Practical Leave No Trace: Pack it Out, and Then Some

Be good, do good.

"Pack it in, pack it out" is a famous mantra in parks and natural areas around the United States. The message is simple: whatever you bring in, you are responsible for bringing out. The wrapper from the energy bar you ate at the mountain peak? Tuck it into your pack and throw it away when you return home. Napkins, toilet paper, and tissues? Yup, those all come out, too. 

The concept is simple and easy to grasp. So why, then, is there so much litter on popular trails, in campsites, and at trailheads?

Let's call it a mix of lack of education, some laziness, and a little bit of deliberate littering by some who simply can't be bothered. It stinks, but we all know it happens. Here's what to do about it.

The Impacts of Littering

First, let's tackle the question of what the big fuss around littering is all about. What are the impacts?

The most noticeable impact is visual. Trash on the ground and in the water detracts from our enjoyment of a natural area. It can lead us to rant in frustration at the careless person who left it behind, which degrades our experience further. Every piece of improperly disposed of trash impacts the next person who visits.

There's another challenge with seeing trash, too: it pushes people to find somewhere else to be. No one wants to camp at a spot filled with garbage, and in response, they may pull into an otherwise unspoiled flat space and create a campsite where one isn't needed. This spread can lead to management changes and sometimes closures that impact future enjoyment of the area.

Litter can also pollute waterways, injure birds and small mammals who try to consume it, and endanger larger mammals, too. Once a wild animal gets used to the taste of food left by humans, they are more likely to seek that taste aggressively or become so accustomed to humans that they are a safety hazard. 

Take Out Your Trash

The next time you're enjoying the outdoors, make sure that everything you take in with you comes back out with you. From potato chip bags to tissues, have a plan for carrying waste items until you reach a trash receptacle. This could be as simple as putting the waste into the container that held your PB&J sandwich, stuffing all the rubbish into a vented side pocket in your pack, or carrying a bag for garbage.

Besides the remains of your lunch, there are other types of waste that can be produced in the backcountry—namely, human waste. How you dispose of human waste depends a lot on where you are, so bone up on the helpful guidelines from Leave No Trace before you go.

Take Out Other People's Trash, Too

There is nothing so unglamorous as picking up after other people on the trail or in a campground, but it's an act of good citizenship that benefits everyone. Think of it as an act of paying it forward. The next person won't have to deal with or see the trash that was left behind, and you'll get a little rush of "helper's high." 

Also, you'll be protecting animals, birds, and other wildlife from the harmful effects of trash left behind for them to ingest, get wrapped up in, or enjoy so much that they want another taste.

There are even ways to tap into a bigger movement by sharing your good deed through apps like Litterati.

Trash and other litter impacts the environment, your enjoyment, and the enjoyment of those who visit after you. Do your part by packing out everything that you bring in, and go that extra mile of picking up what you find...even if it isn't yours.

Cover photo by Alan Levine via Creative Commons CC by 2.0

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!

Sara SheehyAdmin

Writer | Nomad