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Home » Backpacking Basics: How to Leave No Trace

Backpacking Basics: How to Leave No Trace

how to leave no trace title photo

Leave No Trace is a set of outdoor ethics promoting conservation in the outdoors. Following them preserves our parks and wild lands, protects animals, and makes backpacking better for everyone. There are seven principles that guide the Leave No Trace ethos:

1. Don’t Go Unprepared

hiker in yosemite national park
Before you hike or backpack, make sure you plan ahead and prepare!

Plan your trip with nature conservation in mind; plan ahead and prepare. This means you should carefully research the area you will be hiking or backpacking in to understand just what the landscape needs in order to be protected. Some ecosystems are much more sensitive than others; actions that might be fine in Mount Rainier are not guaranteed to be acceptable in Rocky Mountain or Acadia.

Before you leave, make sure you know where you’re going- and how to take care of it!

2. Don’t Disturb Nature

death valley national park leave no trace
Death Valley National Park- where one of the most delicate things isn’t nature, it’s you.

This means you should only hike on established trails and camp on durable surfaces. Bushwhacking and leaving the trails behind might sound like a lot of fun, but many places are very sensitive and can be easily damaged by each footfall. Sure, Death Valley won’t be ruined if you veer off into the wilderness for a while (though you might die). The Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park, however, is very delicate and requires smart, empathetic hikers.

Hoh Rainforest Olympic National Park
The Hoh Rainforest in Washington is a delicate and gorgeous place- treat it as such!

When setting up camp, minimize site alterations and avoid damaging plants- stick to durable surfaces. This means that you should take care not to damage trees with your hammock (it’s not even allowed in some places because of how bad hammocks are for certain tree species), pitching your tent in appropriate, designated places, and only building campfires where you are allowed.

Camping with leave no trace principles means staying 200 feet away from streams or lakes, leaving your food away from camp, and knowing the rules about where your tent will and will not cause issues.

3. Dispose of Waste Appropriately

Large lake in Acadia NP Maine
A place as stunning as Acadia deserves to be left as it is- so dispose of waste properly!

We need to pack out all of our trash along with any that we find along the way. Food, trash, urine, feces, and wastewater spread disease and changes the habits of wildlife, and spoils the scenery. You should take great care not to leave trash anywhere, to go to the bathroom responsibly, and not avoid leaving food scraps that can potentially harm animals and disturb food chains.

All types of waste should be taken care of in the proper manner. Nobody wants fecal matter polluting the water that they rely on to fill their water bottles. The animals don’t want it either. Most of the time, burying it is the best way to deal with feces, but you should check regulations before you head out.

Food waste is very important to manage, too. If you leave food scraps on the trail and so does everyone, animals can find them and become dependent on hiker trash as a source of food. That means feeding a chipmunk some trail mix isn’t just a fun photo-op; rather, it’s a good way to change the food chain.

Another thing you can do is grab a garbage-reducing backpacking stove like the Jetboil Flash.

4. Leave What you Find

Petrified forest, leave what you find
Arizona’s Petrified Forest- home to incredible sights.. and a curse?

In some places it’s illegal to remove natural objects. For instance, the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona bars visitors from taking any petrified wood with them. Part of Leave No Trace means that you leave what you find behind so the next person can enjoy it. Removing or altering natural or historic items harms wildlife, scenery, and cultural values. Avoid altering natural objects and harming wildlife, cultural value and historical images. In the U.S. it’s illegal to take photos of sites as they found them. Even when it isn’t illegal, there is no real reason to take something out of nature that should stay.

5. Campfire Ethics

Campfire ethics while backpacking
Campfires are life-savers for humans but can be life-enders for plants and animals- minimum impact is necessary!

You need to minimize campfire impacts. Fire is natural in some places, but campfires are not. This means you should only have a fire in established fire rings, and avoid building fires in the backcountry unless it is allowed. Smoky the Bear exists in our culture for a reason, and it isn’t because he’s cute. It’s because poor judgement on campfires persists, causes forest fires, and damages parks.

6. Be Respectful of Animals…

Grizzly bear in the mountains
Yellowstone is a great place to hike, camp, fish, and get injured by a bear if you don’t use your head!

The need to respect wildlife should be obvious, but some people cannot wrap their heads around it. If you think I’m being harsh, take this crazy story as an example. A woman in Yellowstone was injured by a bear, not because it was aggressive, but because she wanted a selfie with it!

Respect for animals is simple: take your pictures from far away, don’t feed them, and don’t try to touch or befriend them. Seeing wild animals is always thrilling, even without risking your life or the animal’s safety.

7. …And Considerate of Other Visitors

Hikers on the pacific crest trail
The Pacific Crest Trail passes through many national parks and is beloved by millions- these thru-hikers know how to leave no trace!

Hike single file if you know there will be other hikers around; nobody dreams of being stuck behind you when they imagine their next hike. We’re all sharing the trail together. This means we need to keep our elementary school values at the forefront of our minds. Look out for others, try to stay out of people’s way, and always give mountain bikes or horses the right-of-way.

Conclusion: What is Leave No Trace?

The 7 principles of Leave No Trace are a framework for making responsible decisions in nature. It’s not about placing rules on what we can and cannot do in the outdoors. If we all strive to take care of the places that we love, we stand a better chance of preserving the sights not only for our next trip, but for the next generation. Once we begin to leave our trash and fail to keep to established trails? That’s when we start to see areas degraded, closed to use, and the destruction of things we love. So, next time you’re out there, make sure you Leave No Trace!

Read also: tips for hiking in hot weather, A Brief Guide to Backpacking

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