is often lined with non-combustible foil or plastic and leaves residual litter once burned. Pack out all trash unless you can burn it completely in a campfire. Never dispose of trash in outhouses. It creates a large and costly management burden.
Small pieces of trash such as twist-ties, candy wrappers and cigarette butts often fall out of pockets and litter the backcountry. Put all trash in a small, designated trash bag to solve this problem.
“Garbage” is food left over from cooking. Reduce this waste by carefully planning and preparing meals. Avoid creating leftover food because cooked food has a strong scent. Try to eat all left- overs promptly. If you still have leftovers, triple bag them and store them with your food. Food scraps, which include orange peels, apple cores and the like, should be picked up from around the kitchen area.
Burning or burying waste is problematic. A very hot tire is required to burn food completely and animals dig up buried lettovers. Buried or incompletely burned garbage attracts bears. Keep garbage from animals so they will not become habituated to people and dependent upon unnatural food sources. For the best food storage, consider air tight bags or bear resistant containers.
In bear country, keep tents, sleeping bags and personal gear free of food odors. Place the kitchen area at least 100 yards away from and down wind of sleeping sites. Be sure to store used feminine hygiene products and used toilet paper with the food garbage while in camp. Never bring any food into your tent. Where bear danger is high, leave the clothing you wore while cooking in the kitchen area.
As visitors to the backcountry, we create certain types of waste which usually cannot be packed out. These include human waste and waste water from cooking and washing.
Proper disposal of human waste is important to avoid pollution of water sources, the spread of illnesses such as Giardia or other parasites, and aesthetic consequences to those who follow. Burying human feces in a suitable location and manner is the most effective solution to human waste problems. Where outhouses or pit toilets exist, use them. Where they don’t exist, a bit of knowledge and commitment is required for minimum-impact disposal.
These are the most widely accepted means of feces disposal. Position catholes at least 200 feet (70 adult steps) from water, trails and camp. Avoid sites in gullies that may flow with water during heavy rains. Select a site that is inconspicuous where other people will be unlikely to walk or camp.
To promote decomposition, choose a site in organic soil (topsoil), rather than deeper, sandy mineral soil. With a small garden trowel, dig a hole four to eight inches deep and four to six inches in diameter. A flap of “sod” containing roots, soil and above-ground plant parts can be removed with careful digging and replaced without greatly impacting vegetation. After use, mix some soil into the cathole with a stick to further promote decomposition. Cover the cathole with the soil plug and disguise it with natural materials.
Cathole sites should be widely dispersed. Think ahead to avoid concentrating catholes around campsites. Other groups may have camped in the area previously. Consider going for a short walk to dig your cathole, or use a remote location during the day’s hike. These practices disperse impacts to water quality and lessen the chance of other visitors accidentally discovering your site.
Early in the season when terrain is snow-covered, seek dry ground for your cathole near trees or on wind blown ridges. Human waste buried in snow does not always decompose and maybe visible when the snow melts.
Recent research indicates that buried feces decompose more slowly than previously thought. Pathogens were discovered to survive for a year or more when buried in a mountain site in Montana. The slow decomposition rate emphasizes the need to choose good locations for deposition far from water, campsites and other frequently used places.
If members of your group are unable to deal effectively with the cathole method (for example, groups of children) stay in popular areas where an outhouse or pit toilet is available.
If there is no gravel, sand, or soil immediately available in which to dig a cathole, your best option is to wait. When that’s not possible, two other options exist. In the “smear” method, feces are spread thinly with a rock to maximize exposure to sterilizing UV radiation and the and drying forces of the sun. Smears are quick to decompose, but research indicates that pathogens are not completely killed and maybe spread by wind, water, or insects. Covering feces with rocks may eliminate wind and insect problems, but inhibits decomposition and does not effectively separate feces from water.
If at all possible, isolating feces within the soil or dirt is the best option. This effectively minimizes contamination via surface run off, wind, insects, and direct contact.
Urine has little effect on vegetation or soil. Research shows that urine poses little threat to human health. However, urine can become an aesthetic impact due to its odor, and animals occasionally paw up ground, defoliating plants to get the salts deposited from urine. Try to urinate on rocks or sandy areas.
Use toilet paper sparingly and use only non-dyed, non-perfumed brands.
Toilet paper must be disposed of properly! Pack it out in doubled plastic bags to effectively confine odors. The minimum-impact camper willing to go the extra mile might consider foregoing toilet paper altogether and using “natural” alternatives. Popular forms of natural toilet paper include clean stones, smooth sticks, moss and snow. Be careful not to use devil’s club, stinging nettles or cow parsnip! Obviously some experimentation is necessary to make this practice work for you, but it is worth a try!
Hot water and a little elbow grease can tackle most backcountry cleaning chores. Soap is unnecessary for most dish washing jobs and can be difficult to rinse thoroughly. Place waste water in a single location downwind from sleeping and food storage areas to minimize odors. Remove all food particles from the waste water before disposal: a small strainer works well for this. Pack particles out with excess food and other litter.
If camping on a large river, dishes can be rinsed in the river once food particles have been removed and properly stored. This practice minimizes food odors and cause negligible environmental damage but is inappropriate in small streams. Before using the dishes again, be certain they are dry or rinsed with boiling water to reduce the risk of parasites.
Leave No Trace washing. Soap, even if biodegradable, must not enter lakes or streams, so it is best to minimize its use. If you wish to bathe with soap, get wet, lather up on shore far from water (200 feet) and rinse off with water carried in a collapsible water container or cooking pot. This procedure allows the soap to filter through the soil and break down before reaching water. Clothes can be cleaned by thorough rinsing.
Fish viscera (guts and stomachs) are generally a natural part of the ecosystem, yet disposed of improperly they can attract unwanted predators. Clean fish at least 200 feet from cooking or camping areas. Deposit the viscera in deeper sections of lakes or rivers to minimize the chance of entrails washing up on shore.
People venture into the wilderness to enjoy it in its natural state. Allow others a sense of discovery by leaving rocks, plants, archaeological artifacts, antlers, and other objects of interest as you find them. This ties in with the Leave No Trace principle of respecting others. Let them have the same experience of discovery that you had.
In some situations minor site alterations when setting up camp are acceptable. Moving downed branches or rocks for a better sleeping surface allows you to choose the best minimum-impact spots. In pristine sites, mentally note where things are and what the site looks like when you arrive, then return moved objects before leaving.
Avoid damaging live trees and plants. Never put nails in trees, hack at trees with hatchets or saws, or girdle thin-barked trees with tent lines. Cutting boughs for use as a sleeping pad creates minimal benefit and maximum impact.
Leave No Trace foraging. Picking flowers, leaves or edible plants may seem like a harmless act, but the cumulative effect of many people doing so may become quite damaging. Enjoy an occasional edible plant, but leave plenty for birds and animals. If you collect edibles, a good rule of thumb is to harvest only abundant species, and take no more than 10 percent from any one site. In popular locations, do not pick any vegetation; take pictures or make a sketch instead.
Respect for others includes wildlife. As visitors to these areas, we must be aware of how our presence affects animals. Most animals react with alarm when approached by humans. Such reactions are stressful and cause the animal to expend energy to get away. For a sow grizzly bear with cubs or a moose with calves, a distance of 200 yards can be dangerously close. Observe wildlife from a distance with high-powered cameras or binoculars and give wildlife the right of way on game trails even if it means changing your route.
Although a single experience may not affect an animal to a large degree, multiple or prolonged disturbances can be detrimental to the animal’s health. Repeated disturbances may cause wildlife to avoid an area that might offer the best food or nesting sites completely. Report injured animals to park rangers or local authorities; do not try to help or save them.
Leave natural objects and cultural artifacts. Natural objects of beauty or interest, such as antlers or fossils, should be left for others to discover and enjoy. Antlers also provide an important calcium source for small mammals. In some designated areas it is illegal to remove any natural objects, including plants and flowers.
The same ethic applies to the discovery, disturbance or removal of cultural artifacts. Some sites or artifacts are sacred to native peoples. All these items contribute to our understanding of human and natural history, including the effects of disease, climate changes, and shifting animal populations on the land and her people. Artifacts and cultural sites are protected by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 and the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. This includes seemingly insignificant potsherds, arrowheads and remnants of historical structures. It is illegal to excavate, disturb or remove these resources from any public lands.
The use of campfires in the wilderness, once a necessity, is now steeped in history and tradition. But the natural appearance of many areas has been compromised by the careless use of fires and the demand for firewood.
The development of efficient camp stoves has facilitated a shift away from the traditional fire. Stoves are now essential equipment for minimum-impact camping trips because they are fast and eliminate firewood availability as a concern in campsite selection. Backcountry visitors should carry stoves and sufficient fuel to cook all their meals, and build fires only if they can meet the conditions listed below. If you typically depend on fire as a light source, consider using a light-weight candle lantern as an alternative.
Think carefully about whether you really want or need a fire. Regulations, ecological considerations, weather, skill, use levels, and firewood availability should all be considered. If you choose to have a fire, keep the following ideas in mind.
Regulations are often related to the availability of firewood and the sensitivity of an area to forest fires. Tree growth in some ecosystems is extremely slow. A spruce only inches in diameter maybe hundreds of years old. Wood is often scarce or nonexistent outside river corridors. Campfires should only be built where there is abundant and appropriate fire wood.
Fire bans may also be in effect during dry spells or high winds.
Use only dead and downed wood to build a Leave No Trace fire. Collect loose sticks and branches from the ground or along a river’s normal high water line. Breaking or cutting dead branches off of any trees, living or dead leaves broken branch stubs and scars. These obvious, long-lasting impacts detract from the naturalness of the area.
Gather the firewood away from camp so the immediate vicinity does not look unnaturally barren. Take time to walk at least five minutes away, and then gather the wood over a wide area.
Firewood the size of an adult’s wrist breaks easily by hand, burns hot, and will burn completely, making cleanup easier. Keep wood in its natural lengths until ready to burn, then break it into burnable lengths as needed. If there is any unburned wood left when breaking camp it can be scattered in the willows or alders and will blend in naturally.
Build campfires in existing fire rings to concentrate impact. Single, properly located and designed fire rings should be left intact for others to use. Dismantling them will cause additional impact, because in all probability they will be rebuilt with new rocks that soon will be blackened by fire as well. Encourage others to use the same fire ring by leaving it clean. Burn all wood completely to ashes and remove any residual trash. If the fire ring is filling up with charcoal, remove the cooled, crushed charcoal and scatter it over a large area away from the camp. These practices help prevent the proliferation of multiple fire rings in popular sites.
Where there is adequate and appropriate wood, it is possible to enjoy a fire and Leave No Trace that it was ever there. Techniques have evolved over the years, and there now exist practical minimum-impact alternatives to leaving the scar of a new fire ring. Remember that in some backcountry areas fires are permitted only in designated fire sites. With any of the methods described below, take care to select a durable fire surface. The heat from fires can cause impact, but so too can the concentrated trampling of people cooking or socializing around the fire.
An innovative method for building a Leave No Trace fire is the portable fire pan–a metal tray with rigid sides at least three inches high. Fire pans were first used by river guides to minimize the impact of their fires, but they are becoming increasingly popular with backpackers, OHV users and horse packers. Metal oil drain pans, gold pans and the pans from backyard barbecue grills make effective and inexpensive fire pans. A few outdoor companies are beginning to market lightweight versions. When using a fire pan, elevate it on small rocks or line it with mineral soil so the heat does not sterilize the ground.
If camping on a gravel bar near a large river, it is possible to make a small depression in the sand in an area that will flood at high water. When coals are burned to ash and dead out, scatter them widely and recover the depression. If done with care, there will be very little evidence left behind after cleanup, and this will be swept away during the next high water. Avoid the tendency to leave charcoal for the next flood to obliterate; be fastidious in your clean-up efforts.
A mound or platform of mineral soil can be built as a fire pad that is later easily disguised. Mound fires can be built with simple tools: a garden trowel, large stuff sack and a ground cloth. Locate a ready source of mineral soil (found below the topsoil), sand or gravel. Mineral soil should be gathered from a spot that is already disturbed by natural forces and where the impact of digging and collecting the mineral soil will not damage live vegetation. Good sources for mineral soil include stream courses and the cavity left when a tree blows over.
Using the stuff sack, carry a load of mineral soil to the fire site. Lay a tarp or ground cloth on the fire site and spread the soil on top of it. Form a circular, flat-topped mound or platform about six to eight inches thick and 18 to 24 inches across. The ground cloth helps facilitate clean-up once the fire is out.
The thickness of the mound is critical for insulating the ground surface and tarp from the heat of the fire. The diameter of the mound should be larger than the size of the fire to allow for the inevitable spreading of coals. It will take more than one bag of dirt to make an adequate mound.
After the fire is completely out, widely scatter the cooled ash and coals away from camp and then return the mineral soil to its source.
The advantage of the mound fire is that it can be built on flat exposed bedrock or on an organic surface such as leaf litter without scarring the rock or damaging the soil.
In the past, fire pits dug out of sod were a recommended low-impact technique. However, even after carefully watering and replacing the sod, these sites subside over time, leaving a notice able scar. Instead of this method, try the gravel bar or fire pan method which, if done properly, leave much less impact.
Simple living, adventure, and solitude can still be part of our backcountry or wilderness adventure, but in order to assure continued existence we must take the responsibility to educate ourselves in the skills and habits that will enable us to Leave No Trace.