Breaking Down the Basics of Leave No Trace

The off-the-charts level of outdoor recreation seen across much of the country last year on account of the pandemic—a dramatic spike in the steadily rising popularity of the pastime—underscored just how critical Leave No Trace (LNT) ethics are. We’ve all seen those beaten-down tarns and whitewater riversides suffering from the whole “loved-to-death” routine. Now more than ever, there are no excuses for not thinking seriously about your own impact on the landscape when you lace on those hiking boots, pump up the bike tires, or butterfly-coil that climbing rope.

The go-to resource for beefing up your LNT skillset is the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, so we recommend hustling over there for a refresher course (especially if you’re drawing a blank recalling any of the mantra-worthy LNT Seven Principles). To set the stage, though, we’re going to sketch out the low-impact lowdown in this post and parse out some LNT subtleties for good measure.

Doing Your Homework

Best LNT practices depend a lot on location. They vary from ecosystem to ecosystem: desert vs. forested mountains, for example. And they can vary depending on how much visitation an area receives (which we’ll get more into later). So research your destination ahead of the time, getting a sense for its popularity, the ecological communities you’ll be recreating in, and current conditions.

A man and a women looking at a map that is laid over over a rock on top of a mountain. Be sure to do your research, understand the area, and learn how you can leave no trace before heading out on your adventure.

Do the Durable

A defining tenet of LNT is sticking to durable surfaces when traveling outdoors. When trekking cross-country or setting up camp, favor whenever possible such substrates as gravel, sand, bare rock, and snow: surfaces only lightly or temporarily impacted by foot traffic, and where you’re likely to leave behind either little sign of your passage or evidence that’ll melt out or naturally dissipate in short order.

If you have to walk or camp on softer groundcover, duff and dry grass tend to withstand impact better than moister grass; grass in general is hardier underfoot than woody shrublets. Especially vulnerable vegetation includes wet meadows, riparian zones, and alpine meadows and tundra. Unless you’re camped on exposed rock or sand, move your tent every night or two to lessen impacts on groundcover.

In drylands, learn how to recognize and avoid stepping on cryptobiotic soil crust: communities of cyanobacteria, lichen, and other organisms that form a blackish, living skim over bare ground.

You should avoid mud, puddles, and pools when hiking off-trail. If you encounter muck or standing water on the trail, though, walk through it rather than detouring around.

Single File vs. Fanning Out

Speaking of trail-hiking, stick to the middle of the tread (again, even if it’s gloppy), which demands that a group tramp along single-file.

But single-file’s a no-no when hiking cross-country in a group: More feet over the same patch of ground results in greater damage to vegetation and soil, and furthermore increases the likelihood that a visible user trail will be stomped out and tempt later visitors to follow.

 

Group Size: Small But Sweet

All else being equal, it’s better to foray into the backcountry in smaller groups. Large parties can’t help but have a bigger impact on the landscape, even if everybody’s conscientious—and, mathematically speaking, the probability of one or two less-than-conscientious members increases with group size. There’s also inevitably the ramped-up noise factor.

If you’ve got a big crew, consider recreating in a more developed or well-used area with established group sites.

Two people walking on a dirt trail through a forest. Minimize your impact by traveling in small groups.

 

Trail Etiquette & Right of Way

Knowing how to share the trail with other users is also part of a LNT approach. Stepping off-trail should be kept to a minimum to prevent erosion and trampling, so know basic backcountry right-of-way: Hikers and mountain bikers alike yield to horses, mules, and other stock, while mountain bikers yield to hikers and downhill hikers yield to uphill ones.

That said, some LNT-savvy hikers yield at an appropriate spot regardless of whether they’re going up- or downhill on the off-chance approaching hikers don’t know the protocol, which can lead to the trail version of chicken and last-minute sidestepping onto fragile groundcover.

Speaking of, if you are giving way and you need to step off the trail to provide enough room or avoid frightening stock, be careful where you place your feet and choose a spot where you’re stepping on a durable surface such as a trailside rock, or at least on the least amount of vegetation as possible.

Keep your party’s noise to a minimum, too, when trail-hiking. Making too much noise detracts from the experience of other outdoor users; more importantly, it can disturb wildlife within earshot (and many critters have keen hearing, needless to say). An exception is when making more noise is required for bear safety, as when you’re passing through dense vegetation or paralleling a loud creek or river.

 

Gauging an Area’s Level of Use to Strategize Your LNT Approach

A sign that reads Words to live by when venturing outdoors. Image via Dan Gold

One of the challenges of LNT is assessing how impacted the area you’re recreating in already is. How you should travel and camp in a well-used area vs. a remote, comparatively little-visited one differs.

You’ll usually have a heads-up on how popular an area is based on word-of-mouth and doing your homework. But some less-publicized wildlands are nonetheless pretty well loved by locals or hunters, so always be on the lookout for signs of previous use. Areas of medium to high human impact will tend to come laced with user trails or “manways” off official paths and also feature obvious dispersed campsites, many with long-used fire rings. In such contests, favor well-established user trails when traveling cross-country and adopt existing sites (and existing fire rings) for your camps. This concentrates outdoors users’ presence in popular stomping grounds, making it more predictable for wildlife and overall limiting the human footprint.

Other areas are more “pristine,” with little visible evidence of previous recreational use. Naturally try to maintain that pristine look as much as possible, which ideally means camping only a night or two in any one spot and either eschewing campfires altogether (ideal) or using a mound fire, fire pan, or other LNT-friendlier option. Many remote, off-trail areas could best be classified as “near-pristine,” with light signs of human activity. In such near-pristine landscapes, avoid using any barely established manways or campsites in the hopes these will naturally recover.

 

For Everything There is a Season

When you decide to hit the trail makes a difference, LNT-wise. Generally speaking, when planning visits to popular outdoor destinations avoid peak visitor days (weekends, holidays) and, better yet, aim for the “off-season.”

But in some places, shoulder or off seasons mean tougher and potentially more fragile trail conditions. In northern and mountain country, spring can be a genuine slop-fest—and not just in the “mud-season” realm of New England. (Depending on location and seasonal severity, winter can be a plenty muddy time to hike or bike as well, not least in the maritime Pacific Northwest.) Muddy trails are prone to experience extreme erosion, so consider routing your hike away from gloppy lowlands and favor drier, more sun-exposed trails versus shady, heavily snowmelt-impacted zones. High-use paths with packed-down treads are generally better.

Sometimes the best choice for the height of the snowmelt/mud season is hiking on closed roads, rail trails, and other paved or gravel surfaces.

Another serious calendar consideration: Respect seasonal closures related to wildlife activity, such as nesting birds or important bear-feeding areas.

 

LNT for Different Activities

An outline of a bike in the dirt. LNT principles apply to every kind of outdoor activity. Image via Martin Dinse

The core fundamentals of LNT look pretty similar across different forms of outdoor recreation. Keep the main principles in mind and adapt them for your activity. For example, climbers should use established access trails or otherwise make approaches on durable surfaces, which also should be where you stage your gear.

Mountain bikers should wash their bikes before hitting the trail to avoid transporting weed seeds; paddlers should do the same with their boats to minimize the chance of spreading invasive species.

And hey: Make sure your activity is allowed in the first place. If it’s not, there’s a good chance land managers have deemed it too impactful on local natural resources.

 

Knowing Your Limits & Practicing Common Sense

Biting off more than you can chew when it comes to outdoor recreation and failing to effectively gauge risk can both potentially shake out to a bigger, more destructive impact on the landscape. For one thing, poorly prepared or less-aware outdoor enthusiasts are more likely to find themselves in potentially life-threatening situations, and LNT practices and ethics often go out the window in such situations.

Furthermore, if you end up requiring outside aid—sometimes unavoidable, but very often not—search-and-rescue operations may necessarily have a heavier footprint on the ecosystem in the process of extracting you.

 

Upping Your LNT Game, Always & All Over

What we’ve covered above is basically a series of miscellaneous LNT principles. Again, check out the LNT Center for Outdoor Ethics for more comprehensive coverage. And, before the fade, here are two things to remember: 1) LNT is just as applicable in the frontcountry as the backcountry, and 2) it’s a lifelong practice you can always continue honing with every fresh adventure.

Written by Ethan Shaw for Matcha in partnership with Osprey Packs.

Featured image provided by Dan Holz