Leave No Trace: An Ethical Approach to Sustainable Outdoor Activities

Humanity’s relationship with nature is an ever-changing phenomenon. From our hunter-gatherer ancestors to our early civilizations, to our hyper-technological societies of today — how we interact with nature has always been a key factor to our success.

Yet throughout these eras, there has always been one common factor inherent to the human condition; we see ourselves as separate from it. We feel and are taught that it exists to serve our needs, that we are the masters of the planet, that we were born onto this world, not out of it

Some are realizing, whether out of necessity (through ecological damage) or curiosity, that there is something wrong with this one-sided narrative… In creating our constantly advancing “dream world”, we are losing something important — and we feel it.

We have lost sight of the bigger, interconnected picture of our place here on Earth. A picture where one party doesn’t exist for the needs or desires of the other, but rather a delicate co-existence of all living things. A co-existence that is more fragile than we care to admit.

I am of course talking about our ecological impact, both collectively and individually, something many of us are aware of but often fail to see where else we can do our part.

In this article, I’d like to introduce you all to the practice of Leave No Trace (aka LNT), a very simple yet radically powerful ethos that can have a huge outcome on reducing our undesired impact as we enjoy the great outdoors.

The Issue at Hand

To understand why LNT is important we have to look at what the situation is currently, even before the recent pandemic. In many walks of life, urban or rural, there is a large trend of people starting to look back to nature as a way of reconnecting with something greater than the stresses of modern-day living.

National Parks are seeing more visitors, people are becoming more health-conscious & sales of outdoor equipment continues to increase drastically. Covid since has only amplified this effect. This is an excellent thing and we are all for it, as it will surely have a positive impact on their lives. 

The only issue here is the issue of scale. The scale of so many new people taking to outdoor recreation. It is this issue alone that our planet struggles to handle, and its environmental impact is much more immediate than the familiar points of fossil fuels use & over-consumption.

Why Individual Actions Matter

The majority of outdoor enthusiasts think of their activities in nature (hiking, trekking, bushcrafting, prepping, etc..) as an activity that is done generally to feel good (in some way or another) from it. Even in our natural enjoyment we must understand that we are often taking from the environment around us and sometimes we take more to feel better, to get that bigger rush.

This taking is inevitable and we’re not saying don’t go out and enjoy (more on that later) but the more people who see the implications of these actions, either in themselves or in others, the greater chance of mitigating the unwanted impact of those actions.

To practically introduce this issue let’s use a simple example — our brain’s path-finding ability. If one person walks off-trail, bending and treading down vegetation, within a few days the vegetation bounces back and no trace is left.

If however, before the vegetation has recovered, another person is in that area, their brains will very likely see that newly-formed path and follow it — the vegetation gets further disturbed. As this continues, before you know it, you have a path where the soil is trampled and degraded. This is extremely noticeable in popular mountain trails where people cut the corners of ascending or descending paths.

The same can also be said for other grosser forms of bad LNT practices such as littering and the unnecessary cutting of trees (eg: for rushed shelters). It often takes just one person to start off badly, before another one subconsciously decides to follow suit, starting a chain reaction that can lead to large-scale degradation.

Luckily though, the same is true in the other direction too. Coming across pristine land is a precious experience, most would naturally feel inclined to preserve it but less so when that land already has signs of “damage”. We have seen it ourselves with one of our favorite day hike trails, a popular trail that was very littered.

With the help of some dedicated hikers and a bin not far away, the trail became spotless within a year. Once others saw the effort we were putting in  by bringing a refuse bag and collecting as we went along, they joined in. It quickly became a talking point and created a sense of community among the hikers of this trail. What’s more, is it remains that way thanks to the sense of community it has created.

What is LNT?

LNT is a philosophy for the outdoors, it is the questioning of one’s impact and behavior when outside. It comes from a deep respect for the nature around us and a knowing that without preserving its unique environment, the outdoor experiences we know and love will change drastically, perhaps not in our lifetimes but for those that come after.

In many outdoor activities, minimalism will come as one of the core components of success. We associate that with traveling light and requiring as little gear as possible, but often fail to see that another part of minimalism means having the least impact on the nature around us.

LNT is similar to applying minimalism to our actions and not just our gear. After all, what good is it hiking for hours to reach that magical, pristine spot if by the time the next person comes its pristine beauty is lost?

How can I Practice LNT?

Once the importance of LNT is seen, the rest is just recognizing where to reduce your impact. The aim of the game is to preserve your outdoor environment so that no trace is left, to keep nature as natural as possible. This includes anything from camp marks, to fire pits, to littering, to where we go to the toilet. If one is feeling particularly benevolent one can even help remove the traces of others too (but maybe not with the toilet part though 🙂 ).

Leave No Trace is a big topic, so much so an organization exists to evaluate and define the standards of the practice. We will only cover what we feel to be the most important practical parts, so if you feel like reading more you can on their official website.

Key Practices of LNT

Below are some of what we feel are the highest impact points of LNT along with some key points and examples of do’s and don’ts.

Preserve Trees

Don’t cut trees down unless absolutely necessary:

  • Instead, scavenge firewood from dead/ fallen trees or low hanging branches
  • You will very rarely need to cut down a tree
  • If making yourself a spruce bough mattress, you can collect your spruce bough without cutting down the spruce tree
  • Similarly, don’t strip bark off a living tree for tinder

Dead tree trunks are also sheltered for hundreds of species of insects, animals and birds:

  • When coming across them take as little as possible, especially from bigger logs.

Choose to set up/ build your camp in area where there is plenty of wood available:

  • It’s a good idea to gather wood from a wide area around your camp

Manage campfires effectively:

  • Assess the fire danger at the time of year you are outdoors
  • Observe whether there is a fire ban in effect in the region you are in — it’s likely for good reason!
  • Clean up after they’re done by removing stone pits and raking over with leaves.

Preserve Water

Human waste is a major contaminator to freshwater:

  • Make sure you urinate and defecate away from water sources. The general recommendation is 200ft away from nearest water source to avoid contamination through rain
  • Dig holes at least 6 inches (15cm) deep for burying your poop and toilet paper

If soap is needed for whatever reason use only bio soap

  • Bio soaps are still known to upset the chemistry of water. They breakdown better in soils
  • No matter how natural the chemicals are, they’re still chemicals.

“Broadcast” your wastewater

  • Broadcasting means to spray your water over as wide a surface as possible
  • This allows it to break down faster and be less concentrated
  • As usual dispose of your grey water 200ft away from the water source

Preserve Resources

Dispose of waste properly:

  • Remember “Pack it in, pack it out”
  • Always carry spare plastic bags on you for this purpose. 
  • Trash burning is far from ideal. Improperly burned trash will still attract and harm animals.

Buy gear that is appropriate for your region and is of good quality:

  • Buying cheap gear that is more likely to break when used in the field is likely to leave an impact through the broken pieces. 
  • As always, even if something does break, pack it out.

Leave what you find where you found it:

  • We often pick certain things that stand out for souvenirs but the fact they stand out is likely that they are rare and struggling to establish themselves in the environment

Preserve Wildlife

Only hunt or fish when you absolutely need to. I know this might shock and maybe even anger people. Arent all animals here for human consumption? While that is debatable, from the perspective of leave no trace the idea is to leave a minimal impact on the environment.

This includes animals species you may encounter.

  • Even Catch-and-release fishing has been proven to cause great damage to fish
  • Survival situations are obviously a different matter. Knowing how to fish is an essential survival skill.

Don’t disturb or pick up animals even if they don’t seem scared:

  • Many species of mothers will reject their young if they come into contact with another species

Preserve the Soil

As mentioned above, travel on trails where possible:

  • Over-trampling of soil can lead to erosion
  • This is especially important in areas where life is more scarce and fragile such as deserts
  • Walking on rocks or other durable surfaces (where possible) is a good compromise if you must go off trail
  • Ice and snow is for the most part fine

Sounds crazy but even the simple removing of a rock can be disruptive:

  • Lichen on rocks can take hundreds of years to form and does not recover well to disruption
  • Many creatures that make shelter under rocks will move if their shelter is compromised (even if you put it back), in the time it takes for them to find a new suitable shelter they are vulnerable to predators (eg: birds)

Finding the Middle Ground

We understand that some of the points brought up here might feel a little limiting or even unnecessary. As always with the outdoors, it’s a good idea to adapt to your environment; if you’re in a very popular park you’ll need to be more considerate than if you’re 10km from the nearest village.

The key with these kinds of issues (which tend to be more philosophical in nature) is to find the middle ground that allows not only you to experience what you love most, but all the future generations too.

The bottom line, as we mentioned before, is to learn and be aware of what impacts our actions can have and then do what we can to avoid the unwanted side effects. LNT (& environmental) purists might say that the best-case scenario is that you turn into a flying, gaseous form that doesn’t touch or consume anything — but that might be asking for a bit much. So until that happens, just do what you can and hopefully, through applying the right LNT practices others will see that and learn from you! 

In our experience, the outdoors people of this world tend to be among the most considerate and compassionate types of people, who through their lifestyle tend to have a reduced impact anyway, much less than those who’ve barely set foot in the great outdoors.

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