How to “Leave No Trace” When You Hike

The best hikers leave no trace of their passage — but sometimes doing so takes a little more effort than just remembering pick up your trash and pack it back out with you. If we’re not careful, other marks of our passage can linger for years after we’ve gone by.

The “Leave No Trace” ideal is built around seven core principles:

  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

What does that mean for me?

A lot of responsible hiking practices are good safety habits, too. For example, planning your route in advance means you’re able to file a proper trip plan — so if something goes wrong, rescuers will know when and where to start searching for you. The more you know about where you’re going, the less likely you are to get lost.

Respecting wildlife is good for you, too.

Usually that boils down to giving them lots of space and knowing how to read their danger signals. Doing so means you’re less likely to be chased or to accidentally scare parent animals away from their young, and it helps protect your dog (he is on a leash, right?) from getting into critter trouble too.

Here are some other “leave no trace hiking” – specific ways you can be responsible in the outdoors:

  • Bring a digital camera. It’s tempting to pick up a neat rock or cultural artifact (like arrowheads, for example) if you see them, isn’t it? How about picking that unusual plant you saw so someone else can identify it for you. But these small actions together and they make a big impact on your environment, so snap photos of the “neat things” you find instead of carrying them off.
  • Put on your big girl (or boy) boots and walk through the mud. If everybody detours around it, you’re going to wear a new side trail — or trails — into the ground, which often end up expanding the mud patch.
  • Cairns are signposts. Don’t make extra cairns unless you really have to, and don’t tear down cairns that others have left unless you’re absolutely, positively sure that 1) they don’t belong and 2) you won’t be leaving someone stranded without their navigation aid.
  • Hike with a rubber-tipped staff, or bring covers for your metal-tipped trekking poles. Soft ground is usually pretty resilient, but rocky areas can be permanently scarred by unshod metal tips.
  • Pack a few zip-close plastic bags and toilet tissue in your backpack. These are great comfort items for blowing your nose or wiping your fingers after snacking on a messy chocolate bar, but they’re also your saving grace in case you have to make a pit stop.
  • Skip the fire and bring a lightweight stove if you want a hot drink on the trail. Even a small, brief fire can leave long-lasting, unsightly scorch marks on the ground — if a wayward spark doesn’t start a forest fire.
  • Leave mild-mannered wild things alone. Steering clear of big, bad animals that could hurt you is common sense, right? Giving small critters plenty of space should be just as common sense. So don’t feed the squirrels, don’t disturb wild bird nests, and don’t get up in the face of non-scary critters that are just trying to go about their everyday lives. Do observe and enjoy from a prudent distance, though — that’s why you’re out there, right?
  • Leave your iPod and speakers at home. Sometimes, a certain level of trail noise is necessary for preventing unexpected encounters, especially with bears. You want certain wild animals — like bears — to hear you coming with plenty of time so they can get out of your way. Talk, clap, wear bear bells, even sing if you need to — but for pity’s sake, please leave your MP3 player and speakers at home. Leave no sonic trace too, okay?