7 Principles of Leave No Trace Backpacking
Learning to practice leave no trace backpacking is one of the most important skills any backpacker can learn. Doing it right will minimize impact to the environment and leave pristine wilderness areas for decades to come.
The amount of backpackers traveling into the wilderness is growing every year and more people means that a greater impact is made on the plants and animals living in those environments. Doing your part to minimize the amount of damage you make to wild areas is absolutely critical for all travelers in the backcountry.
The seven principles of leave no trace backpacking are a set of guidelines that will help you to focus on critical ways to reduce your impact in the wild. It’s easy to think that your impact is small, but many travelers making small impacts in well-traveled areas add up very quickly.
Leave no trace backpacking is not a set of rules, it’s a personal commitment. You need to realize that you are a part of the natural environment, not just a traveler through it. If you choose to travel in the backcountry, it’s your duty to protect and preserve the natural environment as best you can.
1) Plan Ahead and Prepare
Any good backpacking trip starts with proper planning. Reducing impact on your surroundings is the same way. By planning properly for your trip, you’ll reduce the possibility of unexpected situations arising, which is critical to leave no trace backpacking. Proper planning will also lead to much more enjoyable trips where you’re able to reach your goals, and increase your safety level on the trail.
Know the regulations for the area you'll visit. An example of this would be arriving at a trailhead to find out that a fire ban is in effect, but you were planning to cook your meals over campfires. Now, because of poor planning, you’re stuck with the choice of eating cold meals, delaying your trip to go buy a stove, or breaking the rules and possibly starting a devastating forest.
Learn about the area that you’ll be visiting. Use maps, guidebooks, and online resources to plan your route and learn about current conditions so there aren’t any surprises. Also, pay close attention to where your water access points will be along your route.
Set appropriate goals based on the abilities of your group and train properly before your trip. Attempting to cover too many miles in difficult terrain is a common error that can lead to unplanned camping sites that will damage the environment. Take into account the amount of elevation you will need to climb and also add in extra time in case of bad weather conditions.
Visit in small groups when possible and schedule your trip to avoid times of high use. Larger groups need more space and leave a larger impact on the environment. Visiting wilderness areas during off peak times will also reduce your impact.
Prepare for extreme weather, hazards, and emergencies. Always be prepared for worst case scenario weather conditions, bring an appropriate first aid kit, and know how to perform emergency first aid treatment.
Plan your meals properly. Repackage food to minimize waste, reduce your pack weight, and make meals easier to cook.
Small stoves and one-pot meals will help reduce impact on the land. Always store your food properly at night to keep it away from animals in the area.
2) Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
The important takeaway from this principle is that even your footsteps will leave a lasting impact on the environment. Traveling on trails and hard packed surfaces is the best way to minimize the impact of your footsteps.
Never cut switchbacks or take off-trail shortcuts. Camping in established campsites is the best way to reduce the impact of your campsite. Never camp in areas that are undergoing restoration.
Remember, good campsites are found, not made. Arrive in camp a few hours before dusk so you’ll have time to select a good site. Camp at least 200 feet away from water sources to allow animals undisturbed access to the source.
If you’re traveling in an area with no previous impact and no trails, stick to durable surfaces and minimize you damage by dispersing your impact. Spread your group out so you are not walking in one straight line when walking through undisturbed areas. That will allow the area to recover faster.
Avoid walking and camping on living vegetation whenever possible. If there is no other choice, minimize your impact by traveling on rocks or hearty vegetation, like dry grasses. Always avoid trampling soft leaf plants and wetland areas, which will be very slow to recover.
3) Dispose of Waste Properly
The main thing to remember with this principle is: if you pack it in, pack it out. There’s absolutely no reason to leave any waste in the wilderness except human waste, and even that needs be disposed of properly.
Little bits of trash add up quickly and will take a lot longer to decompose than you might think. Even waste from organic materials like apple cores and orange peels can take months, or even years to decompose. And worse than that, organic waste can alter the foraging habits of animals in the area; so remember, always pack out your trash, even if it’s organic waste.
Repackage your meals into plastic bags to reduce the amount of waste you’ll have to carry out when you’re done with them.
Don’t burn trash or food because it often won’t fully burn. Animals may dig up the remains and little bits of trash will stay there for years to come. Prepare your meals properly to avoid uneaten food, and pack it out if you can’t finish it.
Clean your dishes at least 200 feet away from water sources and your campsite. Strain out food particles and disperse the residue water by throwing it out in a wide arc.
For human waste, get at least 200 feet from the trail, your campsite, and any water source. Dig a cathole at least 6-8 inches deep and squat over the hole to do your business. Then cover up the hole with the dirt you dug out. If you’re using toilet paper, use it sparingly and pack it out in your garbage bag. If you’re camping in an area for multiple days, spread out your catholes.
If you see trash along the trail left by other visitors, do your part and pick it up. You’ll be helping to reverse the damaging impacts that careless visitors are leaving behind.
4) Leave What You Find
There’s a common saying among backpackers that applies to this rule; Take only pictures, leave only footprints.
Resist the urge to leave your mark on an area or take a small souvenir. The whole point of leave no trace backpacking is to minimize your impact so it appears that you were never there.
Don’t scratch rocks or carve trees to leave a message for future travelers. Don’t alter natural environment or build lasting structures at campsites. And don’t take anything home with you, like rocks, flowers, bones, or artifacts. All of these things are directly opposed to the principles of leave no trace backpacking.
5) Minimize Campfire Impacts
Having a campfire while backpacking can be a good way to keep warm, cook food, and add an element of entertainment, but it also leaves lasting impacts on the environment. Fortunately, you can still enjoy campfires and practice leave no trace backpacking at the same time.
Make sure to check fire danger levels and fire regulations before you travel. Also take into consideration the possibility of rain and the amount of dry wood that is likely to be available.
Use existing fire rings in established campsites whenever possible. Do not build a new fire ring if one isn’t present. Instead, use a fire pan or build a mound fire to minimize impact.
Keep your fires small and burn all the wood you put in it to ash. Stop adding fuel to the fire well before you plan to go to bed to give it enough time to burn the fuel that’s in it.
Only collect firewood that is already on the ground and is about the size of your wrist or smaller, and can be broken by hand. Leave all standing trees and bushes alone, even if the limbs appear to be dead.
When you’re done with your fire, scatter any unused wood back into the wilderness. Put your fire out completely by soaking it with water and stirring the coals.
The ashes should be cold to the touch. When you’re sure that there is no heat left in the coals, scatter the ashes over a wide area far away from your campsite.
Remember, not having campfires on a backpacking trip isn’t the end of the world, so set your groups expectations before your trip. It is often much quicker and easier to cook over a lightweight stove and enjoy the stars from the warm of your sleeping bag.
6) Respect Wildlife
The wilderness is a fantastic place to glimpse wildlife that we might not ever encounter in our daily lives. The key to respecting their natural habitat is to reduce the amount of interaction between humans and animals as much as possible.
Never feed wild animals and always protect your food by storing it properly. Feeding wild animals can damage their natural instincts, alter their behaviors, and expose them to more danger. Animals fed by backpackers can become a nuisance and can become dependent on humans.
Keep your distance from wild animals and don’t stress them out by following them, approaching them, or trying to get a reaction out of them. Breaking these rules can be harmful to animals and can also put you in danger.
Don’t bring pets into the wilderness unless you can control them and plan to keep them on leash. Allowing your dog to run through the woods chasing wild animals is one of the most stressful and disrespectful things that you could do to other wildlife.
If you want to see more animals, travel in smaller groups and keep noise levels down. Large groups and talking backpackers will rarely see much wildlife and there’s a good reason for that.
7) Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Avoid making loud noises, be friendly and courteous to other people, try not to stand out or make a scene, and whenever possible, give other travelers their space and privacy.
Show respect by stepping off the trail to let larger groups and hikers heading up hill have the right of way. And when you see horse travelers on the trail, have your group step off to the same side on the downhill slope to allow them to pass.
Simply put, treat other backpackers with the same respect that you would like to be treated with.
Now that you understand the principles of leave no trace backpacking, you’ll be able to enjoy wilderness areas without leaving any lasting effects.
If you follow this simple commitment, we’ll all be better off and our wilderness areas will remain beautiful and pristine for decades to come.
The member-driven Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics teaches people how to enjoy the outdoors responsibly. This copyrighted information has been reprinted with permission from the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics: www.LNT.org