How to Leave No Trace in These 5 Different Environments

Leave No Trace (LNT) practices should be pursued in any outdoor destination, from easily accessible front-country to the most back-of-beyond wildlands, as a way of minimizing your impact on the landscape and its ecosystems.

The basic principles provide a firm foundation for responsible recreation wherever you might be going and whatever your activity, but context certainly matters. Along with factors such as an area’s degree of human use and the time of year, that context includes the type of physical and ecological environment you’re striking out into.

In this article, we aren’t running through all the fundamentals of LNT, which you can review in other Osprey posts(Opens in a new window) and over at the Leave No Trace site(Opens in a new window). Instead, we’ll highlight some specific LNT considerations for particular natural realms, from slickrock deserts to mountaintop tundra. We’re presenting this with a North American bias, but these practices can also be applied to analogous environments around the world.

The High Country: Subalpine & Alpine Realms

A landscape view of mountains in Grand Teton National Park(Opens in a new window) The sagebrush, spruce-fir, and stony spires of the Tetons. Photo by Tim Peterson(Opens in a new window)

The lure of the heights draws many recreationists to the mountains—up into the subalpine forests, the timberline parklands, and the alpine barrens and summit rocks. This is tantalizing, beautiful, and frequently forbidding country that’s tough in appearance, but surprisingly sensitive to human use.

Commonly found durable substrate in the high country of western North America—the kind of ground you want to mostly be trekking on whenever possible—includes bare bedrock outcrops, scree and talus, and gravel, sand, and the granitic grit known as grus. In subalpine woods and parkland, route your way over duff, grasses, and sedges rather than brittle woody shrubs and shrublets such as whortleberry, pinemat manzanita, or huckleberry. Avoid as much as possible walking along the marshy shores of tarns and ponds, and steer clear of lichen and moss. Tread lightly or not at all through high wildflower meadows, and step carefully among the herbs and blooms of alpine tundra and fellfields: These high-elevation flowering plants have but a short growing season, and some may stockpile energy over multiple years for their lifespan’s single ultimate blossoming.

Along the lines of New England’s “mud season,” middle and upper mountain zones often experience an extended snowmelt window of mucky ground, ephemeral freshets and ponds, and wildflowers blooming alongside—or even right out of—receding snowbanks and meltwater pools. Footfalls tend to be more impactful during these periods and in these zones: Aim to explore before (upon continuous snowpack) or after snowmelt, or set your sights on lower-elevation backcountry during this period.

Forego campfires in timberline environments, where wood is in short supply and best left for habitat and nutrient release.

Many mountain trails in the American West come thumped by equestrians and pack trains during summer and fall. Hikers (and mountain bikers) should always yield to stock, stepping well off the trail on the downhill side and talking quietly while the animals pass. Spooked horses or mules are not only dangerous to you and to riders, but are apt to beat up trailside vegetation or soil. As with any yielding situation, choose the most durable available trailside substrate when stepping aside for stock.

Contact the appropriate land-management and/or wildlife-management agency before heading into the mountains to learn of any critical habitat in your destination area. From remote grizzly mating zones to high ungulate summer range and calving/fawning/kidding refuges, such habitat—if not officially off-limits—should be avoided whenever possible to minimize impacts on local critters.

And speaking of local critters, be sure to practice bear safety in the mountains (and, of course, anywhere bruins roam); keeping a clean camp and packing out all food and garbage not only protects you and future visitors but also the bears themselves, given animals that learn to seek out people or their campsites for scraps are more likely to be removed—possibly killed—by authorities.

On a similar note, remember that mountain goats have a taste for salt and can be dangerous at close quarters; pee well away from trails to avoid attracting them to these corridors, and don’t leave sweaty packs or clothes outside your tent in goat haunts. Habituated or emboldened “problem” goats may be disposed of in much the same way as “problem” bears, an outcome nobody wants to see.

The Drylands: Deserts & Semideserts

A pink cactus among a desert landscape(Opens in a new window) There’s nothing quite like desert flora. Photo by Katie Polansky(Opens in a new window)

From the hot creosote flats of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands to the slickrock outback of the Colorado Plateau, deserts demand their own special LNT approach. In arid country, footprints and other human signs can last a long, long time, and outdoorspeople may compete directly with native wildlife for water, shade, and other scarce resources.

Relatively resilient substrates are often widespread in desertlands, from naked slickrock to gravel and sand. But some of what might appear at first glance to be durable ground in these environments isn’t. Perhaps most notable on this front is cryptobiotic soil, aka biological soil crust: knobby surface skims of lichen, cyanobacteria, moss, fungi, and other organisms (collectively known as cryptogams) growing between bare rock or vegetation. Important in fixing nutrients, warding against erosion, absorbing moisture, and fulfilling other ecosystem services, cryptobiotic soil is easily damaged by footfalls, so desert hikers should learn to I.D. it before venturing out.

Overturning the varnished gravel or cobble composing so-called desert pavement can also leave obvious, long-lasting signs of your cross-country passage.

Water is, needless to say, a precious commodity in the desert, and you should be exceedingly mindful of all the native organisms depending on it. Camp well away from water sources (a LNT practice common across environments), and access them as briefly as possible to avoid deterring thirsty critters. Favor more prodigious water sources such as springs over especially limited ones such as rainwater potholes, and if you do need to use them, don’t deplete or foul them.

LNT on the Cliffs

A landscape view of mountains in Yosemite(Opens in a new window) The iconic granite walls of Yosemite. Photo by Jeremy Bishop

From high alpine rims to low-elevation escarpments or walls, cliffs are often magnets for rock climbers. When accessing routes, use established trails or durable surfaces, and stage gear on similarly resilient ground. Abide by any seasonal closures to protect wildlife; cliffs are common nesting places for raptors, ravens, and other birds, and nests may be abandoned in the face of human disturbance. Even where closures aren’t in effect, be watchful for signs of nests, roosts, and other wildlife use.

Favor removable protection whenever possible, and pack out any gear you bring in (or abandoned gear you find). Keep chalk use to a minimum, and choose chalk colors that sync with the hues of the rock face.

Out in the Wide Open: Grasslands & Shrub-Steppe

Two deer in a field of shrubs(Opens in a new window) You’re not the only one accessing nature’s beauteous bounty. Photo by Tara Evans

Grasslands and shrub-steppe, particularly in the Intermountain West, often support cryptobiotic soil communities similar to deserts, and you should practice the same kind of avoidance of such crusts.

The newborn calves and fawns of elk, mule deer, and pronghorn sequester themselves in hideaways amid prairie grasses or sagebrush until they’re old enough to flee from predators. During late spring and early summer, be aware of the potential presence of these hoofed youngsters, and leave the vicinity if you happen to stumble across one. (And do the same if you see an alert cow or doe hanging around a particular area—often a sign of a mother hanging close to camouflaged offspring.)

Practice similar discretion if you notice a bird's nest. In open prairie and steppe, many birds—from killdeer and grouse to ferruginous hawks—often nest right on the ground out of necessity.

Riparian Corridors & Shorelines: LNT for Paddlers

On paddling trips, choose durable surfaces such as boulders, outcrops, and sand or gravel beaches for put-ins, take-outs, and campsites. Disturb riverbeds and shoreline substrates—vital benthic habitat for invertebrates, fish, and other aquatic organisms—as little as possible when stepping into the water or shoving off with a paddle. Consider going without campfires and packing out all human waste along riverways, even where these practices aren’t mandated (as they often are along well-used paddling and rafting routes).

Savvily Adapting Your LNT Approach

Remember, the context with which you apply LNT ethics isn’t just about the ecological classification where you’re exploring, but how heavily it’s used, its location (including the land use of its surroundings), and any particular rules, regulations, or codes of conduct issued by overseeing government agencies, organizations, or stewardship groups.

Tread lightly out there, even as you enjoy those mesmerizing mountain moonrises and sageland song-dog serenades to the fullest!

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

Featured image provided by Ryan Bahm(Opens in a new window)