Respecting Natural Places

I have been passionate about the value of spending time in nature since the 1980’s. It has always been a place of peace and grounding. In this time of pandemic and social distancing (and gym’s being closed) more and more people are flocking to our parks, trails, lakes,and rivers for physical fitness and mental health.  Trails are more crowded. If you don’t arrive early, parking lots are full and you are left looking for another place to enjoy nature. This is also evident when you shop at an outdoor store or try to order anything online. Gear is sold out and shipping times are longer.

While I embrace this sudden love of the outdoors, what I hope is that appreciation for the resource becomes paramount. People have been respectful on trail, moving aside when meeting others. But, what I am talking about is understanding human impact and taking steps to lessen the impact of this increase in use.

I am a Master Educator for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics.  Leave No Trace was designed to protect our natural lands from overuse. Today that mission is more important than ever.

The foundation of Leave No Trace (LNT) is the Authority of the Resource . Simply put, let the resource speak for itself. Through education people gain understanding of how they impact the area in which they are travelling. Once they understand that impact  they may be more inclined to protect it.

The backbone of practicing Leave No Trace is in the seven principles. If you have traveled to a State or National Park you have seen these principles posted in campgrounds, trail heads, and at the entrance station. 

  • Plan Ahead and Prepare
  • Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  • Dispose of Waste Properly
  • Leave What You Find
  • Minimize Campfire Impacts
  • Respect Wildlife
  • Be Considerate of Other Visitors

I have done workshops just on the first principle, It is foundational and includes many aspects of the following six.

If you plan ahead and prepare you are thinking about and asking the following questions prior to heading out on trail:

  • Research the site you are visiting. Look at the maps, are they up to date or were they printed decades ago? If you are backpacking, look for the designated campsites? Is primitive camping allowed? Do I need permits? What is the geography of the land? What is the surface of the ground, is it durable? Can I camp there without harming the environment? If I am hiking off trail I want to look at a topographical map to avoid wetlands and other vulnerable surfaces and environments. Is it a popular destination? 
  • If I get injured what are my evacuation routes? Who do I contact in an emergency?
  • What is the weather prediction? Do I have the right clothing and equipment?
  • Are there outhouses or do I need to carry out my human waste?  I spend a significant amount of time sea kayaking in Maine. We need to carry out solid human waste. If you have never carried out your own waste you will need to learn the systems available for managing that component of your trip. 
  • What about grey water and leftover food? How do I manage that? If I am doing a multi day trip do I have the proper equipment to hang my food so critters won’t get into it? How am I going to cook my food? This will determine what type of stove you need to bring. If you are going to use the freeze dried meals you will need a stove that can boil water quickly. If you like to do elaborate meals you will need a different cook system and a few more pots. Is baking your thing, you may need a fry bake. Planning meals and re-packing everything before you leave creates less waste on trail and is more efficient in terms of weight and space.
  • What about paper waste, human waste, toilet paper, and feminine hygiene products? How do I dispose of this waste appropriately? Human waste is a major problem in the backcountry. And now with COVID, many public bathroom facilitates are closed.  I am a proponent of carrying out your own waste using a Wag Bag. A wag bag is designed with a chemical that gels human waste and makes it disposable in a trash can. You can purchase Wag Bags through the Leave No Trace Center. At $3.50, they are a bargain!
  • Are campfires permitted? Is there a designated fire pit at the campsite? What is the fire danger? Can I bring my own wood? Do I need a permit?
  • What wildlife am I likely to encounter? Is it the spring when babies are born and wildlife are most vulnerable? Are there poisonous critters…if so how can I avoid them? Where do they feed or sleep? I want to educate myself to what I am going to encounter and how not to disturb their patterns. I want to make sure I do not make human food available to them. It habituates them. Once they understand humans mean food they become a “nuisance”. In most parks animals will be tagged and relocated. After they have been found rummaging through campgrounds for the third time they will be destroyed. 
  • Is this a popular destination? If so, how can I respect other visitors? Should I leave my music at home (yes)? Just recently I was hiking and someone was coming up the trail with music blaring. If you want to listen to music when you hike, wear headphones! No one wants to hear your music on the trail!

All of the bullet points addressed in the first principal, Plan Ahead and Prepare, may seem overwhelming at first but it really does not take that much time to do your research. It will make the trip more enjoyable for everyone. But, more importantly protect our natural places from being loved to death.

Once you are out in the backcountry the principals become a day to day consideration. But, by doing your homework ahead of time, getting your systems dialed it becomes easy to be respectful and have less impact.

The one principal I did not address in Plan Ahead and Prepare is Leave What You Find. Coming from a generation where it was a free for all. You could take what you wanted. No one dreamed that the resource would dry up. I remember visiting the Petrified Forest in the early 70’s. Just outside the park there were acres of public lands littered with petrified wood. We were told we could take as much as we wanted. I remember taking bags full. This was way before we understood human impact and way before overcrowding and overuse. Now that area is void of petrified wood. I wonder how much of that ended up in someone’s attic or landfills?

For more information about LNT contact the Leave No Trace Center. They have an amazing website with tons or resources for individuals and teachers. Take a class. It can be a simple day long awareness class, a weekend trainer class, or a longer Master Educator class. 

Check our website for a list of Leave No Trace courses. If we don’t have something that fits into your schedule we can always design a program for you and your friends or family.

Get outside! Stay Safe, Have Fun and Respect Nature!


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