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How To Leave No Trace

Updated: Jul 23, 2022

some backpackers hiking down a dirt trail through a green meadow toward on a forest on a sunny day
Photo by Austin Ban on Unsplash.

Summer is just around the corner, and we’re all spending much more time outdoors, whether it’s with FOTO or not (although, you know, it could be). That makes this a perfect chance for your friendly neighborhood conservationists (hint: that’s us) to remind you to leave no trace. You’ve almost guaranteed heard this phrase before, and if you haven’t, please direct me to the rock you’ve been living under. I’d love to bring you a couple of pamphlets to bring you up to speed on the world at large. All jokes aside, if you haven’t heard it, no worries—we’re here to give you a hand.

The phrase “leave no trace” is pretty self-explanatory. Formulated by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, the idea is that you don’t leave a single shred of evidence that you were present in an outdoor space. Okay, fine, you can leave some footprints, but nothing else! When we really delve into these ethics, though, they aim to accomplish more than reducing litter. The National Park Service has laid it out for us simply in their article on the seven principles of leave-no-trace ethics. Remember: these guidelines detail how you should behave in all outdoor spaces, not just national parks.

1. Plan ahead and prepare

Before you visit, educate yourself on the regulations and special concerns in the area. This will help you better prepare for hazards or emergencies like extreme weather. Keep your numbers fairly small to minimize your group’s impact, and visit during off times like weekdays or even during the offseason. Taking toilet paper and hand sanitizer with you can save you when the bathroom doesn’t have any or there isn’t a bathroom. And on that note, make sure you have bags to pack out your garbage—including the toilet paper.

Though this isn’t strictly related to leave-no-trace ethics, we also recommend that you prepare for your trip by researching whose land you will be on. Much of our outdoor spaces once were home to Indigenous peoples and nations that were forcibly removed, and at FOTO events, we make a point to acknowledge the people to whom Owyhee land belongs. You can find out whose land you are on by visiting and searching the area as you would in Google Maps. It is our responsibility to acknowledge and respect the original stewards of this land, both the ancestors of the past and the descendants of the present.

2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces

Sticking to the maintained trails and designated campsites is crucial to keeping the ecosystem healthy and beautiful (which is why you’re out there, right?). If there isn’t a designated camping spot, please continue on until you find one! Good campsites are found, not made. Stay in the middle of the trail, even when it’s wet or muddy, and focus on areas without vegetation for the least impact.

3. Dispose of waste properly

Like I mentioned above, pack it in, pack it out—this includes toilet paper! Keep your campsite clean of trash and spilled foods, especially right before you leave it, and take all of your waste with you. Using toilet facilities is best, but of course, a trail may not have those available when nature calls. NPS recommends that you deposit and bury solid waste in a hole about 6–8 inches deep at least 200 feet from water, camp, and trails. For liquid waste, there are two options depending on where you are. If you are in a riparian (riverside) area, it’s best to go directly in the water rather than on the banks due to the sensitivity of the flora and fauna in those areas. Outside of riparian areas, prefer to go on a rock—this will dry the quickest, and you won’t burn a plant with your phosphate-rich urine in the process.

4. Leave what you find

As the saying goes, “Take nothing but photographs and leave nothing but footprints”. Snap all the shots that you want, but please do not touch, especially cultural or historic structures and artifacts like petroglyphs as they may deteriorate with time. Leave rocks, plants, and other natural objects where you find them, and this includes arrowheads. They are Native American artifacts and should be left where you found them. We encourage you to report their location as well for archaeological research—get in touch with us if you have any questions. So please leave that bouquet of gorgeous wildflowers for the next visitor to enjoy.

5. Minimize campfire impacts

With the dry season upon us, it’s extremely important that you build campfires with caution and care. Where fires are not permitted, use a stove for cooking and a lantern for light. Where fires are permitted, keep them small and inside established fire rings, fire pans, or mound fires. Only use dead wood from the ground for your fires! No chopping a hunk from a live tree, please. And this cannot be stressed enough: please drown your fire sufficiently with water or sand. Little smolders can be way more dangerous than one would imagine.

6. Respect wildlife

Wildlife is exactly that: wild! Please do not approach, follow, or feed animals you see in the wild. Keep your food tucked away, too, because these animals are unfortunately not like ol’ Fido. Feeding them even just a little bit, whether intentionally or accidentally, can severely alter their health or natural behaviors. And speaking of Fido, he is probably best kept on a leash or even safe at home.

7. Be considerate of other visitors

And as you would anywhere else, please respect your fellow visitors. Yield to others on the trail, especially when you’re going downhill and others are coming up. Take your breaks away from the trail when possible, and avoid loud voices and noises, including music! Let nature speak for itself.

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