by MacKenzie Chase
After several miles through the deep canyon, legs burning from climbing up and over countless boulders and swimming across deep pools, you hear the cheerful trickling of small waterfalls. The afternoon sun is beating down as you push through discomfort and exhaustion, but your destination is so close you can almost taste it. A couple hundred feet later, there you are, soaking up that feeling of being the only person to ever have set foot in this magical landscape.
Then you see it, a crumpled food wrapper peeking out from the graveled shore, and the illusion is shattered.
We only have one planet to explore, and it’s the responsibility of every individual to leave outdoor spaces better than they found them. Luckily, the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics has been providing easy-to-follow guidelines for the public since the mid-1980s with its Seven Principles of Leave No Trace. These principles are built on work by the US Forest Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management, and are informed by scientific research to raise awareness of our impact on plants, animals, other people, and sometimes entire ecosystems.
The preservation of wild lands has become especially crucial as the COVID-19 pandemic has brought record traffic to many US National Parks with a total of 237 million visitors in 2020 across the country. Overcrowding led parks like Glacier and Yosemite to implement reservation systems to keep visitors’ experiences worthwhile, and the Grand Canyon, the sixth most visited National Park last year, saw a 59% increase in recreation this past July compared to July 2020.
Next time you recreate outdoors, remember to:
1. Plan Ahead & Prepare. Always look up any regulations for the area you’ll be visiting to ensure your preparations are sufficient. Leave No Trace preparations can look like repackaging food into resealable bags that can be easily condensed and packed out, using a map and compass or GPS rather than building rock cairns, cooking one-pot meals over a camp stove, traveling with a small group, and packing equipment and clothing in accordance with planned activities and anticipated weather conditions.
2. Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces. Stick to the established trail whenever possible as walking off trail in some desert environments can damage tiny communities of organisms in living soil, or cryptobiotic crust. (Don’t bust the crust!) When establishing your campsite, set up at least 200 feet away from water sources to retain access routes for wildlife, and choose a location free of vegetation – preferably a gravel surface.
3. Dispose of Waste Properly. Pack it in, pack it out. This applies to all food wrappers, food scraps, toilet paper, tampons, tent stakes, and other gear casualties. It’s good practice to bring plastic bags with you to carry out trash generated by your group and anything you might find left behind by previous visitors. When it comes to washing dishes, do so at least 200 feet away from water sources and scatter strained dishwater. (Alternatively, you can use a pan scraper to eat every last crumb of food, rinse your containers with potable water, and then drink the water instead of scattering.)
4. Leave What You Find. Another familiar saying to consider: Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints. (When recreating in the backcountry, you should disguise any sign of campsites when you leave, including footprints.) While it may not seem like picking a few wildflowers or taking home a colorful rock can make an impact, it takes away from the experience of future visitors, and wildlife relies on natural objects for their habitats and health.
5. Minimize Campfire Impacts. Only build a campfire if there is already an established fire ring at your campsite, or use fire pans or mound fires for easy clean up. Keep your fire small and burn the wood down to ash before putting it out completely with water, not dirt. If an area is too dry or does not have sufficient dead and down wood to use, a camp stove can be used to cook dinner.
6. Respect Wildlife. The best way to learn about wildlife you encounter is by observing from afar. Do not approach, touch, feed, shout at, or otherwise startle wild animals to preserve both your and the animal’s safety, and keep in mind that young ones may be abandoned by their parents if a human has touched them — even if a fawn appears to have been abandoned, its parents are likely just searching for food nearby and the fawn is better off left alone. If you do encounter a sick or injured animal, notify a game warden instead of interfering.
7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors. Many visitors to public lands are seeking a sense of solitude. Avoid unnecessary shouting as it prevents others from enjoying the otherwise peaceful surroundings. While on the trail, it is typically assumed that hikers headed downhill will step aside for those hiking up, hikers yield to equestrians, and bicyclists yield to both hikers and equestrians.
The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics continually evaluates and reshapes these principles as new scientific studies are published. For more information and full explanations of each principle, visit www.lnt.org.