How many times have you heard the saying, ‘Take only photographs, leave only footprints’? I grew up hearing this phrase and repeat it to my children often. But, what does it mean? At the core, it is the practices that everyone should follow to enjoy and protect our natural land. This is very similar to the Leave no Trace principles. Leave no Trace is something that everyone who uses and enjoys the outdoors should be aware of.
What is Leave no Trace?
The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is a national organization that protects the outdoors by teaching and inspiring people to enjoy it responsibly. Their vision is to sustain healthy, vibrant natural lands for everyone to enjoy. The mission is to protect the natural world by teaching and inspiring others to enjoy it responsibly.
Leave no Trace strategies are broad and holistic, including people, lands, collaboration and sustainability. This includes making Leave no Trace relevant and accessible for everyone, ensure outdoor programs and organisations embrace the principles, all with an organisation that is supported and sustainable.
Why should you follow Leave no Trace?
More and more people are enjoying the outdoors. Unfortunately, this means that our natural areas are often impacted by litter, trail erosion, polluted water sources, habituated wildlife and more. Though we don’t intend to harm these areas, sometimes lack of knowledge or unawareness can harm the outdoors and prevent preservation.
Each time you head to the outdoors, make sure you are mindful of the Leave no Trace principles.
The Leave no Trace Principles
The Leave No Trace seven principles are the backbone of the Leave No Trace program. These principles provide guidance to enjoy the outdoors and our natural world in a way that is sustainable and avoids human-created impacts.
The Leave no Trace principles are not rules and regulations as such. They are more like guidelines to be aware and mindful of as you consider the specifics of the area in terms of culture, wildlife, vegetation, climate, number of people, soil and so on. You can then use this knowledge combined with the guidelines to make an informed decision on how to use the area with the least impact.
The goal of the seven principles is to help people make good decisions about caring for our natural and cultural heritage areas.
The Principles are:
- Plan ahead and prepare
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces
- Dispose of waste properly
- Leave what you find
- Minimise campfire impacts
- Respect wildlife
- Be considerate of other visitors
Who should use Leave no Trace principles?
The Leave no Trace principles began as a guide for remote backcountry users who generally camp overnight, they are applicable to ‘front country’ users as well.
Plan Ahead and Prepare
The Boy Scouts have this right. Always be prepared. When you are prepared, you are less likely to run into problems. Lack of planning means that you may find yourself in a situation that is dangerous or you are forced to make poor choices.
Planning ahead includes doing research about your destination, including local information. Prepare by making sure you have the appropriate backcountry skills, first aid knowledge, map reading skills and packing appropriate gear.
Plan ahead and prepare principle:
- Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you’ll visit.
- Prepare for extreme weather, hazards, and emergencies.
- Schedule your trip to avoid times of high use.
- Visit in small groups when possible. Consider splitting larger groups into smaller groups.
- Repackage food to minimize waste.
- Use a map and compass to eliminate the use of marking paint, rock cairns or flagging.
Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
When exploring your surroundings and setting up your picnic or overnight camp, seek out resilient types of terrain. Ideal durable surfaces include established trails and campsites, rock, gravel, dry grasses or snow.
‘A good campsite is found, not made’ is a good mantra to remember. If you have to alter the natural area, it probably isn’t a good place to camp.
Think about your footsteps. What may take something in some environments a year to recover, may take 25 years in another. Footsteps have different impacts on everything, young trees, pastures, leaf litter, fragile soil, moss and more. Stick to the tracks as much as possible as they are designed for walking on.
If there are no tracks, avoid non-durable ground such as soft plants, stream edges, muddy sites, and fragile soil layers. When travelling along a shoreline, walk on durable surfaces and spread out while when travelling on the tops above the treeline. Watch out for smaller plants and boggy areas.
Travel and camp on durable surfaces principle:
- Durable surfaces include established trails and campsites, rock, gravel, dry grasses or snow.
- Protect riparian areas by camping at least 200 feet from lakes and streams.
- Good campsites are found, not made. Altering a site is not necessary.
In popular areas:
- Concentrate use on existing trails and campsites.
- Walk single file in the middle of the trail, even when wet or muddy.
- Keep campsites small. Focus activity in areas where vegetation is absent.
In pristine areas:
- Disperse use to prevent the creation of campsites and trails.
- Avoid places where impacts are just beginning.
Dispose of Waste Properly
This includes human waste, litter, rinse water and anything that can be considered waste. Ideally, this should be carried back out with you (‘packed out’).
You have a responsibility to clean up before you leave. Do a thorough inspection of your site before you leave to make sure that you haven’t forgotten to pick up anything. Pack out all rubbish and kitchen waste, including leftover food. Even though food is biodegradable, it impacts the wildlife and vegetation of the natural area.
If you see litter that isn’t yours, pick it up and pack it out anyway. Be a good samaritan.
Dispose of waste properly principle:
- Pack it in, pack it out. Inspect your campsite and rest areas for trash or spilled foods. Pack out all trash, leftover food and litter. Leave a place as you would like to find it.
- Deposit solid human waste in catholes dug 6 to 8 inches deep, at least 200 feet from water, camp and trails. Cover and disguise the cathole when finished.
- Pack out toilet paper and hygiene products.
- To wash yourself or your dishes, carry water 200 feet away from streams or lakes and use small amounts of biodegradable soap. Scatter strained dishwater.
Leave What You Find
This is where the ‘Take only photographs, leave only footprints’ saying comes from. Always leave everything as you find it as you are disturbing natural habitats (even if you can’t see the homeowners).
Try not to be tempted to take home that interestingly shaped rock or shell. What happens to those rocks and shells that you take home anyway? If you are being honest, they are most likely sitting forgotten on a shelf somewhere gathering dust. Annnd if you do leave everything behind, you are enabling many more people to experience the same sense of wonder you felt when you first saw the really interestingly shaped rock. Pass on the gift of discovery to those that follow in your footsteps.
Leave what you find principle:
- Preserve the past: examine, but do not touch cultural or historic structures and artefacts.
- Leave rocks, plants and other natural objects as you find them.
- Avoid introducing or transporting non-native species.
- Do not build structures, furniture, or dig trenches.
Minimise Campfire Impacts
Nothing beats a night around the campfire. However, they can be a destructive ritual. Instead of a campfire, alternatives include lightweight stoves for cooking and a lantern or headtorch for light. Plus, stargazing is much more effective in complete darkness.
Fires scar the landscape and can be unsightly if not burned down properly. How many times have you seen rings of blackened rocks overflowing with ashes, half burned wood, litter and food?
Fires destroy many natural areas every year. Often these are started by careless or by accident by uninformed hikers and campers. This results in the loss of natural habitat, property and even life. Make sure you always check to see if fires are permitted in the area you are going.
Think about whether or not a fire is really appropriate before you light one.
Minimise campfire impacts principle:
- Campfires can cause lasting impacts to the environment. Use a lightweight stove for cooking and enjoy a candle lantern for light.
- Where fires are permitted, use established fire rings, fire pans, or mound fires.
- Keep fires small. Only use sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand.
- Burn all wood and coals to ash, put out campfires completely, then scatter cool ashes.
- Don’t bring firewood from home, which could introduce new pests and diseases. Buy it from a local source or gather it responsibly where allowed.
Watch the wildlife from a safe distance and leave them be. You wouldn’t like to be disturbed in your home, would you? Nope, neither! And neither does the wildlife. Bring a pair of binoculars or watch through the zoom in your camera if you must observe, but do it from a distance.
Unfortunately, wildlife in New Zealand and other places face threats from loss and fragmentation of habitat, invasive species, pollution, over-exploitation, poaching and disease.
Parks, reserves and other areas offer refuge for wildlife from some of these problems.
We need to share the outdoors not invade it.
Respect wildlife principle:
- Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow or approach them.
- Never feed animals. Feeding wildlife damages their health alters natural behaviours, and exposes them to predators and other dangers.
- Protect wildlife and your food by storing rations and trash securely.
- Control pets at all times, or leave them at home.
- Avoid wildlife during sensitive times: mating, nesting, raising young, or winter.
Be Considerate of Other Visitors
‘Treat others the way you would like to be treated’ goes alongside ‘a good campsite is found, not made’, ‘take only photographs, leave only footprints’ and ‘leave it as you would like to find it’. A whole bunch of mantras to be mindful of huh? But if we are to protect our natural environment, these mantras are important.
Consider others, and what they might be trying to get out of their outdoor experience. Respect the locals and their property. Pass quietly through farmland, always leave the gates as you found them. Share the huts you stay in and welcome others who arrive after you. Leave huts better than you found them.
Be considerate of other visitors principle:
- Respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience.
- Be courteous. Yield to other users on the trail.
- Step to the downhill side of the trail when encountering pack stock.
- Take breaks and camp away from trails and other visitors.
- Let nature’s sounds prevail. Avoid loud voices and noises.
- Manage your pet.
Final Thoughts on Leave no Trace
If everyone followed these principles we can preserve our natural areas for everyone to enjoy long after our footsteps have faded from the trails. Simple courtesy is often all that is needed.
For more information
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