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Minimizing my impact on the landscape through responsible recreation

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How I used Leave No Trace for a more sustainable backpacking trip


As we slip into our hiking boots, climbing shoes or Chacos and step onto trails this summer, it’s imperative to keep notions of responsible recreation at the forefront to ensure the wilderness we love stays healthy for generations to come. 

There are many ways to think about respecting our landscape while recreating, perhaps the most prevalent being the seven principles of Leave No Trace. These principles came into public discussion following an outdoor recreation boom in the 1970s, explained Ben Lawhon, director of education and research at the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. 

“We started to realize that we can either regulate visitors, or we can teach them how to enjoy the outdoors in a way that leaves it as good or better than it was,” Lawhon said. 

By the late 1980s, federal agencies including the Forest Service and the National Parks Service agreed there was a need for a nonprofit entity to raise awareness for minimizing outdoor impacts, thus, in 1994 LNT was officially born. The center established an initial six principles and now, rooted in their extensive body of research, promotes seven principles for LNT. 

When thinking about outdoor impacts, it’s important to note that LNT is not the first time these ideas have been explored. “[Native peoples] have practiced land stewardship for millennia, right, so we’re not the first people to come up with this idea,” Lawhon said. 

With this in mind, I ventured out on my first Montana backpacking trip of the season up to the Spanish Lakes in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, cataloguing some of the choices I made to minimize my impact on the land. 

Enjoying the high-alpine view at the highest of the Spanish Lakes after a day’s trek into the backcountry. PHOTO BY JULIA BARTON.

Plan Ahead and Prepare

Making a plan for your outdoor adventure, no matter how small it may be, can help ensure a fun and safe trip for both you and the land you’re visiting. I started by choosing the backpacking area and route I intended on taking and the time I’d be in the backcountry for. 

In my case, this was the South Fork Spanish Creek Trail to the Spanish Lakes Trail #411 on June 26 and 27. 

I then was able to investigate any specific rules for the area and map out mileage and elevation gain. Based on this, I ensured I packed proper gear for the terrain and forecasted weather, including the proper amount of food and clothing layers. 

Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

This principle aims to protect surfaces and the vegetation that blankets the ground in outdoor spaces, from mountain wildflowers to desert living soil. To best follow this principle, I walked on trails wherever possible and avoided placing my tent atop fragile flowers or grasses, opting instead for dirt. 

It’s not always possible to hike or camp without leaving an impact, Lawhon explained to me, emphasizing that it is always worth thinking about how you can best minimize your trace given your circumstances. “It’s not about perfection, it’s about action,” he said. 

This sentiment is especially true when traveling off trail, avoiding less durable surfaces whenever possible. 

Dispose of Waste Properly

A dirty sock and a melted spatula left behind by previous hikers. PHOTO BY JULIA BARTON.

Often the most difficult aspect of waste disposal outdoors is for human waste. When not disposed of properly, human waste is both very unsightly for other visitors and harmful to wildlife and other humans alike as it can pollute water and spread disease. 

To minimize impact, find a spot at least 200 feet from a trail, campsite or water source and dig a whole at least six inches deep to bury human waste. 

For other waste, such as food wrappers, toilet paper or other scraps, it’s as simple as putting it in a bag and packing it out with you. I kept a Ziploc bag in my pack for any trash I made and added to it the trash I found left by others. 

Leave What You Find

The natural beauty of the land is a primary reason we go outside. Let others enjoy it too  by leaving the terrain as you found it. 

Up at the Spanish Lakes, I saw names carved into tree trunks, shiny rocks piled together and plenty of littered trash. I made sure not to contribute to these disruptions and did my best to return the landscape to its original state by dismantling rock piles and picking up garbage. 

Minimize Campfire Impacts

Given the drought conditions we’re experiencing so far this summer, minimizing campfire impacts and use is as important as ever.

If you’re thinking about building a fire in the wilderness, first make sure there are no current fire restrictions and use a fire ring to keep the fire contained. Your personal skills for building and maintaining a fire should also be considered as well as if there is enough wood in the area that its removal would go unnoticed. 

“Just because fire is allowed, doesn’t mean it’s the best thing to do,” said Lawhon. For this reason, I opted out of building a fire on my backpacking trip. Since I brought a stove to cook my food and layers to keep me warm, a fire wasn’t truly necessary or worth the risk. 

Respect Wildlife

When traveling into the wilderness, we are leaving our homes and going directly into those of the wildlife that inhabits the landscape. Learn about what creatures inhabit the land you are on and, if coming into contact with them, view from afar and do your best not to disturb them.

I saw a mountain goat and a bald eagle among a few other animals while out in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness and, although it would have been awesome to get a better view, kept my distance and avoided making loud noises or otherwise disturbing them. We also properly hung our food, trash and other smelly items in a bag off the ground to discourage animals from eating our food or coming into our campsite. 

Be Considerate of Other Visitors

Names etched into the bark of a tree near my campsite, disturbing the natural state of the landscape. PHOTO BY JULIA BARTON.

The final principle is being mindful toward how your adventure impacts others out in the wilderness with you.

A few general rules I followed included letting uphill hikers have the right-of-way, camping and breaking off the trail and out of sight from other backpackers and being kind to the other groups I encountered. 

My trip was short and relatively easy in terms of LNT, but it’s not always that simple. “Every situation is different,” said Haven Holsapple, the LNT program manager for the National Outdoor Leadership School, an organization that teaches LNT as part of their curriculum. “It’s really about stewardship and doing what we can to preserve the natural environment… reaching out with specific questions and practical field experience are the best way to learn.”

Although there are not always black-and-white answers to LNT questions and behaviors, minimizing your personal impact has a compounding effect on keeping the landscape beautiful, healthy and with the ability to provide for those that come after you. 

Lawhon explained that they center has found a correlation between using LNT principles when recreating outdoors and overall environmentally friendly behavior in the day-to-day. It’s important to think about how our actions impact our environment, even when we’re not in the wilderness. 

For more information about how to minimize outdoor impacts or questions about specific LNT practices, is a useful educational tool to peruse before heading out on your next adventure. 

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