Leave No Trace
If you are reading this, it is likely you are a big fan of the outdoors like I am. Any chance you get you are dashing for the trails, right? When we do get the chance, we go to nature for various reasons. Maybe it is for the peace and quiet or to de-stress after a long week at work. Perhaps we go there to get in touch with our true selves, for a challenge to see what we are made of, or it could be simply for some sweet views atop a favorite peak. Whatever the reason, I think we can all agree that when we do go, we want to experience pristine forests, bogs, rivers and summits. With the rise of the outdoor community on social media, more and more people are turning to nature and hitting the trails for this pristine wilderness experience. What is often not shown on social media is all that is left behind by visitors. I have struggled with sharing and exposing beautiful places on social media because it draws the masses, and with that comes trail erosion, trash left behind and the issue of human waste in the back country. Everyone should have the opportunity to receive what nature has to offer, so instead of walking away, I choose to use this platform to remind people of back country etiquette and the seven principles of Leave No Trace. After all, everyone that steps into nature has a duty to be a steward of the land.
I would like to tell a little story about an experience backpacking a few summers ago, but let me first say that I am not an expert, and at one time, I did not know what Leave No Trace meant. I did my research though, and it made sense.
So most of my hiking is done in the Adirondack Park in New York State. Two summers ago, my guy and I decided we were going to hike into the High Peaks Wilderness for a three day excursion. We would be starting at the Upper Works trailhead with the hopes of grabbing a designated campsite at the Uphill lean-to area. It was a warm summer day, and after three miles in we decided we were going to filter some water at the Calamity Brook crossing. After a quick rock hop across the stream, we stopped for a snack and to filter that water. The first thing we noticed was an illegal camp within 10 feet of the water and the trail. The worst part was the stench of human waste. People had been using a spot approximately five feet from the stream as a toilet. Toilet paper was strewn about, and when I stepped off trail I stepped in human poop. This is not the kind of experience you are looking for three miles into the woods. Needless to say, we did not filter water there. I later learned that this camp had been abandoned and some good samaritans carried out all of the junk left at the illegal campsite.
So with this in mind, there are so many easy things we can do to make a difference and adhere to the seven principles of Leave No Trace. I could cut and paste for you here, but instead I would like to give you some practical examples and a few tips I have learned along the way.
Plan ahead and prepare:
When we decide to go for a hike or a backpacking trip we gather the essentials. Food, water, weather appropriate clothing, map/compass etc. It is also important to know the rules and regulations of the area. In New York, the Department of Environmental Conservation has rules and regulations that need to be adhered to, especially in the High Peaks Wilderness. For example, know where you are allowed to camp. If not a designated site or lean-to, know your land classifications and the 150 foot rule, which dictates that you camp no closer than 150 feet from any body of water, trail or road.
Additional ways to plan ahead and prepare are to hike in small groups to minimize impact and choose alternative hikes when trails have been determined to be in poor condition. Every spring we deal with mud season in the north east at just about the same time everyone is itching to get out on the trails after a long winter. When the DEC sends out their notice that trail conditions are poor, let the trails heal and choose another hike. It will be there for another day.
One of my favorite ways to minimize trash on the trails is to bring my water filter and Hydroflask. This way I am not carrying Aquafina or Polar Spring bottles that are poor for the environment. I have found that Hydroflasks keep mountain water cold, and you know, nothing is worse than warm water on a hot hike.
Travel and camp on durable surfaces:
Stay on the trails is this principle in a nutshell. If the trail is muddy, walk right through that mud. Veering off trail to avoid getting dirty further erodes the trail and causes unnecessary herd paths. With a good set of gaiters, mud is no problem.
When camping in the back country, designated sites are always the way to go, but we know that is not always possible. If this is the case, be sure you know the rules and camp where your tent and your feet will not destroy fragile vegetation. We camp with hammocks so our footprint is less visible. That is a bonus for you too because you don’t have to worry about roots, rocks or mud.
Dispose of waste properly:
This is a big one, and one that seems like common sense. Still we all have seen the occasional cliff bar wrapper, toilet paper pile or plastic water bottle on the trail. It is simple. If you bring it in, make sure you are bringing it out. Check and double check. I also like to bring an additional garbage bag to pack out anything I find left behind by others. Unfortunately this includes kindness stones. The message is nice, but they do not belong in nature. Don’t bring them in and carry them out when you find them.
As for those times when nature calls, we should always try to locate a privy. If that is not a possibility, it helps to bring a small shovel along with the toilet paper. Dig a cat hole 6-8 inches deep and 200 feet from any trail or water source and cover when finished. Anyone who has hiked in the Adirondacks has seen the “Dig It” signs. I beg you to dig it. Your fellow hikers and their boots will thank you.
Something I recently read about, and found pretty interesting, was a suggestion that we should be urinating on bare ground or rocky surfaces. This is because there is salt in urine, and animals are drawn to it for that salt. They are known to dig up and/or strip vegetation to get to it. So to save the plants, pee on a rock. It’s that simple.
Leave what you find:
We have all heard or maybe even quoted, “Take only memories, leave only footprints” on Instagram. Basically, don’t collect rocks, don’t pick flowers, don’t carve your name in trees. It’s as simple as leaving every place you go just as you found it (unless you are improving it by picking up trash). This also includes cairn building. There is a whole bunch of science that brings to light the organisms that are disturbed in the building of a cairn. Additionally, building cairns can confuse hikers that are following them along a summit trail. Leave the cairn building to professional trail crews and save an organism today.
Minimize campfire impacts:
Obviously campfires can cause huge devastation to wilderness areas. This is witnessed by the recent wildfires in the Pacific Northwest and California. In the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness, campfires are prohibited, so we carry an MSR Pocket Rocket stove to cook with. It is super efficient, fast and while not having a campfire when camping seems illogical, the wilderness is better off without it. Where campfires are allowed, use only designated fire rings or pits, burn only small firewood that is already down and always make sure fires are completely extinguished before leaving. Seems like common sense right? I have come across more than one lean-to or campsite with fires burning and not a human in sight.
This is a principle that is close to my heart. After all, we are in their sanctuary. First and foremost, do not approach wild animals and PLEASE do not feed them. I have seen so many pictures of people feeding deer, birds, pine martens and fox on social media. It may seem cute, but the impact that this has on the animals is enormous. The DEC lists the following as reasons to avoid feeding wildlife:
- Wildlife feeding threatens human and animal safety
- Wildlife feeding leads to wildlife overabundance
- Wildlife feeding can promote the spread of diseases.
- Wildlife feeding may cause malnutrition in wildlife
- Wildlife feeding leads to the unnatural behavior of wildlife
- Wildlife feeding is illegal for deer, bear and moose in New York State
I urge you to research these points.
I grew up camping at Rollins Pond Campground. Anyone who has camped there or at Fish Creek Ponds knows that the ducks make their rounds from campsite to campsite every morning at breakfast and at dinner time. The campers find this adorable and send their children to throw bread, potato chips or Cheetos to the ducks. This food is horrible nutritionally for the ducks and makes them reliable on humans, not to mention they lose their fear of people. What do you think happens to these ducks during duck hunting season? Not a great thought.
We often don’t think of protecting wildlife when we camp as it pertains to our food, but a way we can do this while backpacking is to carry bear resistant canisters. It may even be the law in some areas. Not only will you keep your food safe if a stray bear walks through camp, but the bears will then return to looking for natural food that is better for them nutritionally, and they are less aggressive toward hikers and campers in the long run.
Be considerate of other visitors:
This should be the simplest of all the principles, but sometimes people need to be reminded to respect other hikers and campers. It is great to have fun with your group, but keeping the noise to a minimum is advantageous to other people as well as the wildlife. Yield to others on the trail, move aside to let faster hikers pass and please leave the music at home unless you use ear buds. You are in nature to enjoy nature. Don’t you want to hear and experience nature and leave the tunes for the car ride home?
Many of us hike with pups, so we cannot forget about their trail manners. Anything mentioned above applies to trail dogs as well. Always clean up their waste by either burying it or bagging it and carrying it out. Ziva wears a pack so she can carry it out herself, as well as help carry out any trash we find left behind. I like to think this makes her feel like she has helped. Also, make sure your pup is under control around other people, other dogs and do not let them chase or otherwise disturb the wildlife.
So all of this is pretty simple right? All it takes is a little bit of research and some thought to reduce our impact on the land and on wildlife. Not only is it important for the survival of wildlife and ethically important to leave earth pristine for future generations, but think about losing our wild places because we did not respect and take care of them. For example, I have visited numerous places recently that have been restricted and posted because people left hoards of trash and blocked roadways with their vehicles. If we are a little more conscientious of our impact on nature and follow the seven principles of Leave no Trace, we will all be able to continue visiting our wild pristine places for as long as our feet can carry us there.
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