Leave No Trace Ethics Explained: Principle 2: Stick to Trails and Camp Overnight Right

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 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!

Now that you’ve done your planning, it’s time to hike! In order to preserve our outdoor areas for our and others’ enjoyment, we have to be vigilant about where we travel, in both the front and back country. This week we’ll discuss hiking and camping that results in the least impact to the environment. Like last week, 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 2 in the front country country is:

STICK TO TRAILS AND CAMP OVERNIGHT RIGHT

In order to protect outdoor recreation areas for ourselves and generations to come, stick to established trails and campsites. This simple act minimizes plant and animal displacement and ensures natural environment is conserved.

1.       WALK AND RIDE ON DESIGNATED TRAILS TO PROTECT TRAILSIDE PLANTS

Believe it or not, a lot of thought, planning and work goes into building the trails we use for day hiking. These trails are built with the purpose not only of showing us incredible scenery and working around tricky obstacles, but also to minimize impact to soil, plants and trees. It’s important to stay on the trail! Just this spring, trails though California’s super bloom had to be closed because too many hikers were leaving the trail and trampling wildflowers. Help preserve the beautiful things you see while hiking so that everyone can enjoy them!

Photo taken at Barataria Preserve, Louisiana

Photo taken at Barataria Preserve, Louisiana

2.       DO NOT STEP ON FLOWERS OR SMALL TREES

Our great big environment is actually quite delicate, and once damaged, plants may not grow back for long periods of time – if ever. These small plants are not only beautiful, but may also be critical to erosion control. Leaving the trail, especially to cut switchbacks, can have a detrimental effect on the general landscape. Once again – stay on the trail!

Enjoy flowers from a distance

Enjoy flowers from a distance

3.       RESPECT PRIVATE PROPERTY BY STAYING ON DESIGNATED TRAILS

Leave no trace isn’t just about respecting the outdoors, it’s about respecting people and their property as well. There are plenty of great public trails to see and explore. Stick to those and avoid leaving trails for private/ restricted areas.

4.       CAMP ONLY ON EXISTING OR DESIGNATED CAMPSITES TO AVOID DAMAGING VEGETATION

Just like with trails, it’s important to set up in a designated campsite to conserve plant life and respect your follow campers and their space.

Photo: Natural Bridge/Lexington KOA, Virginia

Photo: Natural Bridge/Lexington KOA, Virginia

5.       GOOD CAMPSITES ARE FOUND, NOT MADE

Don’t dig trenches or build structures in your campsite. Modifying a campsite by adding to, removing from or altering it can have a significant impact on the general environment as well as fellow and future campers. Your campsite should look the same when you leave it as when you found it. 

 

The back country version of this principle is similar:

TRAVEL AND CAMP ON DURABLE SURFACES

Like in the front country, it’s important to stay on established paths and appropriate campsites.

1.       DURABLE SURFACES INCLUDE ESTABLISHED TRAILS AND CAMPSITES, ROCK, GRAVEL, DRY GRASSES AND SNOW

When backpacking, your trails might be a little more isolated and primitive, or non-existent. Make sure to try and stay on maintained or existing trails when possible and ensure you camp on a durable surface as well. Avoid camping in meadows and untrampled vegetation.

Camping in Joshua Tree

Camping in Joshua Tree

2.       PROTECT RIPARIAN AREAS BY CAMPING AT LEAST 200 FEET FROM LAKES AND STREAMS

Areas near water are highly susceptible to pollution and are not only affected in one location but can carry impacts downstream. The 200-foot buffer also protects campers from flash floods or other water changes, slows erosion and allows wildlife a clear path to water sources.

3.       GOOD CAMPSITES ARE FOUND, NOT MADE

Just like when camping in the front country, you should look for a durable, and if possible, established campsite, in the back country. When searching for a campsite, try and look for areas of rock, gravel, sand, ice or snow.

In popular areas the following apply:

A.      CONCENTRATE USE ON EXISTING TRAILS AND CAMPSITES

Look for areas lacking vegetation. Those are typically existing areas of heavy use that should be used by as many people as possible in order to concentrate and minimize overall impact.

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B.      WALK SINGLE FILE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE TRAIL, EVEN WHEN WET OR MUDDY

Walking in the center of the trail helps prevent wearing away at the edges and destroying plant life both on the ground or that may be hit or broken with backpacks or walking sticks, thus minimizing the effect of humans on the environment.

Photo by Kristina Frost

Photo by Kristina Frost

C.      KEEP CAMPSITES SMALL.

A smaller campsite generally means a smaller impact. While it’s necessary to find a place to sleep overnight in the back country, it’s equally important to keep environmental disturbances to a minimum. If you choose to use a hammock, make sure to use “tree saver” straps.

In pristine areas the following apply:

A.      DISPERSE USE TO PREVENT THE CREATION OF CAMPSITES AND TRAILS

Larger groups typically mean more impact as they travel and camp in the same area. Try hiking in smaller groups and setting up camp with ample space between each tent and at least 200 feet from water.

Photo by Kristina Frost

Photo by Kristina Frost

B.      AVOID PLACES WHERE IMPACTS ARE JUST BEGINNING

If you notice that another group has used an area as a campsite or recognize the beginnings of a trail forming, choose an alternate location to camp or hike to allow for vegetation to recover. The more spread out and dispersed activities are in undisturbed areas, the more opportunity the environment has to recover from any human impacts. This is the opposite of hiking and camping in high traffic areas, so be sure to research your route before heading out to ensure you’re acting and looking for appropriate trails and campsites.

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 ensuring you hike and camp with as little impact as possible, and how you incorporate these Leave No Trace steps. Leave us a comment below sharing your process!

Article by Chrissy Livergood and Karla Amador