How to Minimize Your Footprint on Trail

Personally, nothing can ruin my day faster than litter. Being on trail is supposed to be an escape, but it seems like there is no escape from trash. From plastic food wrappers to beer bottles, it can feel like there is an endless amount of garbage - however, there is something you can do about it.

If you have spent any time in the outdoor community, you have heard the phrase “Leave no Trace.” Most people have a good idea of what this means but a refresher never hurt anyone! The basic idea behind Leave No Trace is just that - leave no trace. This means when you’re on the trail or in the backcountry, you do your best to leave the location just as you found it, or leave it better than you found it.

Leave No Trace operates on seven main principles.


  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare


Leave No Trace

When going on any kind of trip, you need a plan. Camping and hiking are no different. You need to be prepared for bad weather, getting lost, or getting hurt.

If possible, schedule your trip outside of the peak season and split up large groups to minimize your impact.

It’s hard to litter when you don’t bring trash. Plan ahead and repackage your food and other items into reusable containers or Ziploc bags to reduce the amount of garbage that can be left.

Understand the rules and regulations that govern where you are going (e.g. if you need to bring a bear canister). The rules are there for a reason, so know them and follow them.


  1. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces


Use existing campsites and trails to minimize your impact on the environment. Do not make or follow social trails. Social trails are informal trails created by erosion due to foot traffic from people and animals. Social trails can be dangerous and exponentially increase the impact you have on an environment. Sticking to areas that have already been used will preserve areas that haven't been used.


  1. Dispose of Waste Properly


Leave No Trace

Pack it in, pack it out. If you bring something, take it with you when you leave. This applies to things that will decompose, like fruit rinds and leftover vegetables, food waste is still waste. Leaving peels, shells, and seeds can attract wild animals. You wouldn’t throw an orange peel on your kitchen floor, so don’t throw it on the forest floor.

You have to pack out your toilet paper. I know it can seem gross, but if you take it into the wilderness you better take it out. Leaving toilet paper contaminated with human waste is a health hazard. If you aren’t okay with packing out toilet paper, then camp somewhere with toilets.

200 is the magic number, camp at least 200 feet away from water, use the restroom 200 feet away from trails or camp, and wash and dispose of dishwater 200 feet away from camp.


  1. Leave what you find


This principle is super easy to follow, see something, leave it! Even if you really really want to touch it, don’t. If you cleared an area of twigs and rocks to pitch your tent, put twigs and rocks back when you are done. If you follow leave no trace properly, no one should know you were even there.


  1. Minimize Campfire Impacts  


Leave No Trace

Campfires are fun, but they can increase your impact significantly. If you can avoid having a campfire do that, bring a camp stove! Stoves are a great alternative to fire because you don’t have to find firewood and they are portable. If campfires are permitted, then keep them small and in approved fire pits or rings. Burn everything and make sure the fire is out completely, no one wants to start a wildfire.


  1. Respect Wildlife  


NEVER FEED ANIMALS.  When you feed animals, it makes them dependent on people and makes them accustomed to people. Not to mention the food we consume isn’t always safe or healthy for animals. If you decide to bring your pets into an outdoor space keep them on a leash and always in your sight. The last thing you want is to have your dog bring back a dead animal or lead a live dangerous one to you.


  1. Be Considerate of Other Visitors


Everyone is there to enjoy the wilderness, so respect other people. The general assumption on a narrow trail is that hikers headed downhill will step aside to allow an uphill hiker to easily pass. In many places, there’s an expectation that hikers will yield to horses regardless of the direction the horse is going.


When In Doubt

Following these seven principles and encouraging others to follow them will help maintain the green spaces we all enjoy. When in doubt, treat outdoor spaces like you’re visiting someone's house…because you are. When you’re visiting outdoor spaces, you are in Mother Nature’s house, so be respectful. Clean up after yourself, don’t make a mess, and if you bring something take it home.


Some Other Things to Consider

Geo tagging social media posts may seem harmless, but could be damaging to some areas of nature. When your followers see your photograph of a beautiful waterfall, they are more likely to visit that exact location to have the same experience. Some protected lands simply do not have the infrastructure for a dramatic increase in visitors.  This could put vegetation and wildlife at risk.

Do your best to erase the trace while in the wilderness. This means respect wildlife, dispose of waste properly, minimize campfire impact, leave what you find, be considerate to other visitors, and camp on durable surfaces. We recommend hikers bring a bag along to pack out trash they find along the trail. It is our duty as stewards of the environment to do our part to protect our public lands.

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Photo Credit

Bear Cannister- @ne4kclimber

Tent- @kattoomey

Throwing away trash and heart- @deux_pas_vers_lautre

Stove- @tandemtrekking


About the Author
Steward The Squirrel is our Chief Stewardship Officer. He's passionate about the outdoors and teaching others how to be responsible stewards of the environment.