Leave No Trace is a set of ethical principles designed to help hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts make decisions that reduce their environmental impact. The principles grew out of several US organizations in the 1970s as a result of increased use of the wilderness and national parks, and amplified commercialization of backcountry products and outdoor recreation. This led to the introduction of the international non-profit organization called the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, which provides courses and workshops, and conducts research. National training is provided by Leave No Trace Canada.
The 7 Leave No Trace Principles
Plan Ahead and Prepare
Poor planning can result in making high-impact decisions around camping, meals, and safety. When planning a hike, consider the weather, terrain, and skill level of the participants so that you can select a route or destination that is reasonable. Plan meals around the conditions of the trail and the trail rules and regulations. For example, planning to cook over an open fire and then later discovering that there is a fire ban in effect could set you up for making a poor environmental decision.
Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
When hiking in high-use areas, it is best to stay on the trail. Wandering off the trail damages the environment and can lead to erosion. When hiking in areas where there are no trails, it is best to have your group spread out in order to reduce the risk of creating trails, and to hike on durable surfaces, such as rock, dry grasses, gravel, and snow.
Dispose of Waste Properly
As a small boy, Dad would remind me that if I packed it in, I had to pack it out. Even when we would leave a campsite, Dad would wander around picking up bits of garbage that had been left behind by others. When hiking, it’s best to use the washrooms at the trail head, but when that is impossible, deposit human waste in a cathole that is 15-20 centimeters deep and at least 70 meters from the trail and water. When finished, cover the hole with the soil that had been dug out.
Leave What You Find
It can be quite tempting to gather souvenirs on a hike. Wild flowers, fossils, rocks, and plants can all add beauty to your home. But resist it. If your enjoyment of life requires that you need a permanent record of your hike, take lots of pictures and leave the artifacts and natural objects behind for others to enjoy.
Minimize Campfire Impacts
In this technological era of lightweight stoves and candle lanterns, there is virtually no need to have campfires for cooking and light. But if you must have a campfire, use existing fire pits and keep the fire small enough that you can feed it with twigs that you can break with your hands. When the fire is out and all that is left are cool ashes, scatter them.
When hiking in the Canadian Rockies, I was told by a long-time hiker that if you feed a pika a piece of bread, it will take it to its burrow, where it will eventually rot and destroy the entire food cache, causing the pika to starve to death. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s a good reminder to avoid feeding the wildlife. One of the greatest joys in hiking is observing wildlife. But do it from a distance.
Be Considerate of Other Visitors
This might seem like an obvious ethical principle, but even the best of us can forget our manners, whether it’s being too loud on the trail, or forgetting to consider the privacy of others when taking a break, or even keeping our pets under control. Once, while ascending a mountain trail, I was gently reminded that the proper etiquette in scrambling was to give way to people who are descending, since it was more difficult for them to stop quickly. I appreciated the tip.
I don’t know anyone who loves hiking that doesn’t also care about the environment in which we hike. And no matter how long we’ve been hiking, there is still more we can learn about reducing our impact on the trails we love to frequent. Enjoy the environment. Enjoy the trails. And leave no trace.