This blog was written by Maria Camargo of Humbled By the View
Spiderman says that with great power comes great responsibility. So what does this mean in the context of recreating outdoors? If you find yourself in a place of privilege and have the ability, the means, and the “power” to spend time outdoors, then you also have the responsibility to inform yourself on how to leave the least impact possible when doing so. Whether you’re an outdoor enthusiast, or simply like to hit the trail for a workout from time to time, you should hold yourself accountable for protecting public land so others can enjoy it for years to come. Leave No Trace is more than picking up your snack wrappers from your hike, and it’s time we all understand why.
I want to take this time to name that although I consider myself to be passionate about both the outdoors and sustainability, I haven’t always gotten this right. I’m not an expert in leaving no trace and I make mistakes all the time. However, I own my responsibility to stay educated on what I can do and educate those around me to the best of my ability to be as environmentally conscious as possible. And that’s what I hope you will get out of reading this blog post.
The History of LNT
You’re probably (at least I hope) reading this because the outdoors lights some fire inside of you and you’re intrigued on how you can do your part to take care of it on your every adventure. In this post, I’m going to attempt to take the mystery out of leave no trace (LNT) principles to make responsible recreating a critical aspect of your next outing.
But first what is it? LNT started in the 1960’s when the US Department of Agriculture began promoting a minimum impact camping message: “pack it in, pack it out.” The idea was that everything you brought with you should be taken out. It was a simple slogan to try to mitigate human impact on public land. The message developed into Leave No Trace when there was a realization that there is much more to minimizing your impact than picking up your granola bar wrapper.
In 1993, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the National Park Service (NPS) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service came on board with LNT as a universal way to encourage people to minimize outdoor impact. Educational programs were implemented, signage was made, and park rangers informed guests of their responsibility to maintain public land. Soon after that, the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics became a non-profit organization dedicated to minimizing impact on public lands. The intent rooted within LNT-style programs is to raise awareness, reduce depreciative behaviors, increase knowledge, influence attitudes, and enhance visitors experience.
How do I do it?
So now that we’ve got the history of Leave No Trace locked down, what are the Leave no Trace principles and what do they mean? There are 7 official Leave No Trace principles as outlined by LNT.org, and they are:
Although some of the principles seem self-explanatory, there is usually an explanation or example required to fully understanding the intent of each principle, and that’s why we’re here. Research has found that backcountry recreationalists (probably) have a better grasp of the LNT principles and therefore implement them more frequently and effectively than front country recreationalists. However, the majority of public lands visitors are guided to front country areas (defined as areas easily accessed by car that are mostly utilized by day users) so it’s important that everyone, no matter what their adventure will look like understands what it truly means to Leave No Trace.
Plan ahead and prepare and travel and camp on durable surfaces are two principles designed to keep visitors on pre-blazed trails if you will, in order to minimize human impact on delicate surfaces. When you’re on a trail ridden with switchbacks, it’s hot, you’re hungry, and your legs hurt, it can be awfully tempting to cut the switchbacks to get to your end destination just a little bit faster. What most people don’t know, is that this shortcut can cause erosion, substantially damage or even kill fragile plantlife. This same principle exists for backcountry camping, and if there is no predetermined campsite it’s your responsibility as a conscious camper to scope out durable surfaces to set up. I grew up in Maryland where most trails are marked clearly, but as I’ve began to explore more out West it’s common for even the busiest trails to be unmarked. This is where you’ll need to plan ahead by bringing a map, examining the trail ahead of time, or using an app like AllTrails to stay on pre-existing trails to avoid negative environmental effects.
Leave what you find is simple. That cool rock looks way better in the wilderness than your kitchen table.
Minimizing campfire impact is most effectively implemented by minimizing campfires. If you are staying at a campground and there is a fire pit or a fire ring, utilize it responsibly making sure the area is cool to the touch before leaving. In the backcountry where things can get out of control quickly, especially in drier environments, it’s best to avoid fire altogether (especially if it’s prohibited, integrity folks). Camping technology is so advanced that there is no longer a need for a campfire for survival. Although it can be warm and cozy and contribute to the experience, it’s a short term benefit to your experience versus a long term benefit to the environment.
Research shows that the two least understood principles of Leave No Trace are dispose of waste properly and be considerate of others. As I mentioned before, at some point throughout the last 80 years, a misconception formed that leaving food scraps behind is an acceptable method of disposing of them because they will eventually decompose. There are two major issues with this misconception. The first is, the word “eventually” holds a heavy meaning in this context. In some places it can take up to millions years for food scraps to decompose. The second is that outside food poses an extreme danger to wildlife. When wildlife consume “human” food, they quickly become dependent on being fed and lose their ability to fend for themselves that often leads to a sooner death. So try to think twice before you or someone in your party wants to leave behind their orange peels.
Be considerate of others seems to be the most loaded principle of all. There’s so much to untangle to truly understand this principle but the easiest way to understand and implement is to use a reasonable person standard. Empathy in the outdoors is vital for you, your fellow adventurers, and the land to have an optimal experience. Sometimes it’s not that self-explanatory but that’s why there’s articles like this one and first hand accounts to learn! Although it can be fun to carry a speaker while you’re hiking and it’s easy to assume some people love the music just like you (this is something I’ve been guilty of), you’re not really in a place to make that assumption. It’s totally cool if you want to hear music but this is a time to put those headphones in to avoid impacting other people’s experiences. Another example of being considerate to others, is if you have to go, do so a healthy distance off the trail. People don’t want to step in your pee if they can avoid it.
So who’s job is it?
LNT and other sustainable practices are the responsibility of everyone. No one is exempt from the burden our planet is currently facing, so do what you can to stay informed and make easy lifestyle changes both in the outdoors and in everyday life. I challenge you to educate those around you, whether they are your friends or strangers. Most of the time individuals who seek out the outdoors carry strong values, so if they’re ignoring LNT principles it may be out of sheer ignorance that can be combated by your ability to empathetically inform them of the effects of their actions. In addition to being a LNT teacher, do your part in clean up trash or food scraps as you encounter them on the trail. You may not have been the one to drop it, but as soon as you spot it, it’s your responsibility to clean it up.
Many of these principles are the reason a lot of your favorite adventurers on instagram avoid adding a location to their posts. Location services oftentimes attracts an overwhelming amount of people to beautiful, exotic destinations, many of who have no understanding or no intention to practice LNT principles. As I did the reading in an attempt to prepare to write this blog post, I learned that rangers prefer to be educational rather than confrontational when implementing these practices. Return the favor by educating yourself and proactively protecting the land that brings joy to you and leave that opportunity open for generations to come.
Let’s take care of the outdoors the way it takes care of us.