Entering the backcountry in the 21st century demands
responsibility. Many postcard-perfect wilderness destinations in
North America are at risk of being loved to death (or at least
degradation); truly remote, pristine sites are all the more precious in
the context of our never-so-great human footprint. Leave No Trace
(LNT) is a philosophy every outdoors person should adopt.
Naturally, human beings are going to leave some traces
in the woods—when we’re out hunting or fishing, sure, but also simply
backpacking. Comes with the territory—and totally natural. But the LNT
idea about aiming for as light-handed and soft-footed a touch as we can:
an acknowledgment of how human-dominated the planet has become, and how
valuable its less-trammeled corners are.
Awareness lies at the heart of this philosophy, and as such you may well
find that practicing LNT principles deepens your appreciation of the
wild: You’ll pay more attention to the landscape and carry out your
actions more mindfully.
Adopting a LNT protocol is an ongoing learning experience, and a fun,
ongoing challenge, too: Each season and setting demand their own best
practices. Let’s have a look at some of the LNT basics!
Leave No Trace Background
Responsible outdoorspeople have been treading lightly on the land for a
long time, of course, but the USDA Forest Service formalized the concept
of Leave No Trace in the 1960s. The code of outdoor ethics became
higher-profile through the agency’s collaboration with the National Park
Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the National Outdoor Leadership
School (NOLS). In 1994 a non-profit—Leave No Trace, Inc., now the Leave
No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics—was established to
promulgate the practice.
The 7 Principles of Leave No Trace
There are 7 LNT principles, which we’ll list here and draw upon in this
blogpost. We encourage you to bone up on them at the LNT
Center for Outdoor Ethics website as well.
Plan Ahead & Prepare
Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces
Dispose of Waste Properly
Leave What You Find
Minimize Campfire Impacts
Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Trip Planning With Leave No Trace Principles in Mind
The LNT approach begins before you
hit the trail. Consider the size of your party, for instance. A larger
group will, all else being equal, have a greater impact on the landscape
than a smaller one. Of course, weigh the trip-specific benefits of a
particular group size against these LNT concerns.
Packing, too, makes a difference LNT-wise. Keep packaging to a minimum:
That’ll keep the potential of littering to
a minimum. And speaking of, bring along a bag for collecting any litter
you run across in the backcountry—every little bit of cleanup helps.
Don’t forget the Ten Essentials and any additional necessary safety
supplies, of course. If you end up in a tricky situation and require
bailing out, the rescue effort will inevitably have an impact on the
environment. Obviously emergencies happen and your well-being is first
priority, but treat this as just more reason to have basic
wilderness-contingency equipment on hand whenever you head out for
You should also think about contacting the agency responsible for
managing the land where you’ll be recreating and inquire about any
specific LNT concerns attached to it: especially sensitive habitats,
areas closed for restoration, etc.
LNT Travel in the Backcountry
You might not think your hiking boots could pack much of a punch out
there in the wildlands, but they can—and all the more of one when
combined with countless other pairs tromping up to mega-popular mountain
lakes or waterfall overlooks.
Stick to established trails whenever possible. Bushwhacking’s wonderful,
but save it mostly for trail-less country rather than well-traveled
places laced with paths. And when we say “stick to the trail,” we mean
it: Be faithful to the tread, even when it means slogging through a
mudhole or clambering over a fallen tree (or four). Enough hikers taking
a detour, and a new side-path is liable to become established,
destroying vegetation and eroding soil.
You’re probably familiar with the sight of rough shortcuts blazed out on
the inside of switchbacks, but resist the temptation to take (and make)
them. It’s remarkable how barren and rutted these bends in the trail can
become over time as impatient folks cut corners (literally).
Hike single-file on trails to help maintain as narrow and well-packed a
tread as possible. When you are off
trail, by contrast, spread out your party so that no single
cross-country route gets too hammered.
Trekking off-trail requires strategic, moment-by-moment LNT awareness to
account for the relative sensitivity of different plant communities.
Bushwhackers should favor snow, sand, gravel, talus, bare rock, and
other non-vegetated substrates. (In the American Southwest, though,
learn to recognize—and avoid walking on—fragile biological
soil crust.) In general, grass tends to be hardier
underfoot than forbs or woody vegetation. Try not to hike through wet
meadows or lakeshore reeds/sedges. Whether the herb beds of a subalpine
forest or the wildflower gardens of timberline parks, minimize trampling
of high-country groundcover, which after all has only a smidgen of a
growing season in which to do its thing.
Leave No Trace Camping
The same advice about traveling on durable surfaces and keeping off
sensitive groundcover applies (and then some) to camping. A poorly
situated and maintained campsite can really degrade a particular
microsite and leave marks that may last years, even decades.
Your approach to LNT camping should definitely be situational. In many
backcountry areas, primitive campsites established long ago exist, and
in general you should use them instead of founding new ones. This may
often be the best practice even when one of these existing sites lies
closer to waterways and trails than the recommended 200-foot buffer.
When trying to minimize our collective footprint out in the wilderness,
it usually makes sense to use the footprint already there rather than
If you are adopting an existing user campsite, don’t be surprised to
find evidence of less-LVT-savvy campers who’ve come before. In that
case, be a Good Backwoods Samaritan and pack out the trash.
If you come across a more freshly or lightly used campsite, you may opt not to
use it in the hopes it’ll fade more quickly, and instead responsibly
establish your own someplace else. Don’t camp at a “pristine” spot such
as this for more than one or two nights. When approaching, leaving, or
navigating around the campsite, try to vary your routes so you’re not
scuffing out trails; the same goes for toilet spots—switch ‘em up!
(Don’t worry: We’ll get to that subject
When you’re ready to move on, do your best to return the site to its
pre-camp condition: sweeping away footprints, for example, and covering
tamped ground with leaf litter, duff, or other available natural
Campfires are awesome and have their time and place, but they also have
some obvious impacts: consuming gathered fuel, emitting smoke, leaving
behind charcoal residue. Many LNT devotees forgo wilderness campfires
and go the lighter-touch route with a camp stove.
You can clean cookware and dishware quite effectively with hot water and
elbow-grease scrubbing alone. (You can obviously give your camping pots
and pans a deeper cleanse when you’re back home.) If you do want soap on
hand for certain cleanup jobs, choose a biodegradable variety and use
small amounts at a time. After straining out food particles (which
you’ll pack out), dispose of washwater at least 200 feet from water
sources (and don’t pour it right on plants, you hear?).
(The minimal cleanup required for a Mountain House meal is one reason our
freeze-dried feasts are LNT-friendly, by the way!)
Now to the subject of, err, doing your business. Again, toilet sites
should be 200 feet-plus from water and trails. Try to pee on rock or
dirt rather than herbage; in snow, concentrate it in one spot and then
cover the yellow with the white. When it comes to solid waste, you
should either bury it in a cathole 4 to 8 inches deep or (better yet)
pack it out, double-bagged. (Burying No. 2 isn’t appropriate in
snowdrifts or mineral soil.) Pack out toilet paper, or reach for a
natural substitute instead: leaves (not the poisonous kind, mind you),
smooth stones, or snow being some promising options.
Don’t Forget: You Can Reuse and Recycle Your
Mountain House Pouches!
We really hope it goes without saying, but please pack out your
Mountain House pouches from the
backcountry. They needn’t be simply thrown away back home, either: You
can creatively reuse them, another, broader way to lighten your
environmental footprint. Or, you can recycle
them for free through our partnership with TerraCycle!
A Mountain House pouch can serve as a readymade container for washing
dishes, or for storing small items such as matches, maps, or snacks.
Other LNT Considerations
Give wildlife their space: Don’t crowd or pursue animals for a closer
look or a photo. A creature spooked into flight by your too-close
presence, or even just put on edge and therefore not feeding, is
expending precious energy in the game of survival.
Be cognizant of your noise level: Being too loud disturbs wildlife (and,
of course, detracts from the wildland experience of any other outdoor
recreationists within earshot). Balance this overall dedication to quiet
with safety concerns: You should make plenty of noise in bear country.