Landscape in the Bighorns, Wyoming. Leave No Trace can help protect landscapes like this.

Land Ethic 101: Part 3. Leave No Trace

If you’re ready to start developing your own land ethic, it’s helpful to start with a pre-existing framework. For me, that framework is Leave No Trace.

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If you’re still following the land ethic series, you’re probably open to the idea that you should adopt a land ethic in order to better preserve the places you explore and play. I think that’s great and in this post I will introduce — or perhaps reintroduce — you to what I think is the simplest land ethic to adopt: Leave No Trace.

Missed the first two posts in this series? No worries, here are links to Part 1, and Part 2.

What is Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace, or LNT, is an easily understood set of principles that provide simple steps you can take to reduce your impact on the environment. In other words, it’s a land ethic translated into actionable steps. Despite the name, it doesn’t insist on leaving zero traces — largely because that’s impossible — but rather gives seven principles that guide behavior in both the front and back country in order to preserve the outdoors without eliminating outdoor recreation. That’s the Leave No Trace Seven Principles.

Backpacking trip I led in Wyoming, where Leave No Trace was part of the curriculum.
Leave No Trace isn’t about perfection. It’s about taking steps toward sustainability.

Why Leave No Trace is a good starting point.

Leave No Trace is a land ethic that gives you all the information you need to know to improve your interaction with your environment — and the environment — immediately.

But the Leave No Trace Seven Principles, which I’ll share momentarily, aren’t rules or laws. If you don’t follow them exactly, no LNT police will show up and throw you in LNT jail. In fact, it’s less important that you follow these principles perfectly and more important that you just try to follow them to the best of your ability. There is a lot of gray area, and it would be much better for the world if everyone followed Leave No Trace imperfectly than if a few people followed it perfectly.

The Leave No Trace Seven Principles

These seven principles provide guidelines for how you can reduce your impact:

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

Reducing your impact on the wild places where we play is as simple as understanding and implementing these principles.

I’ll explain a bit about each principle, and I know that as you read, there will be times that you may think it’s overkill or not necessary. I just ask that you hear me out, read all of it, and remember that this isn’t about just you or me, but rather about all of us collectively. Keep in mind I’m not asking you to do any of these perfectly — I’m sure not perfect myself. Instead, I’m asking you to consider the value of each one of these principles and think about how you can incorporate them into your practice while in the outdoors.

I’m only scratching the surface of how these principles can be applied. If you want to learn more — and I hope that you do — I encourage you to visit the Leave No Trace site to really dig in.

1. Plan ahead and prepare.

Plan ahead and prepare - people looking over mapsThe good thing about planning ahead and proper preparation — alliteration aside — is that it makes addressing all of the other principles much easier. Planning ahead means that you know the area regulations, you’re aware of the impact that you can have on a location, and you know what steps you can take to prevent or minimize it. You can avoid busy times or high-traffic areas. You’ll be able to prepare by getting all the right permits needed for specific areas, and you’ll have the right gear and sufficient supplies for your outing. It seems simple, but all of this will help you avoid having to make decisions that can impact the area you’re exploring.

2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces.

Travel and camp on durable surfaces. Woman and dog on trailSome surfaces can take more abuse than others. Rocks, for example, can bear a whole lot more impact than alpine vegetation or cryptobiotic soil. Those are two extremes, but there’s an entire range of durability between the two. If you followed the first principle, then you’ll know the area you plan to camp in and what sort of sites you’ll encounter. If you are camping in an area that hasn’t been heavily impacted, you can ensure that you limit the impact that your setup has on the location. If you’re aware of a site that has already been impacted, it may be a viable option to use those areas to prevent spreading additional impact.

When hiking, you can prevent impact by staying to the center of the trail. Yes, that might mean getting a little muddy, but if we all avoid the mud in the center of the trail, eventually we just spread the trail out, leading to erosion and more mud. Use existing trails and don’t cut switchbacks. When in the back country, where there may not be preexisting trails, do you best to travel on the most durable surfaces available, and if you’re in a group spread out to reduce the likelihood of accidentally creating a new path.

3. Dispose of waste properly.

Trash on the beach. Leave No Trace Principle, dispose of waste properly is the best way to prevent litter.Dispose of waste properly refers to ALL waste. From your trash to leftover food and dishwater, dog poop and our poop. All waste.

Let’s start with trash. Pack it out. Even if it’s biodegradable — think orange and banana peels or apple cores. I know what you’re thinking. “But Wade, it’s biodegradable, why can’t I just chuck it in the woods?” And that’s a fair question. Here’s your answer.

It can take up to two months for an apple core to decompose, and up to two years for a banana and orange peels to biodegrade. So can peanut shells and other nut debris. This food waste may be natural, but it’s not natural to the location you’re in. Simple solution — if you pack it in, pack it out.

This also goes for human waste. There is an environmentally responsible way to manage human waste in the back country, depending on the situation. In some locations that means burying your waste 6-8 inches deep, 200 feet away from your camp, trails, and water. In other environments, it means using what’s called a wag bag — which enables you to carry your waste out in a sanitary fashion.

Look, I get it, poop is gross and you don’t want to have to deal with it. But that’s the thing — we all have to deal with it, and it’s a whole lot easier to just deal with our own instead of everybody else’s.

4. Leave what you find.

Leave what you find is pretty dang straightforward — don’t go and collect everything of intrinsic value. In fact, don’t collect anything. Think of it as the inverse of disposing of waste properly. If it didn’t come with you, it shouldn’t leave with you.

This is one of the principles that many folks bristle against, and I understand. Who among us hasn’t found a cool rock, an antler, or an interesting-shaped stick and brought it home. But all of these items serve a purpose in their natural environment, and removing them can leave a deficit.

I recognize that these souvenirs can have significant meaning, and though the principle encourages us to leave everything we find, I won’t lie to you. I have taken knappable rocks, antlers, skulls, and wood. I have friends who forage for food, and others that gather herbs and plants to make traditional medicine. I am far from the perfect ambassador of the fourth LNT principle, but again, it’s not about perfection, it’s about operating with an ethic aimed at sustainability.

5. Minimize campfire impacts.

Fire. Leave No Trace Principle, minimize campfire impacts, is the best way to reduce the risk of human-caused wildfires. Unlike the previous principle, pretty much everyone agrees to minimize campfire impacts, in theory. I think just about everyone loves a good campfire, but I’ve never met anyone who wanted to intentionally cause fire damage. Typically when fire damage occurs, it’s done because of ignorance, not malice.

We often think of a campfire anytime we think of camping. But the first thing you should consider is if they’re allowed in the area you’re exploring. Where I live, the Black Hills of South Dakota, there are no fires allowed except in permanent fire rings. When fires aren’t allowed, recognize that it’s for a good reason. You should also consider if you actually need a fire — they’re often not necessary.

If you are going to have a campfire, you should know how to do so safely, and the proper way to dispose of your ash when your fire is out.

6. Respect Wildlife.

Bison are beautiful and relatively chill... But get too close and they will let you know exactly why you should respect wildlife.As I mentioned in the previous principle, I live in western South Dakota, where you can count on a tourist getting too close to a bison at least once every year or two. The sixth LNT principle is about not doing that. Instead, Leave No Trace encourages us to leave animals alone, give them distance, and observe from afar.

One of the number one dangers to animals is getting habituated to humans. Our food is super calorie dense compared to what they eat in the wild, so they are attracted to it. But once they lose their fear of humans, they have no hesitance to approach us, putting them in dangerous situations.

In these ways, the sixth principle is about protecting people from wildlife and just as importantly, protecting wildlife from people.

7. Be considerate of other visitors.

There are a lot of us that love to play outside, which means that we’re going to have to share space, even if not at the same time. It’s important that we don’t infringe on the enjoyment of others — after all, we ALL “own” our public lands, and we all have the right to them.

That means you should turn off your Bluetooth speaker, or better yet, lock it in the car. If you need music to enjoy yourself, they make headphones for that very reason. Give people space, and remember voices carry. You know what else can be heard from a long way away? Dogs barking. It’s something that I am constantly working on with Inkling and Ollie, because it’s vital to me that they don’t disturb someone else’s enjoyment of the great outdoors if I can possibly avoid it.

Being considerate isn’t very difficult. It comes down to thinking about how what we do will affect others.

Wait really?

Right now, there are some of you that have read this material and you’re thinking this a little over the top. Sure, don’t litter, don’t catch the forest on fire, that makes sense. But not taking a cool rock or an antler home as a souvenir? Carrying out poop? Isn’t this a little much?

Leave No Trace isn’t about absolutes

I’m a big advocate of LNT, but as I said previously I am not a perfect adherent to the principles. Nor am I suggesting that we all should be. I want you to consider the Leave No Trace Seven Principles and think about why they exist, how they protect the environment, and how you can apply them to your own adventures.

Then I want you to use them as a framework for developing your own land ethic.

Backpacking trip to the Bighorns, Wyoming
Leave No Trace is a great starting point, but I encourage you to develop your own land ethic.

Developing your own land ethic

It is my opinion that the Leave No Trace Seven Principles should be used this way. It can be helpful to think of them as rules at first, but as we learn more about the environments we explore, how we interact with them, and what our lifestyles include, we may find that we shape our own land ethic. My friends who forage wild foodstuffs and plants for traditional medicine have their own land ethics that involve sustainable harvesting practices, removal of invasive species, and avoiding the native plants still used by the indigenous inhabitants of the areas in which they reside. That isn’t perfect LNT, but it is a viable, sustainable land ethic in my opinion.

The goal isn’t to do everything perfectly — in fact, that’s not even possible. It’s to do things well, to do them better. Using Leave No Trace as the example; it’s better to have the majority of folks doing LNT imperfectly, perhaps even poorly, than it is to have a tiny group of folks doing it perfectly.

I’m not asking anyone to be perfect. I’m asking everyone to try a little harder, to do a little better, and most importantly, to actively think about the impacts that we have on the places we love. Exploring and adopting a land ethic is, in my opinion, one of the most effective ways to do that. Leave No Trace, even when executed imperfectly or when used as a framework, is one of the best land ethics to get started with.

Click here to learn more about LNT and how you can implement the Seven Principles.

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