We go into the wilderness for many reasons, but one of them is for the pristine, unspoiled beauty of it all. That is, until you see a bright orange peel on the ground, or a trail of pistachio shells, or a cigarette butt. Sure, banana peels are biodegradable, but that doesn’t mean they belong in the wilderness.
Since 1994, the Leave no Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, commonly referred to as Leave No Trace (LNT), has been educating people about their recreational impact on the environment, as well as seven key ways they can prevent or minimize their impact.
Here’s an example of how our love for nature can cause inadvertent harm (which, ironically, completely undermines that love we have). Mt. Whitney is the highest peak in the contiguous United States. It’s not a technical climb and, as such, is extremely popular. To protect the mountain and its environment, there is a stringent lottery-based permit system in place to control how many people can climb to the top. But even with that control in place, the human impact on the environment was – in the not-so-distant past – “grossly” obvious.
Most people climb Whitney over two days. Guitar Lake is the main staging area for a second-day summit attempt. Almost everyone who climbs Whitney camps there. At 11,460 feet up, Guitar Lake is in a difficult environment. Not much lives or grows at that elevation, and what is there struggles to survive. You won’t find bears or deer or many raptor that high up. It’s a harsh environment for living things and houses a sensitive ecosystem.
Just a few years ago, you could smell Guitar Lake before you could see it. Why? Poop. Poop everywhere. At that time, backpackers were required to bury their poop. But with the throngs of people calling Guitar Lake home for one night, and given its sensitive environment, the poop was piling up. Little “flowers” of toilet paper could be seen poking out of the ground from improperly dug poop holes. The stench was thick. NOT what you expect when heading deep into the mountains.
Now, if you visit the Whitney zone you are required to carry and use a WAG bag for your poop and toilet paper. WAG stands for “waste and gel”. The military invented it, but it works great for Whitney and places like Whitney. Yes, it’s a little gross to have to collect your poop in a bag and carry it with you, but the gel neutralizes the poop and, let’s face it, it’s better than smelling other people’s stink. Problem solved … except it’s not. Idiots who don’t belong in the wilderness will use the WAG bag, and then ditch the WAG bag behind a rock or tree. WTF?!?!
That’s but one example of what we humans inadvertently (or purposely) do to our environment. LNT principles are a guide, if you will. They instruct us on living, temporarily, in the wild, and ensure that the wild areas stay wild for the next people.
There are seven principles of LNT, but some people live by way more than just these seven. These basic tenets are critical to protecting the beautiful spaces we all love so much. It’s your responsibility, née, your obligation, to do your part.
- 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.
© 1999 by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics: http://www.LNT.org.
I’m not going to go into all the points and sub-points for each of the Seven Principles. For detailed information, please visit the LNT site. I will mention a few key points I see many hikers and backpackers ignore or disrespect, either on purpose or due to ignorance.
Food waste: It might be biodegradable, but you probably don’t realize just how long it takes for a banana peel to degrade: TWO YEARS! It’s also annoying to see that yellowish/brownish piece of waste in the middle of our pristine wilderness. And guess what? Animals don’t eat banana peels! Nor orange peels. Nor sunflower seed shells. It’s litter. Here are the rates at which some commonly littered items degrade:
- Paper bag – 1 month
- Apple core – 8 weeks
- Orange peel and banana skins – 2 years
- Cigarette butt – 18 months to 500 years
- Plastic bag – 10 to 20 years
- Plastic bottle – 450 years
- Chewing gum – 1 million years
Traipsing Through Alpine Meadows (Julie Andrews style): I already mentioned that high-elevation areas are fragile. Alpine meadows are no exception. They have a very short growing season and the grasses and other plants struggle to grow in the thin air. Are alpine meadows gorgeous? For sure! They are also critical and sensitive components of the entire mountainous ecosystem.
When you walk across a meadow, you are contributing to its death. One person walking across a pristine meadow isn’t so bad, but when hundreds of people do it every season, the damage can be extensive. Stay on existing trails. Do not be that jerk and stray off the trail for that perfect photo of a flower. And do not sleep on meadow grasses! Many meadowy areas have already-ruined spaces where campers repeatedly set up tents over the years. Those are the only areas you should use for camping – they are already dead. Don’t ever create new camping areas, no matter how soft that grass looks.
For more detailed info about meadows and their critical importance to the health of the mountains, check out this informative article on the Yosemite National Park website.
Cairns: If you don’t know what a cairn is, think again — you likely do. It’s a pile of rocks, with the biggest on the bottom and smallest on top. Ring a bell? People, for some reason, LOVE to make cairns. Cairns do have an important, viable use: they act as directional markers, helping us to navigate in areas with no trail or where the trail disappears over large swatches of rock. Recently, I was backpacking through a snowy area and the only way I knew where to go (without using my GPS) was through the placement of cairns. Super helpful (and perhaps life saving)!
But cairns with no purpose violate principles #4 and #7.
Leave what you find includes rocks. Rocks provide shelter and homes for small bugs and critters. Leave them be! And when I’m in the wilderness, I prefer not to see anything made by humans — and that includes senseless cairns. Why do so many humans feel the need to leave their mark on our wild areas? Must we “decorate” these pristine places? Non-directional cairns are an irony. Don’t do it. Don’t let your kids do it, either.
Audible Music: I don’t want to hear your music in the back country. ‘Nuff said.
Biodegradable Soap: Just because it’s biodegradable does not mean it’s good for the environment! These popular soaps have no business in our wilderness streams and lakes. In fact, they cause a whole host of problems, including increased levels of nitrogen and death to aquatic creatures (especially the tiny ones). If you actually take the time to read the fine print on the back of soaps such as Campsuds, it tells you as much. If you use soaps on the trail, don’t let it get into the waterways. Wash/clean at least 200 feet from any water source and bury or disperse the soapy water.
These are just a few examples and tips, but there are so many more. We are so lucky to have amazing, pristine, beautiful wilderness areas to enjoy. But with that access comes responsibility. Each of us needs to do our part to protect these sensitive environments for ourselves, for each other and for our children. Please always do your part or, better yet, go above and beyond. Educate yourself and others (LNT offers classes and workshops!). Pick up trash when you see it. Carry out your toilet paper, even when you aren’t required to. The earth (and others) will thank you!
“A good traveler leaves no tracks.“ – Lao-Tzu