Leave No Trace Principle 1 – Plan Ahead and Prepare

Leave No Trace Principle 1 – Plan Ahead and Prepare is a great way to ensure you have a safe and fun time in nature and decrease your impact to the area

This is the first in an eight-part series, where I will really dive deep into the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics’ seven principles. Each blog post will detail one of the seven principles, and then I will wrap things up in an additional post. I took the Leave No Trace Trainer Course recently and loved it. I highly recommend the course to everyone. In this blog post, we are going to dive deep into the Leave No Trace Principle 1 – Plan Ahead and Prepare

Those who have been following this blog for a while know I love being spontaneous and going where the winds blow me. But even if you are like that, you can still plan ahead and prepare even if you are spontaneous. Now, there is a difference between preparing as a safety measure and being spontaneous and open with your plans.

My friend Lagena walking across a bridge in New Hampshire.

For example on a trip out west once, the only plan I had was to go west. In doing so, I planned for every type of location where I could end up. I knew I could come across black bears and mountain lions; however, I was not going north where there are grizzlies. There was a chance I could run into snow, and I did, so I prepared for that as well. I prepared for the overall trip but left the details up to fate.

Not preparing or planning ahead properly is not only bad Leave No Trace practice, but it can also get you and your group into trouble.

Most search and rescue missions come from people not preparing before they go out into the wilderness, and the majority are preventable.

We go into the wilderness to be surrounded by nature, to get away from other people, and to be free of modern society. However, with those activities, we increase our risk of something bad happening to us.

If you are not prepared and an accident happens in the wilderness, it will be hours before help can arrive.

There always is great risk involved in hiking, camping, and backpacking, but you can greatly minimize that risk with Leave No Trace Principle 1 – Plan Ahead and Prepare.

So how do you practice Leave No Trace Principle 1 – Plan Ahead and Prepare?

Research your area

The first thing you can do to plan ahead is one of my favorite things of all time: Research the heck out of your planned area. If you are traveling to a national forest, state park, or national park, familiarize yourself with their website.

It is on their websites you will find valuable information like general weather conditions, what to expect on certain hiking trails, and how to prepare for wildlife. You can also find out important information: like are dogs are permitted in the area? Do you need permits to hike and camp and how to obtain them, or whether the campgrounds fill up quickly if they don’t take reservations.

This is a goat I saw in Colorado. Knowing what type of wildlife to expect is extremely important with Leave No Trace Principle 1 – Plan Ahead and Prepare.
Knowing what type of wildlife to expect is extremely important in planning ahead and being prepared

I also read blogs (like this one!) from people who have visited the areas before. These first-hand experiences can be extremely valuable. For example, researching visiting Big Bend National Park, its website stated that there was no legal border crossing into Mexico within the park. But when I got there, we found that not to be true. I stated that as so in my blog post about Big Bend. However, you still want to call and visit with park personnel to double check to make sure the information is still relevant.

National Park websites like this one of the Buffalo National River are great resources for information to help you plan ahead and prepare. They put the “Pan Your Visit” tab front and center!

And speaking of calling the park, that is also a great way to practice Leave No Trace Principle 1. No one knows what’s going on in the park at the time you want to visit like the park personnel.

Know the Policies and Guidelines

National parks are different from state parks and they are both different from national forests and other types of public lands. And each park or forest is going to differ from each other within the same system.

For example, in the Ouachita National Forest, you can camp anywhere, unless its stated no camping. But in some national parks, you have to make reservations for a backcountry campsite. So before you take off into the backcountry, it’s good to know what it’s policies are.

My friend Lagena and I super excited we scored backcountry permits at the Grand Canyon
My friend Lagena and I super excited we scored backcountry permits at the Grand Canyon.

Wilderness areas have stricter guidelines than non-wilderness areas, and national parks are generally stricter than national forests, but not always. It is your responsibility to know what the policies and guidelines are before you go in.

Know the weather

Not preparing for weather can make you very uncomfortable at best and kill you at the worst. You want to check the weather before your trip, but you also want to familiarize yourself with the area too. For example, are you in an area that is prone to flash flooding without warning?

I planned out a backpacking trip once. Although I checked the weather the day before I noticed on the second night there was a chance of severe storms. I changed our plans and hiked a different area so we could go to an established campground on our second night if we needed to take shelter.

Our stuff all over the men's bathroom where we slept that night. Putting into practice, Leave No Trace Principle 1 – Plan Ahead and Prepare
I can now say I’ve slept in a public restroom – yuk! – but it’s better than the alternative

And yup, we spent the entire night in the bathroom. The next day there was structural damage and trees down in the park. I was glad we were able to take shelter, even if it meant sleeping in a bathroom.

Plan your backcountry itinerary

This is helpful so you are not forced to walk more miles than you can handle or aren’t camping on non-durable surfaces (Leave No Trace Principle 2!).

At some national parks, they have backcountry campsites so you can plan your trip accordingly. If you are going somewhere that does not have backcountry sites, study the map and try to find good places to camp. You can then map out how far you want to hike and plan a trip itinerary.

If you’ve day hiked parts of the trail, make note of places that will make a good backcountry campsite.

Study and carry a map

By studying the map, you can know where you are going and what to expect. I love maps and studying them, so this one is fun for me. Having a map with you and knowing how to read it is one of the best ways to keep from getting lost.

This is how my GPS mapped me once when I was bushwhacking and didn't plan my hike very well
This is how my GPS mapped me once when I was bushwhacking and didn’t plan my hike very well

Also if you study a good topographical map, you can assess how steep or rugged the terrain is going to be. This helps prevent you from tackling too big of a hike, getting in over your head, and having to call search and rescue.

Bring the correct gear

After you learn about your area, you will know where you need to bear bag, carry a wag bag, etc. You are going to want to be sure you have the proper gear as well as the 10 essentials.

Want a FREE downloadable women’s backpacking checklist? Click here!

For example when I hiked the Caney Creek Trail I failed to plan ahead and prepare. There are several water crossings and the creek was higher than normal. I failed to bring water shoes and trekking poles and had to cross barefoot. My tender feet couldn’t take it and I ended up falling into the water on the last crossing, my boots scooping it up. I had to hike the rest of hike with wet soggy feet.

Let someone know where you are going and when you will be back

Leaving a plan with someone helps search and rescue personnel pinpoint you better in the event something goes wrong. It is much easier and search and rescue can find you much quicker if they know your itinerary rather than just a general location.

This not only is much better for you, but it also prevents putting others in danger and prevents search and rescue personnel from causing more impact to the area.

Now, I love spontaneity and once on a day hike I wanted to explore another area that I hadn’t planned to hike. I started to go leave my planned trail, and then I realized if something happened to me no one would know where I was. So I made plans to come back another day to explore that section.

Leave No Trace Principle 1 – Plan Ahead and Prepare

To practice Leave No Trace Principle 1, not only makes sense to keep you safe but it also helps minimize impact. If you have planned ahead and prepared properly, you do not put yourself in a position where you have to cause more impact than necessary. You also greatly reduce your chance of having to call for search and rescue, which could cause much more impact.

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Leave No Trace Principle 1 – Plan Ahead and Prepare is a great way to ensure you have a safe and fun time in nature and decrease your impact to the area

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