Recently while hiking in the Grand Canyon, I passed a sign that warned hikers to tread carefully and stay on the path. The sign said that the desert “grows by the inch, but dies by the foot.” It’s a pretty powerful sign and struck a chord with me. It’s a great reminder that Leave No Trace principles also apply to more than just not leaving your trash behind.
Leave No Trace is extremely important to me, as I’m sure it is with every outdoor enthusiasts. I go into the wilderness in order to escape man’s mark on earth. Deep in the woods or in the middle of a prairie where I am totally surrounded by nature soothes me. And although I feel like I’m the only one there, I know I’m not the only one who has ever been there.
When I was a child I loved to pretend that I was an explorer going some places not yet seen by people. I still kind of like to pretend that.
I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. And that is why it is important to practice Leave No Trace principles.
If you want comprehensive and detailed information, please see the Outdoor Ethics sections of Right Kind Of Lost.
Leave nothing behind
This one should go without saying. We say to pack in, pack out. Basically, if you bring it in, take it back out with you.
We know not to leave our plastic wrappers or any other kind of trash that junks up the wilderness. But what about things that are biodegradable? Tossing out apple cores or anything with a seed is not good. Seeds can take root and become a non-native species. They can also be eaten by animals that may not be able to digest them properly. And the way I think of it, I don’t want to walk up and see someone’s old banana peel that was tossed out.
I know it’s tempting to carve your names into trees or rocks, but this is also against Leave No Trace principles.
When leaving human waste behind, dig a cathole 6 to 8 inches deep and at least 200 feet from a water source, campsite, or trail. Pack out all toilet paper and hygiene products too. And use biodegradable soap in streams or lakes.
You also want to make sure that your boots and clothes do not bring any invasive species along. Be sure wipe the bottom of your boots off after hiking so no hitchhikers can travel with you.
Take only pictures
Just as you shouldn’t leave anything behind, you should take anything away. Some national parks get thousands of visitors a day. If everyone took just one flower or rock souvenir, then it would make a big impact.
Another thing to remember is try not to touch a plant or stone that might be affected by your touch. For example, when hiking into a cavern you are told not to touch the stalagmites because the oil on your fingers will damage them.
Some places it is okay to forage for plants, like wild blueberries. Just remember when you do, to do it responsibly. Keep in mind that animals eat them too. When I visited Cape Lookout National Seashore in North Carolina, the national park said it was OK to collect seashells. Be sure to check when it is OK, and when you shouldn’t take anything.
The wilderness is their home. You wouldn’t want someone coming into your house and being rude or trying to get too close to you in your habitat. By respecting wildlife, you also minimize the risk of danger to yourself.
I saw a group of people chase after a grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park to get a better picture of it. I thought to myself, “If someone gets mauled and they have to put that bear down because of stupidity, I’m going to be so mad.” You not only put your life in danger, but the wildlife as well.
You also do not want animals to become dependent on humans. So no feeding them, and keep a clean camp.
Respect other hikers
I know you want to feel like you are the only one out there, but sometimes you are not. Be careful not to be too loud, unless for safety reasons. In the Grand Canyon, I passed a few hikers who had their phones playing music. I’m glad they rock out, but I don’t want to hear it.
Also know the rules when to step to the side on the trail. Hikers yield to those on horseback, pack animals, and mountain bikers. Also the uphill hikers have the right-of-way.
Leave it better
Another way to respect others on the trail and better your return trip is to leave it better than you found it. I always try to carry a trash bag on my hikes and pick up trash along the way. Sometimes I forget the bag and just shove it into my pack. Everyone drops somethings here and there, it happens to us all. As I pick up after others, I hope others pick up after me.
Mind your fires
Pay attention to burn bans, and know ahead of time whether fires are permitted. Some places, like the desert, generally only allow fires from camp stoves in order to keep the risk of wildfire down.
If you are allowed a open flame, build a fire ring to contain the fire. Also tear it down when you leave so no one knows you camped there. The goal is to not let anyone know you were there.
Use only fallen wood. Not only will chopping up trees not burn as easily because it is wet wood, it is not a Leave No Trace principle. Also be careful bringing your own firewood. It’s best if you don’t bring any. But if you do, make sure the area where you bring it from does not have any disease or bugs that can harm trees.
Stay on the trail
I cannot tell you how many unofficial trails I have seen. People want to cutoff switchbacks, or they get lost. The more people take that unofficial trail the more it gets worn down into a pretty official looking one. Then you run the risk of getting lost. I have been lost on unofficial trails more than once.
Going off the trial, also causes erosion. It can kill sensitive plants as well. Remember the sign in the Grand Canyon? “Grows by the inch and dies by the foot.”
You also want to walk single file in the trail so your trampling does not widen the trail. This is hard when there is a mud in middle or big puddle. But the more people walk around the mud, the more the trail is altered.
Planning ahead can save you a lot of hassle on the trail. But it is also a great Leave No Trace principle. By planning ahead, you don’t have to worry as much about getting lost and causing an impact that way.
You also need to know the rules and regulations of the place you are visiting, so you do not accidentally make an negative impact.
You can also lessen your impact by planning ahead and visiting a certain area in a non-high impact time.
Leave No Trace
For more information on Leave No Trace principles or more tips on how to minimize your impact in the wilderness visit the Leave No Trace website.