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How to Leave No Trace when hiking or backpacking

by Karen Ung
“Take only photographs, leave only footprints” means more than just packing out your trash. When you truly leave no trace, you minimize your impact on all aspects of wild places – the air, soil, vegetation, wildlife – and keep them wilder, longer, for others to enjoy.
Leave only footprints!
Did you know shortcutting, dumping soapy dishwater in the creek, and picking wildflowers are all violations of Leave No Trace principles? The good news is that there are only seven Leave No Trace principles (in bold italics below), so once you know them you can get them right. Check out what some careless dudes did and how you can avoid making the same mistakes.

7 Leave No Trace Fails and Remedies

1. TRAIL MOBBING: The more the merrier! A group of 40 will keep the bears away!

  • While bears will certainly stay away, so will other animals. Larger groups tend to disrupt wildlife more, impact other users to a higher degree (block views, trails), and cause greater damage to trails (widening them, for example, when several people walk side by side) than smaller groups. Many parks restrict group sizes for this reason. Plan ahead and prepare to ensure you are abiding by park rules. In many parts of Kananaskis Country, for example, trail group size is limited to 15 people.
  • For bear safety tips, please see this post.
Small group sizes are especially appreciated in tight spots or narrow structures!

2. TRAILBLAZING: Going off trail is ok. There are only 4 of us.

  • When you fail to travel and camp on durable surfaces, you destroy vegetation and organisms in the soil, and cause unsightly trail braiding. As new trails are formed, more people use them, and it becomes increasingly difficult for the damaged areas to be recover. In isolated areas, trail braiding could cause hikers to lose their way! Further, going off trail increases erosion. Choose instead to stay on the trail or hike on rocky areas above treeline (vs disrupting what little soil there is).
Staying on the trail keeps the area around it wilder, longer.

3. POLLUTING WHEN CLEANING: I wash my hair and dishes in the river every day with biodegradable soap! 

  • Dumping soapy water in the river is not how you dispose of waste properly. The proper way to dispose of it is to dump it in an outhouse or cathole 6″ deep cathole, at least 200′ away from a water source (Source: backcountryattitude.com). Microorganisms in the soil help biodegradable soap to properly biodegrade, but the process takes several months, so use soap sparingly or not at all. When possible, use plain water to reduce the amount of wastewater you create.
Keep the water clean for all.

4. TAKING: There’s a ton of wildflowers, so it’s no big deal if I pick some.

  • If everyone did this, there would be no wildflowers for anyone else, or any animals, to enjoy. Besides adding colour to the landscape, many plants provide food for animals and insects. Always leave what you find, including shells, stones, fossils and cultural artifacts. Many of these items are protected by law.
Wildflowers are best enjoyed in nature!
Part of leaving no trace is leaving natural treasures for others to discover.

5. BACKCOUNTRY FIRE MAKING (IN A NON SURVIVAL SITUATION): I know how to put out a fire, so I can make a bonfire anywhere.

  • First of all, decide whether you really need a fire. Unless I were at a designated campground with fire rings, I would only make a fire in a survival situation. Just because there are charred logs at a lookout, doesn’t mean fires are allowed there. Check the rules in the area you are visiting before you make a fire. If fires are permitted, you need to construct a proper fire ring/mound and collect firewood in as sustainable a manner as possible (easier said than done!). Collecting wood when wood is scarce, isn’t good for the ecosystem. Fires in times of dryness pose a risk to the forest. Use your stove for cooking and a fire only if absolutely necessary. For more information, see Leave No Trace’s page on how to Minimize Campfire Impacts here.
Downed trees and branches are an important source of fertilizer for forest plants.
Unless it is a survival situation, do not collect branches for firewood.

6. FEEDING ANIMALS: Getting close to animals is all part of the nature experience.

  • It’s all fun and games until a gray jay dive bombs your head, a squirrel claws your legs for handouts, or a bear rips in to your tent trailer. Respect wildlife, keep your distance, and never, ever feed animals. Habituated wildlife that do not fear humans and have developed a taste for human food (i.e. are food conditioned) can become aggressive when they don’t get what they’re accustomed to getting. This applies to creatures large and small, so don’t feed bears either. “A fed bear is a dead bear.” Recently, a woman was caught on camera feeding a bear. Not only is she endangering the bear (fed bears usually end up being put down), but she received a $1,000 fine. 
  • If you want to get closer to animals in a safe environment, visit them at a zoo, wildlife theme park, petting zoo. In and around Calgary, consider the Calgary Zoo, Butterfield Acres, Discovery Wildlife Park (Innisfail), or Northern Lights Wolf Centre (Golden, BC).

7. OFFLEASHING IT: My dog would never bite someone, so it’s ok to let her run offleash in the provincial/state parks. 

    • Letting your dog run offleash violates several Leave No Trace Principles: Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces (ecologically sensitive areas can be damaged), Dispose of Waste Properly (many dogowners pick up feces they can see, but not feces deposited offtrail), Respect Wildlife (animals may be startled, frightened, hurt, or chased by dogs), and Be Considerate of Others (see below).
    • Even if your dog is gentle, it can annoy or frighten other park users. I’ve lost count of the times that offleash dogs have knocked my children over or disrupted snack time by jumping on us.
    • Offleash dogs put hikers at risk when they run offtrail, antagonize wildlife and draw angry animals back to their owners.
    • Keeping your dog on a leash, close to you, limits its impact on the park, wildlife, and other park users.  You and your dog will be safer too.
      Thank you to all the responsible dog owners who abide by this!
Please spread the word about Leave No Trace so we can keep wild places wilder, longer. To learn more about Leave No Trace principles, visit Leave No Trace Canada.
Have you seen anyone violate Leave No Trace principles? What happened and what did you do?

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Playoutsidegal June 9, 2016 - 6:31 PM

Thanks Jason!

Jason Cleghorn June 5, 2016 - 8:50 PM

Great post, Karen!

Comments are closed.

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