“Take only memories, leave only footprints.” - Chief Seattle
It seems that since Covid-19 began, more and more people have been drawn to the great outdoors, which is wonderful. I am full-heartedly for people exploring this beautiful earth, as this means future generations will be more dedicated to protecting this amazing planet. And the more people who care about the earth, the more people will want to protect it.
Unfortunately, the principles of Leave No Trace seem to have been forgotten in many places recently, including one of my favorite parts of the eastern Sierra, and this is a problem, as we need to protect our planet. For those of us who have been hiking/climbing/fishing for years, these principles may seem to be second nature. But with this knowledge comes responsibility. We need to be teaching others who are newer to the outdoors and our younger generations these ethics of respecting our planet, our animals, etc. So, I am going to list the seven principles of Leave No Trace to help remind us all how we should minimize our impact on our planet. An excellent resource for this is the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, which I highly recommend reading as they go into further detail. Another wonderful site is PlayCleanGo.org, which teaches you how to stop invasive species in an area, as well as things you can do to not bring invasive species with you.
Here are the 7 principles that can help minimize our impact on our earth. Let’s use them wisely to help our planet stay beautiful and pristine.
1. Plan and prepare:
2. Travel and Camp on Solid Surfaces
• Stay on trails as much as possible. There are a few exceptions to this - like finding a place to use the restroom, remote areas (there may be no trails), or if you’re doing research, one tends to go off-trail a lot. But go off-trail wisely when you do.
• How do you know if the surface is durable? Rocks, sand, and gravel are very hardy and usually do not get damaged by walking on them. Pumice may show footprints for quite some time, so keep that in mind. Snow and ice usually are functional pathways as they are not permanent (unless you are up in the Arctic, the Antarctic, or on a glacier). But take precautions that they are sturdy enough to travel on for your own personal safety. Areas that are vegetated can be challenging and should be avoided if you can. Cryptobiotic crust is a big no-no. Please do not step on it as one footstep can demolish it. As far as small watering areas - please use or step in only if necessary (not talking huge streams or rivers). Water can be a precious resource for many animals, not just us. Avoid it if possible.
•As far as camping, pick durable surfaces as well. You also want to camp 200’(~61m) from water (rivers, lakes, streams) too. This gives wildlife access to water without feeling threatened by you. If an area already looks well worn from previous campers, then use that spot in order to keep the other areas looking pristine. Clean up after yourself when you’re done. You don’t want the next people coming through being disgusted by how you kept your camp. If you’re in an area that is very pristine, plan on keeping it that way! Try to avoid making paths to your water source or bathroom area. When you leave, perhaps naturalize the area, like brushing out your footprints. Remember to leave it better than how you found it.
3. Pack it in, Pack it Out!
Whatever you carry in with you, carry it out as well. Leaving behind trash is not only ugly and unsightly but also can be harmful to the environment. One thing to always be conscientious about is your waste (poop) and your dog’s poop as well. In specific settings, burying feces is very appropriate (forested areas). Other times, like in deserts, narrow river canyons, and climbing big walls, please pack your feces out. You can ask any federal agency in the area what rules they have in that location.
Going poop in nature:
•Stay 200 steps from any water source.
•Hole must be 6-8” deep to bury human or dog feces.
•Always pack out toilet paper unless it can be properly buried in the hole with your feces.
•An elevated site is excellent, as your waste will go into the soil before going into water sources.
•Women - pack out your tampons/pads. Do not bury them, please!
•Plan out your meals so it won’t be overly messy or smelly. Pack out even the bacon grease. Don’t use the fire to get rid of it. Smelly food and waste attracts all kinds of animals and can make the site look gross too. Also if you’re in bear country - don’t sleep in clothes you’ve cooked in! You may smell like a delicious bacon soft taco in your tent to a bear.
•Do not litter! Windy conditions can be tough as light items might blow away. But try your best! Litter can also be deadly to animals. I even found a small fishing hook in my dog’s tail the other day (I have no idea where he got it). Luckily it was stuck in his hair and not in his skin - but it kept poking him, and his tail was getting super sore and needed an antibiotic spray. Imagine if he had been a wild animal, like a deer or a bear. It may get embedded in them, cause an infection, and infections can make an animal very sick (at worst - they could go into septic shock and die).
•Haul out all your trash (even other people’s if you can). Make it a game for your kids to do a scavenger hunt for human garbage.
•Take wastewater 200’(61m) away from any natural water source. Scatter the water. If you’re in bear country, take wastewater well away from camp. Strain the water before dumping the water. Any contents in the strainer pack out. If you’re at an actual campground, ask your host how they want you to dispose of any waste.
•If freshwater is scarce in the area, do not swim or take baths in the creeks or any water source. Your sunscreen, bug spray, etc. can contaminate the water. Even biodegradable soap can affect water quality. So, wash yourself 200’(61m) away from these areas, please.
4. Leave it where you found it!
Whatever beautiful or exciting thing you found on the trail (flower, rock, artifact, petroglyph, etc.), leave it there and don’t damage it! Do you need any more things to carry around? No. You don’t. Just take a photo of it! The only case where it’s acceptable is when you’re doing scientific research, and you are taking samples back to analyze at a lab to help study the formation (age-dating, for example), plant, etc. In most of these cases, one will need a permit to do this. And if this is the case, please remember to take a GPS location from where you take your sample!
Minimize altering the terrain.
•Basically leave an area more pristine than how you found it if possible. If the last person demolished an area - please clean it up if it’s easy for you to do so. If you cannot, please go to the closest authorities to tell them what you found, so a proper cleanup happens.
•If an area already has a proper fire ring, keep it as is.
Please don’t harm the trees and plants.
•Please do not carve your initials into the trees, graffiti rocks, cut tree boughs to sleep on, cut pretty flowers for your loved one, etc. Cutting one flower to give to your girlfriend/boyfriend/kid doesn’t seem harmful–but if everyone does it, then it can be very damaging, and no one else will be able to enjoy those flowers (or whatever you wanted to collect)!
Leave pretty rocks, antlers, and cultural artifacts.
In many places, this is very illegal. The Archaeological Resources Protection Act protects all cultural artifacts and sites (put into law in 1979). Do not disturb any archaeological site or historic site, please!!! Leave it so others can enjoy seeing them too!
Do not damage your surroundings.
Places like Temple Mountain near Goblin Valley have had much damage. Yes, there was natural damage from erosion, but some people decided to use the pictoglyphs as target practice. This is unacceptable, disrespectful, and maddening.
5. Campfires - Do you really need it?
Many people equate camping with campfires. Nothing beats an amazing campfire s’more and haunted stories around the campfire, right? I love campfires too, but there are a few things to ask beforehand:
1. What is the potential for fire in your area?
2. Are there fire restrictions in the area?
3. Is there sufficient wood around to make the fire? Would removing the wood in the area be noticeable?
4. If you bring wood, is the wood native to the area? If not, then do not use it. This is one reason why beetles got so bad in California (one of many). Basically, burn it wherever you buy it. So do not bring your local wood from Arizona into California. Or even firewood from Southern California to the Eastern Sierra. Locals will thank you!
5. Do you know how to build a leave no trace campfire?
If it is appropriate to have a fire due to all of the 5 questions above, then:
A. Use existing fire rings.
B. Know how to properly extinguish a fire. Use water, not dirt (dirt can hide actual lit embers). Do not put fire next to rock outcrops (can leave burn marks). And only keep the fire going when you’re next to it - awake. Don’t fall asleep with the fire going.
C. At the Leave No Trace site, they go into Mound Fires and Fire Pans. I will not be going into detail here, but you can look up on how to do them here. That site also goes into great detail with firewood and cleanup. I highly recommend you utilizing their source.
D. Best yet - use stoves (propane or butane) and not campfires to cook your meals. Yes, that means you have to bring them and then pack them out, but they leave minimal impact on the natural environment.
6. Respect Wildlife!
Wild animals aren’t cuddly cute creatures to hug and take selfies with! They love boundaries! Think of yourself as being that creepy person that smells bad that you yourself don’t want to be anywhere near you – this is what wildlife thinks of us. We are that creepy, smelly person. They will dropkick you or bite you in a hurry if you don’t respect their boundaries. When you are out in the wilderness, you are encroaching on their territory. The wilderness is theirs, not your land to own.
• Do not feed wild animals. They may appear hungry, but not all animals can eat everything you or your dog eats. It also makes wild animals more prone to getting too close to campsites and people in general. And this can get animals hurt or killed, unfortunately.
• Wild animals can carry diseases - so getting close may put you or anyone in your party (including your pets) at risk of contracting a disease, such as rabies. You do not want to get numerous shots to make sure you don’t contract rabies now, do you? There is no actual treatment, and you have to get the shots before you show symptoms. It’s a horrific way to die. Make sure your pets are up to date with their rabies vaccinations as well.
• What if you find a wounded or sick animal? Contact your local authorities (Fish & Game in the USA) to let them know (and if you can, give them an approximate GPS coordinate of its last known location), so they can have an easier time finding the animal and try to help it. If the animal is already dead, let them know as well. In bear country, authorities need to forewarn hikers and possibly blockade a trail if there is a carcass on it (carcasses attract grizzlies, and this can be very dangerous for hikers).
7. Be considerate to everyone.
You want everyone to enjoy nature as much as you do. So be kind to everyone you meet. You would want them to be kind when they see you too. How do you do this?
• Keep as quiet as you can. Not everyone wants to hear your favorite music at the campsite or the crag, nor your conversations. Most people go into the wilderness to listen to nature. There is an exception: bear country (especially grizzly bear country) - talk amongst your group in a way that you don’t bushwhack a bear (bushwhack is a term meaning to scare/startle a bear). If you are hiking alone, like I tend to do - I talk to my dog. But when I start to feel like I can’t talk anymore (Bart is a great listener, but not the best conversationalist), I do put on some music (not too loud - just loud enough I won’t startle a bear. I immediately turn it off though when I see or hear people (or an animal that isn’t a bear). The reason being I don’t want to bushwhack a bear - If a bear attacks because I scared him/her - yes, I could get maimed or killed. But then the authorities may feel the bear is a threat to other humans, and they may track him/her down and put the bear down. I do not want this. So I tend to make noise when hiking in bear territory.
• Keep control of your pets. I bring my dog Bart with me everywhere, but I immediately put him in training, and he got his CGC (Canine Good Citizen) from the AKC in about a year. He rarely barks or makes noise, is kind, listens (sometimes he forgets when there is a squirrel in sight), etc. I mostly keep him on a leash now that he has developed epilepsy unless it’s a very short hike to the base of a crag. If your dog has excellent recall and is not prey-driven, being off-leash is fine. But remember - some people are terrified of dogs, and some dogs on the trail may not be as well trained as yours and may get aggressive with your off-leash dog. Best bet - keep your dog on a leash, respect stock, etc. And pick up their poop if it’s on or close to a trail (sometimes if they did it off-trail, you might not find it). And if you put it in a poop bag, carry the bag out with you. Don’t leave the wag bag on the side of the trail. You may have good intentions to pick it up on the way back. Still, someone else may not know that and pick it up for you (and will be cursing at you for doing so) or you may not see it on the way back (even though the poop bag was bright pink) and you may forget it (this has happened to me before and I felt so bad. So I don’t do it anymore). Again - if you pack it in, pack it out! If you see someone struggling with these ethics with their dogs, see if they are willing to take some advice that helped you with your dog. But, they may not be receptive, so keep that in mind.
• What dog bags do I recommend? Doggy Do Good poop bags. They are vegetable-based (no plastic) and break down within 90 days once they are used. One of my pet peeves of doggy bags is the amount of plastic used, and they solved this dilemma for me. And they are thick, so I don’t worry about tears (can be a big problem on a trail).
• Don’t assume someone with a dog on a trail is inconsiderate or doesn’t understand Leave No Trace. It has happened to me before. I travel in a van part of the year with my dog. So my dog hits the trail and goes to the crag/trail with me as it wouldn’t be safe for me to leave him in the van most of the time. I remember once I felt judged pretty harshly for me bringing him to the crag (I understood, but this person had a lot of assumptions). At the end of the day, this person’s reservations about my dog ceased and she seemed fine.
• If you see a fellow person that needs your help, please ask them what you can do to help them. If you can’t help them safely, please go get help. Help can mean going to the camp host or calling the police, fire department, search and rescue, etc. If they tell you they don’t want your help, then move on.
The basic premise of leaving no trace is to leave an area looking more pristine than how you found it. If everyone does this, our lands will stay looking beautiful, the wildlife will be more content, and generations to come will be able to enjoy our magnificent planet.