What is Leave No Trace and How Can I Make Sure I’m Following It?

Once upon a time, the definition of camping was simple. You take a tent, head into the woods and make a weekend out of roughing it.

Then along came cell phones and RVs, vans and pocket WiFi and suddenly roughing it didn’t have to be so, well, rough.

This has lead to an explosion of people getting into nature to enjoy camping on the weekends, some folks even living full-time out of their RVs or vans as they work remotely from anywhere they can get a decent cell signal. Which is great!

But just as we head into the outdoors precisely to enjoy the natural world, maybe spot a Steller’s jay or listen to the sound of the wind rustling aspen leaves, it’s our responsibility to keep the wilderness wild. When you’re out camping in places like national forests, the national parks, etc., you can do a few things to make sure that the next people who wander upon this beautiful slice of nature you’ve found will have the same experience you did – and vice versa!

The 7 Leave No Trace Principles

  1. Plan Ahead. Take some time before you go to research the area you’re visiting. Will there be a chance of seeing bears? Is it wildfire season? Will there be a storm? Knowing what to expect helps you prepare for it, make other plans if necessary, and reduces the chance that you’ll negatively impact the place you’re staying due to an urgent need to evacuate. Plus, nobody wants to be eaten by a wet bear while they’re on fire.
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces. When you’re driving, stay on existing roads clearly marked for vehicles. Most national forests and other public lands will have signage indicating what types of traffic — from cars to ATVs, horses to tennis shoes — are allowed in which areas. Never go off-road unless it’s clearly indicated that you’re allowed to (for example, at an OHV area) and look for existing campsites. Don’t knock down trees, topple over rocks or try and blaze new campsites, as in most cases doing so is illegal and when a ranger comes by, your happy camper will turn into a ticket…or worse.
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly. Everything you bring with you, take back out. Pack it in, pack it out, as they say. Don’t leave trash, even cigarette butts and chewed gum, in fire pits (or anywhere else.) Most places that permit off-grid camping do not have dedicated staff to clean up after you, and unless you brought your mom along, no one else is going to either. Even better? Bring a garbage bag and some gloves along to help clean up whatever the last person left behind.
  4. Leave What You Find. While that pine cone may look really cool on your mantle, it’s actually an integral part of the forest it fell within. Everything in nature recycles itself, and if we all picked one flower, took one shiny rock or snatched some natural souvenir, that’s millions of people taking millions of important pieces of the wild home with them, which doesn’t leave much wilderness to enjoy at all. Consider this, the Douglas-fir tree was once the tallest tree in the world. This award now goes to the Coastal Redwoods. It’s hard to imagine that the loggers who decimated the ancient Doug-firs could have realized at the time, given their abundance, that they could eliminate all of those old-growth giants…yet that’s exactly what happened. The best way to remind yourself of the beauty of nature is to simply return to it as often as possible.
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts. While this holds true anywhere, especially in California it is essential that we maintain safe fires at all times.
    1. Should I make a fire? The first step is to absolutely ensure that fires are permitted. Starting a forest fire is no small matter, and can more or less ruin your life financially and even land you in jail, not to mention the property and lives put in danger from these disastrous events. Having a campfire goes hand in hand with camping, for many people, but if it’s not safe to have one, or if you don’t feel adequately prepared to put it out or deal with it should it get out of hand, traveling by van affords you the comforts of a fire — for both warmth and cooking — without actually needing to burn any wood. You can turn on the heater at night and use the kitchen in the van to prepare meals.
    2. Basic fire safety. If you do make a fire, keep it small. Sitting close to a small fire is just as enjoyable as being feet away from a large one. Make sure you have adequate water to put the fire out, which can mean 5 or 10 gallons if you create a 3′ x 3′ fire that burns for several hours one night. Always use a fire ring, preferably one that is already established. If you find a site with a handmade, stone fire pit already built (which is ideal as opposed to creating a new one, see #2 above) you can rearrange the stones to make sure there is coverage on all sides to contain your fire. Never make a fire in excessively windy conditions, as embers can travel for miles on the wind.
    3. Collecting wood. Generally, purchasing firewood from a store within 50 miles of where you plan to camp is ideal. If you collect wood, remember that only dead and downed wood tends to burn. Never cut or break down trees. Living trees won’t burn, they’ll just smoke you out.
    4. Seriously, is that fire out? Never leave a fire unattended. Douse the fire with water, stir it with a stick, and repeat until you don’t hear any hissing, popping or see any smoke. Put your hand over the coals and ash to make certain it’s not hot, then place your hand on it to be absolutely sure it’s not still burning or smoldering underneath. A smoldering fire can reignite hours, even days later.
  6. Respect Wildlife. Watching animals and birds is one of the best parts about nature, but doing so from a distance, quietly, is not only the best way to do so, it’s the only way. Feeding animals accustoms them to humans, and can even leave them helpless to find their own food once the humans stop coming. When people leave trash out and bears or raccoons find it, this provides an incentive for those animals to return to those spots. They then become a threat to humans, and are often killed because of this. When watching animals, keep your distance and don’t make any sudden movements or loud noises — unless trying to scare away a predator, of course — as this is more or less like Freddy Krueger jumping out of your closet as you’re getting ready for bed at night. Animals naturally fear us, and while that’s a good thing, it doesn’t mean we have to purposely frighten them, putting undue stress on their already rugged, outdoor life. Watch from a distance, never feed them, and enjoy!
  7. Be Considerate of Others. Sure, thanks to your streaming music subscription, you have unlimited access to every death metal song ever created. Does that mean you need to blare it day in, day out and all night long when camping? Definitely not. Consider that most people come to nature to enjoy the serenity of it all, and respect that by keeping your site clean, realistically quiet and leave it as you found it for the next campers.

While at times these principals may feel a bit preachy, or like the man is just trying to keep your camping trip down, consider that the primary purpose of getting out into nature is precisely that — to enjoy the nature — and if we alter what nature looks like, endanger the flora and fauna within it, or those communities that live nearby, we remove the very thing we’ve come to do.

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