Leave only footprints, take only photographs.
The seven Leave No Trace (LNT) principles were created for folks to have a simple and easily understood framework of practices to help leave nature as unchanged by our presence as possible, so that future generations can enjoy it. In essence, the purpose of Leave No Trace is to keep the wilderness wild.
- Plan Ahead & Prepare
- Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
- Planning Ahead helps ensure the safety of groups and individuals and prepares you to minimize resource damage. It contributes to accomplishing trip goals safely and enjoyably, thus increasing self-confidence and opportunities for learning more about nature. It’s important to identify the goal of your trip, the skill and ability of trip participants and choose gear that fits your objective. A huge part of planning is researching the area you plan to visit—look up recent trip reports, maps, guidebooks, even talk to rangers or land management if possible. Lack of planning often leads to not-great spontaneous decisions that negatively impact you or your surroundings.
- Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces: This includes everything from staying out of roped-off fragile meadows that are being protected to regrow as well as simply not cutting switchbacks on established trails. Established trails are themselves an impact on the land; however, they are a necessary response to the fact that people do travel through natural areas, and having one well-designed trail is better than many paths that scar the landscape. The effect of traveling or camping on ice and snow is temporary and therefore acceptable; walking on rock and gravel is low-impact and generally acceptable. Vegetation and softer dirt surfaces are vulnerable and easily destroyed by human usage, and remember always to camp and/or keep human waste at least 200 feet from any potential water source.
- Dispose of Waste Properly: Pack it in, pack it out! It doesn’t get much simpler than this, but it’s amazing how much litter you see out there. I often bring a bag with me and collect the Clif bar wrappers and tiny water bottles of hikers past. The rule of thumb is pack out solid human waste in plastic bags, and if that isn’t possible, dig a cat hole 6-8 inches deep and pack out the TP.
- Leave What You Find and take photographs instead. Natural objects like geodes, lava rocks, bones, antlers, or petrified wood add to the mood of the backcountry and should be left so others can experience it. In national parks and many other protected lands, it is illegal to remove natural objects—but even without the hefty fine, just ethically: don’t do it. Obviously carving initials in trees, breaking off branches for walking sticks, breaking off boughs to use as sleeping or sitting pads are all heavily frowned upon by everyone, especially the trees.
- Minimize campfire impact by using preexisting rock rings left by other campers. Dismantling them will cause additional impact because they will be rebuilt with new rocks and thus impact a new area. Camp in areas where wood is abundant if building a fire. Don’t have a fire in areas where there is little wood at higher elevations, in heavily used areas, or in desert settings. A true LNT fire shows no evidence of having been constructed. Keep your fire away from rock outcroppings to avoid scarring them with the black marks that remain for decades. And the obvious: don’t take wood from living trees and don’t leave fires unattended. With the ease of small stoves such the JetBoil, fires for cooking can be avoided altogether, but if you need one for warmth, don’t have a stove, or just enjoy the ritual of firebuilding, please adhere to these guidelines.
- Respect Wildlife: Observe wildlife from a distance so they are not scared or forced to flee, and remember that sudden movements and loud noises are stressful to animals. Travel quietly (one exception is in bear country where it is good to make a little noise so as not to startle the bears). Do not touch, get close to, feed, or pick up wild animals. There are some touristy areas where visitors have fed smaller wildlife so often and for so long that those little guys have evolved to depend on humans for food, thus losing their natural instinct and skill and palette; instead of hunting for insects they pose for granola (side note, most people don’t know how harmful dried fruit can be to small animals). And for the larger critters, well, we all saw the story about the girl who wanted to get a selfie with the bear but got attacked instead.
- Being Considerate of Other Visitors includes everything from knowing how to yield to not cranking your music as you hike. When so many people are opting outside to get some alone-time, it can be hard to keep the trails feeling serene, but you can help contribute to the solitude vibe by being as unobtrusive as possible. Talk to your partners in subdued volumes. Take breaks as far off-trail as is safe for you and gentle on the land. The two biggest pet peeves of those of us who spend a lot of time out there are off-leash dogs and Bluetooth speakers. I can pretty much guarantee you that no one else wants to hear CardiB in the mountains, and if I had a nickel for every “it’s ok, he’s friendly” cheerfully declared by a dog owner that really thought I didn’t mind a happy-go-lucky lab doing circles through my ankles as I run 8 minute miles downhill on rocky terrain. Your music, your dog. My solitude, my safety. As for yielding, downhill yields to uphill. Hikers yield to equestrians, bicyclists yield to both hikers and equestrians. When passing a slower group, a simple “on your left” gives them a heads up so they don’t get startled and can scoot over; hopefully they don’t all have earbuds in and cranked so loud they don’t hear you. Basically, don’t be a jerk. It’s like real life but put even your better self out there: the standards are higher, the mountains are sacred.
The more people that follow these practices, the more wild the wilderness can stay, and the more enjoyable the experience will be for everyone out there now, and for generations to come.
Wendy Harrington is a California native who has lived in a small town at the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington state since 2001. Her love of trail running and peakbagging has led her to summit all five Washington volcanoes, climb to the high points of three states, and put nearly a thousand miles a year on her boots. Her loves include ridgelines, saddles, granite, one-day pushes on big mountains, anything volcanic, long solo days, and objectives that push limits and test endurance.