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Leave No Trace

RainbowThe Dartmouth Outing Club encourages many people to “get out” and enjoy the wilderness. We have an obligation to educate ourselves and others in order to protect the very environment we promote and use. We should adhere to the Leave No Trace (LNT) principles developed by the National Leave No Trace educational program. Water pollution, litter and disturbance to vegetation, wildlife and other visitors are indicators of the need to develop a national ethic that protects wild and scenic areas. The following principles and guidelines will limit our impact when we travel and use the Northeast’s mountains, lakes and rivers.

Plan Ahead and Prepare

Carefully designing your trip to match your expectations and outdoor skill level is the first step in being prepared. If you do not have a tent, stove or proper clothing to stay warm and comfortable in unexpected poor weather, you may be forced to build fires inappropriately, overcrowd shelters, or disregard fragile vegetation while setting up camp to get out of the elements. While impact concerns are clearly secondary to visitor safety, careful planning can go a long way toward ensuring that trade-off between these two are unnecessary.

Know the area and what to expect. Consult this guide as well as others that are more specific to your type of trip. Talk with other club members or land managers about the character and popularity of your intended destination. Many wildland areas suffer from overuse — visiting alternative locations can often provide a better backcountry experience. Obtain any appropriate permits or landowner’s permission before your trip begins. For safety’s sake, know emergency phone numbers and tell someone back home where you’re going and when you’ll return.

If the area you plan to visit is popular, expect to see other hikers along the route. Plan to camp in properly located campsites or in established lean-to or cabin-style shelters. Keep in mind that shelters and campsites are usually offered on a first come, first served basis, so always carry your own shelter just in case, and know how or where to locate other appropriate campsites. Check for any helpful information posted at the trailhead.

Only venture off-trail if you are prepared to practice stringent Leave No Trace techniques. On some public and private lands, camping outside of designated campsites is not allowed.

Keep group size to ten or fewer to reduce impact and supervision needs of group leaders. Consider splitting into hiking groups of four to six people by day, taking different routes during the hike. If group sites or facilities are available in any backcountry area, use them. Leave smaller camps and less frequented areas for smaller parties seeking solitude and a more primitive experience. Noise, visibility, and the imposing feeling imparted by large groups are all impacts that can be reduced.

Try to plan your trip to avoid wet and muddy conditions when trails are fragile and rapidly impacted by hikers. Use extra care in alpine zones by staying on the trail, and never build fires or camp there.

Select appropriate equipment. Lightweight stoves, free standing tents and collapsible water carriers allow the flexibility to camp on the most impact-resistant sites available. Gaiters that protect your feet and boots enable you to hike within the treadway of the trail even when it’s wet or muddy. A small garden trowel is almost indispensable for digging a minimum impact cathole to bury human waste.

Brightly colored tents, packs and clothing may look attractive, but stand out in the backcountry, thus contributing to a crowded feeling. To minimize your visual impact, select earth-toned clothes and equipment (during hunting season, blaze orange is a safety-related exception to this).

Ski poles, walking sticks, ice axes and crampons can all be useful aids on Northeastern trails, but can contribute to trail widening and degradation if used outside the trail, or when not needed. Axes, hatchets and saws are not needed for Leave No Trace camping in the backcountry.

Camp and Travel on Durable Surfaces

Wherever you hike or camp, it is best to use surfaces that are durable or highly resistant to impact. In most areas these surfaces include trails and “established” or commonly used campsites. If you venture off-trail, you’ll need to seek other durable surfaces for hiking and camping. These include rock, sand, gravel, snow, pine needles, and leaf litter.

In alpine areas walk only on the trail or on exposed rock. Many types of alpine vegetation are extremely fragile, and damage is usually long-term. Harsh growing conditions and thin soils provide challenge enough for alpine plants. In the Northeast, almost without exception, it is never appropriate to camp in alpine zones. These beautiful, scarce and heavily traveled areas need our care if they are to remain healthy.

Choose an established campsite away from trails and water. Since recommended distances vary, use 200 feet as a guideline. For most adults this is seventy to eighty normal walking steps.

Pack It In, Pack It Out

Trash and litter have no place in the backcountry. It is a simple commitment to pack out all that we pack in, and to encourage others to do the same. In addition, we can show good stewardship by carrying an extra trash bag to help carry out litter others have left. This is a small burden, and you can be proud of your efforts.

Reduce litter at the source. When preparing for your trip, repackage food into reusable plastic bags or containers, remove any excess packaging and eliminate glass bottles and jars. This simple practice lessens the chance that you will inadvertently leave litter behind.

Dispose of trash and garbage properly. “Trash” is the nonfood waste brought into the backcountry, usually from overly packaged products. Trash is often lined with non-combustible foil or plastic. Burning it often results in residual litter and food odors that attract animals. For these reasons, pack out all trash. Never dispose of trash in outhouses. Doing this leaves it for others to take care of, and creates a large and costly management burden.

Small pieces of trash such as twist-ties and candy wrappers often fall out of pockets and litter the backcountry. Unwrap snack foods at home and bag them in bulk. In the woods, put scraps of trash in a small bag kept handy just for this problem.

Garbage is food waste leftover from cooking. Reduce garbage by carefully planning meals, and by cooking only as much as you plan to eat. Food scraps — spilled food, orange peels, apple cores and the like — should be picked up from around the kitchen area and packed out. If you have leftovers from a meal, either save and eat them later or put them in a plastic bag and pack them out.

Garbage should not be burned or buried. Burning garbage usually leaves residual waste, and buried garbage is frequently dug up by animals. Reducing food odors and waste helps prevent animals from becoming habituated to humans as sources of unnatural foods, and lessens the chance of them becoming nuisances around established campsites.

Properly Dispose Of What You Can’t Pack Out

In the backcountry, we create certain waste that usually cannot be packed out. This includes human waste and waste water from cooking and washing.

Dispose of human waste responsibly. Correctly disposing of human waste helps prevent pollution of water sources, the spread of illness such as Giardia, and aesthetic impacts to other visitors. Some designated campsites have outhouses. If it will work into your route, use these facilities. Where they don’t exist, a bit of knowledge and planning is required for minimum impact disposal. Burying human feces in soil is the most effective method.

There are four guiding principles behind LNT sanitation practices: avoid polluting water sources, eliminate contact with insects and animals, maximize decomposition, and minimize the chances of social impacts.

Catholes: An individually dug “cathole” is the most widely accepted means of backcountry waste disposal. Catholes should be located well away from water, trails, camp and gullies. Use 200 feet as a good guideline, but remember that local regulations or environmental factors may dictate greater distances.

Catholes should be widely dispersed. Go for a short walk to find an appropriate site away from camp. Better yet, use a remote location during the day’s hike. Choose a site that other visitors will be unlikely to accidentally discover. In early season when terrain is snow-covered, seek dry ground for cathole sites. Human waste buried in snow does not decompose and may be exposed when the snow melts.

To promote decomposition, locate catholes in organic soil (top-soil) rather than sandy mineral soils. With a small garden trowel, dig a hole four to six inches deep and four to six inches in diameter. After use, mix some soil into the cathole with a stick, cover it with the soil plug, and disguise it with natural materials. It is inappropriate to deposit human waste under rocks, because the rock inhibits heat that aids decomposition.

If members of your group are unable to utilize catholes effectively (for example, groups of young children), it is best to choose a route or campsite where outhouses can be used.

Urination: Urine has little direct effect on vegetation or soils. Research indicates that urine poses little threat to human health. However, the odor of urine can create an aesthetic impact, and animals occasionally paw up the ground and defoliate plants to get the salts deposited from urine. Try to urinate on rocky or sandy areas away from camps.

Toilet paper and feminine hygiene products: Use toilet paper sparingly and use un-dyed and unscented brands. Toilet paper must be disposed of properly! Doing so is really quite simple and requires little effort. A good method is to pack it out in doubled plastic bags, which effectively confines odors. Burying toilet paper or used feminine hygiene products is unacceptable because of slow decomposition and the high likelihood that animals will dig it up. Toilet paper should not be burned — it rarely burns completely and is a fire hazard.

If you are willing, consider using “natural” alternatives. Popular forms include leaves, clean stones, smooth sticks, and snowballs (avoid shiny leaves which come in clumps of three!). Obviously some experimentation is necessary to make this practice work for you, but it is worth a try.

Minimize soap and food residue in waste water. Hot water and a little elbow grease can tackle most backcountry cleaning chores. Soap is unnecessary for most dish washing jobs and can be difficult to rinse thoroughly. Remove all food bits from the water before disposing of it (a small strainer is a good tool for this), and pack these particles out with excess food and other litter. Waste water should be scattered over a wide area, away from camps and all water sources.

Keep fishing and hunting waste away from trails and water. While fish and game viscera are a natural part of the ecosystem, if disposed of improperly they can be unsightly. The goal in disposing of fish and game viscera is to reduce aesthetic impact and encounters between people and scavenging wildlife. In remote or little-used areas, place them away from trails, campsites, and water, where they will decompose or be quickly consumed by animals or birds. In high-use areas or if you’re just out for the day, consider packing fish entrails out for disposal at home. Fish viscera tossed in lakes or streams often wash up on shore, so this practice is recommended only in areas when it is important to cover odors that might attract bears.

Use a sump hole for depositing gray water from cleaning dishes. This is a hole dug similarly to a cathole that is re-covered after use. Sump holes concentrate waste water and associated food odor, localizing it in the kitchen, rather than broadcasting it over a larger area.

Leave What You Find

People come to wildlands to enjoy them in their natural state. Allow others the same sense of discovery by leaving plants, rocks, historic, cultural and archaeological artifacts as you find them. We all have a responsibility to anticipate and reduce our social impact upon others and to be considerate towards the wildland environment and its animal inhabitants.

Leave natural and cultural artifacts. Natural objects of beauty or interest, such as antlers or mineral crystals, should be left alone for others to discover and enjoy. In national parks and some other areas it is illegal to remove natural objects, or to do so without a permit.

Reduce your impact on other visitors. Being friendly and outgoing toward other hikers and campers is a natural trait of backcountry visitors, but every visitor has a desired level of socialization or solitude. Around shelters or designated campsites, share news of the day’s events with other groups, and enjoy the camaraderie fostered by a dry spot in a rainstorm, but remember to be respectful of others’ needs for cooking and sleeping space, and for a good night’s sleep.

Respect private land. Many access points and lands visited by backcountry visitors in the Northeast are privately owned. Make the effort to identify these lands. Cross them with the respect we would ask of strangers crossing our own property. Park your vehicle only in appropriate locations where it won’t interfere with roads or other travel ways. Keep noise and visibility low, and do your part in picking up litter and helping to maintain the trail corridor in good condition. Each individual landowner may post or express specific concerns — obey them and alert others on the trail so that no inadvertent problems arise. Failure to respect private lands and landowner wishes can result in loss of access to everyone.

Minimize Use and Impact of Fires

Campfire impacts are among the most common and obvious recreational impacts in wildlands. In backcountry areas of the Northeast, campfires are generally discouraged, and in any of the region’s alpine zones, fires should never by built. Backcountry visitors should always carry the appropriate equipment for warmth, shelter, and light, and a lightweight campstove for all cooking needs.

Situations may arise, however, when a fire must or will be built, such as an emergency, or in areas where fires are still allowed. All backcountry visitors should remember that in the heavily traveled wildlands of the Northeast, a fire should be viewed as a tool to be used only when necessary, and that the decision to construct one should never be made arbitrarily.

Know and follow fire restrictions and always carry a stove. Fires are often banned in sensitive environments, where high-use levels have caused excessive impact, and during dry spells when forest fire danger is high. Wind also presents a danger when a fire is burning. Wherever signs of overuse of fires are present, such as the forest floor barren of downed wood, or branches broken off of standing or downed trees, fires should not be built. Proper planning includes carrying a stove for cooking and carrying a flashlight or candle lantern for light.

At established sites, use existing fire rings. These help concentrate the impact associated with fires and keep surrounding areas in more natural condition. Constructing new rock rings for campfires or building fires against boulders or ledges is inappropriate as it blackens rocks and disturbs underlying soils. If you choose to have a fire where there are no existing fire rings, you must take the extra responsibility to learn and practice stringent Leave No Trace techniques, such as the mound fire technique outlined below.

Select a durable fire site. The heat and flames from fire cause impact, but so does the concentrated tramplings of people cooking or socializing around one.

Make your fire small and safe. Campfires should only be built if there is abundant dead and downed wood gathered from the ground away from camp. Take the time to walk a few minutes away from camp, then gather wood a few pieces at a time from a large area. Use small-diameter wood no larger than an adult’s wrist as this burns completely, making clean-up easy. Never break branches or strip bark off of any trees, live or dead. Doing this leaves stubs, scars and branchless trees that take away from the feeling of wildness many people seek. Once the fire is burning break firewood into usable lengths as needed. Always attend your fire and keep proper tools, such as a trowel and water, at hand.

Fires should be burned down to ash or very small coals, as this helps minimize the impacts of the fire. All fires should be dead out and cleaned up before leaving camp. Remove any litter, and if there is any unused wood, scatter it in the forest. If a fire ring is full of ashes, consider scattering the cold ashes away from camp over a wide area of vegetated ground. They will mix into the soil of the forest floor and mimic the remains of natural forest fires.

Mound Fires: A platform or mound of mineral soil (which contains little or no decomposing organic material) can be built as a fire pad and later easily disguised. First locate a naturally occurring source of mineral soil or sand, such as the hole left by a tree’s roots when it blows over, or large stream courses where sand or fine gravel has been deposited along the banks. Use pots or a stuff sack to carry the dirt to the fire site.

Build a circular, flat-topped fire platform, six to eight inches thick and about two feet across, with the mineral soil. A tarp or ground cloth should be laid down beneath the soil to facilitate clean-up. The thickness of the mound is critical for insulating the ground cloth and surface underneath from the heat. Once the fire is out and cold, the leftover ashes can be scattered widely and the mineral soil returned to its source, which is then “brushed-up” to eliminate signs that it was disturbed.

The advantage of this type of fire is that it can be built on durable surfaces such as flat exposed rock or ledge, or on a vegetated surface, such as leaf litter or pine needles, without damage to the surface or soil. However, it is less desirable than a fire pan, because the mineral soil must be moved, and sources of such soil are sometimes difficult to locate.

Final Word on Leave No Trace

The DOC and Outdoor Programs have the responsibility to protect our working environment: the great outdoors. Not only do we need to practice the principles of Leave No Trace, we have to help educate others to be aware of, and adhere to, Leave No Trace. We have to set the example through our actions to preserve the very area we cherish.

The principles are simple and clear: plan ahead, stay on durable surfaces, pack it in, pack it out, properly dispose of what you can’t pack out, leave what you find, and minimize the use and impact of fires.

Last Updated: 10/21/12