How to leave no trace when camping and hiking

By Mike Nicosia, Conquerwild.com

Mike Nicosia

There’s no greater beauty than that of Mother Nature. Many people (including myself) consider the outdoors to be their “happy place.” However, whenever we step outside, we must remember that we are visitors in someone else’s home.

Every time you embark on a hike or partake in a camping trip, you’re entering the living space of millions of precious creatures. This includes animals, plants, fungi, microscopic organisms and lots more.

The well-being of a single ecosystem can have an effect on the planet as a whole. The Earth is essentially a living being in its own right. If the planet is not in good health, how can we expect its inhabitants to be healthy?

This is why it’s vital that we take precautions when spending any time in the outdoors. Here’s where the Leave No Trace principles come into play.

What Does It Mean To Leave No Trace?

To put it simply, leaving no trace means making the best possible effort to minimize your impact on the environment when you travel outdoors. The ultimate goal is to make it seem as if you had never been there in the first place.

Once upon a time, all humans lived in the wild. Though we have come a long, long way since then, and our habits have changed significantly. We sometimes forget how damaging our behavior can be to our own planet.

The more careless we are, the more of a negative impact we have on the environment. At the end of the day, it all comes down to the choices we make.

While the concept of “leaving no trace” was born in the 1960‘s, the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics came about in the 90‘s. This is a nonprofit organization which focuses on educating youth, minimizing impact globally and helping to preserve the environment.

Leave No Trace has 7 principles, and you should abide by each of them strictly during all of your outdoor adventures. This applies to everything from week-long camping excursions to quick trips into your backyard.

Let’s run through each of the 7 principles, discussing the do’s, the don’ts and everything else you need to know.

Principle 1: Plan Ahead & Prepare

An outdoor adventurer without a plan is an outdoor adventurer asking for trouble. Without efficient planning, you won’t be able to protect the environment or yourself to the best of your abilities.

The less prepared you are, the more likely you will find yourself resorting to high impact tactics.

First and foremost, it’s important to understand the skill level of your entire group before embarking on a camping/hiking adventure.

It’s never a good idea to choose a trail or route that’s above your skill level. This may cause you or your group members to tire out quickly, making you less capable of leaving no trace.

Your group is only as quick as your slowest member. For this reason, it’s also important to know the speed at which your group travels. If you’re backpacking toward a campsite, you must always leave yourself enough time to arrive before nightfall. If it’s dark out, it will be much more difficult to set up camp properly or safely.

You should also be sure to avoid any restricted areas during your journey. Some portions of land are labeled as private property or restricted for environmental reasons.

If a forest is off-limits due to a fragile ecosystem, it’s very important that you steer clear of that area at all costs. Violating these regulations can cause irreversible damage in some cases. Depending on the restrictions in your region, you may also be fined or arrested.

Remember: anything that goes wrong during your trip is your responsibility.

You should also be very particular with what you wear when camping, hiking or backpacking. Choose items that will keep you comfortable and safe, depending on the time of year and weather in your area.

Do’s:

  • Use maps, hiking/camping apps or books to prevent you from veering off trail. Even if you think you know the way, be sure to double check that you’re on the right path every few minutes. All Trails is a great mobile app to use for this.
  • Talk to park rangers/local land managers to become aware of any environmental concerns, fragile ecosystems or wildlife updates that you should know while hiking. You may also be able to find this information online. Partial trail closures are common, especially after strong winds have downed trees. Always check to see if there is an alternate route.
  • Keep track of your goals and whether or not you’ve accomplished them (both your goals for leaving no trace and your own physical goals). This way, you’ll be aware of how to improve on your next trip.
  • Before embarking on your journey, remove all food items from their wrappers and place them into reusable, sealable bags. This will reduce the amount of waste you carry with you.
  • Try to bring a portable camp stove if you plan on cooking. Don’t rely on the need to start a fire.
  • Pack your own water instead of relying on natural sources. You never know if you’ll be able to find clean, drinkable water in the wilderness.
  • Bring along a first aid kit and ensure that your phone is fully charged (it may be a good idea to bring a portable charger).

Don’t…

  • …embark on a hike/camping trip last minute without making any preparations.
  • …plan a trip that’s above your skill level.
  • …bring along any extra food that you won’t be consuming during your trip. Leftovers = Waste.
  • …violate land restrictions. Never enter private land or hunting zones. Don’t venture off into an area where there are no trails.
  • …camp or hike when extreme weather is expected. Also, look out for flood zones, areas prone to forest fires, or areas known for unpredictable weather. These can all put your life in danger and make it harder for you to leave no trace.
  • …set up camp at night- you may accidentally choose a dangerous or environmentally sensitive area due to lack of light.
  • …overstuff your backpack. This makes it more likely that you’ll drop something without noticing.
  • …camp or hike when there’s a large amount of foot traffic. This means avoiding holidays and popular trails on weekends.
  • …wear large amounts of perfume when camping or hiking.

Principle 2: Travel & Camp On Durable Surfaces

The forest floor is often teeming with life. Communities of organisms, vital vegetation and lots of other living beings often occupy the ground in popular camping/hiking locations. When you’re stepping over these surfaces, it’s vital that you do so cautiously. Your feet and body weight can cause a ton of damage.

Ultimately, the main goal is to avoid “trampling,” which means carelessly stomping over valuable vegetation and crushing it. This can lead to erosion or lots of other environmental issues.

The risk of damage to the ground depends on the size of your group, the frequency of travel and the fragility of the ground. Not every surface will have the same tolerance to your body weight.

Rocks, gravel and sand are the most durable surfaces to walk on. On the other end of the spectrum, vegetation tends to be the most fragile and should be avoided at all costs, especially when it’s wet.

When Hiking….

Do’s:

  • Travel on designated trails only, even if it’s wet or covered with mud. When in a group, be sure to walk in a single file line.
  • If you have to walk off trail and into grass or vegetation, make sure your group disperses. The more people that walk over a section of vegetation, the more strongly impacted it will be. If you avoid following the same path, you may be able to prevent trampling.
  • Be careful when walking on rocks. Although they‘re super durable, they sometimes have lichens growing on them. Lichens are complex organisms and plant-like growths that usually resemble moss. Avoid stepping on these at all costs, as they usually take hundreds or even thousands of years to grow! Causing damage to lichens may leave an impact that will last long after you’re gone.
  • In winter conditions, it’s usually acceptable to walk on snow and ice. Once it melts, you most likely won’t leave behind any permanent damage.
  • Keep an eye out for frogs, snakes, mice and other small animals that may cross your path. The pressure of your body weight will likely kill these tiny creatures if you don’t watch your step.

Don’t…

  • …walk on wet grass or through meadows.
  • …walk on cryptobiotic soil crusts. This is a type of soil that’s rich and usually dark in color- found mostly in deserts. It usually holds moisture and is home to communities of organisms, so we must preserve it.
  • …step in or interfere with desert puddles. There are often tiny creatures that live in these and some animals may use them for water.

When Camping…

Do’s:

  • Stick to established camping areas if you can. Places that have already been significantly impacted are the best because your presence probably won’t cause much additional damage. Strongly impacted areas are recognizable from their limited plant growth. 
  • Set up camp AT LEAST 200 feet away from water. This way, any animals in the area will have a safe path to get to and from their water source.
  • Consider using a hammock. Since they don’t contact the ground, they won’t cause any damage to the floor. Just make sure to choose a tree-friendly hammock.
  • Camp on rocks or sand if you can. These surfaces will show the least amount of damage.
  • Keep your area of usage small. Don’t spread out your campsite over a large amount of land. Try your best to consolidate all of your amenities into one area.
  • Clean up your campsite thoroughly before you leave.

Don’t…

  • …leave behind any trash, even if it was left by a previous camper. When leaving your campsite, your goal should be to make it seem as appealing as possible to future campers. This way, they will feel more inclined to settle there, rather than choosing an undisturbed area.
  • …set up camp too close to the edge of a cliff. There’s a greater chance of erosion which is bad for the ecosystem, and potentially deadly for you.

When Camping In A Remote/Previously Undisturbed Area…

Do’s:

  • Wear soft shoes around your campsite.
  • Use buckets to transport large quantities of water from your source instead of making repeated trips.
  • If you’ve made any disturbances in the grass or vegetation, brush them out before you leave.

Don’t…

  • …camp in a remote/previously undisturbed area if you’re not extremely well versed in Leave No Trace.
  • …brush away any organic material (leaves, pinecones, pine needles, acorns, etc.). These natural items help soften the impact of footprints and reduce the rate of erosion.
  • …stay in the same location for more than 2 nights.

Principle 3: Dispose Of Waste Properly

If there’s one thing you should remember about proper disposal in the outdoors, it’s this: if you bring it in, you must bring it out.

Nowadays, more and more trails are becoming filled with garbage and litter (as shown in the picture above, which I captured in September, 2020 on a trail in Harriman State Park, New York). It breaks my heart every time I see this on a popular trail.

It’s absolutely vital that you dispose of all waste properly when you’re outdoors. If you don‘t, your garbage may make its way into waterways, or it may be mistaken for food by animals. Both outcomes can have deadly consequences.

When you litter, you’re also hurting vegetation and microorganisms. Plastics can take anywhere from 20 to 500 years to decompose!… AKA an extremely long time. Please follow these do’s and don’ts of waste disposal every time you step outside of your home.

Do’s:

  • Bring along garbage bags (especially when camping) to throw away any garbage. Make sure to take the bags with you and dispose of them properly when you leave.
  • Pick up all litter including small bits of trash and organic materials like fruit and food waste (these can be damaging to certain ecosystems).
  • Wash all of your plates, cooking gear and equipment at least 200 feet away from any waterways. Drain the dirty waste water with a fine strainer and disperse it into the ground. Don’t pour it all out in one area.
  • Bring along sanitizer instead of using fresh water to wash your hands. This will help to prevent contamination of the waterways and the ground.

Don’t…

  • …bring along any messy, greasy or super pungent foods.
  • …wash yourself or your equipment in a body of water. This may contaminate the waterway, which is likely home to many organisms. Instead, you can use a bucket or pail to carry the water you need at least 200 feet away.
  • …swim in a body of water if there’s no other source of fresh water nearby. You may contaminate the only water source in the area, thus negatively affecting local animals.

Disposing Of Human Waste Properly

Trash and litter aren’t the only types of “waste” you need to worry about. Let’s not forget that you’re also responsible for using the bathroom correctly while outdoors.

If you can, using portable toilets are a great way to responsibly use the bathroom in nature. The only issue is that they tend to be bulky, making them difficult to transport or carry during a backpacking excursion.

When you’re backpacking long distance and have no choice but to do your business naturally, your best option is to dig a cathole. Here’s how you do that:

  1. Find a nice, private spot at least 200 feet from all sources of water. It’s best to choose areas that have dark, rich-colored soil. This will usually help your waste decompose faster. Aim for a spot with good sunlight exposure, which will also help with decomposition.
  2. Using a trowel or small shovel, dig a hole about 7 inches deep (5 inches if you’re in the desert). It should also be around 5 inches in diameter.
  3. Do your business directly into the hole. Careful not to miss!
  4. Once the deed is done, pour dirt back into the hole and bury your business. Do your best to smooth out the soil on top and make it look like you were never there.
  5. If you’re not in dry, arid land (like the desert), you can bury your toilet paper along with your waste (as long as it’s not scented or containing chemicals). If not, then pack it out in a sealable bag. If you don’t have toilet paper, you can also use things like leaves (look out for poison ivy!) or snow.

If you’re only urinating, make sure not to do so directly onto vegetation. As always, you must be at least 200 feet from all water sources. Also, make sure you’re not on a slope. You don’t want your urine trickling down into a nearby waterway.

When it comes to tampons, pads or other feminine hygiene products, you must pack out everything you bring in. Never bury these items.

Principle 4: Minimize Campfire Impacts

For many campers and backpackers, a campfire is an essential piece of tradition. However, we must remember that whenever we light a fire in the wilderness, we are taking a risk.

Fire, by nature, is dangerous. If you don’t build, maintain and extinguish your fire with caution, you’re essentially putting an entire ecosystem at risk of being destroyed. Even the smallest ember or small spark can cause an environmental catastrophe.

Almost 85% of wildfires in the United States are caused by humans, and it’s our job to prevent that number from increasing.

First and foremost, you must figure out whether or not fires are permitted in the area you’re in. In many parks and forests, fires are strictly prohibited due to environmental concerns.

In general, it’s a good idea to avoid building fires in areas with lots of dry wood/grass around, or in windy conditions. If you do decide to light a fire, here’s what you should remember:

Do’s:

  • Use a fire ring if there is one. Most established campsites will have these. This will help contain your fire.
  • Gather firewood from a wide area, and not just from one spot.
  • Always keep your fuel far away from the fire.
  • Make sure your fire is completely out and that the ash is cool to the touch before leaving it. There should be no embers visible and no smoke.
  • Once your fire is completely out, collect the ashes from your fire pit and scatter them over a wide area.
  • Instead of starting a fire, use a camp stove if you have one. It’s generally a more safe option.

Don’t…

  • …build a fire if it’s too windy. Too much wind can cause a fire to grow uncontrollably or blow embers long distance. This especially applies when in warmer climates.
  • …take firewood from a location where wood is scarce (like the desert).
  • …take firewood from areas where vegetation appears to have a hard time growing. It’s important that you do everything you can to encourage the growth of plant life in these areas.
  • …take firewood from a far away location (if you must buy firewood, do so locally). Bringing in foreign wood can introduce invasive species to a new ecosystem, which is a big no-no.
  • …leave a fire unattended under ANY circumstances.
  • …rely on standing trees for firewood. It’s never okay to chop down or damage a tree. This applies to fallen trees as well. Animals often use them for shelter and they help to recycle nutrients into the ground. Plus, they usually retain moisture, which means they won’t work for firewood.
  • …pull branches off of live trees.
  • …burn litter or garbage. This might release foreign toxins into the environment.
  • …urinate on a fire. This should go without saying, but it’s dangerous, irresponsible and kind of gross.

If there’s no fire ring at your campsite and you’d like an alternative method for building a safe fire, you can create a mound fire. Leave No Trace Center For Outdoors Ethics does a great job demonstrating how to do so in this video:

For more tips on how to build a fire safely and efficiently, you can check out this article.

Principle 5: Leave What You Find

The wilderness is not your home. Therefore, you should never steal from it. Whatever you find in the wild, must stay in the wild. 

This applies to all types of natural objects like rocks, bones and plants, but also to cultural artifacts… And it especially applies to wild animals that you come across. Even if they‘re cute.

The general rule to abide by: if it’s in the wild, it’s not yours.

Do’s:

  • Leave all natural objects or cultural items alone (cultural artifacts are legally protected by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act).
  • If you’ve moved any natural structures while prepping your campsite, make sure you put them back before leaving.
  • If you make a fire ring or any other type of temporary structure, dismantle it before leaving.
  • If you’ve moved or overturned any rocks, return them to their original position before leaving.
  • If you really need to move something, be sure to take a picture before doing so. This way, you’ll know where everything goes when it’s time to return everything back to its original place.

Don’t…

  • …dig unnecessary holes or trenches.
  • …build anything like tables, chairs, stools, etc. from the natural items you find.
  • …carve, chop, hammer cut or intentionally damage any natural structures/objects (such as trees, logs, sticks or rocks).
  • …pick flowers or rip plants out of the ground.
  • …transport any invasive species from one location to another.

Principle 6: Respect Wildlife

One of the most important aspects of leaving no trace is respecting wildlife. Remember that, when you enter the wilderness, you’re stepping into the home of hundreds, thousands or sometimes millions of creatures!

If these animals were entering your home, you’d like for them to abide by your rules, wouldn’t you? So let’s do the same for them. 

Neglecting to follow these do’s and don’ts can cause great harm to many of the beautiful creatures that live in the ecosystem. Be especially cautious in areas where endangered species are native.

Do’s:

  • Always set up camp at least 200 feet away from waterways so that wildlife has a safe path to reach it.
  • Abide by the safety rules for encountering predatory animals. You can check out my articles on bear safety and mountain lion safety for details.
  • Stay away from watering holes or small puddles in deserts. These are usually the only source of water for animals in these regions.

Don’t…

  • …approach, follow, chase, scare away or feed animals under any circumstances. This especially applies when there‘s extreme weather. Most animals are more at risk of dying during harsh conditions.
  • …approach or disturb a sick animal.
  • …approach animals while they’re mating or caring for young.
  • …touch animals, especially young ones. Some species may abandon their young if they’ve been touched by a human.

Principle 7: Be Considerate Of Other Visitors!

This last principle has less to do with the environment and more to do with your fellow nature lovers. Always stay mindful of the other campers or hikers around you. 

Remember that everyone wants to enjoy their experience in the outdoors, and it can be hard to do that when you‘re surrounded by inconsiderate people.

This past Labor Day Weekend, I went camping at Shenandoah National Park. Since it was a holiday weekend, the campgrounds were packed and we had several groups of campers within 15 yards of our campsite.

On our last night there, a group of young adults would not stop talking throughout the entire night.

Now, I’m usually not a party pooper, and I hate to complain, but I’m also a very light sleeper. Instead of drifting off to the tranquil noise of crickets chirping, I had to listen to the sound of heated debates and drunken belches until 4 AM. I barely got 30 minutes of sleep before my 5 AM sunrise hike… and I wasn‘t too happy about that.

However, I didn’t let it ruin my trip and I learned a valuable lesson: next time I camp on labor day weekend, I’ll bring ear plugs.

Remember that human voices can carry quite far through a silent forest, even if you’re talking at a low volume. This is why it’s important to obey the quiet hours that many campgrounds have in place, and follow these do’s and don’ts.

Do’s:

  • When camping, respect the fact that your fellow campers around you may have an early morning planned.
  • Pick up and properly dispose of all garbage from your campsite or hiking trail, even if it’s not yours.
  • If you must listen to music, use headphones rather than a speaker… Especially if you have bad taste in music.
  • Try to choose a tent that has a neutral or camouflaged color so that it blends into the background and isn‘t so harsh on the eyes.
  • Be aware of the quiet hours your campsite may have set up.
  • Always carry a face mask with you in case you need to pass someone at closer than 6 feet. It’s a sign of respect. Do your best to stay distant from others.
  • When hiking downhill, yield to your right for hikers who are traveling uphill.
  • If you are on a mountain bike, hikers on foot have the right of way. Yield to your right.
  • If someone is approaching on a horse, move slightly off trail and downhill if you can.

Don’t…

  • …take long breaks in the middle of a trail. You’ll be in the way of other hikers. Instead, try moving to a clearing, a rock or an area that has already been impacted.
  • …leave any lights on throughout the night while camping.
  • …set up camp too close to a hiking trail. You may make it hard for hikers to pass by.
  • …set up your bathroom close to a trail. This is just a bad idea all around.

Conclusion

When it comes to being environmentally conscious as a backpacker, there is no set of standards more important than Leave No Trace.

Always do your very best to reduce your impact. It doesn’t matter if you’re camping in the Swiss Alps, exploring the Amazon or walking across your front lawn, it‘s vital that you abide by each of the 7 principles.

Mother Nature has been abused and taken advantage of for centuries. As human beings, we must do our best to take care of her and show her the respect that she deserves. Be kind to the Earth, be kind to your fellow adventurers and be kind to yourself.

That’s all.

Mike Nicosia is a writer who is passionate about camping, hiking and all things nature. His website, Conquerwild.com, contains content aimed at helping people improve their experience in the wilderness.

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