‘Leave no Trace’ tips for reducing your footprint while enjoying the outdoors
By Mike De Socio
I think about it every time I drive to a trailhead in the Adirondacks: For me to access an outdoor place that I love, I must harm it, even if indirectly, in the form of carbon emissions from my vehicle.
Even though the carbon output from a single driving trip is hardly a drop in the ocean of greenhouse gasses, it still irks me. I know that I’m contributing to climate change and the disastrous effects it could have on the Adirondack Park. So it makes me wonder: How can I reduce the environmental impact of my hiking trips?
This, of course, is the basis of Leave No Trace, the outdoor ethics program founded in 1994 and used by virtually every hiking club and recreation group. You’re likely already familiar with its core tenets: Planning ahead, disposing of waste properly and minimizing campfire impacts, to name a few.
But in the age of climate change, protecting the environment can go far beyond what you do during your hike or camping trip.
“Leave No Trace does foster strong environmental stewardship ethics and you can’t help but apply those same ethics in your everyday living,” said Jeff Marion, a founding member of the board of directors of Leave No Trace, and a research biologist at the Eastern Ecological Science Center.
What, exactly, does this look like? In the spirit of Earth Day coming up on Friday, here are some of the biggest ways you can start reducing your impact on the places you love.
Master the basics
Before you start thinking about the bigger picture, make sure you’ve got a handle on the basics of Leave No Trace. You can read up on the core principles here, but experts say there are a few considerations that are especially important.
Take the first principle: “Plan Ahead and Prepare.” In the most basic sense, that means making sure you have a solid understanding of where you’re going, what you plan to do there and what gear you’ll need to do it safely. But you can take that even further by learning what makes an area unique.
The Adirondacks, for example, has an alpine zone: The extremely sensitive ecosystem found on many summits where plant life is rare and delicate. Knowing that ahead of time, you can plan to hike on rocky surfaces and avoid trampling the vegetation.
“That important fine-tuned research can help a lot in reducing impacts,” said Benjamin Brosseau, director of communications for the Adirondack Mountain Club.
Another quirk of the Adirondacks that many hikers know well is mud season. To minimize impacts, Brosseau said hikers should plan to avoid the trails during that time of year, or stick to lower elevations while the trails dry out.
Following Leave No Trace practices, however, isn’t just a simple matter of knowledge. Even when hikers or campers learn about Leave No Trace, Marion’s research indicates that sometimes “people don’t feel like it’s important enough to follow those practices or apply those practices,” he said.
Over the years, Marion has learned that what really compels people to embrace Leave No Trace is an ethical imperative.
“There’s this ethical component that I think too often we neglect to emphasize,” Marion said. “And I think the ethical component is what provides the personal drive or command that we truly do have to personally embrace and apply … these low-impact practices.”
Marion said that often gets lost in Leave No Trace education, because it’s easier to simply explain the “how” of these practices, rather than the “why” of their importance.
Brosseau says ADK tries to solve this problem with a technique called “the authority of the resource.” It’s used by ADK’s trailhead and summit stewards, and it goes something like this: Let’s say you see someone walking on vegetation in an alpine zone. You would approach them and make small talk, then maybe tell a story about the alpine zone and why it’s important and sensitive. Without placing blame for past actions, you’d end by sharing best practices for protecting that area in the future.
“You’re not slapping them with some sort of scolding or fine, and it’s a much more welcoming approach,” Brosseau said.
Less (gear) is more
So you’ve figured out how to reduce your impact while you’re on the trail. Now what? Well, you can start thinking about your gear.
“There’s no question that we’ve seen people learn about and adopt LNT practices and then go home and say gee, why am I not recycling things?” Marion said.
It’s a good argument for reducing the amount of gear you buy in the first place, too. Every time you purchase a new pack or pair of boots, you’re participating in a long chain of environmental impacts, known as externalities. The production, manufacturing and shipping of clothing and gear consumes a lot of resources and often contributes a significant amount of pollution.
So it stands to reason that buying less gear, or buying recycled gear, or holding on to your gear longer can help you reduce your impact on the environment.
“The Leave No Trace program is still focused on teaching low-impact practices that people apply when they’re visiting wilderness and parks and forest,” Marion said. “But I think that the community at large certainly does embrace the notion that they should advocate for the purchase of green materials [and] green gear,” Marion said.
Plus, buying and carrying less gear is a basic tenant of backpacking that emerged from the desire to keep your pack as light as possible. Marion takes that to the extreme: For the past 20 years, he’s been cooking on a camping stove that’s made from the bottoms of two aluminum cans.
“Backpackers long ago have figured out that they can substitute knowledge for things,” Marion said.
Brosseau agrees. While every hiker and camper should have the 10 essentials on every outing, you don’t need to weigh yourself down with unnecessary gadgets, he said.
Planes, trains and automobiles
And now we’re back to where we started: How do you reduce the emissions and subsequent impact of your travel to the trailhead?
“One of the things the Adirondacks lacks is a lot of alternative ways to reach a trailhead,” Brosseau said. In other words, you pretty much have to drive a car to get around.
But even if that’s the case, consider carpooling. It’s not only more sustainable, but it cuts down on overcrowded trailhead parking lots, which is a problem unto itself.
Brosseau is also an advocate for the high peaks hiker shuttle, which has operated in fits and starts over the past few years. He sees potential to expand the service, or even outfit the route with all-electric vehicles. Both ideas would give hikers more sustainable options for reaching a trailhead.
In other parts of the country, the so-called “transit to trailhead” movement has seen lots of success. Seattle’s “Trailhead Direct” bus service brings passengers from the city to “hundreds of miles of backcountry trails.” Pasadena’s Route 88 shuttles hikers from a Los Angeles subway station to a popular trailhead in the San Gabriel Mountains. And Minnesota’s “Transit to Green Space” program has been carting Twin City residents to surrounding parks for over a decade.
At some of the most popular national parks, shuttle systems have also become ubiquitous. Zion National Park, for example, started its shuttle service in 2000, and it now transports some 6.3 million tourists every year.
Marion also thinks a lot about minimizing his airline miles. As many of us are now well-aware, taking one flight can amount to an entire year’s worth of your personal carbon emissions. So when Marion flies cross-country to section hike the Pacific Crest Trail, he tries to maximize his time out there. Right now, that looks like taking his teenage Venturing Crew on a weeklong backpacking trip on the trail, where he can not only check off his own goals, but help expose a new generation of hikers to low-impact practices.
“I feel good about that, but that’s not going to get me to finish the whole PCT,” Marion said.
Once he’s retired, he aims to spend months at a time on the West Coast to help justify the flight.
“Hopefully more people are starting to think that way, and I think Leave No Trace has encouraged me to think that way,” Marion said.
Share your thoughts
Did this article give you any new ideas or insights? What tips would you add? Leave a comment below!