Words and Photos by Jenn McAmis
Tangible Inspiration to incorporate more Leave No Trace (LNT) principles on your next backcountry trek
It’s the time of year that my evenings become nothing more than pouring through guidebooks, maps, and trip reports. Daydreaming of the next big trip and going through the steps to make it happen. As peaks across the country begin to thaw, summer backpacking season is almost here.
Permits. Gear. Weather windows. So many details go into preparing the perfect trip. With much of our wilderness threatened by changes in weather and access, it’s imperative that we take our planning even further to ensure we’re enjoying our precious nature with the smallest impact possible by living out the Leave No Trace principles.
The set of seven Leave No Trace (LNT) principles were designed to reduce the impacts of adventurers in the backcountry. They act as guides to ensure that we can all continue to enjoy and dream about pristine, natural areas.
This year, as you’re making your lists of routes, campsites and general to-do’s for your summer backpacking adventures, consider taking some time to plan how you’re going to incorporate the LNT principles.
There is lots of info on the LNT website, but the goal here is to share a few, tangible steps that you might not have considered previously. Even the most experienced and conscious backpackers can develop new habits to leave an even smaller impact behind.
Principle 1: Plan ahead and prepare.
For me, planning is one of the best parts of a backpacking trip. I find indescribable joy in organizing my pack and having everything just right. Finalizing routes makes my heart happy. In the planning and packing process, there are a few extra steps that can make a world of difference in your impact on the trail.
Pack your food to eliminate the potential for micro trash.
Any small piece of trash, think a corner of a bar wrapper or a bottle cap, is called micro trash. Consider unwrapping and repackaging your food before you go. Ziplock bags weigh the same as the packaging on freeze dried meals, but don’t carry the risk of the ripped off top flying away. Trail mix or nuts carry well in reusable, mesh bags.
Use a map and compass or GPS app.
I’m often so grateful for the ease that well-marked trails bring. They just let me hike and not be pulling out my map every 20 minutes. However, the creation of cairns and other trail markers significantly increase the impact of adventurers on the area. Rocks moved from their natural positions affect natural ecosystems and disrupt the beauty of a space.
Principle 2: Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
When you’re backpacking, how often do you think about the surface under your feet? It’s common for us to avoid visible plants, but what about those you can’t see? Being more mindful of the type of surfaces we walk and camp on can make a huge difference.
Walk in the middle of the trail.
When trails become muddy or rutted, it’s common to try to walk on the edges of the trail for a smoother path. However, the more we move to the outside to keep our feet dry or avoid rough spots, the wider trails become and the more nature is harmed. Some days, it’s best to take one for team nature and walk in some mud or water to ensure plants along the path continue to thrive.
Step on a rock when it’s an option.
Similar to walking in the middle of the trail, it’s best practice to walk on rock whenever possible. I’ve been guilty of walking around a pile of rocks to avoid the necessity of careful foot placements. These trails we create by making our lives easier do the opposite for the ecosystems we’re out to enjoy.
Principle 3: Dispose of waste properly.
Everybody poops – especially if you’re going to be out in the backcountry for a few days. It’s not always the most glamorous situation to deal with, I know. That said, it’s still worth the extra effort to deal with waste appropriately to ensure these beautiful spots will remain safe for our return trips.
Consider packing out waste.
Digging holes to use the bathroom in has become pretty standard practice for most conscious backpackers. What we forget is the fact that is only the appropriate choice for some environments! Deserts, canyons or places with a high volume of visitors can’t decompose the human waste efficiently or effectively. The answer is finding a method to pack out your waste, just as you would your trash.
Dog waste matters too.
When you’re out in the backcountry where dogs can roam free, it’s easy to let Rover go while you take a break from cleaning up after him and enjoy the great outdoors. Most ecosystems across the US can only break down the waste of 2 dogs per square mile per year. Plus their waste introduces foods and bacteria that are not native to the area. Just like the local dog park, throw it in a bag and bring it with you.
Principle 4: Leave what you find.
Most people have heard from an early age that items found in nature should be left there. It’s actually a law in national parks, for those of you not in the know. But, as with the others, this principle goes even deeper than that.
Don’t pick berries or flowers.
Coming across a wild blackberry bush is one of my favorite experiences. A surprise snack?! Yes, please. Except, best practices in the backcountry asks all of us to reconsider. Even taking a few delicious berries decreases the availability of food for the wildlife in the area. The same goes for flowers. It’s tempting to put a pretty one in your hat or braid, but enjoy them as they are where they can help feed bees and go to seed to grow again next year.
Don’t move anything.
When you find a clearing that’s perfect to make camp, except for a dead log in the middle, what do you do? Most of us would at least consider sliding it over to make room for our tent. When we move that log, we’re displacing thousands of insects, larvae and other critters working hard to decompose it. Not only might we kill more living things than we ever would intentionally, but we’re also slowing down the natural processes at play. It’s best to leave the log and camp around it or find another spot. Don’t forget – there are lots of things making homes under rocks or in leaf piles as well.
Principle 5: Minimize campfire impacts.
Is there anything better than a cozy campfire after a long day out in the cold? Outside of clean socks warmed by that fire, I can’t think of anything. Campfires bring a lot of joy on trips but also cause considerable impacts. There’s still a glorious place for a backcountry campfire, but only when done with mindfulness and consideration.
Choose the right spot, using an existing ring if possible.
As with choosing to camp in an already established campsite, it’s ideal to build a fire in an existing fire ring. Along commonly used trails, there will be fire rings sprinkled in these existing campsites. If there aren’t any, familiarize yourself with the mound technique of fire making.
Go the distance for the best wood.
When in doubt for anything in the backcountry, remember 200 feet. Use the bathroom starting 200 feet away from your campsite and camp 200 feet away from water. The same goes for collecting firewood. Especially if your campsite sees a lot of traffic, don’t gather wood nearby. Try to use only dead or downed timber and pieces around the size of your wrist. Save the raging bonfire for another day!
Principle 6: Respect wildlife.
Just because you don’t try to chase a marmot for a selfie or hug a bison, doesn’t mean you’re treating the wildlife around you with the respect that they deserve. We’re visitors in their home and should be acting accordingly.
Rest and camp away from water sources.
It’s become standard practice for most backpackers to respect animals enough to set up camp at least 200 feet away from any body of water. (If you don’t already do that, consider this your encouragement to jump on board!). However, we often don’t think about that same respect when it comes time for a snack break. Your presence on the edge of a stream can cause extra stress or fear that can lead to an animal not getting the precious water they need.
Pack out all of your trash, including food scraps.
I wish I’d started counting how many times I found an apple core, banana peel or pistachio shells along a trail. It’s at least once every time I’m out. Yes, all of those things will biodegrade…eventually. The fastest an apple core will biodegrade is around one month. In a dryer or saltier climate, that time is much longer. An animal will try to eat it well before then. Not only are you introducing non-native foods into the ecosystem and animal diets, but you’re also helping them grow accustomed to being fed by humans. This leads to animals becoming, at best, a pain and, at worst, a safety hazard, sick, or unable to find food on their own.
Principle 7: Be considerate of other visitors.
This one should be pretty simple as it echoes the Golden rule – treat others as you want to be treated. However, it’s easy to get lost in yourself or not be entirely sure what the “right” way to act is. This principle goes way past not being noisy or directly disrespectful.
Know who has the right of way.
Have you ever experienced running into someone else on the trail and you both move over to give the other room? It happens often, but who is right? Technically, those going uphill have the right of way since they need to keep their momentum going and are working harder. However, a bigger group also has the right of way. The fewer people who have to step off of the trail, the smaller the impact! It’s pretty logical when you think about it.
Remember, everyone is entitled to experience the outdoors.
Flying a loud drone around a vast, remote area. Posing right in the middle of a waterfall for an hour to get the perfect Instagram picture. Setting up your neon orange tent out in the open for everyone who passes by to see. These things may be fun for you but can dramatically reduce someone else’s experience. Take a second to consider those around you and how your actions might affect others.
Correctly following all of the leave no trace principles can seem overwhelming. However, they matter. Pick a small change to make on each backpacking trip this season and watch how natural all of these habits become! Together, we can make the little bits of extra effort to keep our nature out there to be explored.