Spending time outside can have invaluable benefits for your mental, physical and spiritual health, but unless you’re practicing responsible environmental stewardship, you might be reaping the benefits while harming nature itself. Around the world, outdoor enthusiasts follow these seven simple codes to make sure that nature is clean and healthy not only for the future generation, but for the person coming behind you on the trail.
1. Plan ahead and prepare
If you plan ahead, research where you are going and bring along the essential items, you hopefully won’t be caught in an unexpected situation where you have to make a quick, irresponsible decision.
Take time to look up the rules of your trail, campsite or parks. For example, check ahead of time to ensure they allow dogs or camping without a permit or campsite. Plan your trip accordingly so you are following all the rules– as they are meant to preserve the cultural and ecological integrity of the space.
By planning ahead, you can bring essential items like a compass or map that will help you stay on trails. If you get lost, you’re more likely to go off the trail in search of the right direction– or maybe you’re lost because you’re already off the trail!
By researching the park or area ahead of time, you can learn about the seasons or times of day that are most popular. If you have the flexibility, avoiding these times has many benefits to you and to nature. It’s easier to find parking (remember to carpool), you will have more peace and quiet and the trails and surrounding ecosystems will have less impact.
2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
As fun as it may be to off-road and discover new places “off-the-beaten-track” this is very harmful for nature. Stay on the trails to minimize the foot traffic and damage to plant life. When possible, walk single file on the trail.
Unless permitted to do otherwise, always camp at designated campsites only. If your site is near a lake or river, pitch your tent at least 200 feet from the water. This will be safer for you (flash floods pose a major threat in many parks) and aquatic ecosystems are some of the most sensitive.
3. Dispose of waste properly
Unless there are designated and clearly marked trash cans along the trail or at the campsite, everything that you bring with you must be brought back without exception. That means plastic bottles, gear (even if it’s broken) and all food. Yes, banana peels will decompose, but they are likely not natural to that area and therefore could harm plants, animals and even microbes in the soil.
In remote locations without bathrooms, all human waste should be buried 6-8 inches in the ground and covered, or else carry it out. To protect waterways from contamination, make sure you are at least 200 feet away from any source of water.
If you will be cooking, preparing food or showering make sure to pack biodegradable soap. Other soaps can be toxic for ecosystems, especially aquatic ecology. Make sure to wash 200 feet away from streams or lakes and scatter the dirty water when you are finished to minimize the impact in any particular area. Scattering the water will also reduce the chance of attracting animals.
4. Leave what you find
Principle number three says you should take everything with you– but that does NOT mean anything you find along the way (with the exception of litter). Do not pick up or take rocks, plants, pinecones, natural objects and absolutely no animals. Do not touch historical sites such as ruins and do not deface park property– that means do not carve your initials into a tree nor a park bench. Do not introduce new species, no matter how microscopic. To be cautious, shake out your gear after every use and clean off your boots, bike tires and kayak before introducing them to new sites.
5. Minimize fire impact
For almost everyone, fires are a quintessential part of camping. However, fires can also be one of the most devastating and uncontrollable elements in natural areas. If you are not comfortable with fire safety, though, consider other past times like stargazing or using light cookstoves.
Check the fire rules before heading to your campsite. Use established fire rings when possible and always keep your fire as small as possible for your needs– that means no raging bonfires. A small fire can be enough for warmth, heating up a pot or torching a few marshmallows.
Buy local firewood so you do not introduce new pests. Only gather wood or kindling if it is explicitly permitted. Afterward, ensure that all wood and coals are entirely put out and cooled.
6. Respect wildlife
Observe plants and animals from far away and do not approach nor touch them. Store your food and trash safely so animals, such as bears and racoons, do not get into it. Never feed animals, it could be bad for their health and it encourages bad behavioral habits.
Avoid sensitive habitats like designated mating or nesting sites. Steer clear of mothers with young as they can be unpredictable and dangerous when frightened. Do not build structures, trenches or re-route rivers. If you bring a pet, make sure it is under your control at all times.
7. Be considerate of other visitors
Part of leaving-no-trace is to respect and preserve nature, but that includes allowing fellow visitors to have an equally enjoyable experience. Manage your pets and yield to others on the trail. Keep your noise and music to a minimum volume and opt to enjoy the sounds of nature instead.
– The hiker traveling uphill has the right of way
– If you’re on foot yield to horses
– If you’re on a bike yield to hikers and horses
– If you’re on a horse you have the right of way, others should yield to you but be cautious of groups, children and pets
Remember, it’s not about you
Most people feel that when they act responsibly, they have a limited impact on nature. What they don’t realize is their small impact can be multiplied by hundreds, thousands or even millions of visitors. Last year, 330 million people visited the U.S. National Parks, so even a small impact on an ecosystems can multiply to become a huge problem. If one person veers from a trail and tramples flowers, they may recover. If 5,000 people trample the flowers– forget it.
“The issue is it’s not just you,” said Kristen Kubina, a Leave No Trace educator. “It’s you, plus the people after you, plus the people after them, plus the people after them. The Earth never gets a chance to heal…It’s cumulative impacts.”
With everything you do in the outdoors, consider the plants and animals around you, but also ask yourself: If everyone does this too, would it be OK?
Make it second nature
The Leave-No-Trace code among outdoor enthusiasts and might seem like a lot to remember, but once you make these a habit, they will become like second nature. The key takeaway message is to ensure that you leave the natural spaces you visit and pass through as clear of any evidence that you were there as possible. That means no fire, trash, food, carvings, graffiti and as few footprints as possible.
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