How to leave the great outdoors exactly how you found it

No, you can't just throw food in the woods.

man jumping on rocks outdoors
It's easy to leave no trace if you never touch the ground, but we haven't advanced that far as a species yet.Pixabay

In the great outdoors, the smallest actions leave lasting impressions. Tossing a banana peel in the bushes or wandering off the trail to pick flowers may seem harmless, but every choice we make has the potential to alter the natural balance of our world. Over time, even the little things can add up to significant changes to our environment, especially when you consider the increasing number of people spending time outdoors.

That’s where the concept of Leave No Trace comes in. It's a practice made up of seven principles that aim to help you do almost precisely what its name says: leave no trace that you were ever in the wild to begin with. That means minimizing the unavoidable effects we have on natural places while eliminating the avoidable ones.

This, of course, is easier said than done. Making matters worse, 90% of people who visit the outdoors are uninformed about Leave No Trace principles, according to Ben Lawhon, Education Director at Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. That's why his organization helps instill proper outdoor etiquette in as many people as possible, whether they're going on a months-long expedition in the wilderness or just playing Frisbee in the park.

“Leave No Trace is not about perfection, it’s about action, about what you can do personally to individually reduce your impact,” Lawhon says.

Some of the principles are intuitive, while others require a little explanation. For example, most people know better than to throw a candy wrapper into the woods, but not everyone understands why it’s so important to stay on the trail or not transport firewood from one park to another.

Plan ahead and prepare

The old adage stands when it comes to Leave No Trace: If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. That’s because spending time outdoors—be it at your local park or in the Colorado wilderness—without everything you need often means your impact on that place will be greater. If you forget to bring a trash bag for a picnic, for example, you’re more likely to leave garbage behind. If you don’t have a bear canister when camping in bear country, you’re more likely to attract unwanted wildlife. Planning ahead can help eliminate many potential sources of environmental harm.

So consider what you need for the type of outdoor activity you’re embarking upon. Are you bringing a pet? Backpacking for several nights, or just hiking for a few hours? Is it supposed to rain, or will it be sunny? Will you be eating outside? Pack everything you’ll need, from dog waste bags to rain jackets. Zip-top bags are also useful. Use them to store trash until you find an appropriate disposal site or to wrap around your socked feet if you’re caught in the rain without a spare pair of dry socks.

Travel and camp on durable surfaces

person hiking on trail
Don't go into the long grass. It's better if you stay on the trail.Pixabay

Some land, especially in the American west, is made of what was once known as cryptobiotic crust. Now known as living soil crust, this type of surface is made of living organisms—including fungi, mosses, and lichens—that create a literal crust over the earth beneath. Walking or camping on this type of ground—which may not look that different from other dirt, but is often bumpy, clumped together, or blackened—can destroy delicate ecosystems that may take decades to recover.

But even in areas without this crust, camping on or hiking over land not cleared for that purpose can be harmful. Deviating from paths can widen trails, damage trailside plants, and cause erosion, while camping on fragile vegetation can scar the landscape.

If there are well-maintained trails, use them. Don’t take shortcuts between switchbacks. And if there’s living soil crust nearby, stay off it at all costs. When wilderness hiking, if there are no marked trails, don’t walk single-file, as you risk wearing a path where there shouldn’t be one. Pitch tents and set up camp on sandy surfaces, gravel, or hearty vegetation like dry grass if you’re camping in the backcountry where there are no designated campsites. Then when you leave, do your best to restore the area to what it looked like before you arrived. In a high-use campsite like those in state or national parks, stick to the well-worn areas that have been cleared specifically for camping.

Dispose of waste properly

At some point, most people who spend time outdoors will have to go to the bathroom in the woods. But improper disposal techniques can contaminate waterways, hurt wildlife, and spread disease. That goes for pet waste, too. As for litter, don’t burn it in a campfire or toss it in the woods. Not only can it attract wildlife and make them sick, but it doesn’t break down as quickly as you think. Even natural items like toilet paper, apple cores, and coffee grounds could take years to decompose.

Never go to the bathroom within 200 feet of running water. It’s fine to urinate on the ground, but don’t leave toilet paper. Bury it or bring it with you—a good use for those zip-top bags. Likewise, bury solid human waste, too. Dig a hole 6-8 inches deep with a small trowel and go in the hole, then fill it with dirt and disguise the area so animals or other hikers don’t find it. As for trash, dinner leftovers, and even feminine hygiene products: if you brought it in, bring it out.

Leave what you find

When hiking through the woods, or even meandering through a neighborhood park, you may be tempted to pocket an interesting rock or pick a pretty flower. A small fossil or rusty nail from centuries past may also be a tempting souvenir. But remember that every item you remove from its place also removes a piece of that place for future visitors. Moving things from one area to another can also spread invasive species: insects in plants and firewood, zebra mussels on boats, and even microscopic particles in the treads of your shoes. All are unintentional ways people can help invaders spread.

Instead, take a photo of that beautiful flower or unique stone, and leave the object where it is. Do the same for historic items like arrowheads, building materials, or pieces of pottery and, if possible, let park staff know the location so they can investigate.

Minimize campfire damage

campfire in fire pit
Campfires are great, but only if they stay in one place.Adrian Infernus via Unsplash

Everybody loves a campfire when spending the night outdoors, but a campfire can do a significant amount of damage if it’s improperly built or managed. Wildfires and forest fires aside, hot coals and flames can scorch the vegetation and the ground below the fire, while over-collecting fallen branches or cutting down live wood for fuel can leave the surrounding area bare of resources.

If there’s a designated fire pit at your campsite—usually a metal ring or a circle of rocks built to contain flame and ash—use it, but only if you either bought firewood at the camp store or there’s enough old, fallen wood to collect nearby. Even if there is a fire ring, don’t start one if there’s a burn ban in effect where you are.

If there's no designated spot, skip the flames or build a Leave No Trace-type fire. The latter involves mounding soil, sand, or gravel 6-8 inches thick and at least twice as wide as the intended fire on top of a ground cloth or a large garbage bag. Alternatively, use a fire pan (basically a metal trash can lid) set atop three or four rocks. Then arrange the wood and start your fire. When it's time to extinguish, do it with water, not dirt or ash, and make sure the coals are no longer hot to the touch before going to bed or leaving camp.

Respect wildlife

Getting too close to wild animals can have disastrous ramifications. If they feel threatened, of course, they might attack. But even if they remain calm, approaching, handling, or trying to feed wildlife can make animals accustomed to people. That means they’re increasingly likely to become comfortable ransacking picnic baskets, invading campsites, and approaching civilization. If an animal changes its behavior because of you—whether that means it runs away, abandons its young, or stops eating—you’re too close.

Lawhon suggests using the “rule of thumb” when encountering animals in the wild: if you can hold up your hand at arm’s length, close one eye, and cover a nearby animal with your thumb, you’re likely far enough away to stay safe and prevent the animal from feeling threatened.

Be considerate of other visitors

The rules of common courtesy apply outdoors, too. That includes being polite to other hikers, stepping aside to let others pass, and keeping excess noise—including music—to a minimum. Music and shouting can disturb both wildlife and the peacefulness many seek when outdoors.

If you simply must have music, use headphones. And if traveling in a group, keep loud talking and shouting to a minimum. When crossing paths with people headed in the opposite direction, offer to step aside and give them the right-of-way. Generally, those going downhill should yield to those going up, and if someone faster is coming up behind you, step aside and let them pass. Communication is key.

Leave no trace

To best put the principles into practice, ask yourself, “Would this item be here or would this area look like this if I had never come through?” Answering that will ensure you’re minimizing your effect on nature.

“It’s about doing the best you can,” Lawhon says. “It’s not an all-or-nothing prospect. It’s about learning and about making responsible decisions in the outdoors.”

And it’s certainly not just for hikers or avid outdoors people, but for everyone who spends time in nature.