Heading out into nature?

Know Before You Go

By Sarah Moore

7 Principles of Leave No Trace

The 7 principles of leaving no trace combined with tips and tricks of knowing before you head out on an outdoor adventure will ensure that you stay safe, you are a steward to the environment, and you help others enjoy nature, too.

These principles help us to respect our earth and the planet we live on and make a commitment to leave it better than we found it. 

#1: Plan Ahead and Prepare

To me, this is one of the most important principles that I think you can promise to practice. Preparing before your trip will make you the most successful person in your adventure. Not only do you have to be prepared with gear, but you have to be mentally and physically prepared. This means being physically fit and aligned with what you’re planning. If you’re less in shape and out of range of what you’re physically capable of doing, you can put yourself and others in danger. Make sure you make SMART Goals and align your wants and needs with how you are doing physically and mentally. 

Always check the weather to plan your gear and before heading out, and understand the risks. If you are caught in a snowstorm or experience an injury in inclement weather, it is harder for rescue to reach you and could take up to days to help you so having the right gear and enough food and resources for emergencies is a critical aspect of knowing before you go.

Not only do you have to be prepared with gear, but you have to be mentally and physically prepared.

If you know you are going to be out of cell or communication service, be sure to notify an emergency contact of where you will be going and when and be sure to also contact that person once you’re back in service. There is nothing more embarrassing than Uncle Jim posting on Facebook that he’s worried about you across multiple channels while you are out having a fantastic time unknowingly causing a lot of alarm and concern.

Set a time and day that you will be contacting your emergency person so if you need help, emergency rescue knows where to start. There are multiple sources for contacting people while you are out of service, too. If you want to ensure that you can reach someone in an emergency or to keep your loved ones in the know, look into buying a Garmin Inreach or a Spot Device. These devices let you send simple messages out via satellite that you’re doing okay and are out in the wilderness having a great time and being safe.

#2: Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

Stay on the trail. Trails are developed to limit the impact from humans on our natural land. High Alpine Country in my local town of Silverton is very delicate to human impact. High alpine tundra can take hundreds of years to repair itself when we damage it. We want to keep our mountains safe and protect the ecosystem by limiting our presence while enjoying our spaces. 

The best terrain to travel on if you do have to go off trail is dry dirt, sand, or large rocks. Traveling on talus or scree limits your impact on vegetation, and will decrease the probability that you will create an additional trail that’s unneeded. Traveling on loose or soft soil is prohibited.

Camping 200 feet away from water is recommended, especially for bathroom needs without any facilities nearby (leave no trace ALSO means taking home your poop!). Try to practice protecting the land even when you are exhausted from a long day. Always try to camp in an area that is designated for camping.

#3: Dispose of Waste Properly: PACK IN, PACK OUT

In many areas around the U.S, catholes are recommended when traveling in remote terrain. Yep. This means you use a small shovel (trowel)and dig a hole 6-8 inches deep and 4-6 inches wide to be able to go #2. Keep in mind the rule from #2 – be away from water and trail and if you can pack it out, that is the preferred method. On many trails, you are not allowed to dig and are required to carry your feces out of the field (National Parks require this). Do not toss used toilet paper into the cathole.  

If you are required to carry out your feces, you can buy a “WAGBAG” from most outdoor shops or local outfitters. I always bring an additional bag that isn’t see through so I can also store my used toilet paper, tampons, or pads.

Lastly, anything you pack in, you must pack out including garbage of all kinds. Wet wipes, toilet paper, candy wrappers, food wrappers, small micro trash, even banana peels! and anything that is not natural to the environment you are in, you must pack out. 

#4: Leave What You Find

This principle is very important to hone in on every trip you go on. It incorporates every principle into one, including pack in, pack out. While you practice and build your camping techniques, it is very important to understand that you should leave everything you find behind that is naturally part of the ecosystem you were in.

It’s tempting to take a rock or pine cone or other elements that would remind you of the beauty that you are experiencing in the world around you. Photos are the only items you should be taking from wilderness and natural areas. Not only do we want to protect the ecosystem, we want to be sure that others can enjoy what you were able to experience, too.

Do not leave evidence that you were camping or hiking in a specific area. An example of a common error that campers and outdoor enthusiasts make is setting up a camp or a hammock with rope around a tree. Many times when setting up a hammock, you unknowingly damage the tree.

#5: Minimize Campfire Impacts

Campfire impacts can drastically change the environment around it within just one use. The following tips and tricks will allow you to leave no trace even if you need to build a fire:

  • Avoid building a fire near rock croppings where black ash and marks will permanently and visibly damage the area.
  • Always check the fire danger before heading into an area that may have “high” restrictions. Each national forest can be different, but always check if it’s an especially dry season. 
bonfire surrounded with green grass field
Photo by Vlad Bagacian

#6: Respect Wildlife

Many people assume that wildlife is usually undisturbed if they are not around. But leaving remnants of campsites in area’s, especially around water can harm their ecosystem that they’ve been living in for years. Camping 200 feet away from all water sources will allow space for animals to come out at night and drink from their source of drinking water.

Do not feed animals and definitely do not try to approach animals in the wild. You could cause safety concerns for yourself and other outdoor enthusiasts. Minimizing your impact on their environment makes sure that everyone stays safe and animals are able to thrive in their natural environment.

#7: Be Considerate of Others

There’s nothing worse than having other groups of outdoor enthusiasts ruin your experience. Always have your pets on a leash when camping or hiking around other groups. If you are going to be in a larger group than usual, always try to camp or hike in an area where it’s not as busy. This will limit the impact while controlling the situations around you. Logistically, try to recreate during times that aren’t as busy and limit your group size if you can. 

Leave your phone alone! If you have cell service, enjoying the wilderness is not the time to get important business done, post to social media, or catch up with Aunt Ida. Being on your phone can be distracting to you and others. This could cause you to unnecessarily be put in danger or injury. Be prepared and embrace the benefits of disconnecting from technology to be fully present in the experience.

person taking photo of raccoon on smartphone in nature
Photo by David Selbert

The 7 principles of Leave No Trace will help all outdoor recreationalists limit their impact in the environment that they know and love. We want to continue to protect our sacred spaces and hold others responsible if they are unable to keep our spaces clean and untouched.

Now that you know…GO!

Get outside!

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7 principles of leave no trace

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Sarah is a Fort Lewis College graduate where she earned her BA in Marketing and Peace & Conflict Studies and is founder of Keeping Women Wild, a women’s outdoor adventure community. Sarah is outdoor education and backcountry guide trained through Outward Bound where she was team lead for mountaineering and climbing expeditions. A year round wilderness athlete, Sarah is AIARE 2 certified and has countless hours of backcountry training and experience including a ski adventure in Japan and and a summit trip to Denali.

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