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Beyond Leave No Trace Ethics: Packing Out More Than You Pack In

How to be a conscientious camper and consumer.

By: Clara Christopher + Save to a List

If you’ve spent some time in the great outdoors, you’ve probably heard about Leave No Trace ethics. This set of 7 rules was invented to help conserve natural areas and reduce backcountry impact created by backpackers and campers. But, in recent years, outdoors recreation has become vastly more popular. Some might even say we’re “loving the wilderness to death.” Overcrowding is an emerging issue for national parks, and litter is amassing in natural spaces.

Here, we review the 7 basic rules of Leave No Trace, as well as some of the proposed expansions to these rules. We’ll end with some tips on how to be a more conscientious adventurer!

The 7 Basic Leave No Trace Principles

1. Plan Ahead and Prepare for the Worst

Think about food, first aid, and hydration beforehand. You want to bring as little packaging waste with you as possible. Try to buy food that comes in bulk containers. You'll be thankful at the end of your trip, when you have less to carry back.

2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

A durable surface is one that naturally minimizes the impact of your visit. Dry grasses, gravel, rock, and sand all make great durable surfaces. Try to stay out of vegetation, and do your best to use pre-established trails and campsites.

3. Dispose of Your Waste Properly

You want to minimize water contamination and spread of disease. If you can’t follow these rules, then make sure you’re packing out your waste (storing it on your person until you’re back) and disposing of it properly. 

4. Leave All Leaves Unturned

This one is simple: leave everything you find, unless it’s a piece of litter. If it’s a piece of litter, pick it up, pack it out with you, and dispose of it properly.

5. Control your Campfires

If you’re set on making a campfire, and you’re in an area where they’re permitted, then use pre-made fire rings. Always make sure that your campfire is completely extinguished before you break camp, and don’t forget to scatter the ashes afterward.

6. Respect the Wildlife

Don’t ever approach or feed wildlife. This puts you and the animals in danger. Observe wildlife from afar, and make sure that you store your food and trash securely, so that animals can’t break into it.

7. Respect Your Fellow Trailblazer

Always yield to others you meet on the trail. When you’re taking breaks, make sure you’re off the trail, out of people’s walking path.

Are the Leave No Trace rules enough?

Some critics have argued that the original Leave No Trace principles are limited in their scope. In fact, two environmental ethicists, Peter Alagona and George Simon, wrote an essay in 2009 titled, “Beyond Leave No Trace.” They argued that the original rules failed to address anything beyond the immediate, local impact of outdoors recreation. These rules, they said, dismissed our historical connection to natural spaces, and ignored our environmental responsibility in a broader context. In the end, they proposed their own set of principles, which they claimed were an expansion on the original set of rules. Here are some of them:

• Buy only the clothing and equipment that you absolutely need.

• Take care of the clothing and equipment you own.

• Make conscientious clothing, equipment, and food consumption choices.

Alagona and Simon understood that there was a recreation industry fueling outdoor leisure, and that the manufacturing of outdoors supplies contributed to the negative impact on our environment. They felt it was crucial that people only consume these goods in moderation.

• Minimize waste in your daily life.

In light of global pollution, they believed that minimizing waste production was a key part of environmental activism.

• Reduce your energy consumption in day-to-day living.

With non-renewable resources threatened, they thought that conserving energy was also an important action that deserved raised awareness.

Their whole goal was to convert passive, consumptive, uncritical leisure into the exact opposite: proactive, conservative, and critical leisure.

How Can I Start Getting Involved?

Here’s a simple way to start: try packing out more than you pack in. That means, try to leave a negative trace by picking up other people’s trash that was left behind. Though it may seem harmless, litter adds up quickly, and it stays around for years. Take a look at how long these items last if they’re left on the ground:

Banana Peel: 1 month

Paper napkin: 6 months

Cigarette Butt: 5 years

Disposable Diaper: 20 years

Plastic Container: 30 years

Tin Can: 100 years

Plastic 6 Pack Holder: 500 years

It’s shocking to see how long litter sticks around. That’s why it’s important that you help out, whenever you see the opportunity. If you want that extra kick of motivation, try out Litterati: this new app turns picking up litter into a worldwide anti-treasure hunt. All you have to do is photograph the piece of litter you find, and the app will pinpoint its location on a map. This helps people to identify unique litter trends in their community, and it can really raise awareness about issues no one even knew existed!  

Following the Leave No Trace rules is a great start. If you want to do even better, consider Alagona and Simon’s Beyond Leave No Trace rules as well, and try to lead an environmentally responsible lifestyle.

Next time you go on an outdoors trip, see if you can challenge yourself to pack out more than you pack in. Don’t forget, every little bit helps!

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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