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Leave No Trace 101

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Before I begin spilling the deets on some of my favorite places to explore, I want to make sure that we’re all on the same page when it comes to Leave No Trace and being responsible stewards of the outdoors. Whether you’re a hiker, camper, rock climber, hunter, or OHV aficionado, you have an impact on the land and environment every time you head outdoors. While you individual  impact may be minimal, when you compound that with every person who goes and hikes a certain trail or visits a particular overlook, it’s easy to see how quickly our favorite outdoor spots can become spoiled when people aren’t doing their part to minimize their impact.

The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is the preeminent source for responsible outdoor recreation and provides 7 guiding principles to help you minimize your impact on the outdoors. Be aware that these principles should guide you in making responsible decisions when recreating outdoors, but you should also always consult local, state, and federal laws and regulations in the area where you’re planning to recreate for further guidance.

The Seven Leave No Trace Principles:

  1. Plan ahead & prepare.
  2.  Travel & camp on durable surfaces.
  3.  Dispose of waste properly.
  4.  Leave what you find.
  5.  Minimize campfire impacts.
  6.  Respect wildlife.
  7.  Be considerate of other visitors.

© 1999 by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics: www.LNT.org.

Leave No Trace Principle Number 1: Plan ahead & prepare.

Woman wearing a turquoise jacket stands with hiking poles looking over a turquoise blue lake in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado.
Hiking Blue Lakes near Ridgway, Colorado.

Whether you’re heading out on a week long backpacking trip or are just going on a quick day hike, it’s important to plan ahead to make sure you make it back safely with as minimal of an impact to the land as possible. Outdoor recreation comes with inherent risks and accidents can happen at anytime, even if you’re well prepared. The goal here is to plan ahead to minimize those risks and keep your outdoor adventures safe.

Here are some do’s and don’t to assist you when planning your next outdoor adventure:

  • DO pack the 10 essentials:
    Navigation:
    Map, compass, GPS like the Garmin In-Reach Mini. While most heavily trafficked trails are fairly easy to follow, if you’re heading deep into the backcountry or into less-maintained terrain it’s important to have a reliable navigation system to help keep you on route in case you get lost. Make sure you know how to read your map and use any equipment you bring before you go, and if you’re planning on relying on your cell phone as a navigation source be sure to bring a backup charger!
    Illumination: Headlamp, like the Black Diamond Cosmo 300, flashlight, solar-powered lantern. Even if you’re planning on wrapping up your hike long before dark, having a source of light on hand will make your life easier if you’re out longer than anticipated.
    Sun protection: Sunscreen, hat, sunglasses. Sun safety is always important, but it’s extra critical at higher elevations where you’re more susceptible to getting a sun burn. Even if it’s a cloudy day in the mountains, be sure to bring some extra protection!
    First aid: Small first-aid kit with bandaids, moleskin, antibiotic ointment (Neosporin), antiseptic wipes, tape, gauze, ibuprofen and/or acetaminophen, Benadryl, whatever you personally need in the event of an emergency or an unexpected night in the backcountry (epipen, inhaler, medication, tampons/menstrual cup etc.).
    Knife: Pocketknife, multitool. Something to help cut through tough material if necessary.
    Fire: Lighter, matches in a waterproof container, flint. The remaining items are helpful to keep in your pack in case of an extreme emergency where you require rescue or unexpectedly have to spend the night in the backcountry. Temperatures can drop quickly after dark. Having the ability to start a fire can help save your life and alert rescue operations to your whereabouts. A box of waterproof matches is extremely light, so it’s totally worth it to carry one!
    Shelter: Tent, bivy, space blanket. If you’re going backpacking you’re obviously going to be carrying shelter, but carrying something small like a space blanket during a day hike could help save your life if you have to spend an unexpected night in the backcountry.
    Extra food: I always keep a few extra bars in my pack in case I get hungry or end up hiking further than expected, but if you’re heading deep into the backcountry or on an overnight trip consider packing a couple of extra meals, and whatever you need to cook them with (I’m a big fan of the Jetboil Flash) in case you have to spend an extra night.
    Extra Water: Staying hydrated while hiking is critically important. Always bring more water than you think you’ll need (especially in the desert or at high elevations), and carry a small filter like a Sawyer squeeze to get clean water along the trail if necessary.
    Extra clothes: Rain jacket, socks, base layers, etc. Whatever you need to stay warm & dry if things go south. Be sure to avoid cotton and stick to moisture-wicking fabrics like wool or polyester!
  •  DO research the trail you’ll be hiking ahead of time. AllTrails is a great resource for finding new trails to explore and allows you to download maps straight to your phone with a pro subscription (an annual subscription is usually $29.99, but they run sales for $14.99 fairly regularly throughout the year). Even without a pro subscription I’ve found you can typically access a trail’s map even if you don’t have service as long as you pull it up before service is lost, but this isn’t always reliable so it’s helpful to have a backup source (even if it’s just a picture of the trail taken from a map at the trailhead). Guidebooks, National Geographic maps, and blogs are also great resources for finding & learning more about a particular hike!
  •  DON’T forget to check the weather before you leave and pack accordingly. I usually check the Weather Channel forecast for the nearest town where I’ll be hiking or camping before leaving the house, but if I’m heading into the mountains I also look at Mountain Forecast for a more detailed forecast. TIP: Afternoon thunderstorms are common in the mountains during the summer. If you’re making a summit attempt be sure to start early (ideally before sunrise unless it’s a short route) and get below tree line immediately if storm clouds develop.
  •  DON’T forget to tell someone where you’re going. Always make sure to tell someone where you’re going and what time you expect to be back so if something unexpected happens and you don’t make it home someone knows where to send a rescue crew to look for you.

Leave No Trace Principle Number 2: Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces

Woman wearing leggings and a purple backpack hikes along Sndograss Trail during wildflower season in Crested Butte, Colorado.
Hiking Snodgrass Trail in Crested Butte, Colorado.

In order to minimize the impact you have on the land, it’s important to stay on developed trails or travel on durable surfaces (this includes slickrock and washes in the desert). Cutting switchbacks or walking alongside a muddy trail might seem like no big deal, but those types of activities lead to the development of social trails resulting in further erosion. Tread lightly!

If you must travel off-trail (for bathroom breaks, exploring around a campsite, etc.) be sure to consider the durability of the surface you’re walking on and the frequency of use. Certain terrain, like cryptobiotic soil in the desert or tundra in the alpine, is extremely fragile and off-trail travel is highly discouraged unless absolutely necessary.

Cryptobiotic soil in the desert.
Cryptobiotic soil forms a crust on the surface of the land to help provide stability for the soil and prevent erosion. Cryptobiotic soil is extremely fragile and can take years to recover from once damaged.

Choosing a Good Campsite

When dispersed or backcountry camping (i.e. camping outside of a developed camping area) try to set up camp in a previously used campsite. An existing fire ring is a good sign that a spot has been camped at before (although still be aware of where you can & cannot legally camp; there are plenty of fire rings in places where they shouldn’t be!). If you’re setting up camp in an area without an existing site, look for a clear space without rocks and roots.

Campsites should also ideally be at least 200 ft. away from water sources. Depending on your exact location, that may or may not be feasible, so be sure to check the local land management agency’s rules for further guidance (for instance most National Forests I’ve camped in only prohibit camping within 100 ft. of waterways). Camping as far from a water source as you can gives the wildlife who depend on that water a safe opportunity to access it.

Tent camping in the Flat Tops Wilderness in Colorado.
Campsite while backpacking in the Flat Tops Wilderness.

After packing up camp, brush off the area where your tent was set up and replace any twigs or rocks you may have moved aside. Making sure to minimize your impact when camping also speaks to principle #4, leaving what you find!

Leave No Trace Principle Number 3: Dispose of Waste Properly

Garbage, human, and pet waste all have the potential to harm wildlife, pollute waterways, and create an unpleasant outdoor experience for others.

Black dog stands on top of a snowy mountain in Colorado with a bag of dog poop tied around his harness to pack out.
Becket packing out his own pet waste.

Pack it in, pack it out is the basic rule when it comes to properly disposing garbage. If you bring something with you outdoors, make sure it comes back out with you. Simple! I also like to carry a spare bag with me on hikes to pick up extra trash I may come across on the trail.

Packing out waste also includes food waste like orange peels, apple cores, and pistachio shells. While it may seem like tossing natural food waste into the woods isn’t a big deal since it will eventually decompose, it can actually take months to years for food waste to breakdown completely. In the meantime it could harm wildlife whose digestive systems aren’t meant for things like banana peels!

Sticker that says Keep Earth Wild.
Keep Earth Wild by packing out what you pack in!

Properly disposing human waste is also incredibly important in the backcountry to avoid polluting water sources and minimize the risk of potentially spreading disease.

Often the best way to poop in the wild is in a cat hole. To do this, dig a cat hole at least 6-8 inches deep & 4-6 inches in diameter, do your business, and then cover it up with natural materials afterwards. Consider putting something like a large rock on top so other people don’t try going in the same place. Make sure you choose a location at least 200 ft. away from water sources!

There are some locations where digging a cat hole isn’t possible or recommended. If you’re recreating in the desert, above tree-line, or in rocky terrain be sure to carry a WAG bag so you can pack out your waste.

Urine isn’t anywhere near as impactful as feces, and actually may be good for local vegetation. Be sure to go far enough off trail so the odor doesn’t linger, but you don’t need to be as precautious with where you go as you do when you go number two.

After you go to the bathroom make sure to pack out any trash including toilet paper and feminine hygiene products. Leave it better than you found it!

Leave No Trace Principle Number 4: Leave What You Find

Fireweed in Glacier National Park.
Fireweed in Glacier National Park.

While it may be tempting to pick fresh wildflowers or bring home some cool rock or artifact you found in the desert, it’s best to just leave them be. Think about it. If everyone who visits an area “just” picks a couple of wildflowers, it won’t be long before that patch or field is significantly impacted. It’s a classic tragedy of the commons scenario.

In some areas, like National Parks, removing natural objects or cultural artifacts is illegal. In other areas like BLM land & National Forests, activities like rockhounding and gathering plants for personal use may be permitted. If you plan to lawfully participate in these activities be mindful of your impact. Take only what you need and harvest plants sustainably. And remember, if you’re planning on taking resources from public lands for commercial use, you must obtain a permit from the responsible land management agency first!

Leave No Trace Principle Number 5: Minimize Campfire Impacts

Cozying up around the campfire after a long day of exploring is one of the best parts of camping, but before you spark up it’s incredibly important to make sure you’re prepared to both start and put out a fire safely.

Campfire in a fire pan.
Small campfire contained in a fire pan.

Keys to a Safe Fire:

1. Check for fire bans: With conditions across many parts of the world becoming warmer & dryer thanks to climate change, the potential for wildfires is great. When wildfire conditions are rife, counties or local land management agencies may put a fire ban in place. Fire bans have varying stages of restrictions, so be sure to know before you go to ensure you’re not breaking any laws; fines for violations can be pricey!

*Extra Consideration: Even if a formal fire ban isn’t effect, if you’re camping outside of a developed campground in an area where it’s hot & dry (basically all of the Southwest during the summer), honestly consider whether or not you actually need a fire. Accidents can happen, even when you’re careful, so consider foregoing nightly s’mores or use an alternative fire source, like a propane tank, to minimize the risk. If you do need to make a fire for cooking or warmth, proceed with caution!

2. Use a fire pit: If you’re in a developed campground you’re probably going to have a fire pit at your site. Use it!

If you’re dispersed camping or in the backcountry try finding an existing fire ring to build your campfire. If there aren’t any around, dig a pit in an open area and circle the pit with rocks. Alternatively, you can use a fire pan and circle it with rocks to really help keep your fire contained.

A good rule of thumb when building your fire is to make sure there’s a 10 ft. radius around your fire pit that’s clear of anything that could potentially catch fire!

3. Build your fire safely: Start by using dried leaves or grass to get things burning, then begin adding small twigs and sticks to slowly build momentum. Once the fire starts building, add larger pieces of wood to keep things burning.

Remember, the more fuel you add to the fire the larger it’s going to burn, so use discretion when tossing on extra logs!

When choosing wood to burn it’s best to keep it local to the area where you’re building the fire. Transferring firewood from your home to a forest a few hours away can unknowingly transfer insects and disease that could harm local tree populations.

4. While the fire is burning: 

  • Never leave the fire unattended.
  •  Keep an eye on kids & pets.
  •  Watch the wind. Make sure any flammable objects are kept upwind.

5. Put out the fire properly: Always make sure to have extra water and a shovel on hand to make sure you can put out your fire completely. Once the fire is no longer burning, dump water on the ashes and stir with the shovel, repeating as necessary. Once you think it’s out be sure to run your hand through the ashes. If they’re still hot they can begin to smolder and burn again. Always make sure your fire is out completely!

Leave No Trace Principle Number 6: Respect Wildlife

Buffalo standing with smoke in the background in Yellowstone National Park.
Bison in Yellowstone National Park. Be sure to pack a camera lens that allows you to zoom in!

Every time you head into the great outdoors you’re heading into wildlife habitat. While it may be exciting (or terrifying) to catch a glimpse of a furry friend while out in the backcountry, it’s important to treat any wildlife you observe with respect. Not only does this help ensure your own safety, but it also helps prevent wildlife from becoming acclimated to human food & activity.

The best way to view or photograph wildlife is with a pair of binoculars or a telephoto lens. Getting too close to an animal or making loud noises can stress them out and provoke them to attack.

Most National Parks recommend staying 25 yards from most wildlife and 100 yards from predators like bears, wolves, & mountain lions. If you find yourself closer than that, back away slowly and try not to bring any extra attention to yourself.

Source: National Park Service

Respecting wildlife also means not feeding wild animals and making sure that your food & garbage is stored properly when camping to prevent attracting critters in the night! When animals become acclimated to human food they’re more likely to continue returning to places where humans are likely to be (like campgrounds & roads- which leads to more accidents).

Leave No Trace Principle Number 7: Be Considerate of Other Visitors

A group of people stands at the base of Lower Calf Creek Falls in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on a hot day.
aEnjoying Lower Calf Creek Falls in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

This one goes without saying. Basically just don’t be a jerk outdoors (or ever)!

  • Follow proper trail etiquette: Hikers yield to horses; mountain bikers yield to hikers & horses. Uphill hikers have the right of way! (It’s much easier to regain momentum when you’re going downhill).
  •  While we’re still in the midst of a global pandemic it’s important to maintain social distancing while recreating outdoors. Try to maintain a distance of at least 6 ft. from others and be sure to give plenty of space for people to pass while on the trail. Consider hiking less trafficked trails or at off-peak days & times to minimize the number of people you come into contact with.
  •  Don’t blast your music on the trail! Most people are outside to enjoy the sounds of nature. If you do prefer recreating with some music either put in headphones (leave an earbud out so you can still stay alert!) or turn your music off when passing others.
  •  If you’re hiking with your dog make sure they’re properly controlled. Many trails require dogs to be on-leash, but there are also a lot of trails in National Forests and BLM areas where dogs can be off-leash, but under voice command. Even if I’m hiking in an area where dogs can be off-leash I always keep Becket’s leash handy in case we pass other pups who are on-leash as a courtesy.
Winter sunset in Dead Horse Point State Park.
Dead Horse Point State Park

If you’ve made it this far, then congrats, you now know everything you need to know to get outdoors responsibly. Stay safe & happy trails!🥾🌲

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