Leave No Trace and Safety

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Welcome Hikers,

Today I want to talk about Leave No Trace, not the job tail-end Charlie has in your overland formation, but the basic principles that will help keep you and nature safe on our trips. I’m talking about Leave No Trace principles. While Leave No Trace has different applications for military and civilian use, it’s all basically about passing through an area and appearing as though you were never there.

What Is Leave No Trace and what do they do?

Leave No Trace is an organization that “accomplishes its mission by providing innovative education, skills, research, and science to help people care for the outdoors.”  The principles they develop combine knowledge and judgment with ethical responsibility.  In its simplest form Leave No Trace is about making good decisions to protect the world around you. And in turn, helping to protect yourself.

Before we discuss the principles of Leave No Trace, let’s get around the campfire to share a story.

I’ve talked about a couple of trips we took one where we visited both Arches and Zion National Parks in two weeks. That is my favorite trip and Zion is one of my favorite locations.

Here’s a video that talks about graffiti at Zion National Park and how the National Park Service and its Rangers deal with trying to restore the damage. In it, you can see the amount of time it takes for just this small section in a park where millions of visitors a year visit. Visitation at National Parks has only skyrocketed even more since the pandemic. Zion recorded 5,039,835 visits in 2021 and Arches recorded over 1.8 million visits.

I recently saw an article about a line of about 100 people deep waiting to take a picture at Delicate Arch in Arches National Park.  The arch is one that many will recognize from photos throughout the internet. When my family and I visited the arch there were a dozen or so people scattered about looking around and that was about it.

Park rangers know that a lot of first-time visitors are just not familiar with national parks and their mission to preserve those resources. And these record visitations are coming at a time when national parks are struggling to fill positions.  All these factors mean it’s even more important now to understand, and apply, the principles of Leave No Trace and to help educate others.

While the principles of Leave No Trace originated out of a need to protect Backcountry and Wilderness areas from human-caused recreational impacts, the application of Leave No Trace extends far beyond these areas.  As more and more people recreate in frontcountry settings, the knowledge of how to apply Leave No Trace principles in these areas becomes increasingly important. 

What Are The Seven Principles Of Leave No Trace?

The basic principles of Leave No Trace, as applied to the backcountry and wilderness areas are:

Plan Ahead And Prepare

Travel And Camp On Durable Surfaces

Dispose Of Waste Properly

Leave What You Find

Minimize Campfire Impacts

Respect Wildlife

Be Considerate Of Others

As mentioned above these principles were developed based on the needs of the backcountry and wilderness areas, but they have also been modified to work in frontcountry areas as well.

Leave No Trace in the Frontcountry

Know Before You Go (Plan Ahead and Prepare)

Planning ahead is the easiest way to keep yourself and nature safe. Government offices or internet sites can provide you with pre-trip information and knowing site-specific regulations beforehand will help you save the areas you visit.  Don’t forget to pack your essentials such as maps, a small first aid kit, and additional clothing to keep you warm and dry, and to wear good shoes or boots to walk.

Stick To Trails (Travel And Camp On Durable Surfaces)

Staying on trails is a simple way to protect the frontcountry. Shortcutting trails cause erosion and damage to trailside plants.  Walk and ride only on designated trails, even if wet or muddy,  boots dry overnight but trails can take years to recover from erosion. 

When trailside vegetation is trampled there’s a greater chance weeds replace native plants. If you must leave a trail, protect vegetation by stepping on rocks gravel, or other non-vegetated surfaces. avoid areas that are closed for revegetation or signed as sensitive. Some frontcountry trails bypass private land, and respect private property by staying on designated trails. 

Overnight Right (Travel And Camp On Durable Surfaces)

If camping overnight, stay in a designated site rather than creating your own, and be sure to choose a site that is big enough to accommodate your group. 

Trash Your Trash (Dispose Of Waste Properly)

Trash is unsightly and ruins everyone’s Outdoor Experience. Pack it in pack it out is the saying, so pack up all the trash, yours and others. Even biodegradable materials, such as orange peels, apple cores, and food scraps, should be disposed of in a trash can.

Scavengers that are attracted to trash and leftover food can harm native wildlife, and animals that become dependent on human food often have to be relocated or destroyed. Burning trash and leftover food is not recommended since these items can rarely be completely burned in a campfire. 

Pick Up Poop (Dispose Of Waste Properly)

Pet waste can be a serious problem in frontcountry areas. With so many people recreating with their pets, the potential to impact the environment is great.  Pet waste smells. It can be a health hazard for people, particularly children, and other animals. And it is not natural in any environment. Cleaning up after your pet helps protect water resources, plant life, and habitats for native animals.

The solution is simple, clean up after your pet.  Many popular frontcountry area supply bags that you can use to pick up your pet’s waste.  If these are not available, a plastic grocery or newspaper bag will work.  Bag your pet’s waste and put it in the trash.  This simple act keeps  frontcountry areas clean for all to enjoy

Leave It As You Find It (Leave What You Find)

Many Americans visit frontcountry areas each day.  If each visitor picked a flower or collected a rock or took home an arrowhead then those who follow will not be able to enjoy them. By leaving the natural world as you find it, you’re protecting the habitat of plants and animals as well as out of the outdoor experience of millions of visitors. 

Be Careful With Fire (Minimize Campfire Impacts)

For many enjoying a campfire is an outdoor tradition. However, unnatural or out-of-control fires can be very destructive and can cause long-lasting impacts. Consider cooking on a portable stove rather than a fire. if you plan to build a fire first check to see if fires are allowed in the area you’re visiting.

If fires are allowed, always use existing fire rings.  Use charcoal for cooking, or if wood fires are allowed, then only use dead wood that is on the ground or consider bringing your own from home or a local provider.  When finished with your fire douse and stir with water to make sure it’s completely out.  NEVER LEAVE A FIRE UNATTENDED

Keep Wildlife Wild (Respect Wildlife)

Frontcountry areas are home to a variety of wildlife.  Observe wildlife from a distance and never feed them human food or leave food scraps behind. An animal that becomes reliant on human handouts can lose the ability to find food on its own and can easily become malnourished.  

Many animals become used to human trail activity, and traveling off-trail may cause added stress to animals and damaged habitats. Keep wildlife wild by staying on the trails and not approaching, harassing, or feeding them.

Manage Your Pet (Be Considerate Of Others)

Keeping your pet in control protects your pet, other frontcountry visitors and their pets, and local wildlife. Others may not appreciate your pet’s company, always ask before allowing your pet to approach them. 

Be sure to check with local government officials are land managers about area lease requirements.  If leashes are required use them. Respect private property but not allowing your pets to wander off designated Trails or off-leash areas. Always manage your pet for the sake of the pet and yours.

Share Our Trails (Be Considerate Of Others)

People enjoy frontcountry areas in different ways. When passing others on the trails slow down, be courteous, and offer a friendly greeting. Bikers, because they often travel at higher speeds, have an extra responsibility to slow down and yield to slower-moving visitors.  When yielding the best practice is to stop, step off the trail onto a durable surface such as rocks, sand etc., and remain until others pass. In all situations respect other visitors and share our trails 

Leave No Trace principles might seem common sense to some, but as we have seen it’s completely new and foreign to others. Either way, it’s up to each individual to help keep themselves and nature safe, so that the outdoors remains available to everyone.

If you want to get more information, click the following links on Leave No Trace basics, Leave No Trace for the outdoor workplace, or Leave No Trace and social media guidance. Another option is to take a  Leave No Trace Awareness Course

I am also a certified Leave No Trace trainer, so feel free to reach out to me for more discussions on the topic or about teaching a course.

See you on the trail,