This weekend I finally traveled to a place that has been on my bucket list for a long time. People talk about how beautiful it is. They rave about the wonderful energy. They even say there is a vortex there. It’s one of the lands of my ancestors too, so I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to be there. Unfortunately, the other visitors had apparently never heard of the rule of “leave no trace.”
Leave No Trace is a Native American example of living in harmony with Nature. It’s a practice that assures that we don’t take more than is sustainable. By leaving things as we find them, we assure that our resources, beauty, and life is there for others to enjoy for generations. These guidelines apply to anyone who shares space with others, particularly natural space.
Here are the modern principles of “leave no trace.”
The first rules of Boy Scouts is be prepared. It is a good rule. When you’re going out into nature, it’s wise to consider the weather, terrain, your objectives, and timing. Do you have enough time to finish your stay in daylight? Is rain expected? Do you have enough food? Do you have the skill and knowledge to do what you want to do?
Being prepared requires knowledge. When you learn about the land and yourself, you become a better steward of the land. People who are unprepared can litter, go hungry, get lost, damage terrain, harm animals, get hurt, or just have a bad time. Adequate preparation avoids all of that.
Stay on Durable Surfaces
Trails impact the natural landscape, however, they are designed to keep that impact minimal. When you cycle or walk on muddy paths, the impact is no longer minimal. Treading on living soil or plants also interferes with the balance of wildlife and can damage the landscape.
Trails are designed to keep the human impact low. Creating short cuts and trampling on vegetation can upset the natural balance and cause huge disturbances. Only walk, hike, run, cycle, or camp in designated areas. If you are going off trail for any reason (such as bathroom breaks), walk on rocks, sand, and gravel as much as possible.
Leave No Garbage Behind
One of the things that made this visit such a disappointment was the amount of garbage thrown everywhere. Not just paper, plastic, and glass, but toilet paper left in the woods. The rule is “if you bring it in, you take it out.” Human food and wrappers left behind can make animals sick.
If you have to go to the bathroom while in the woods, see rule #1 – plan ahead. Bring camping toilet paper that can decompose more quickly. Bring a trowel so that you can dig a hole to go in. Bury the toilet paper and the feces. If possible, go in a place that gets lots of sunshine so that it can decompose more quickly. You don’t want to go near the trail. Don’t leave it out in the open. Don’t go near water or runoff. You might think that it’s okay to urinate wherever you want to because it’s “natural.”
Urine has ammonia in it and can affect plant life. If you have to urinate, water it down so that it’s less concentrated. Don’t go in the same area over and over as the smell can become unbearable.
If you are planning on swimming, forego the lotions, soaps, sunscreens, and insecticides. All of these things can pollute the waterways and impact plant and animal life. In fact, you could just make it a practice to use biodegradable, natural products anyway since everything eventually makes its way into the waterways.
Leave Things Alone!
It can be cool to find a rock or leaves and want to take a souvenir- don’t. That could be food, shelter, or part of an animal’s habitat. Carving your initials into a tree, digging holes to anchor your tent, or “prettying up” the area of fallen leaves also disturbs the habitat. Think of it as someone’s home and you as the guest. The more it looks like you weren’t there, the healthier it is for everyone.
Use Safe Fire Practices
If you don’t need a fire, don’t build a fire. I know we all like the idea of a huge bonfire, but think about what the fire is for. Is it for heat? Cooking? A small cooking fire is more than adequate. If there is an established, fire area, use that. Use dry, fallen wood from the area that is no larger than the diameter of your wrist. Importing wood could bring in diseases and insects that are not indigenous to that area. Dowse the fire with water to be sure that it’s out. Put everything back the way that you found it to keep it natural looking.
Respect the Wildlife
Remember that you are in someone else’s home – the plants and animals. Keep a safe distance away. Maintain quiet voices so that they aren’t scared or stressed. Don’t make sudden, big movements. Don’t touch them. You wouldn’t like that either.
Be Considerate of Others
You know what you like about nature? Other people enjoy the same things – quiet, beauty, solitude, cleanliness. Maybe you want to have your dog with you and listen to your jams in the country. That’s fine. Just keep Fido on a leash and those ear buds handy so that everyone else can have the experience they crave as well.
One more thing to consider is the right of way. Cyclists yield to pedestrians and horses. Everybody yields to horses. Downhill hikers yield to uphill hikers. If you’re in a group, hike single file. This creates less impact on the environment.
“Leave no trace” is really about kindness. If in doubt, be kind. Treat the environment like it’s your own backyard. Treat other people with respect. If you do that, it should be around for us all to enjoy for a long time.