The sport of Hiking and Backpacking is quickly becoming a favorite pastime for many. This means a greater volume of hikers and backpackers visiting our National Parks and wilderness areas every year. Unfortunately, this also equates to a bigger impact on the ecosystem. As a result, many National Parks and wilderness areas now implement a "Leave No Trace" policy to protect them for future generations.
What is Leave No Trace and how can you follow it on your next trip to the backcountry? To help make it clear, it can be summarized via seven basic principles:
Seven Basic Principles of Leave No Trace
Plan Ahead and Prepare
Find out as much as you can about your destination. This will help you decide what you will need to prepare and bring for your trip. Research the regulations in place at the park or campsite to know if you should prepare your food ahead of time or if you could cook it there. Check for the weather forecast so that you will know what gear to wear and what type of tent to bring. Use paper maps or download them ahead of time in case there is limited cell phone or satellite coverage in the area.
Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
In most cases, hiking trails and campsites are marked out. Stay within these areas to prevent further damage to the ecosystem. They are also marked for your safety. Some terrain might be dangerous because of loose soil, brittle rocks or they may be frequented by wild animals. Staying within the allowed trails and campsites will prevent any unnecessary harm both to yourself and the environment. Also remember to camp, cook and relieve yourself at least 200 feet away from any water source to prevent contamination.
Dispose of Waste Properly
It is inevitable you'll create waste when camping. Just make sure that you take out what you bring in. Always have a designated trash bag so that you can take out any trash that you have. If possible, airtight or odor proof bags are great so they don't attract wildlife. When it comes to human waste, a 6-8 inch deep cat-hole is advised at least 200 feet away from any water source or campsites to avoid contamination.
If the park does not allow cat-holes, toilet kits or poop bags are your next option. Some park visitor centers provide bags for hikers. They usually contain odor neutralizing agents or gel powders and can be sealed air-tight. Dispose of these bags outside the park and make sure to bring out any used toilet paper or wipes. Also try to pick up any trash that you see even if it is not yours.
Leave What You Find
As much as we would love to bring home mementos of our adventure, respect nature and make sure that the next visitors and even the next generation will have the chance to enjoy what you experienced. Do not touch any cultural or historic artifacts and structures. Refrain from bringing home even small rocks or plant clippings. Leave everything as you saw it. Most importantly, do not bring in or introduce any plant or wildlife because even the smallest plant or insect can upset the ecological balance in any ecosystem.
Minimize Campfire Impacts
Campfires are almost always synonymous with camping. But because of the increasing threat of forest fires and the impact a small campfire could have on the ecosystem, more and more parks prohibit open fires. Your options would be to use portable stoves or pack food that you do not have to cook.
If campfires are allowed and necessary, make sure to burn only what you need in a fire pan or pit. Use only small pieces of wood on the ground. Keep the fires as small as necessary and put it out completely after use. Then scatter the ashes only when they are cool to the touch. For lighting, use electrical lanterns instead of torches. Do not keep the campfire unattended and up all night.
One of the thrills of the backcountry is the chance to see wildlife in their natural habitat. Just make sure to observe them from a safe distance and never approach them. Never feed the wildlife and also make sure that your food is kept beyond their reach at night. Not only will this make sure that your supplies are safe, but will also protect you and the animals from danger. They might associate campers with free food and could cause the animals to approach campers which could be dangerous to both parties. This could also make it easier for poachers to capture them.
Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Since backpacking is getting more popular, we should always be considerate of the other campers. We must be quiet so that everyone can enjoy the sounds of nature and not disturb the wildlife. If you need to take a break, try not to stay on the trail so other hikers can pass easily. Should you encounter another hiker on the trail, be courteous and let them pass first. Respect other camper’s privacy by setting up your tent some distance away from their camp.
Following the Leave No Trace guidelines will ensure that parks and wild areas are kept safe for campers and wildlife and that they can also be enjoyed by generations to come. Even if the wilderness area that you've visiting does not require Leave No Trace, it is a good principle to employ at all times. Let us all do our part in keeping our backcountry safe and clean by minimizing our impact.