6 Things We Should Be Doing in the Backcountry (and Probably Aren't)

Be a better backpacker

By: Nicole Mason

Save List
3 Saves

We've all heard about Leave No Trace principles and apart from the odd old tunafish can or little metallic snack bag corner that was ripped off and flew away, people don't leave trash in the woods anymore. It's a no-brainer. But there are a few more things that in my opinion should be common knowledge for those of us who love being in the backcountry.

Full Disclaimer: These are my biggest camping pet peeves. I'm still amazed by how many of my companions and friends, who are outdoorsmen, hippies and environmentalists, still don't do most of these. They're sick of me nagging them, and I really, really don't like to nag, but my sense of responsibility to nature usually wins out. So I thought I'd write these things down to share so that even if my friends don't change, maybe someone else will have an ah-ha.  As more and more of us are getting out there and getting after it, we'll all be thanking each other for lessening our impact on the places we love, even in the little ways. 

Photo: Nathaniel Polta

1. All foods aren't equal  

We have the trash thing down, but we're not quite there with the food yet. I'm just as guilty as you in thinking that my food scraps will be eaten by some hungry little critter, or else happily decompose away. I'm learning more and more that this is not true. Egg shells, peanut shells, and banana peels are the most common things that I see left behind. This is more of an issue with day hikers, although recently when setting up the tent in a very out-of-the-way spot I found a pile of broken fettuccine noodles left behind long ago. So try to pack out everything you can. This is a pretty basic part of "pack it in, pack it out," but one that is very easy and convenient to convince ourselves out of. But do it. Pack it out. 

2. Don't DEET the fish 

We've all done it. We slather ourselves with sunscreen and bug spray all day, and then just can't resist jumping into that gorgeous alpine lake asap. Try to take a minute to wipe off your skin with a wet rag (or sweaty shirt) before jumping in. The bio-luminescent bay has gone dark due to too many tourists jumping in covered with DEET. Let's keep the aquatic bugs and the fish that eat them happy and healthy.

3. Stay on the trail 

Even when it's a muddy puddle. Even when it's loose and sandy and you're knees are killing you and hard, vegetated ground is just right THERE! By tramping on the shoulders of our favorite trails we kill the plants that hold everything together and the path just gets wider and wider and erosion speeds up. If a trail is often wet, see if you can join a volunteer trail crew to fix it up. But try to keep your feet along the narrow path that has been carved for them. 

4. Keep your trail to yourself

Sometimes I get lost. It's (usually) not because I'm inexperienced or bad at trail-finding. It's because I'm following someone else's trail. I get it - you see a gorgeous cliff or lake on the map and head off-trail towards it, leaving a trail of cairns behind so you can find your way back. That's fine, but please destroy them on your way back, especially if it's in an exposed rock area where the only trail markers ARE cairns.  

Photo: Nicole Mason

5. Pack out your TP 

This is the hardest one for most people, but an easy one for me. There are few things that turn me off more than coming across someone else's used toilet paper when I'm 10 miles into the wilderness. Or anywhere, for that matter. And it's happened too many times. I don't care if you bury it 6 inches deep. I don't care if you roll a huge rock over it. Bears and other critters will always be stronger than you, and they'll be happy to dig it up (the photo above is a raven I watched building its nest with someone's discarded TP). I bring an extra ziplock bag and either sharpie it black or cover the outside with duct tape to keep used TP as out-of-sight as possible. Or even better, use something natural.

6. And while we're on the subject...Stir it up

This one I learned recently, and you may already know but I didn't. Stirring up your poop with the dirt around it helps all those bacteria and critters in the soil break things down faster. I guess it's called poop soup. So there you go. 

Cover photo: Josiah Roe

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.