Leave No Trace Ethics Explained: Principle 1: Know Before You Go

While hiking is an extremely beneficial activity, as hikers we need to be mindful of our impact on the outdoors and how to minimize that impact on the land, wildlife and other people. A great way to minimize impact is to use the seven Leave No Trace principles developed by the Center for Outdoor Ethics, an “organization that protects the outdoors by teaching and inspiring people to enjoy it responsibly”. Over the next seven weeks, we’ll be blogging about the seven Leave No Trace principles, detailing one principle per week. Check back every Tuesday for a new post! Please leave your comments about how you put the LNT principles into practice in your outdoor endeavors or feel free to ask questions about the principles or how to put them into practice. We look forward to your feedback and discussion!

This week is all about preparation. LNT isn’t just about what happens on the trail; it includes planning to responsibly and safely enjoy the outdoors. Each principle has a front country and back country component. We’ll define front country as day hiking and back country as adventures that take you into the wilderness for one or more nights.

Principle 1 in the front country is:

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

Before taking even a quick, familiar day hike, there are a few steps you should take the ensure a safe and successful hike.

1.       PACK FOOD, WATER AND APPROPRIATE CLOTHING

Weather, trail conditions and accidents can all have unexpected impacts on our hikes, and it’s important to be prepared for delays or environmental changes. One of the most important ways to prepare for conditions, good or bad, is to make sure you’re carrying adequate water (2-4 liters per person per day), food and clothing. If you’re hiking in an area that experiences sudden, frequent weather changes pack warm/waterproof layers even if the weather is looking sunny and warm at the start of the hike. A great resource to check when preparing for any hike is REI’s 10 Essentials list. It includes tips and suggestions for carrying food, water, clothing and other important hiking gear.

2.       USE MAPS

Again, even on familiar hikes you should carry some form of map (and a printed copy as a backup!) Some great map sources are the USGS that provides topographic maps for free download or the AllTrails app that provides maps that can be downloaded to view offline (with paid subscription) and handy GPS so you can see your progress along the trail.

3.       LEASH PETS, BRING WASTE BAGS

Hiking with pets can be a wonderful relaxing and bonding experience, but it’s important to make sure to minimize our pets’ impact on the trails. Make sure to have pets on a leash and always carry out pet waste and dispose of properly off of the trail.

Human, leash & poopie bag

Human, leash & poopie bag

4.       RESEARCH AREA BEFORE VISIT

In order to know what kind of weather, trail and environmental conditions to expect and plan accordingly (like how much water to carry), it helps to conduct a bit of research about the trail area before heading out. In addition to providing maps, AllTrails is a great resource for conducting this research. The app allows users to leave reviews, photos, etc. that can be helpful when planning to know what kinds of conditions to expect on a certain trail.

5.       LET SOMEONE KNOW WHERE YOU’RE GOING AND WHEN YOU’LL RETURN

This is a simple but important step to take before any hike. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just a quick text or post-it that says where you’ll be hiking and when you plan to be in touch. It may sound overly simple or silly, but it’s important safety step to take. In the event of an accident or emergency, this simple information can save valuable time and effort in locating you or others along a trail.

The back country version of this principle is similar with a few more involved steps for overnight travel:

PLAN AHEAD AND PREPARE

1.       Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you'll visit

Once you’ve picked out a place you will be backpacking, you will need to know if a permit is needed to enter the area, if fires are permitted, or if you will need bear canisters, etc. You will most definitely want information on water sources, route options, weather etc. It’s important to check with the agency that manages the land you will be visiting. We’ve also found it helpful to check with recent hikers on trail conditions using Facebook, Instagram and hashtags.

2.       Prepare for extreme weather, hazards, and emergencies

As we mentioned earlier it is imperative to be up to date on weather before you head out the door. You will want to note if the area you are visiting has any hazards, avalanche, fire dangers, or flash floods, etc. You should always have a plan in case of inclement weather, including having phone numbers to local agencies in case of emergencies. We also recommend having a SPOT or similar GPS device just in case.

3.       Schedule your trip to avoid times of high use

It is a good idea to think about visiting high season vs. low season, many times parks implement a permit system to minimize the amount of people on popular trails. If you plan to visit in the high season you will most likely need to apply for a permit and you are not guaranteed a spot. Whenever possible, consider visiting when it is the low season to maximize your chance of visiting your desired destination, sans the crowds.

Visiting Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest during the low season... We had the place all to ourselves.

Visiting Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest during the low season... We had the place all to ourselves.

4.       Visit in small groups when possible

Consider splitting larger groups into smaller groups. Trails are subject to erosion, the more people on the trial the bigger the impact. When planning group trips and hikes, try to keep the groups small or break out into several smaller groups. This also gives other hikers the quiet time and solace they go to the wild for.  

5.       Repackage food to minimize waste

Take food out of the original packaging and try to find ways to reduce the trash that you would need to carry back out. For example, you can take several oatmeal single serve packages and place into one larger bag for several days, thus cutting down on trash.

6.       Use a map and compass to eliminate the use of marking paint, rock cairns or flagging

Before you head into the backcountry you should know how to use a map and compass. Always carry a printed map because you can’t count on cell phone GPS due to battery life, potential loss, etc. Plus consider that cairns can’t be trusted. Remember leaving no trace includes leaving the environment in its natural state. Don’t know how to navigate in the backcountry? REI offers classes in store.

Photo Cred: Alice Donovan Rouse

Photo Cred: Alice Donovan Rouse

Want to learn more about Leave No Trace or the principles in this post? Check out the Center for Outdoor Ethics and their online awareness course, or find a course near you.

We’d love to hear how you’re preparing for your hikes and how you incorporate these Leave No Trace steps in your prep. Leave us a comment below sharing your process!

Article by Chrissy Livergood and Karla Amador

*This post contains some affiliate links which help fund the 52 Hike Challenge