Leave No Trace: 6 Low-Impact Hiking and Camping Tips
By Chuck Scott
Novice and experienced hikers alike have suffered the disappointment of reaching their destination only to find their favorite campsite littered with trash, the fire pit holding the half-burnt remnants of plastic plates and cardboard.
Low-impact camping and hiking isn't always convenient. But consider the reward if everyone who visits the wilderness were to follow this simple hiker honor code and pack out anything they brought in.
Here are six tips to help you enjoy your backcountry trek and still keep it wild for those who come after you.
Stay on the Trail
Stay on established trails. Try to walk single file to avoid trampling plants on the side of the trail.
This is especially important on switchbacks. Don't take shortcuts that can create new trails and harm the landscape.
When you arrive at camp, or if you're hiking where there is no established trail, look for a path on rock or gravel, rather than trampling over plants.
Selecting a Campsite
The rule of thumb is that good campsites are found, not made. You should aim to disturb as little as possible when selecting a site and setting up camp. That means using an established campsite, if one exists. Choose an area that can accommodate your entire group without needing to create a new site.
If no established sites exist, look for a bare tent spot that requires no clearing of vegetation. Don't build lean-tos, dig trenches, or pull branches off trees, even dead ones.
Before you leave home, think carefully about how to simplify meals and eliminate as much waste as possible. That means bringing ingredients to cook a one-pot meal, for instance, instead of opening several cans of chili.
You also should minimize packaging before you go. Often you can eliminate several cardboard boxes by putting the contents into one zip-lock bag, greatly reducing the amount of trash you need to carry out. Plus the empty bag makes a great container to seal up the trash to carry out.
Cook on a backpacking stove, rather than over an open fire, to lessen your impact on your campsite. It's one of the best ways to leave no trace.
Caring for waste properly is one of the trickiest parts of low-impact camping.
There are two main areas of concern: wastewater from cooking and human waste.
In both cases, you should make sure your camp is at least 200 feet from the trail and from any nearby streams or lakes to avoid contaminating them.
When cleaning up after meals, dissolve or dilute food particles as much as possible, use a minimal amount of biodegradable soap and discard the wastewater away from your campsite. Food can attract creatures at night; you should consider straining your dishwater and burying the leftover food particles.
For human waste, find a spot well off a traveled path and dig a cathole six to eight inches deep. Picking a spot with dark organic soil and that receives sunlight will speed decomposition.
Use toilet paper sparingly, and pack it out if you're hiking in a fragile area.
Make sure fires are allowed where you're camping. Use an established fire ring if your campsite has one, or bring a metal pan that can be used to hold a fire.
Burn only wood you find on the ground, and keep your fire small to lessen its impact. Don't throw trash or food scraps in the fire. They're probably not going to burn completely.
Make sure your fire is completely extinguished before going to bed.
Be Respectful of Wildlife and Fellow Campers
It's best to travel in small groups, keep your noise level down, and leave electronic devices at home, both so as not to spook wildlife and out of respect to other hikers. The exception to this rule is when hiking in bear country; wearing bear bells and carrying on a loud conversation are the best ways to avoid surprising a bear on the trail.
Keep your distance from any wildlife you see. If your actions are causing animals to alter their normal behavior, you're too close.
Keep food stored securely. Any time an animal discovers people food, it starts to become conditioned to equate humans with food, which can become a nuisance or even dangerous.
Finally, before you leave, get everyone in your group to form a line on one end of your campsite and slowly complete a thorough trash sweep of your campsite to ensure you've left it pristine for the next campers.
Chuck Scott is a freelance editor and writer with 30 years of experience in sports journalism. He is also an avid backpacker and camper.