Why You Should Leave no Trace While Hiking

Leaving no trace has become a mantra for responsible outdoor recreation, and you can apply its core principles to almost any outdoor pursuit like camping, climbing, and, of course, hiking.

Hikers may not stay in one place as long as campers or place potentially permanent equipment, such as bolts or fixed gear, the way some climbers do. But since we’re just passing through, we can strew traces of our passage over a wide area if we’re not careful. Over time and with frequent use, those traces add up and change the look of a place completely.

Leaving no trace follows seven core principles:

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly
  4. Leave What You Find
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
  6. Respect Wildlife
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

A lot of safe hiking practices turn out to be responsible hiking practices, too, in terms of leaving no trace. For example, planning ahead so you know where you’re going and how to get there means leaving fewer permanent waymarking, like cairns or blazes. It also means you’re less likely to get lost on your hike.

Respecting wildlife is good for you, too – it means you’re less likely to end up being chased by a moose, a bear, or other wild animals, and your leashed or voice-controlled dog is less likely to end up with porcupine quills in its nose. Treating wildlife respectfully – which basically boils down to letting the animals go about their regular business without harassment – also makes it more likely that the wild creatures will hang around and flourish.

Here are some other hiking-specific ways you can be responsible in the outdoors:

  • It’s tempting to pick up a neat rock or cultural artifact (like arrowheads, for example) if you see them, isn’t it? How about picking that unusual plant you saw so someone else can identify it for you. But these small actions together and they make a big impact on your environment, so bring a digital camera and use it to snap photos of the “neat things” you find instead of carrying them off.
  • Cairns are signposts. Don’t make extra cairns unless you really need to, and don’t tear down cairns that others have left unless you’re absolutely, positively sure that 1) they don’t belong and 2) you won’t be leaving someone stranded without their navigation aid.
  • In high-traffic areas, metal-tipped trekking poles can tear up the ground a bit at a time. Soft ground is actually more resilient, in the long run, than rocky areas that can be permanently scarred by metal tips. The solution: Hike with a rubber-tipped staff, or bring covers for your metal-tipped trekking poles..
  • Pack a few zip-close plastic bags and toilet tissue in your backpack. These are great comfort items for blowing your nose or wiping your fingers after snacking on a messy chocolate bar, but they’re also vital in case of an unexpected pit stop — and the plastic bags give you a sanitary, stink-free way to pack the paper out with you when you’re done.
  • Skip the fire and bring a lightweight stove if you want a hot drink on the trail. Even a small, brief fire can leave long-lasting, unsightly scorch marks on the ground. Many publicly managed wilderness areas have strict rules about where you can or can’t have a fire, so packing a stove might even save you a hefty fine.
  • Leave mild-mannered wild things alone. Steering clear of big, bad animals that could hurt you is common sense, right? Here are a few more common-sense rules for not disturbing wildlife: Don’t feed the squirrels, don’t disturb wild bird nests, and don’t get up in the face of non-scary critters that are just trying to go about their everyday lives. Do observe and enjoy from a prudent distance, though — that’s why you’re out there, isn’t it?
  • Leave your iPod and speakers at home. Sometimes, a certain level of trail noise is necessary for safety’s sake. You want certain wild animals — like bears — to hear you coming with plenty of time to get out of your way. Talk, clap, wear bear bells, even sing if you need to — but for pity’s sake, please leave your MP3 player and speakers at home. Leave no sonic trace too, okay?