“Nine out of ten people who visit the outdoors are uninformed about Leave No Trace and minimizing their impacts.”
~ Ben Lawhon, Education Director LNT Center for Outdoor Ethics
Leave No Trace (LNT) principles are like the golden rules of the great outdoors. A philosophy and set of practices designed to minimize our impact and maximize our enjoyment of the environment. They collectively represent one of the most important skills that any outdoors enthusiast can acquire, because a diligent adherence to their application can play a part in helping to preserve our natural areas for generations to come.
The origin of the “leave no trace” concept – at least as we know it today – dates back to the 1960’s. It was at that time that the US Forest Service started a campaign to promote wilderness ethics, and educate the rapidly growing number of American hikers and backpackers in regards to minimal-impact camping and backcountry travel. In the following decades other organizations such as the National Park service, Bureau of Land Management, Boy Scouts and Sierra Club also came to the party, and eventually in 1994 the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics was established in Boulder, Colorado.
The Seven Principles
The purpose of the LNT Center is encapsulated in the form of its seven core principles, which are as follows:
1. Plan ahead and prepare – An ill-prepared hiker is more likely to encounter problems in the wilderness, which in turn can lead to poor choices and high-impact solutions.
2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces – When hiking in an area with an established trail system, stay on the path in order to minimize erosion. In regard to camping, remember that good campsites are found, not made. Always aim to leave a campsite the same (or even better) than how you found it. Click here for tips on campsite selection.
3. Dispose of waste properly – If you pack it in, you should always pack it out. For human waste, dig a cat hole at least 6 inches (15 cm) deep and 200 feet (61 m) from the trail, camp or water sources. After you have finished your business, pack out your used toilet paper in a sealable plastic bag. Andrew Skurka has an excellent overview of pooping in the woods on his website.
4. Leave what you find – Take only memories, leave nothing but footprints.
5. Minimize campfire impacts – Many people view campfires as a backpacking ritual, however, in the face of ever-increasing forest fire danger and diminishing wood resources, they should instead be seen as a very occasional luxury or an emergency measure.
6. Respect wildlife – Observe wildlife without disturbing it. If an animal changes its behaviour because of your presence, it means you are too close. In regards to food, never feed animals or leave behind food scraps, as it doesn’t take long for animals to become habituated to human food. Click here for more information on wildlife etiquette for hikers.
7. Be considerate of other visitors – We all have different motivations for heading out into nature. Accepting and being respectful of those differences, makes for a more harmonious experience for all concerned (e.g. If you need to use your cell phone, try and do so out of earshot of your fellow hikers).
Recognition and Stewardship
Ultimately the worth of any ethos is measured by the amount of people that put its principles into practice. And when it comes to Leave No Trace, in order for theory to translate into action two things must happen – recognition and stewardship. In regard to the former, we must be cognizant of the impact that our actions can have on our natural surroundings. Whether it be trail erosion, litter, polluted water or habituated wildlife, increasing numbers equate to a greater toll on our ecosystems, and if left unchecked we are in danger of “loving” our natural places to death. One person cutting a switchback, leaving behind food scraps, or not burying their feces properly may not make a big difference, however, many people doing exactly the same thing most certainly will.
The Karma Bag
The “action” part of the Leave No Trace equation begins and ends with stewardship – taking responsibility for our environment through conservation, volunteerism and sustainable practices. Often this equates to simply doing the little things consistently and diligently. Once the basics (i.e. the seven LNT principles) become routine, consider going the extra yard and doing a little bit more. For example, besides packing out your own trash, bring along an extra rubbish bag (let’s call it a “karma” bag) and aim at picking up at least five to ten pieces of other people’s trash as well. Next time you see that plastic bottle or candy wrapper by the side of the trail, instead of thinking, “someone should pick that up”, embrace the possibility that you are that someone. After all, the weight of the litter is usually negligible, it makes you feel great, and if enough people see you doing it it’s sure to catch on with at least a few! I began carrying a “karma” bag on my hikes in 1995, after my first trip to Mexico’s Copper Canyon. It has been an integral part of my backpacking kit ever since.
Another example of going that extra conservational yard is by volunteering to do trail work. Wilderness pathways don’t just take care of themselves, and many hikers enjoy their benefits without giving much thought to all of the time and effort that goes into building and maintaining these backcountry byways. Trail work encompasses everything from construction, clearing blowdowns and drainages, to shoring up eroded paths and re-establishing native vegetation. With increasingly more government cuts to funding for national parks and wilderness areas, the onus for preserving our trail networks is increasingly falling upon volunteer groups and non-profit organisations. These collective efforts rely on the time and efforts of conscientious individuals who don’t just talk about how much they love nature, but actually get out there and put their picks and shovels where their mouths are. The work is usually quite physical and sometimes challenging, but it represents one of the most satisfying ways for outdoorsy individuals to give back and pay it forward.
Duty of Care
Leave No Trace is more than just a set of idealistic principles – it is a duty of care with Mother Nature, a personal commitment to leave our natural places exactly how we ourselves would like to find them. Mohandas Gandhi once said that, “what we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.” In other words, if we want to conserve our wilderness areas for generations to come, we need to start treating them with the same care and respect that we ourselves would like to be treated.