Leave No Trace

As users of public lands, we are all responsible for managing our impact while out on our adventures. While it may seem at first that there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to take a walk in the woods, it may eventually occur to you that some behaviors are more impactful than others. And if you multiply one impact by the hundreds or thousands of others who come after you, it will immediately be clear that some guidelines for trail etiquette are necessary.

Leave No Trace offers up a set of strategies to help you leave less of an impact on your next trip to public lands. Read more about each of the seven basic principles here:

  1. Plan ahead and prepare
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  3. Dispose of waste properly
  4. Leave what you find
  5. Minimize campfire impacts
  6. Respect wildlife
  7. Be considerate of other visitors

Questions? Comments? Share below!

Create your own adventure map

I was sitting in a coffee shop partway through a road trip, thinking ahead to my next stop: Joshua Tree National Park. I had a hiking book, a park map and pages of notes from a variety of Internet sources. With only a few days to spend in the park, I wanted to put these disparate sources of information together in a way that was easy for me to actually use. The book contained too much information, the map was overwhelming and the scraps of paper shoved in my pack were disorganized. How could I put all my research together into a neat, user-friendly package?

The map, I thought, was the easiest visual display of data. But it had too much detail about certain things and too little detail about others. I decided to pull out a journal and a pack of markers (you travel with these too, right?) to see what I could do.

In a couple hours, I had it: a beautiful, easy to use map that contained navigational details, major roads, trails, ranger stations and notes relevant to our trip. All on two pages of a journal.

Weeks later, I decided to replicate my process step-by-step in order to demonstrate how you, too, can craft your own adventure map. I chose a park I had never visited and knew nothing about: Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Through the process of creating a map for a fake adventure, I actually got REALLY EXCITED about visiting; I started researching flights and thinking through the logistics of how to make a trip to Texas this fall! What I learned is that the act of reading and processing information can breed a deep interest in a subject. So here’s your warning: if you start creating your own map, you’re going to find a way to make your plan come to life. Enjoy!

Choose a park

Obviously, you’ve got to start somewhere.

Draw the major roads

“I’m not an artist,” you exclaim. Hear me out: you can do this. Look at an overview map of your park. Find the major route(s) in the park and just focus on those first. Those are the roads leading to the entrance booths, ranger stations and points of interest. You don’t have to get it super accurate (although if the size is right you can trace over a paper map.) Get the general idea on paper. Use a pencil so you can adjust the lines later. This will be the framework for your entire design. Write the name of the park at the top of the page, wherever it fits conveniently.

As you begin the research portion of this project, you can look back at this visual reminder of the park’s layout. This will help you develop a reasonable itinerary that will fit within your time constraints.

Research activities and destinations for your season of travel

This is where you’ll spend the bulk of your time, and you don’t even have to touch the map again during this process. Think about:

  • Permits and fees
  • Points of interest
  • Activities (hiking, kayaking, guided tours, climbing, etc.)
  • Time commitments for each activity
  • Camping/lodging options
  • Ranger station/park hours of operation

Remember the “seasonal” part of this research assignment. Not all activities and areas of the park will be accessible all times of the year. Also, if you want to participate in activities that require advanced registration and/or permits, find out about availability and dates NOW. Popular tours and activities sell out quickly. Not sure how to go about trip planning? I’ve written a whole series of articles on the topic, starting here.

Calculate drive times and add them to the map

Here’s where a bit of technology can help immensely with your trip planning and map functionality. Go online and calculate drive times between points on the map, like how long it would take to drive from one entrance to another, or from the campground to the major hiking trails. Since road quality and speed limits will vary from place to place, simply plotting the mileage isn’t all that helpful. It might take you an hour to go down a 10 mile gravel road or to get through a traffic nightmare in peak season at Yellowstone. It’s also helpful at this stage to look up park shuttle options and schedules as well as if you’ll need a high-clearance vehicle to travel safely on certain roads.

Plot important landmarks

Now the fun part begins. Grab that pack of markers because you’re going to want to color code these. Create a key of symbols that you can use to represent the following items:

  • campgrounds/lodging
  • ranger stations
  • trailheads
  • gas stations
  • restrooms
  • picnic areas
  • points of interest

This is not an exhaustive list. Choose a few items that are relevant to you and start adding them to your map skeleton. You may also need to add more roads to your base map at this point. Only include the information that is necessary; if you want to see it all you can refer back to the actual park map.

Create an itinerary

Now that you’re looking at a map of the things that are important to you and you can see how long it will take to drive from place to place, you can build an itinerary. How much time do you have to explore the park? Start by ranking, in order of importance, the things you really do not want to miss. Then look at your map. What’s near those key destinations that you could add on? What are your route options? Take notes on a separate piece of paper. You’ll add this information to your map, but not yet.

Add relevant hiking trails to the map

I’m assuming hiking is your thing (you are reading a hiking blog) so this is going to be critical. But if you’re doing other things like biking, rafting, etc you can add these routes as well. Just add the trails that you intend on exploring during your trip. Add a few backup, plan B hikes too. You and I both know that trips rarely happen exactly as planned. So prepare for that now instead of scrambling later. Your trails do not have to be to scale or perfectly reflect the hike. If you want, add distance and estimated hike time near the trails you draw on your map. Then you won’t have to memorize or look up these facts later.

Research interesting background facts

Take some time to get to know your park. With even just a little bit of knowledge, you’ll be able to appreciate the park so much more once you get there. I’m most interested in the plants and animals I might see, but you might be curious about things like geology, native culture and history. Start digging around on the park website and other resources to gather a bit of background. Then add a few tidbits to the map where there’s blank space.

Create a checklist

I love a good checklist. I added two checklists to my map: animals and plants. I randomly selected a mixture of things I wanted to see and things I was likely to see. The list size was determined by how much room was on the page. But if you’re big into lists, you could put that on a separate page in your journal. Other list ideas include: points of interest, historical sites, scavenger hunt items (great if you’re bringing kits along), etc. What are you most excited to see?

Add timely information

Your map should be looking pretty sweet by now. It’s time to set it aside until the trip is just about ready to take off. Dive back into research mode and add information related to weather forecasts, road conditions and other timely data.

Fill out the blank space

Here’s an optional, but fun step you can take to put some finishing touches on your map. If in your research you found some interesting tidbits or useful bits of information that didn’t make it on the map yet, here’s your chance. You should have some areas of blank page where there’s room to add more text or drawings.

Just remember not to make your map too cluttered because that’s what you were trying to avoid in the beginning!

Interact with your map during the trip

This is a living document. Use it! Check off the things you see. Highlight the trails you walk. Add information you learn or you think you’ll need once you’re there. Jot down the ideas you get from the rangers. Cross out anything you got wrong. And use the remaining pages in your journal to record things that just won’t fit on your map.

While this may seem like a long and daunting process, the act of researching and engaging with the place ahead of time will serve to enhance your enjoyment of the trip. If at any time, this project feels like a chore, then set it aside. This should be fun, just like your ultimate adventure.

If you make one of these for your next trip, please leave a comment with your experience and share your pics! I’m excited to see what you come up with. Happy adventuring…

Planning your first backpacking trip

Author’s note: This article was first published on Food For the Sole’s blog. Food For the Sole makes tasty, nutritious, lightweight and calorie-dense food that is perfect for backpacking. I was delighted to contribute to their blog. Now, on to the reading…

In 2007 I prepared for one of my first overnight hikes: a 4-day backpacking trip in Olympic National Park. I was joining a group of climbers, most of whom had been there and done that but I decided to plan for this trip on my own. I heaved my backpack onto my body with pride. It was heavy, loaded with everything I’d possibly need and more. All the stuff I couldn’t cram into my pack I creatively attached to the outside. Bits and pieces of gear dangled from every hook, strap and carabiner on my pack. I was ready.

Or so I thought. I brought too much of some things and not enough of others. I failed to adjust my pack adequately to my body. I missed the mark on my footwear and as a result of all my blunders I hobbled around for a week after returning from my trip. Not to be deterred by one miserable experience, I strove to do better next time. Since that outing I’ve gone on many, more enjoyable overnight hikes and today I’ll share some strategies to help you plan a successful first backpacking trip.

Image courtesy of Food For the Sole.

Where and when to go

If you want to enjoy backpacking, it’s important to have a fun first trip. Choosing the right location at the right time is a great start.

Do you have any friends who like to backpack? Ask them for suggested beginner itineraries. Choose a low-mileage option to begin. And remember that out-and-back hikes are easier to bail out on than loop hikes. Knowing your average daily mileage with a light pack will help you choose an appropriate distance for an overnight trip. For example, if your longest day hike tops out around ten miles, start with something shorter, like a 5-8 mile/day target for your first backpacking trip.

Consider the timing of your backpacking trip. What will the weather be like? How about bugs? Will there be running water? Will there be snow on the ground? An ideal first backpacking outing will have mild weather, plenty of fresh water sources and easy access. If you have to post-hole through knee-deep snow, wade creeks or deal with sub-freezing weather at night, you might not have a great time (unless you’re into that kind of thing, and in that case go for it).

Image courtesy of Food For the Sole.

What to bring (and what not to bring)

When packing for one or more nights on the trail, it’s important to think about a few things: what you need, what you might need and how heavy it is. For example, you know you need to bring food, but how much should you bring and what kind? For a multi-day trip you may opt for fruit leather (light, packable) versus a whole watermelon (heavy, cumbersome, produces lots of waste). As a beginner, you probably don’t have all the things you’ll need to have a successful first trip. And if you go into a gear shop to get outfitted for your trip, you might balk at the price tag. Start with your friends: see how much stuff you can borrow for your trip. This serves a few purposes. First, you can get a sense of what you like and don’t like about particular pieces of gear. Second, you save money by not buying stuff that doesn’t meet your needs. Third, you get to pick your friend’s brain about the ins and outs of backpacking.

Having a well-fitted pack and the right shoes will ensure that you are comfortable on your trip. Start with these two things. Then, recall the ten essentials. Make sure you pack items from each category to satisfy the needs of your trip. Here’s the list:

  1. Navigation
  2. Headlamp
  3. Sun protection
  4. First aid
  5. Knife
  6. Fire
  7. Shelter
  8. Extra food
  9. Extra water
  10. Extra clothes

Food and water are heavy and take up precious space in your backpack. When choosing meals for a multi-day trip, aim for foods that are light and calorie dense as well as tasty. And remember if you need to cook your food on the trail you’ll also need to pack a stove, pot and fuel. Know how much water you will plan to see along the way and pack a water filter instead of carrying all of your water for the duration of your trip.

Image courtesy of Food For the Sole.

Logistical planning

Overnight trips can require a bit more advanced planning than day trips. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I need a permit and do I need to apply for one in advance?
  • Where will I camp each night?
  • Where can I leave my car overnight?
  • Do I need to organize a car shuttle?
  • Who will I leave my itinerary with?
  • What are my bail out/backup options?

Many forests and parks require permits for backpacking trips. Popular areas sometimes have application processes and lottery systems for permits when there are more interested parties than there are available backcountry sites. Check the website for the place you want to visit or call the ranger’s office in order to help plan your trip.

Image courtesy of Food For the Sole.

Leave No Trace

Finally, learn and practice the seven principles of Leave No Trace:

  1. Plan ahead and prepare
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  3. Dispose of waste properly
  4. Leave what you find
  5. Minimize campfire impacts
  6. Respect wildlife
  7. Be considerate of other visitors

The more you plan ahead and prepare (#1), the easier it will be to follow the other principles. The trickiest challenge for new backpackers is waste disposal. Before you leave for your trip, find out if there are backcountry toilets near your planned campsites. If not, you’re responsible for bringing a trowel and burying your poo or packing it out in a wag bag. And remember: waste includes human waste, pet waste and food waste!

Image courtesy of Food For the Sole.

Bon voyage

Know this: you WILL make mistakes on your first backpacking trip, and that is how you’ll learn. Whatever you do, minimize your impact, have fun and take lots of pictures!

LNT: Be Considerate of Other Visitors

This is part 7 of a 7 part series exploring the why’s and how’s of practicing the seven principles of Leave No Trace.

The seventh principle, be considerate of other visitors, provides guidelines that help you think about how your use of the outdoors may impact others’ use of the outdoors.

Why be considerate of other visitors?

Camping in the North Cascades. No other tents in sight.

You can probably think of a time when you ventured out into a park or wilderness area for a quiet day and had the mood shattered by one or more other visitors to the area. With technological gadgets becoming cheaper and easier to access, this is becoming more and more common. But with these technologies comes the responsibility of knowing when it is and is not appropriate to use them.

We are all in this together. And believe it or not, different people have varied ideas of what’s appropriate to do in shared public spaces. In order to prevent conflict with other users and to preserve the access we currently have, it’s important to be aware of usage regulations in a particular area and to be mindful of other people sharing the same space. Even if there’s not a “rule” in place, use common sense: if there are other people around, think about whether your behavior is a nuisance to others. And know that just because you want to party to loud music at your backcountry campsite til 2 am, chances are your neighbors do not.

How to be considerate of other visitors?

Many inconsiderate behaviors, such as improperly discarding trash, carving into trees and leaving your dog’s poop on the trail are covered in the first 6 principles of LNT. But there are other ways you can be a considerate backcountry user:

Let nature’s sounds prevail. Cell phones, bluetooth speakers and drones can really disrupt a person’s experience outdoors. These devices can be loud and annoying, and in some cases dangerous (just ask about the guy who flew his drone into me). The last thing I want to hear while out hiking in the woods is someone yammering into their cell phone or blasting music out of their backpack. But if you enjoy listening to music in the woods, you still can. Use headphones to keep the sound to yourself. As for drones, first check and see if it is legal to fly them where you’ll be traveling. Wilderness areas prohibit drone use. If you are a drone user, your responsible drone use will help protect your ability to fly them. If you break the rules, you’ll set a bad example for the rest of the group and land managers will be more likely to restrict access.

Be courteous to other trail users. Hikers: classic trail etiquette is to yield to uphill hikers (they’re doing the hard work). In the actual world, though, many uphill hikers will gladly take a rest and let you by. But don’t assume: when in doubt, just stop and let the other person or group pass. I also consider group size. If I see a large group coming the other way and I’m hiking alone, it’s much easier for me to stop and let them by then to ask all 12 of them to stop. Also, consider the terrain when letting other hikers pass: find a disturbed patch of ground to step aside. Avoid trampling the vegetation on the side of the trail and widening the trail.

Single-file here.

Also, hikers: yield to pack stock. Step to the downhill side of the trail to let horses pass.

Mountain bikers: you yield to hikers and equestrians in all situations. Yield to uphill mountain bikes. Stay on the trail and do not widen the trail by riding off-trail to get around other users. And only ride in areas that allow mountain bikes. Rogue riders ruin access for everyone. Follow current rules and advocate for more mountain bike access if you feel there’s limited opportunities to ride near your home.

And for all users: if you open a gate, close it behind you. That gate is there for a reason!

A special note for winter trail users: Skiers, snowshoers and hikers should use separate sets of tracks. It’s inconsiderate to snowshoe or hike (post-hole) on ski tracks. Likewise, it is rude to post-hole through snowshoe tracks. Post-holes make excellent ankle-breaking traps for skiers and snowshoers. If you’re going to walk in soft snow without the right footwear, at least do it to the side of established tracks.

Mind your pet. Dogs can harass people as well as other animals (pets and wildlife.) Because of this, know whether or not there are leash restrictions on the trail you’re using. If leashes are not required, know your dog! Does your dog reliably respond to voice command? Or does your dog say “hi” to everyone she meets? Know that other people may not love your dog the way you do. Take it from a person who is allergic to dogs: the LAST thing I need to deal with on the trail is someone’s dog jumping all over me. I have been barked at, jumped on, followed by and nipped at by dogs. Also, just a thought: when the owner says “oh my dog never does that,” instead of controlling their animal and apologizing, is no consolation. This is not acceptable. Please take care of your animals that you bring into public places. And of course, pack out their poop (see LNT 2: Dispose of Waste Properly).

Well-behaved dog on the trail. Photo credit: Sarah Gribionkin.

Mind your space. Have you ever pulled into a spot in an empty parking lot and had someone pull right in next to you? Weirdly annoying, right? Well the same feeling comes up when camping and hiking. LNT.org recommends you “take breaks and camp away from other visitors.” No doubt, you’re trying to be friendly by pitching your tent 10 feet away from someone else in a wide, open landscape but your new neighbor might not see it that way. Last summer I camped on the side of the road in a pull-out, enjoying some peace and quiet away from the developed camping a couple miles away. As I was cleaning up after dinner, A couple in a pickup truck towing a trailer full of toys pulls in right next to my camp and sets up shop, without even acknowledging I was there. I was livid! There were plenty of other places to camp nearby. Why they thought they needed to snuggle up next to me, I can’t begin to understand.

Consider your colors. Okay, this is the one LNT point I have a beef about. I’m on board with every other suggestion they’ve got. But the idea to wear only muted, natural colors seems ludicrous. Especially from a safety and SAR perspective. A brightly colored tent is much easier to find when you’re returning from a mountain climb than one that camouflages with the environment. I’ve even had hikers comment on how useful it was for me to wear a bright purple hat so it was easier to follow me (on a group hike). And I’m much more irritated by actual crowding in an area than perceived crowding because of a handful of brightly colored tents in the distance. So, if you follow this tenet I’d love to hear your story to understand your perspective.

I hope you’ve found this series practical and informative. Do you still have questions about how to practice Leave No Trace? Do you have any stories to share? Leave a comment below!

LNT: Respect Wildlife

This is part 6 of a 7 part series exploring the why’s and how’s of practicing the seven principles of Leave No Trace.

The sixth principle, respect wildlife, encourages people to view wildlife from a distance and to minimize your impact on the animals’ natural behavior and movement patterns.

Why respect wildlife?

Oh, hello there.

Part of the excitement of venturing out into the wilderness is to catch a chance of seeing native wildlife. Stumbling across a large animal in the wild is breathtaking. But our actions can have negative impact on the animals that live there. Animals have roamed in our wild spaces since long before humans moved in. It is important to give them space, allow them access to food and water sources and not let our enthusiasm to get a great photo for social media lead us down the road to bad behavior.

The diversity of wildlife differs depending on where you hike. If you explore the forests, think about animals like moose, bears, squirrels, owls and snakes. If you wander the deserts, consider critters like lizards, desert tortoise, tarantulas and bighorn sheep. Along ocean beaches there may be seals, ground-nesting birds and tide pool invertebrates. In urban parks, prepare for raptors, rodents, deer and songbirds.

With a mindful approach to hiking you can experience memorable nature encounters without harming wildlife.

Bird in the desert.

How to respect wildlife?

First, don’t take an action that directly harms wildlife, such as touching a wild animal. Each year, remarkable stories come out of the National Park System, where people put their kids on the backs of bison, try to pet bears and put deer in the back of their car. These are egregious acts that are not done in the spirit of respecting wildlife. But thankfully, most people do not engage in these activities. However, almost everyone I know has done the next item…

Secondly, do not feed wild animals. Ever. For any reason. I can’t begin to count how many photos I see of people feeding birds in the wild. The reason that some birds are so aggressive around campsites and popular hiking trails is because people FEED THEM! The same goes for ground squirrels. There are certain places, most notably along well-traveled National Parks trails, where the squirrels are so bold you can’t put your backpack on the ground without having a swarm of rodents digging through your pack for food. Our food is not part of these animals’ natural diets. In addition, when animals lose their fear of humans they become pests and can also be a safety risk. This is most obvious in the case of bears, but rodents (such as squirrels) can carry diseases that can be spread to humans and our pets.

Third, maintain your distance from animals, animal water sources and animal nesting grounds. When you see an animal in the wild, like the bighorn sheep below, remain quiet. Move slowly and monitor the animal’s behavior. If it appears distressed by your presence, back away! In this very fortunate bighorn sighting shown in the photo, mama sheep looked pretty upset with me so I backed behind a rock and tried not to stare right at her so she’d calm down. Eventually mama and baby retreated to another part of the mountain where they were able to sit and relax. I was able to watch them for another 20 minutes before we left our perch. At that distance I was no longer able to take any photos, but I really got to enjoy seeing the sheep behave as they would in the wild. If you are seriously interested in taking nature photos, then I highly recommend investing in a camera with a telephoto lens. If that’s out of your price range, then simply enjoy the opportunity to see wildlife through your own eyes.

A very lucky bighorn sighting!

If you’ve ever camped in the backcountry you’ve probably seen regulations regarding pitching your tent at least 200 feet from water. This rule is put into place to protect animal access to water. When you camp on the edge of a lake or river, you prevent local wildlife from being able to drink where they normally would. Please learn about and respect the rules about camping in whatever park or forest you choose to recreate in.

In addition, some parks will have seasonal closures due to protecting nesting habitat. Rock climbers are very familiar with these closures for raptors. Beachcombers, too, need to avoid certain areas while shorebirds are nesting. These rules protect animals at their most vulnerable times and it is necessary for all of us to read the signage and learn where not to go. In these limited access times, there are always plenty of other places to hike, camp and explore.

Venomous or non-venomous? Either way, leave it alone.

Finally, remember that wild animals are just that: wild. They may bite you if you harass them or get in their space, whether you mean to or not. Learn more about the types of animals that live in the areas you visit. Keep your eyes and ears open for signs of animals. Understand how your recreation choices have an impact on their behavior. And keep your distance as best as you can. Often, wildlife encounters are quick and fleeting. So instead of wasting time reaching for your camera, try standing still and watching that animal closely as long as they stick around. That memory will last a lifetime. 

Questions about anything you read? Leave a comment! I’d love to hear more about how you practice Leave No Trace.

LNT: Minimize campfire impacts

This is part 5 of a 7 part series exploring the why’s and how’s of practicing the seven principles of Leave No Trace.

The fifth principle, minimize campfire impacts, outlines ways you can still enjoy a fire in the woods without causing a forest fire or depleting fragile landscapes of limited resources.

Why minimize campfire impacts?

The Pole Creek Fire in 2012

There is something very primal about building a fire. For many people, camping without a fire is simply not camping at all. But with modern lightweight, portable camp stoves, having a campfire is not as essential as it used to be. But, what’s wrong with campfires?

First, campfires require wood as a source of fuel. In some places, dead and downed wood is plentiful. In others, it is scarce. If the area you’re backpacking in has a generous supply of wood then it’s perfectly reasonable to have a fire. But if you’re in a backcountry campsite with limited access to wood, it is not appropriate to have a campfire.

Second, campfires can cause forest fires. According to the National Park Service, up to 90% of wildfires are human-caused. As we have seen with the recent wildfires in California, these fires can be utterly devastating to not only the forest but to surrounding communities. Preventing wildfire is another important reason to think carefully about whether or not to have a campfire.

Finally, campfires negatively impact the soil. The heat from a campfire kills off the organisms living in the soil beneath the actual fire. The surrounding soil becomes compacted by people congregating around the fire. Vegetation may be unable to grow there for a long time to come.

Whether or not you have  a fire in the backcountry, you can minimize your impact by following a few suggestions that align with Leave No Trace.

No downed wood, no fire!

How to minimize campfire impacts?

If you’re like me, you enjoy having a campfire for warmth, light and comfort in the backcountry. There are ways to responsibly use fire in the woods as people have for eons. But first, do your research. Make sure there is no fire ban where you’re headed. In addition, find out if there are rules about specific locations you’re not allowed to have a fire, such as within a certain distance from a lake or above a specific elevation. If you’re not sure what the regulations are in the area you’re visiting, call the ranger station or land manager to learn more about if and how you can build a fire on your trip. Armed with that knowledge, here are some best practices for building campfires on your next backpacking excursion.

  1. Use existing fire rings. In the spirit of leaving minimal impact, choose to use already disturbed areas instead of create a new one. Keep your fire small. Collect dead wood with a diameter no larger than your wrist. Never cut down live tree branches. And please clean up the remains of your fire after putting it out. Do not leave a pile of trash in the middle of the fire ring. Pack it in, pack it out.
  2. Build a mound fire. To build a mound fire, lay down a fire-resistant cloth on the ground. Ideally, locate your fire on top of rocky soil and not in the middle of a lush meadow. Gather mineral soil from a previously disturbed area, such as beneath the root mass of a fallen tree or in a dry streambed. Mineral soil is soil that does not contain a lot of organic matter. Create a 3-5″ high mound on top of the ground cloth and flatten out the top. Build your fire on the mound. After enjoying your fire, completely extinguish it and scatter the ashes away from your campsite. Try to make it look like no one had a fire there.
  3. Use a fire pan. If you’ve got the space, carry a fire pan with you into the forest.  The fire pan’s sides should be at least 3 inches high. Adding a mound of soil to the pan as described above will help insulate the ground from the heat of the fire. As before, fully extinguish your fire and scatter the ashes.
  4. For more tips on building a Leave No Trace compatible fire, download this informative .pdf from the Forest Service.

An unnecessarily large fire ring.

Oh, and one more thing: always completely extinguish your fire before leaving it! It’s the most important thing you can do to minimize your potential impact on the land and people.

In case of emergency

If you are stranded overnight, cold, lost and in an emergency situation, then build a fire! Consider your health and safety as well as the health of the environment. Of course, be mindful that your fire doesn’t set off a forest fire, but if you need to create a fire ring on a previously undisturbed area to get through the night, by all means do that. Keep in mind that Plan Ahead and Prepare is the first LNT principle, and that should prevent you from needing to spend an unexpected night in the woods in most cases.

Questions about anything you read? Leave a comment! I’d love to hear more about how you practice Leave No Trace.

LNT: Leave what you find

This is part 4 of a 7 part series exploring the why’s and how’s of practicing the seven principles of Leave No Trace.

The fourth principle, leave what you find, refers to minimizing your impact on a space by leaving it as it is, not removing plants, animals or artifacts. Here’s an exception: remove all the trash you want! (See principle 3)

Hiking in Capitol Reef

Why leave what you find?

I was out hiking with my husband in Capitol Reef National Park a few years ago. As my eyes were scanning side to side, taking in the beautiful desert scenery, his eyes narrowed in on a small rock in the trail. He stopped to pick it up and said “hey, look: an arrowhead!” He has a crazy superpower in that he can find these things anywhere. It was a cool moment where we observed the shape of the stone and he taught me a few things that he’d learned in high school about Native American crafts. I took a picture and then he bent down to replace it on the trail. The next sharp-eyed visitor will have the opportunity to see that arrowhead.

If we’d decided to pocket it and keep going, then no one else would be able to have that moment of discovery. And the arrowhead would probably be shoved into a box in the garage, never to be looked at again. This is just one example of how one small decision can impact visitors looking for their own cool experience.

This principle applies both to human artifacts and living plants. Taking flowers, cutting live branches, carving initials into trees and other acts that disturb living things are not advised in the spirit of leaving a minimal impact on the environment.

How to leave what you find?

Find a pretty flower? Take a picture.

It is human nature to want to leave our mark on things or to take mementos home from our travels. But it’s now easier than ever to grab your smartphone and snap a photo of the cool things you discover while out exploring public lands.

Also, consider how your campsite alters the landscape. After packing up your belongings, try to disguise your presence by brushing over tent areas with sticks and leaves. Block off any inadvertent user trails you may have created during your stay. Make the area look as it did before you arrived.


Navigational cairns

Historically, cairns have been used as navigational tools. They are stacks of rocks that mark trails and routes across the landscape. Cairns are often seen above treeline, where there is no other way to mark the trail. In poor conditions, these rocks are incredibly helpful to hikers who need to find their way.

But another type of cairn exists: the decorative cairn. Often they are made in large clusters. Some people find them artistic, beautiful, charming. Others see them as disruptive, ugly, unnecessary. I find myself in the latter group. While I am grateful for cairns marking a difficult to follow path, I abhor cairns that are placed there to “enhance” the landscape. When I go out to explore a wild place, I most enjoy seeing little to no evidence of other people having been there. So, if you like to build cairns, I’d like to offer you a compromise: build cairns to your heart’s desire, take all the photos, post to Instagram, satisfy your creative needs. But, before you leave, dismantle your artwork. Return the rocks where you got them and move on. Then you and I can both enjoy the wilderness in our own way.

A legal note

The Leave No Trace Principles are suggested guidelines, not laws. But it’s important to note an exception here.

Native American ruin at Wupatki National Monument.

From lnt.org: “Cultural artifacts are protected by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. It is illegal to remove or disturb archeological sites, historic sites, or artifacts such as pot shards, arrowheads, structures, and even antique bottles found on public lands.”

We have lost so much of our history to people who have raided cultural sites in the past. It is important to preserve this heritage for the generations to come. To read more about this Act, click here.

Questions about anything you read? Leave a comment! I’d love to hear more about how you practice Leave No Trace.

LNT: Dispose of waste properly

Loo with a view

This is part 3 of a 7 part series exploring the why’s and how’s of practicing the seven principles of Leave No Trace.

The third principle, dispose of waste properly, refers to food waste, human waste and garbage. Knowing how to deal with each of these before your trip will help you make responsible decisions about waste in the backcountry.

Why dispose of waste properly?

From a personal experience perspective, it’s disgusting to see trash and human waste on the trail. It takes away from the experience. I have seen it all, from human feces, toilet paper, water bottles, food wrappers, orange peels, dog waste bags, broken tents, the list goes on and on. I even came across a backcountry campsite that had piles of lemon and lime halves all over the ground, like they had a margarita party and left their waste behind! It is unsightly and inconsiderate to leave waste behind.

From an environmental perspective, human and pet waste can contaminate water supplies. Food scraps can train wild animals to come to rely on humans for food or even make them sick. Products like sunscreen, soap, and insect repellent don’t readily biodegrade and can linger in the soil and water. There are many reasons to be mindful of what you may leave behind on a hiking or camping trip.

As the saying goes: “pack it in, pack it out.” And also, “Your mother doesn’t live here. Clean up after yourself.”

How to dispose of waste properly?

In order to manage waste in the backcountry there are some simple things you can do.

Minimize the trash you generate. Carry what you need. Repackage food into zipper bags or reusable containers. Choose reusable water bottles instead of single-use plastic. and fences are put in place to concentrate the impact.

Carry a trash bag and use it. I often re-use the Ziploc bag from my lunch to haul out trash in. Trash includes fruit peels, nut shells, apple cores and other organic matter. Those pistachio shells you just threw on the trail won’t break down for several years. Imagine how cluttered the trail would be if everyone tossed their shells on the ground!

Picking up other people’s trash

Pick up trash you see while out hiking. Take a hint from the Swedes, who turned “plogging“—picking up trash while jogging—into a fitness craze. Since you’ve already got a trash bag in your pack (see the tip above!) it’s easy to grab litter you see along the trail. If you’re concerned about sanitation, like if you see some TP or bandaids on the trail, put on a pair of latex gloves or use the bag as a barrier between your skin and the discarded item. People are less likely to litter in a clean area than an already trashed one.

Wash your dishes at least 200 feet from streams or lakes. Use biodegradable soap, like Dr. Bronner’s, if any. Take the resulting “gray water” from your dishwashing chore and throw it over a wide area. This prevents concentrating human food waste in a small area, which will attract critters.

Pack out Fido’s poo. Dog poop carries viruses, bacteria and worms that can be spread to humans or wildlife. Due to the processed foods pet owners typically feed dogs, their poo takes much longer to biodegrade than the feces of wild animals who are eating a natural diet. There are a number of reasons why packing our pets’ waste out is really important. Read more on the lnt.org blog: There is no dog poop fairy. And those little poop bags you use to collect the poo in? Carry it out. Don’t set it on the side of the trail for later. I’ve seen some dog owners tie the bags to their dog’s collar or doggie backpack. It can be done!

Dispose of human waste properly. This warrants a longer discussion, which follows…

What to do with your poo

You can read entire books on bathroom hygiene in the backcountry. Actually, I recommend you do! How to Shit in the Woods is a great primer on strategies for dealing with waste in a wide range of situations, including multi-day group camping excursions. But here are a few basic principles and strategies to keep in mind.

Urine is much easier to manage than feces. You can pee in the woods just about anywhere. Try to stay 200 feet away from your camp and water sources whenever possible.

Poop can be a messy problem, but only if you’re not thinking ahead. If you’ll be hiking in a forest where there are opportunities to dig a hole and go, you’re in the best possible situation. Pack a trowel for digging a 6-12″ cathole. Poo in the hole, fill it with soil, cover it up and get on your way. If you choose to use toilet paper, bury it deep in the hole or (ideally) pack it out. There are plenty of alternatives to TP: moss, leaves, rocks and snow can do a great job too!

To make your life a bit more comfortable, always carry a hygiene bag in your backpack: Inside a resealable bag, carry some hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and another resealable bag or two. If you use toilet paper you can pack it into a ziploc bag and then use some hand sanitizer once you’re finished. Simple!

In some areas, like popular alpine hiking and climbing areas, there are rules requiring people to pack out their poop. Some agencies will provide a waste kit or blue bag for you to use. Check the local regulations before embarking on such a trip. You can carry your own hard-sided container to transport your used poo bags during your trip. An old Pringles can or plastic container with a lid works just fine. Be sure to label that container clearly!

Feminine hygiene products should always be packed out. Alternatives to disposable products, like the Diva Cup, help to minimize single-use waste in the backcountry.

And one more thing. If you forget your trowel, if you have no waste kit, and you’ve just got to go, please do us all a favor. Find an out-of-the-way place in which to do your business! Nothing drives me crazier than seeing poop right off the side of the trail or piles of TP near a forest campsite. It’s unsanitary, it’s disgusting, it’s thoughtless. Walk off the trail a bit, to a non-desirable location. Scratch a hole in the ground with a stick. Do your thing. Cover it up with leaves, rocks, dirt, whatever you can. And walk back to the trail, reminding yourself to prepare better next time.

If you have questions about how to handle waste in the outdoors, please ask below! Share your stories and strategies. And leave it better than you found it.

LNT: Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

This is part 2 of a 7 part series exploring the why’s and how’s of practicing the seven principles of Leave No Trace.

The second principle, travel and camp on durable surfaces, provides guidelines for choosing campsites and walking paths.

Why travel and camp on durable surfaces?

All people who recreate in the outdoors leave a mark on the landscape. Animals do, too. However, people tend to recreate in very large numbers in specific areas. We congregate around streams, meadows and lakes. We tend not to stray too far from access points like parking lots. We move in groups. All those footfalls make an impact, but the impact is greater on some surfaces than others.

According to lnt.org, “Travel damage occurs when surface vegetation or communities of organisms are trampled beyond recovery. ” Alpine meadows and cryptobiotic soil are not very resistant to disturbance. It doesn’t take much to damage the habitat and once disturbed, it can take years or decades to recover. Rock, snow and sand are typically very resistant to disturbance. You can take huge groups of people hiking across these surfaces and leave hardly any impact.

It is especially important to consider surface durability when camping. Think about your behavior once you set up camp. You set your tent on the ground and spent probably 8 hours per night laying on the ground there. During the morning and evening, you walk all over the terrain surrounding your tent, trampling the vegetation over and over again. Once you establish a new campsite, it could remain disturbed for a long time to come. Each subsequent camper will continue to impact that area, making it nearly impossible to recover. Once established, it is best to continue using that site instead of creating new ones.

How to travel and camp on durable surfaces?

First, understand what surfaces are durable. Trails are created to minimize the impact on a landscape by hikers. They are designed to withstand erosive forces and provide a route through a natural space that receives a lot of visitation. If you stick to the trail, you reduce your impact by restraining your impact to a designated area. Imagine a popular place like Yellowstone National Park. If everyone who pulled up to the parking lot walked off in a different direction, the entire landscape surrounding the visitor center would be trampled and barren. Instead, trails and fences are put in place to concentrate the impact. While trails themselves are an impact on the land, they enable large volumes of people to visit and enjoy an area in a more natural state.

Follow the switchbacks!

Does that mean you should always stay on the trail? No! In places that receive high visitation, or where you specifically see “stay on trail” signs, it’s important to walk on the trail. It’s also important to avoid cutting switchbacks. Switchbacks and other trail design features are used to reduce erosion. Yes, you may shave 30 seconds off your hike time, but you are likely contributing to that trail needing more maintenance in the future. Stick to the trail in high use areas!

Off-trail hiking at its finest.

If you like to hike off-trail, as I do, there are different principles to consider. Where it is allowed, hike off-trail in areas where there are not lots of people. If you are hiking off-trail in a group, try not to walk single-file. Repetitive footsteps in the same line will create a trail of convenience, not design. Unofficial trails can cause damage to the landscape. However, if you’re walking on a durable surface like snow or gravel, you need to be less concerned about dispersing use. The bottom line is: consider the degree of impact you (and your group) is making in that particular area.  Then, make decisions that will both help you achieve your goal and minimize disturbance in an area.

Choosing a campsite that considers this Leave No Trace Principle can be challenging in certain environments. First, check the rules and regulations for the area in which you are planning to camp (see: LNT Principle 1). If there are already designated or obvious campsites, these should be your first choice. Unfortunately, some people choose to make campsites in places where they shouldn’t be, so just because  a site is disturbed doesn’t mean you should camp there. Making camp on durable surfaces is a no-brainer; do this whenever possible. Rock slabs, snowy fields and sandy beaches above high tide line are excellent choices.

A previously disturbed campsite on a durable surface.

In addition, try to use established cooking areas, fire rings and walking routes whenever possible (instead of creating new ones). When you break camp, be sure to clean up all signs that you were there and do your best to naturalize areas you disturbed. Camp like a ninja: make the site look like you were never there…

By traveling and camping on durable surfaces, we can all minimize our impact by concentrating it in high-use areas and dispersing it in low-use areas. What strategies do you use to assess surfaces and reduce your impact?

LNT: Plan ahead and prepare

This is part 1 of a 7 part series exploring the why’s and how’s of practicing the seven principles of Leave No Trace.

If you’ve read any of the blogs on this website you know I’m a HUGE proponent of good trip planning. A thoughtful plan helps reduce your impact on the land, increases the chances of a successful trip, ensures you understand potential hazards and helps you decide what supplies you’ll need on your adventure. Let’s dive a little deeper into the benefits of trip planning and how you can plan ahead and prepare before your next foray into the backcountry.

Why prepare?

According to LNT.org, there are four main reasons that it’s important to plan ahead and prepare. The first reason is for safety. Pre-trip research will alert you to things like trail conditions, weather, environmental hazards and physical challenges you may encounter on your trip.

The second reason is to help you practice Leave No Trace. In order to minimize resource damage, you’ll need to know things like what footwear to bring, whether or not there will be toilets and water sources, if hiking off-trail is allowed, where camping is allowed, etc.

The third reason is to accomplish your goals in a safe and fun manner. Want to get to the top of that mountain? You’d better bring an ice ax and crampons. Want to camp at a pristine, backcountry lake? Hope your group has the navigation skills and fitness to get there. Want to enjoy some solitude in a National Park? You might want to check where the most popular sites are and when/how to avoid them.

Lastly, trip planning is important for you to build self-confidence and to learn more about the place in which you’re recreating. Having a sense of pride in the public lands you go out to enjoy is important both now and in the future. A well-planned trip that goes well and feeds your soul will develop a desire to continue loving and protecting these shared resources.

So with that in mind, what are we waiting for? Let’s plan a trip!

How to prepare?

With the help of the Internet and social media, it’s easier now than ever before to plan ahead and prepare. Once you know where you’ll be headed, who you’ll be traveling with and/or what you want to accomplish, you can do some research. Your research will help you decide:

  • how much food to bring
  • how much water to bring
  • what safety supplies you’ll need
  • what permits you’ll need to secure in advance
  • what clothes and shoes to wear/pack
  • where the trails go
  • what hazards to plan for
  • etc…

With experience, the trip planning process will become more natural and simple to do. For your first trip, keep it simple! Have someone else help you. But please do put some thought in before you go. And, upon your return, take a moment to ask, “What could I do differently next time to be better prepared?”

For more details regarding how to plan a trip, check out my 4-part trip planning series:

1.  Coming up with the idea

2. Making a trip outline

3. Making a packing list

4. Go forth and be flexible

Feel free to share your trip planning tips or questions in the comments. Happy trails!