Frequently visitors to Walking Mountains Science Center and my friends alike tell me stories about their disappointing camping experiences. In these experiences, someone arrives at a beautiful campsite on our public lands only to find trash or toilet paper strewn about. In other stories campsites are found unattended with hot and smoldering campfires which put the whole forest at risk. These stories make me wonder why people don’t follow Leave No Trace principles when enjoying wild places. I’m going to assume that not everyone is familiar with Leave Not Trace, so here is a brief review.
Leave No Trace is an outdoor ethic used to help people remember to leave the wild spaces that they visit in the same or better condition than how they were found. The phrase “take only pictures and leave only footprints” comes to mind. There are seven Leave No Trace principles, some of which require different actions if you are traveling by water, in the desert, or by land. Since we are in the mountains, here are the locally relevant ways to adhere to Leave No Trace principles.
- Leave what you find. If you see a really cool rock, study it, sketch it, take a picture and then put it back. Someone else may think it is interesting, too, but if the rock is sitting on your bookshelf at home, they will never see it. Also, if you find a historic artifact, look with your eyes and not with your hands.
- Minimize campfire impacts. Have you ever walked into a small campsite where there are at least a half-dozen campfire rock rings? Campfire rings are reusable – you don’t have to make your own. Preferably, there is only one or no campfire rings at all in a campsite. Most of the time you don’t really need a campfire to enjoy nature, but if you make one or use an existing ring, keep your fire small, and burn everything down to ash. Avoid making campfires at and above treeline, about 11,000 feet, because the environment is fragile and wood is scarce. Remember to make sure your fire is out and cold before leaving camp. Check the fire danger level and restrictions before heading out to the woods.
- Plan ahead and prepare. Make sure you have the gear and food that you need and you are prepared for the weather to change, especially here in the mountains. Know the rules about where you are going. Is your dog allowed off-leash? Are you allowed to camp overnight? Carry and know how to use a compass and map of the area in case the trail becomes unclear or you are planning on exploring.
- Respect wildlife. Years ago, I had a marmot follow me around the top of Mount of the Holy Cross. I was nervous because this is not normal behavior for wildlife. When I sat down for a snack, I realized that the marmot had identified me as a source of food, but a granola bar is not good marmot food. Even though they are cute, please don’t feed the animals. Don’t even leave your crumbs on the ground! If you see wildlife, give them their space and watch from a distance. Binoculars are helpful.
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces. Stay on the trail. Even if you are talking to your friend, there is no need to make a new trail right next to the existing trail. Hiking boots are made to get muddy, so walk right through the muddy spots on the trail. Try to camp on gravel, rock, dry grass or snow because this will make your campsite less visible to others looking for a good site in the future. Stay at least 200 feet from water sources and the trail.
- Be considerate of others. I know that outdoor catalogues have some interesting products that allow you to make your outdoor and camping experiences more like home. However, do you really need to carry solar-powered speakers for blasting your favorite tunes in the backcountry? Keep your voices down and enjoy the sounds of nature. Be respectful and courteous to other people you meet and give them space. Many people go into the woods in pursuit of peace, quiet and solitude.
- Dispose of waste properly. I know this one is kind of gross to talk about. It’s also pretty nasty to have to deal with others’ left behind trash. If you pack it in, pack it out. That means you can’t leave your leftover food, wrappers and toilet paper. Dig a 6- to 8-inch-deep hole to bury solid human and canine waste. Wash your dishes away from the creek, river or lake.
We live in a beautiful place. Go find a new trail to explore or visit one of your favorite areas, but please remember to be responsible and Leave No Trace.
Lara Carlson is the Senior Programs Director at Walking Mountains Science Center. She can often be seen exploring the mountains with her dog, Mia, at her side. For more information about Leave No Trace visit www.lnt.org.