For those of us who love spending time in the great outdoors, wild spaces are very special. These are places we visit to recharge, to fill our hearts with natural beauty. We hate to see them cluttered with litter, graffiti, or any reminders of the people who visited before us.
If you feel this way, then you're the perfect person to promote and practice Leave No Trace camping. Leave No Trace is a philosophy as well as a nationally-recognized outdoor skills program. Every year campers and outdoor instructors are trained in the art of leaving no trace, but you can practice it yourself without any lessons beyond this article. The mindset is simple, and if you already love to see nature in its pure, unadulterated form, then you're already a believer!
The principles of Leave No Trace are to treat the wilderness the way a courteous visitor would and leave everything just as you found it, with no evidence that you passed through. This is also called "low impact" or "no impact" camping, because your visit makes a minimal impact on the environment. You can carry out these ideals in a number of ways. Begin by packing out all your litter. Whenever you go camping, take an empty trash bag with you and put all garbage, including toilet paper, into the bag‚then take it to a dumpster at the end of the trip. Teach your kids about the garbage bag and make it a game to keep on the lookout for litter to put in the bag.
If you're going to be camping where there aren't outhouses, pack up a special toilet kit that will help with your Leave No Trace camping. Keep your toilet paper in a ziplock bag. Also, pack a brown paper sack inside another plastic bag. When you go to the bathroom, tuck your used toilet paper into the brown paper bag, then wrap it all up neatly in the plastic bag. Every member of your party can use the same system, or, if you'd rather, everyone can carry their own personal paper bag. The important thing is to not leave any toilet paper strewn across the woods.
Try not to trample vegetation. Whenever you can, stay on established trails and never cut switchbacks or make your own shortcuts (this will lead to erosion and eventual destruction of the trail). When you pitch your tent, try to find a place that's already bare of plants. If you're in a group and you have to cross a field that doesn't have a trail, spread out to minimize your impact. Wherever you go, think about what your heavy shoes or boots are doing to the plants underneath and try to keep damage to a minimum.
Leave what you find. In addition to not leaving litter behind you, it's important that you not take things away from the wilderness. Rocks, plants, seashells, and arrowheads are all part of the natural landscape. If you take things away, they won't be there for others to enjoy. Also, many animals find homes and food in abandoned shells and flower-heads, and these are things they would miss if you collected them.
Unless you're in a campground where wood is provided, avoid campfires. If you're backpacking, it's always better to use a camp stove than to burn up wood in a campfire. Fallen limbs and driftwood are important parts of the ecosystem. Animals make their homes under piles of dead wood, and decomposed logs are where baby trees often take root. Many wild areas have been ruined by too many people collecting wood for their campfires. If your campground sells or provides wood, you don't need to worry. But if you're in the backcountry, camp stoves are always best!
Have respect for wildlife. This means not intruding on a wild animal's "space" and not feeding it any human food. A good rule to follow is that if your presence is changing the animal's behavior, you're too close. Step back, use binoculars or your camera for a closer view, and enjoy watching the animal live its life.
Last but not least, be kind to your fellow campers. That means keeping noise to a minimum, keeping your group small, respecting private property, and camping away from others.
Leave No Trace camping is about being respectful and thoughtful. It's about honoring the natural world and the creatures that live in it. If you love seeing an untouched mountain stream or a pristine field of wildflowers, then you've already taken the first step. Follow these basic practices and you and your family can be models of the Leave No Trace philosophy.