What I’ve Learned from the Leave No Trace Movement

What I’ve Learned from the Leave No Trace Movement


butterflies resting North Fork River Mark Twain National Forest 2010 Thea Tapson


If you’ve been backpacking or hiking for any length of time, hopefully you’ve come across the Leave No Trace movement at some point, and use its principles for your own hikes. Certainly, leaving nothing in the wild that betrays that we were there, that impacts on wildlife, or causes a well loved place to become less than what drew you to it in the first place, is something that we all aspire to, and not just in the wild.

Telephone Lake Snowy Range 2015 Thea Tapson

A few words on what the movement is before I tell you what it has changed in my life, and how it has changed me. Leave No Trace, is the decision that you won’t impact negatively upon the environment. Specifically with backpacking, you keep to the trails and don’t cut new ones, you camp far away from water and use established sites, or create a site to camp on with as minimally invasive a means as you can. You don’t feed wildlife, you don’t leave litter behind, you do your best to leave only footprints, and take only pictures.

So, if I find a muddy trail, rather than walk beside it and erode the land to create a new path, I just walk right on through the muddy part. Sure, my feet get dirty, but I actively choose to dirty my feet rather than leave an impact that could cause others behind me to also do the same, and make that impact worse. Sometimes the path you must walk upon doesn’t look like the easy one, but it’s still the right one, and setting the example for those behind can have a much better outcome when pooled together. Small choices can have big consequences when united with others also making small choices.

I leash my dogs when I hike, not because I think they’d take off and I’d never see them again, but because we are visitors, and I want to be a good guest. If they poop, I can quickly move their poop off the trail, and bury it, like I do my own, 6 inches down in a cat hole, so that it doesn’t impact on people coming down the trail after me. I also don’t want my dogs impacting on wildlife, and being a nuisance to other hikers. So I get to have my friends with me, but they too must follow the rules of Leave No Trace. Being a good steward is for everyone.

Speaking of poop, I pack out my toilet paper. It too carries an impact, and while it could biodegrade, it tends to take much longer than is appropriate. I’d rather not leave it there to be dug up by animals and blow in the wind, and when it does come to my pooping, I bury it deep and stir it in, far from the trail or water sources, and certainly don’t just try to make it look like I’m hiding it with just putting it under a rock. Nope, I do it right, so that it’s not left there for someone to find at a later date. Even when it’s hard, it’s better to still follow your heart and do the right thing.

I think wildlife is pretty cute, and would love to have a magical Snow White moment with the birds, the squirrels, the deer etc, coming and eating out of my hand, but I know that interaction with humans and dependency on easy food sources actually can be very detrimental to their health, especially because my food isn’t good for them, and if they seek out more human food, they could end up dead. Better that they avoid human contact and stay away from us for their own sake, nothing is so sad as hearing that a bear has had to be killed for seeking out human food. So I’m content to view them from a great distance, and try my best to not let them even know I’m there. I pack my food away in containers that they can’t get into, and that’s not to protect my food so much as it is to protect them. Animals and their welfare are important to me.

I don’t use much soap in the wild, and when I do, I use one with as little impact as possible, and still keep it away from water sources, because I don’t want to leave an impact on the organisms living in it. I also don’t want to leave an ugly mess in the water for the people behind me to see. I can deal with a little more grime for a few days, on myself, my clothes and my cookware, so long as what I’m using to clean isn’t harmful I’ll use it, but I won’t risk using anything questionable. I can be okay with being uncomfortable if it means not hurting the planet.

I also never litter. I don’t even leave apple cores or orange peels behind, because they don’t belong there. Sure, some things are biodegradable, but it still creates a visual impact that is best packed out. On that note, some of the foods that hikers eat come heavily packaged, so I make my own meals, and put them into packaging that I can reuse, so it comes home with me. I’m also a minimalist backpacker, carrying very little with me, because I know that there will be litter left behind by someone who was ahead of me, and I can’t rightly leave it sit. I will create less of a negative impact myself to try to make up for those who create more.

So think these are great lessons for the outdoors? I do, but what’s more, they’re great lessons for every day, even at home in the city. Since following Leave No Trace principles in the great outdoors, I’ve found myself being far more thoughtful in the choices I make in day to day life.

Lost Lake Trail Snowy Range 2015 Thea Tapson

First, by knowing that I’m happy living out of nothing more than a backpack, tent and sleeping bag, with little possessions, clothing and food, I have learned that a lot of the things we surround ourselves with in life, are not all that necessary for my happiness. I may need a few more pieces of clothing for the work I do than what I’d need trekking in the woods, but I look at it too as if it’s gear, and choose it for its adaptability, and longevity. I can get as much use if not more, out of a few classic pieces that can mix and match and of a quality to last for years, with making repairs to them, than out of a giant wardrobe full of choices. So I’ve gained a lighter footprint with regards to my clothing.

This lighter footprint has spilled out towards not needing a lot of other things too, a big house, expensive furniture, the latest gadget, none of that is necessary, so I have stopped being a consumer who buys everything, but who instead only chooses that which is necessary and that I love. I don’t mind spending money on it, because, like with my gear, I know that if I love it, I’ll take good care of it and it can last me for ages. Not needing a big house also lightens my energy footprint, so the more minimalist I become, the less my being here impacts the planet.

What’s more, looking at how harmful certain things can be from a variety of perspectives, be it visually, chemically, or just plain old physically, makes you mindful in your everyday life of the things you use, if they are hurting anything. You buy less food that has lots of packaging, and make more of your own because you don’t want to contribute to landfill. You use products that are less chemically harmful to the environment. You start composting because if your apple core doesn’t belong out in the wild, where does it belong? And that’s not in a landfill, so you start thinking about all the ways you impact on the world.

sugarloaf mountain snowy range 2015 Thea Tapson

Then you realise that even in following the Leave No Trace principles, that every action, every thing you do, does leave a trace, it does leave an impact, even if a small one, so you look at the supply chains of things that you believe that even with being minimal, you still need. You learn that choosing well, can leave a positive trace. You can leave a trace on the life of someone making your garments by choosing to purchase ethically sourced clothing. You can leave a trace on the life of animals everywhere by choosing to purchase ethically raised meats. You can leave a trace on the corporations that don’t align with your new found philosophy of what traces you wish to leave and which you wish to eliminate by not purchasing products from them, asking them to change and supporting the ones that do. And then you leave a trace on others who come behind you and see what you’ve done.

So the most important thing I’ve learned from the Leave No Trace Movement, is to choose the trace you wish to leave.