If you’ve spent time in the outdoors, you’ve probably seen the phrase “Leave No Trace.” You might guess that the philosophy has to do with not littering in national parks, but it includes much more. There are seven key principles to Leave No Trace that every hiker and backcountry camper should know.
What is the point of Leave No Trace?
The goal of Leave No Trace is to ensure that the wilderness stays natural and beautiful for generations to come. Imagine if you went on a hike and found garbage or couldn’t go because the path had been damaged. The principles of Leave No Trace help us to minimize our impact, protect nature, and be stewards of the land.
What are the seven principles of Leave No Trace?
Now that you understand the reasoning behind Leave No Trace, let’s discuss the seven principles. Keep these in mind as you explore public spaces and interact with nature in your day-to-day life.
Plan Ahead and Prepare
As starts any good outdoor adventure, the first step is preparation. Why? Poor trip planning can lead to decisions made out of necessity that do not follow Leave No Trace principles. For example, if your group gets lost, you may end up camping on an unstable site or building a fire somewhere with fire bans.
It’s important to prepare for any outdoor adventure by checking the weather forecasts and determining your route. Make sure you know how to check trail conditions for closures or obstacles. Procure the necessary maps, and be sure to check land boundaries, permit requirements, and local regulations. This might sound like a lot of work for a day hike, but a small investment of prep time can save time, injury, or unpleasant conditions on your trip.
Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
The idea of durable surfaces is an important one for the philosophy of Leave No Trace. Most places you go for a hike will have trails laid out. You might see logs or stones laid out to mark the trail boundaries. Staying on the trail is essential, not just to avoid getting lost. It also keeps the surrounding vegetation safe from getting trampled.
If you come across a puddle in the middle of your trail, you may need to skirt it for safety reasons. However, try to stay as close to the trail as possible rather than venturing way out to avoid getting wet. This ties into the first principle of preparing well because you will want to know about wet trail conditions to wear the correct hiking boots.
There are times when it is necessary to walk off-trail, specifically to find a private place to go to the bathroom. In this case, you should keep in mind the durability of different surfaces. It is always best to walk on rocks, gravel, or sand. Grass, especially dry grass, tends to be resistant to trampling, but other vegetation is not. Try to avoid walking on vegetation or soil when possible. If you are in a group or see that someone else has walked the same way, spread out. The fewer footsteps in an off-trail area, the better.
The same techniques apply to camping. Most parks will have designated campsites. It is important to follow the park’s regulations and camp in the correct location. This keeps the human impact concentrated in one area, preserving the rest of the park in its natural state.
Dispose of Waste Properly
There are two types of waste to consider with this Leave No Trace principle. The first is human waste and the second is all other garbage. When using the bathroom in the woods, it is important to follow protocols to protect drinking water. First, you should be at least 200 paces from any water source, to avoid contamination. Pick an inconspicuous spot that other hikers are unlikely to visit. Second, the hole you dig should be 6-8 inches deep, and after you are done, cover it with natural materials. Finally, toilet paper, sanitary products, and wipes should be packed out. You can bring along a plastic bag with a spoonful of powdered bleach or baking soda to take care of the odor.
It is important to pack out all trash. Food packaging, uneaten leftovers, etc, should all be hiked out to a trash can. Burning trash can be dangerous to the atmosphere and risk wildfire. When packing up a campsite, do a sweep, where every member of the group spreads out and walks together across the site. Look for any trash, even organic matter like banana peels, and make sure the campsite looks nicer than when you arrived.
Leave What You Find
It can be so tempting to take a souvenir from your hike, be it a small stone, leaf, or flower. However, if everyone had the same thought, there would be no nature left to enjoy. Not to mention that you might be taking a bite from a wild animal or a stick for a bird’s nest. It is better to take a picture, enjoy the moment, and move on.
Similarly, many people are tempted to leave their mark. We’ve all seen trees and rocks marred with hearts and initials. While it might feel fun at the moment, keep in mind that future visitors will not get to enjoy a sense of unspoiled nature if the impact of humans is obvious. More importantly, cutting into a tree’s bark can leave it susceptible to fungus that will ultimately rot and kill the tree.
Minimize Campfire Impacts
Campfires are such an iconic part of the camping tradition. Unfortunately, they also consume firewood, risk forest fires, and can leave behind unsightly marks on the landscape. Camp stoves are a great option for cooking as they are lightweight, flexible, and leave no trace. You should only consider building a fire if your campsite has a fire ring and if there is firewood for sale.
You should not gather your own wood unless it is an emergency because dead trees are often home to animals and cutting branches does not follow Leave No Trace principles. It is absolutely essential never to bring firewood from elsewhere to your campsite. As the saying goes, burn it where you buy it. This is an important Leave No Trace principle because firewood may contain critters or diseases that can contaminate and infest local trees. Finally, never leave a fire unattended, and be sure to fully extinguish it with water when you leave.
Respecting wildlife is an important Leave No Trace principle for your own safety, the safety of the animals, and the safety of future visitors. While it is exciting to see wildlife in nature, be sure to keep your distance and observe quietly. Unless your safety is jeopardized by a bear encounter, do not attempt to scare the animal away.
Do not approach or feed any animal. Animals that get accostumed to human contact or learn that humans will feed them can become dangerous. A harmless encounter with a creature near your campsite could start a problematic pattern with an animal and lead to a campsite closure or an animal’s death. This principle is why it is so important to keep food, toothpaste, deodorant, etc in odor-tight bear-proof containers.
Be Considerate of Other Visitors
The final principle of Leave No Trace has to do with ensuring other hikers and campers enjoy their time in nature. This means keeping noise levels down, being responsible for your children and pets, and not leaving behind evidence that you were there. Finally, be sure to follow trail etiquette, moving aside for horseback riders and giving priority to people going uphill.
There are so many amazing hikes near Colorado Springs. Being a good steward of the land will ensure that future generations can appreciate our beautiful state as much as you get to. Learn and follow the seven principles of Leave No Trace and help keep nature natural for everyone.