Leave no trace: it's more complex than you think

Leave no trace. No, this isn’t a line from a television crime drama, it’s an important philosophy that we should always keep on our minds when recreating in the great outdoors. Regardless of how we enjoy the outdoors, it’s more important than ever to ensure we are proactively protecting nature so that future generations can enjoy it. Most people know that when you go camping, hunting or fishing you should always do your best to minimize your impact on nature.  Many people just boil this down to not littering while outside. Leaving no trace is actually much more complex than not littering, in fact there are seven principles to leaving no trace, which the Center for Outdoor Ethics has compiled to give us concrete ways to minimize our impact. 

1. Plan ahead and prepare. Before you even get outside, minimizing your impact on nature begins at home. You first must know what you plan on doing outside in order to ensure you are prepared to leave no trace. Planning ahead looks different for every adventure, but here are some examples of planning ahead that I use all the time.


      • Check local regulations. Is there a fire ban in place? Do dogs need to be kept on a leash? The rules that local authorities enforce are there to protect people as well as nature, so make sure you abide by them. 
      • Remove food or snacks from its original packaging and put it in reusable zip bags. This cuts down on bulky packaging that takes up room in my pack and it is also one less thing to throw away.
      • Bring your own firewood. Whenever camping, it’s important to bring your own firewood in order to ensure you don’t impact scarce wood supplies in the area. 
      2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces. Whether you are hiking, biking, camping or off-roading, always make sure that you are aware of the ground below you. Part of keeping nature unspoiled is ensuring that we stay on marked trails and roads at all times. Imagine if we all made our own trails and campsites in the forest - this would destroy vital ecosystems. 
          • Durable surfaces are pretty easy to spot - think trails, established campsites and service roads. Rock, sand, gravel, ice and snow (although temporary) are super durable! 
          • Avoid soft, marshy and muddy areas. These are spaces where plants thrive and grow, so let’s let mother nature do her work here. 
          • Watch where you walk or set up camp to avoid stepping on living soil, or cryptobiotic crust (sometimes called just “crypto”). This is very common in desert environments and is made up of many living organisms that plants and wildlife depend on. It’s extremely fragile and stepping on it can destroy it. 
          • When setting up camp always do so in a highly impacted area such as a previous campsite.

        3. Dispose of waste properly. Waste is more than just trash, it also encompasses human waste and liquid waste. “Pack it in, pack it out” is what you need to remember here. 

            • Bring a trash bag to dispose of all waste. Be sure to separate garbage, recycling and compost. Many campsites don’t have dumpsters, so you’ll have to plan on taking your trash with you when you break down camp.
            • Always use a toilet or latrine when possible. If you can’t access sanitary services, you should bury your human waste in what’s known as a cat hole. Find an area that’s at least 200 feet away from campsites, trails or water sources that isn’t frequented by people. Dig a hole that’s about 8 inches deep, do your business and bury it. You can bury toilet paper if it’s plain and unscented. Femenine hygiene products, baby wipes, diapers, etc. cannot be buried and should be thrown away with the rest of your waste. 
            • Waste water from dishes and bathing needs special attention also. If possible, use natural biodegradable soap. Make sure that all wastewater is disposed of at least 200 feet away from any water source in the ground. This helps keep soap and other pollutants out of water sources. 

          4. Leave what you find. It may be tempting to move things around, or take a souvenir home with you, but remember to always leave nature as you found it. 

              • Don’t pick flowers, take home pine cones or small plants. Both plants and animals depend greatly on their surroundings. 
              • Let others experience a sense of discovery. If you come across deer antlers, petrified wood or cultural artifacts leave them there so someone else can “discover” them and have that feeling that they have connected with nature. 

            5. Minimize campfire impacts. This is extremely important not just for conservation, but for your safety. When building a fire, always keep in mind the following:

                • Should I even build a fire? If it’s windy and you are surrounded by dry vegetation, you could be putting yourself at great risk to start a forest fire. Is there a fire ban in place? If so, you can face hefty fines for starting even a small fire. This can also include smoking!
                • Always use an existing fire ring if possible. If you need to create one, make sure it’s small, away from any fire hazards and well constructed with plenty of rocks. 
                • Keep the fire small and always bring your own firewood, plants and critters also depend on kindling to survive. 
                • NEVER LEAVE A FIRE UNATTENDED! Don’t be that person you see on the news who started a wildfire.  
                • Always make sure to thoroughly extinguish your fire. It should be cool to the touch and can require lots of water. Hot coals can easily reignite, so it’s a good idea to turn coals and douse them with water from several angles. 

              6. Respect wildlife. Encountering wildlife can be an amazing and life changing experience. Always keep in mind that we are guests in the natural habitat of animals, so we need to respect their space. 

                  • Quiet observation is best. Don’t make any quick movements that could startle the wildlife. Quick movements and loud noises are stressful to wildlife and could also potentially put you in danger. 
                  • Don’t ever feed wildlife. Make sure food at campsites is always stored away safely - in your car or a bear proof container. Dispose of food in the garbage, don’t throw it in the wilderness. Certain foods can be harmful to animal health. 

                7. Be considerate of other visitors. The great outdoors belongs to everyone, and here are some simple suggestions to implement while interacting with others.

                    • Share the trail, let others pass. You may encounter bikers or horses on a trail, so it’s always important to be aware of your surroundings. 
                    • Keep the volume down. Have fun and enjoy yourself, but be conscious of your noise level. 
                    • Embrace differences - people from all socioeconomic backgrounds, cultures and different walks of life enjoy the outdoors, and it’s our responsibility to create an environment of inclusion. There is no one “correct way” to enjoy the outdoors, so don’t shame people for doing things differently. 

                  There is a lot to consider when leaving no trace, and the above suggestions just scratch the surface. Be sure to check out the Center for Outdoor Ethics website, which has a ton of information and very detailed suggestions on how to recreate responsibly. Feeling inspired to get outside? Big Sky has all the gear you need for a memorable trip outdoors - check out our camping bundles to get you started!

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