‘Leave No Trace’ in U.S. National Parks: Breaking Down the Seven Principles

by Jon D. B.
leave-no-trace-in-u-s-national-parks-breaking-down-seven-principles

Learn how to recreate responsibly in our amazing U.S. national parks as Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GRSM) backcountry manager Christine Hoyer breaks down the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace.

If you adore America’s incredible national parks, then you’ve certainly heard of Leave No Trace. A staple of the National Park Service‘s educational outreach, the program (established by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, and built on work by the US Forest Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management in the mid 1980s) continues to revolutionize how parks, rangers, and park staff communicate the importance of responsible recreation with visitors. And as our national parks become more crowded than ever, Leave No Trace reaches a whole new level of importance.

What Is ‘Leave No Trace’?

“When you think about leave no trace, think about protecting three things: The land, the things that live here, and the experience of other people coming behind you,” offers GRSM Ranger and backcountry manager Christine Hoyer. “That’s what they boil down to; protecting the resources, the things that call the parks home, and all the other people that hope to come and recreate behind you and have that same sense of discovery and excitement.”

Ranger Christine’s job is, as she describes, is “to keep track of and influence how people are recreating in the park, and communicate to visitors the importance of their impact.” Christine also serves as GRSM’s wilderness coordinator, which sees her “maintaining the wilderness character of the park and backcountry.” And no program better exemplifies all of the above than Leave No Trace.

As Christine notes, each of us plays a vital role in protecting our national parks. And with record numbers of Outsiders heading into our incredible national parks, it’s imperative that we each be conscious of the effects our actions may have on plants, animals, other people, and entire ecosystems at large.

Thankfully, the National Park Service has done a stellar job of streamlining their Leave No Trace program, breaking it down into the Seven Principles, summarized below. Following each within every national park visit helps visitors minimize their impacts. All seven principles can be applied anywhere, at any time, while taking part in recreational activities.

To learn how to do so yourself, read on with Outsider and GRSM’s Ranger Christine as she breaks down each of Leave No Trace’s Seven Principles.

Leave No Trace: The Seven Principles

  1. Plan ahead and prepare
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  3. Dispose of waste properly
  4. Leave what you find
  5. Minimize campfire impacts
  6. Respect Wildlife
  7. Be considerate of other visitors

1.) Plan Ahead and Prepare

  • Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you’ll visit.
  • Prepare for extreme weather, hazards, and emergencies.
  • Schedule your trip to avoid times of high use.
  • Visit in small groups when possible. Consider splitting larger groups into smaller groups.
  • Repackage food to minimize waste.
  • Use a map and compass or GPS to eliminate the use of marking paint, rock cairns or flagging.

“The rules in each park will be different, so checking ahead of time on park websites, or calling into park offices before your visit, will help immensely,” Christine begins of Plan Ahead and Prepare. In parks like GRSM, visitors can call ahead and have rangers and specialists like Christine help plan and prepare for their specific wants and needs. “Use your resources before you head into the park,” she offers. “Check the weather, check park conditions online. Have a sense of where you’re planning to go in the park first, how far you plan to go within, and what you’re turnaround plan is. The same is true if you’re in a vehicle, too, not just hiking.”

Also see: National Parks Journal: Review These 10 Must-Know Essentials Before Your Next Trip

2.) Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

  • Durable surfaces include maintained trails and designated campsites, rock, gravel, sand, dry grasses or snow.
  • Protect riparian areas by camping at least 200 feet from lakes and streams.
  • Good campsites are found, not made. Altering a site is not necessary.
    • In popular areas:
      • Concentrate use on existing trails and campsites.
      • Walk single file in the middle of the trail, even when wet or muddy.
      • Keep campsites small. Focus activity in areas where vegetation is absent.
    • In pristine areas:
      • Disperse use to prevent the creation of campsites and trails.
      • Avoid places where impacts are just beginning.

When it comes to this second principle, “We’re asking people to stay on the designated trails,” Ranger Christine adds. “It’s easy to think the best view is ‘right over that hill,’ but to stay on that designated trail – and roads in a vehicle – protects the surrounding environment.” This applies to sidewalks around visitors centers, as well as designated campsites. “Thinking about, consciously, ‘where am I putting my feet? What is the least impact I can have with myself and my campsite and vehicle?’ goes a long way.”

3.) Dispose of Waste Properly

  • Pack it in, pack it out. Inspect your campsite, food preparation areas, and rest areas for trash or spilled foods. Pack out all trash, leftover food and litter.
  • Utilize toilet facilities whenever possible. Otherwise, deposit solid human waste in catholes dug 6 to 8 inches deep, at least 200 feet from water, camp and trails. Cover and disguise the cathole when finished.
  • Pack out toilet paper and hygiene products.
  • To wash yourself or your dishes, carry water 200 feet away from streams or lakes and use small amounts of biodegradable soap. Scatter strained dishwater.

“This is a fan favorite here in the park,” Christine laughs of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “This is also the original Leave No Trace principle: Pack It In, Pack It Out. Take out everything that you brought in with you, including food scraps. Snack wrappers, micro-trash, water bottles, everything you bring into the park.” If you’re in the backcountry, some parks, like GRSM, will have backcountry privies and receptacles to help minimize the different sort of impact visitors will have on the backcountry.

4.) Leave What You Find

  • Preserve the past: examine, photograph, but do not touch cultural or historic structures and artifacts.
  • Leave rocks, plants and other natural objects as you find them.
  • Avoid introducing or transporting non-native species.
  • Do not build structures, furniture, or dig trenches.

“Leave What You Find is my favorite principle,” Ranger Christine offers, noting her passion. “Leave What You Find is about not only not taking things out, but not introducing things back. This means leaving the rocks, plants, trees, everything as it is. Not taking something home to put it on your mantle leaves that sense of discovery in place for the next visitor, and preserves the natural environment. Instead, take a picture! Journal about it, write about it. Take those amazing sightings with you in some other way, but leave those parts of nature behind.”

This principle applies to not leaving marks behind in national parks, too. Graffiti, as Christine cites, is the opposite of Leave No Trace. Moving and stacking rocks in and around streams, too, is another common way visitors go against this principle. “We hope to keep our streams and rivers as nature intends for our salamanders and all other species in any park.”

5.) Minimize Campfire Impacts

  • Campfires can cause lasting impacts to the environment. Use a lightweight stove for cooking and enjoy a candle lantern for light.
  • Where fires are permitted, use established fire rings, fire pans, or mound fires.
  • Keep fires small. Only use down and dead wood from the ground that can be broken by hand.
  • Burn all wood and coals to ash, put out campfires completely, then scatter cool ashes.

“Whether at a front or backcountry campground or a picnic area, thinking about the wood you’re using goes a long way with this principle,” Christine states. “Trying not to use anything that isn’t already ‘dead and down.’ This can be challenging in the winter when trees and plants are dormant. Something might look like it’s standing and dead, but it is actually fully alive! So we ask that people only use wood that is already fully down for campfires. In the backcountry, we have fire rings and designated places for people to have fires. Using only designated areas for fires greatly increases our chance of protecting parks from wildfires. Only burn wood, not trash, and leave nothing behind in the fire areas.”

6.) Respect Wildlife

  • Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow or approach them.
  • Never feed animals. Feeding wildlife damages their health, alters natural behaviors, [habituates them to humans], and exposes them to predators and other dangers.
  • Protect wildlife and your food by storing rations and trash securely. Remember, leave no trace!
  • Control pets at all times, or leave them at home.
  • Avoid wildlife during sensitive times: mating, nesting, raising young, or winter.

“It’s great to see bears and elk and little critters in our national parks, the big and the little, but it’s so important to make sure we do what we can to keep them wild,” Ranger Christine explains. “Keeping our distance from wildlife, keeping track of your foods and trash, are both key. As soon as an animal picks up its head or changes its behavior in any way, you’re too close!”

Parks like GRSM provide bear cables in the back country to ensure campers can secure their foods and belongings out of the way of bears. For more on the Respect Wildlife principle concerning black bears, see: National Parks Journal: How to Be BearWise with Great Smoky Mountains’ Lead Wildlife Biologist

7.) Be Considerate of Other Visitors

  • Respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience.
  • Be courteous. Yield to other users on the trail.
  • Step to the downhill side of the trail when encountering pack stock.
  • Take breaks and camp away from trails and other visitors.
  • Let nature’s sounds prevail. Avoid loud voices and noises.

“We would love for everyone to have a wonderful, unique experience visiting parks,” Christine offers. “The way that we do that is by respecting other visitors. Respecting that others may be in a park to have the same, or a different type of experience than us. Some might be out in our national parks for solitude; for a quiet experience. So not shouting within your group on trails is one great way to help others enjoy the natural experience. Just trying to remember that we all have a role to play in the experience of others within the park is really important.”

In the end, combining the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace works wonders for preserving America’s incredible national parks. As Leave No Trace states, “We are all the solution to conservation, and Leave No Trace is leading the way.”

To learn more about the pioneering science, hands-on training, and simple guidelines behind Leave No Trace, visit the organization’s official website here.

For more from GRSM’s expert staff on responsible recreation, please see our National Parks Journal: How to ‘Recreate Responsibly’ in the Great Smoky Mountains with NPS’ Dana Soehn next.

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