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Thru-Hiking 101: Leave No Trace (LNT) Principles on Trail

Leave No Trace is a broad set of principles that we should all use to guide our outdoor behavior. Here is our take on the Seven Principles as they apply to no-impact hiking.

Kenna Kuhn, Dahn Pratt      Educational       7/31/2020

1. Plan Ahead & Prepare

Why it’s important:

  • By planning and preparing in advance, you can mitigate the majority of potential breaches of the following 6 principles before evening getting on trail. Understanding local regulations/requirements and designing your personal backcountry systems are key to successful planning.

How to employ it:

  • Research local fire regulations, camping restrictions, and wildlife. Always check the local land agency’s website (BLM, Forest Service, Park Service, etc.), and contact them if you need clarification. 
  • Create a system for waste management (trash and recycling bags or jars, wag-bags, etc.  -see principle 3: Dispose of Waste Properly)
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2. Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces

Why it’s important:

  • Being intentional with where we hike, break, and camp helps protect fragile ecosystems and limits usage to specific areas. This is particularly important on high-use trails, but hikers should always be aware of where they are walking and camping.

How to employ it:

  • Stay on trail (and keep any animal companions on trail as well).
  • Do not use shortcuts at switchbacks. They cause erosion and save little time. 
  • Avoid hiking or camping on moss, flowers, lake edges, areas with flora, open alpine zones or other generally sensitive ecosystems.
  • Find surfaces that will not be damaged by your shelter and body weight, such as exposed and compacted soil, small rocks, or sand. Ideally, use established campsites.

Kenna: With the rise of social media, this principle has been increasingly compromised for the sake of photographs (i.e. camping at lakes edges to get sunrise shots, or leaving the trail to get a better view). Be mindful of what you are damaging for a photograph.

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Desert ecosystems are particularly sensitive to trampling and incorrectly disposed of waste (wagbags are often required).
Photo courtesy of Kenna Kuhn.

3. Dispose of Waste Properly

Why it’s important:

  • Properly disposing of human waste mitigates pollution of nearby water sources (no, human poop is not like animal poop!), the spread of diseases, and the generally unpleasant experience of finding someone else’s poop.
  • Properly disposing of food waste minimizes animal habituation and the spread of non-native species into ecosystems. (In this context, habituation is the process by which animals become familiar with the habits of trail-users and adjust their natural behavior. For example, if hikers routinely leave food crumbs at a regularly used campsite in Glacier National Park, local bears may become habituated to finding food there. Not only does this create an unhealthy dependence on humans for food, but also greatly increases the likelihood of a negative human-bear interaction, which is dangerous both for hikers and for the bear.)

How to employ it:

  • If it don’t grow, don’t throw! (Apple cores, orange peels, seeds and nuts, should not be left on trail or at camp. They can take decades to break down and introduce non-native competitors into the ecosystem.) 
  • Dilution is not the solution to pollution! (Soap (even if biodegradable), toothpaste, and dirty water should not be diluted in streams or lakes. More information below.)
  • Pack It In, Pack It Out! (General rule of thumb: if you bring it into your hike with you, it should leave your hike with you.)

 

Click to Expand:

  • Cat holes should be dug 6-8 inches deep, 4-6 inches wide (I generally teach a shaka deep and a shaka wide -Kenna).
    • Use a trowel to dig & cover your hole, but not to move feces! 
  • Your business should be done and buried at least 200 ft (70 adult steps) from water sources, trails, and campsites (I generally say 300 ft. from water if I am in a region with heavy rainfall -KK), ideally in a space where runoff will not carry your waste into nearby water.
  • Toilet paper
    • Pack it out (double ziplock bag it, cover the outside with duct tape for sights and smells).
    • Don’t bring it!
      • Use a backcountry bide or natural toilet paper. Some examples include:  
        • Rocks (preferably smooth)
        • Snowballs
        • Sticks (preferably smooth)
        • Pinecones (go with the grain!)
        • Leaves (be extremely careful about what you’re using!)
        • Tall grass 
        • Moss
        • (Be sure to bury any natural toilet paper that you use inside of your cathole.)

 

  • Feminine products do not biodegrade, and shouldn’t be left in catholes or elsewhere. 
  • If using tampons/pads, pack them out in a double ziploc bag or in a designated nalgene/water bottle. Whichever you use, cover it with duct tape to mitigate smell and visuals. 
  • Use a menstrual cup! They are hygienic, affordable, and extremely convenient on trail. Just be sure to practice using one in advance of getting on trail and to bury contents in a cathole 200ft+ from any water source. I carry extra water to clean mine when emptying it.
  • As mentioned, wastewater from dishes, handwashing, and bathing should be disposed of 200 ft. from water sources.
    • Scatter dishwater after it is strained in an arcing motion to maximize dispersion.
  • Similarly, toothpaste should be scattered with a good old spray spit. (Pretend you’re a sprinkler, or that your friends are funny and this is a spit-take.)
  • If you choose to swim in lakes or streams, be mindful of what is on your skin and leaching into water sources (i.e. sunscreen, lotion, insect repellent) — especially in areas where water is scarce.
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High use areas, like the Torres del Paine circuit in Chile, are particularly at risk of the adverse effects of poor LNT practices. Photos courtesy of Kenna Kuhn.

4. Leave What You Find

Why it’s important:

  • Leaving resources in their ecosystem both preserves and protects the natural ecosystem and allows for others to enjoy what you’ve seen. Equilibrium can be easily affected by users removing resources such as wildflowers. Cultural assets should be treated with the same respect and left where found.

How to employ it:

  • Do not take anything out of an ecosystem unless it is clearly human trash (i.e. candy bar wrappers).
  • Avoid constructing “improvements” (tent sites, tables, lean-to’s, non-trail marking cairns, etc.).

Dahn: Take only photos, leave only footsteps is a great motto. (Just remember not to tag your location when posting photos that you took! Digital LNT includes not encouraging overuse of spaces that are heavily featured on social media platforms.)

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Albeit common, cairns should only be constructed as trail markers and generally only by trail maintenance crews.
Photo courtesy of Dahn Pratt

5. Minimize Campfire Impacts

Why it’s important:

  • 85% of wildland fires are human caused; the importance of minimizing your campfire impact cannot be overstated. Having fires can deplete ecological resources (e.g. cutting down trees, or taking deadfall that is important to cultivating flora & fauna) and emits considerable amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

How to employ it:

  • Know the current fire regulations in the area that you are hiking.
  • Keep your fires small and manageable — be mindful of the space you are using. Use established rings with buffer zones to flammable vegetation.
  • Do not burn trash in fires, pack it out. 
  • Dead and down! (Do not harvest firewood from living trees, or from dead trees that are still standing).
  • Collect firewood away from established campsites.

Dahn: I never make campfires because I think of fire as a pet or a newborn, it’s something you need to constantly monitor and manipulate. Additionally the constant depletion of resources can alter (visually and ecologically) the space around your campfire. It’s actually very difficult to have a responsible fire as you need to make sure it’s fully out, and responsibly build and source, which requires a lot of work, time, and resources.

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6. Respect Wildlife

Why it’s important:

  • Human-wildlife contact is dangerous for animals and for hikers. “A fed bear is a dead bear.” See our food waste and habituation section under “Dispose of Waste Properly.”

How to employ it:

  • Respect space between you and wildlife, never approach fauna nor make distressing noises, etc. to elicit a reaction
  • Never feed animals and conduct thorough camp sweeps to pick up and pack out any dropped crumbs, etc.
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Wildlife on the Jordan & Israel National Trail (respectively).
Photos courtesy of Dahn Pratt.

7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

Why it’s important:

  • Ultimately, this principle is intended to allow every hiker and other trail-user to enjoy their experience. Much of this is dependent on your actions with the previous six principles.

How to employ it:

  • Avoid playing loud music or yelling. 
  • Avoid shooting guns. 
  • Keep pets on leash (or equivalent) or under strong voice command.
  • Uphill hikers have right-of-way. Hikers generally yield to equestrians (horses), and bikers generally yield to equestrians and hikers. 
  • Be active in providing a safe, inclusive environment to all users. Being welcoming and inclusive to BIPOC, LGBTQA+ folks, and womxn  includes, but is not limited to, speaking out against disrespectful remarks, and stepping in when unsafe situations arise.
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Showers Lake Vista, Tahoe Rim Trail
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A lake reflects a nearby wildflower meadow and trees.
Showers Lake Vista, Tahoe Rim Trail
Photo courtesy of the Tahoe Rim Trail Association

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As the makers of Guthook Guides, Bikepacking Guides, and Cyclewayz, we help you navigate the most popular trails around the world on your smartphone. Our hiking guides and biking guides work completely offline. Let Guthook guide your next adventure!

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About the Authors

Kenna Kuhn

Kenna grew up in Northern California visiting her grandmother’s cabins along the PCT, which helped catalyze her love for the outdoors and interest in backpacking. She is particularly passionate about the intersection between sustainability and outdoor recreation, connecting with womxn and communities who have historically lacked access, and pesto pasta. You’re likely to find her having an impromptu dance party with her pup, whether it’s while backpacking, climbing, mountain biking, or just on the side of the road.

Dahn Pratt

Dahn began collecting trail data for Atlas Guides in 2017 on his 10,000 mile project called Chasing Summer. The most recent data for the Te Araroa, Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, Jordan Trail and Israel National Trail all came from Dahn. Now you will find Dahn on the office side of Atlas Guides doing all kinds of things, like data analytics, data processing, customer support, and more. When he is not hiking he can be found camping, or making bad jokes.