A Guide to No Trace Hiking

With summer weather in full swing, many of us are going to do our fair share of hiking. Sadly, according to the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, our love for the outdoors can take a toll. Between litter, invasive species, land erosion, polluted water, and habituated wildlife, a simple walk in the park can be devastating to our local natural environments.  If you are planning on venturing into the wilderness anytime soon, try to follow these “leave no trace” principles to protect our natural spaces.  

Plan Ahead and Prepare  

The first principle of Leave No Trace hiking is planning and preparation. Before you leave your house, make sure you have ample knowledge about the trails and their terrain by consulting maps, books, or park rangers. This can prevent you from getting lost, going off-trail, or creating shortcuts, all of which damage natural resources. Knowledge about the land also includes learning about any regulations, restrictions, and private land boundaries; you don’t want to get caught with fire during a fire ban season or trespassing on private property.  

Checking the weather before you pack is also important to ensure that you choose the right equipment and clothing for the hike. Choosing the wrong gear can result in cutting the hike short, going off-trail, and possibly getting hurt. When choosing what outfit to wear, try and pick something with natural color tones. Bright colored clothing can attract or scare away animals, disrupting their natural habitat and patterns. 

Although it might offend some of your friends, evaluate the size of your group before you go hiking. Too many hikers at once can cause extra disruption to the trails, create noise pollution that scares off wildlife, and create excess waste. Knowing the size of the group can also help anticipate the amount of food to bring — leftovers create food waste which leaves a trace. When planning a trip, also try to avoid holidays or busy weekends when there will be too many other people using the trails.  

If you are going to eat on your trip, always plan meals or snacks that have minimal ingredients and utensils to decrease garbage and food waste. Before going hiking, all food should be removed from its commercial packaging and put in reusable bags that can be brought back home, a.k.a. “packed out.”   

Lastly, before you go hiking, make sure to clean off the soles of your shoes, bike tires, and other surfaces. Gear used in previous hiking trips can harbor small organisms, like bugs, which can be considered invasive when introduced to another area. Invasive species can outcompete native species for food or habitats, sometimes even causing their extinction.   

Travel on Durable Surfaces 

It might sound basic and intuitive, but always travel on already established trails. Land management agencies set up trails in specific areas for a reason — to create as minimal impact on natural resources as possible. When hiking, do not create new shortcuts, like climbing up hill- sides, and try to avoid going off trail.   

If you must travel off trail, perhaps to go to the bathroom or take a break, there are a couple rules; don’t bring a large group over the same area and try to step in places with durable surfaces. Durable surfaces include rocks, gravel, snow, or sand rather than organism rich vegetation, living soil, mud, or water puddles. Walking on durable surfaces is less likely to create footprints and cause travel damage. Travel damage occurs when surface vegetation or organisms are trampled, which can lead to soil erosion and unregulated trails. Overall, just be mindful where you put your feet. 

Dispose of Waste Properly  

The signs are everywhere on hiking trails — Don’t Litter!   

When hiking, always pick up after yourself. Not only is litter an eyesore to other visitors, but it’s also dangerous to wildlife. Wild animals can eat, choke, or get tangled in our trash. Littering includes more than just the Ziploc bag you packed a sandwich in; it also includes microtrash like tiny food scraps, pieces of fishing line, or cigarette butts. Yes, that sunflower seed shell does count. All food scraps need to be taken back home and disposed of properly. Leaving behind food can affect local wildlife feeding habits and pollute water sources.   

Disposing of waste properly also means our waste. It happens to all of us — you get stuck on a long hike and can’t wait for a bathroom.  

Going to the bathroom while hiking has its own set of rules. The most common method of disposing of human waste is to bury it in a 6-8-inch-deep hole — also known as a “cat hole.” When burying human waste, find a spot at least 200 feet away from water, away from highly trekked areas, on an elevated site where water won’t runoff, and somewhere with organic soil to promote quick decomposition. After burying the waste, disguise the hole with natural brush and dilute the area with water to deter wildlife.  

If you use toilet paper, as gross as it sounds, you have to pack it back home with you. Human waste can pollute water, spread disease, and disrupt wildlife migration patterns, so it’s important to pick the least invasive spot and make it look untouched afterwards. In some places, it is illegal to dispose of human waste in cat holes, so when in doubt, pack it out.   

Leave What You Find 

I know, that’s a super cool rock, but please don’t take it with you. Leaves, sticks, rocks, flowers, and other natural objects can be food sources or habitats for even the smallest creatures. Moving or taking natural objects disrupts these animal homes and grazing habits. Leaving the natural stuff in the natural world is one of the fundamentals of Leave no trace hiking.  

For example, try to avoid clearing an area for a picnic or, at the least, put the sticks and pinecones back where you found them when you’re done. Similarly, if you have to build a fire ring out of rocks, dismantle it when you are done.  

Additionally, don’t construct things like benches or tables, don’t eat edible plants, don’t cut trees for firewood, don’t pick the pretty flowers, don’t carve your initials into a piece of wood, and absolutely do not take any archeological objects like arrowheads or fossils.   

Respect Wildlife  

One of the best parts about hiking is seeing the vast array of fauna, but it’s important to remember that we are intruding in their homes. If you see a cool animal, only observe it from a distance. Disturbing an animal or causing it to flee in panic can disrupt migration patterns or feeding habits. If the animal leaves the area, don’t pursue it. Also, avoid listening to loud music that can scare off animals.   

Even if an animal seems friendly, do not feed or touch it. Interacting with wildlife causes the animals to become more used to human interaction. This might sound like a positive thing, but it can lead to animals relying solely on food scraps for nutrition and invading busier places like roads or suburban neighborhoods. Touching wild animals is also dangerous because they carry many diseases that can be transferred to humans.   

For more information on the Leave No Trace principles visit https://lnt.org/why/7-principles/plan-ahead-and-prepare/ 

By Hannah Meiner