Not Your Parents' Wilderness Ethics: Leave No Trace for the next generation

When I was a kid, my dad showed me how to create a fir-bough bed by chopping the soft branches from a live tree. He built fire rings every time we camped and burned our trash before we packed up so we wouldn't carry it out. He taught us to answer the call of nature as if we, too, were wild animals, making open-air toilets of rocks, logs, and patches of ferns — although with toilet paper.

After college, I spent time in the backcountry with a new generation of hikers and climbers, took outdoor courses, and learned a new environmental ethic. Leave the trees alone, I told my dad. When I went backpacking, I followed a new mantra: "Pack it in, pack it out." Instead of an axe, I packed a small trowel, to bury my waste. Instead of gathering fir boughs, I carried a tent.

I recently talked with Alex DeLucia, AMC's Leave No Trace coordinator, to find out how environmental ethics have continued to evolve in the 30 years since I was introduced to the U.S. Forest Service's Leave No Trace programs. Our conversation could serve as a primer on wilderness ethics for the new generation.

Bring out what you bring in. DeLucia emphasizes that planning ahead is a key to this core Leave No Trace value. Pack orange slices peeled ahead of time, for example, or pistachio nuts already shelled. "What about apple cores?" I asked him, thinking of all the cores I've tossed off the trail over the years. "The backcountry isn't an orchard," he replied. "Whether it takes a week or a month for something to break down, you're impacting someone else's experience." Ants and mice have become pests in high-use areas because of visitors' careless actions. In other words, no more apple cores.

Respect wildlife. Teach children to enjoy wild animals without interfering with them. That means not feeding them, even inadvertently. DeLucia recommends filtering "gray water," the water left over from cooking, and then scattering it. (Bandanas work well as filters.) "We're trying not to habituate animals to human food," he said. "A bear will be drawn to the food scent in scattered gray water. But — unlike digging up food bits from a sump hole — it won't score."

Minimize campfire impacts.
"In a lot of our programs, we simply don't have fires," DeLucia told me. "A fire superheats and kills all life on the bare ground underneath it." Add a warm glow to a night under the stars, instead, by lighting candles, putting headlamps behind or inside (empty) colored water bottles, or simply looking at the stars or moonlight. DeLucia added, "It's a whole different experience when we're not trying to shut out the night." Campfires can still be part of family camping experiences. Use existing fire rings in developed areas, DeLucia said, and make small fires, burning the wood wholly to ash.

Practice low-impact hiking and camping. "People understand pretty well, now," said DeLucia, "to stay on the trail in fragile alpine areas." We need to take the same care at lower elevations, especially in heavily used areas. Teach children to be aware of where they walk, and model good behavior by setting up tents back from shorelines and away from easily disturbed areas.

Up high or down low, it helps to know what's out there. DeLucia encourages adults to spend some time down on hands and knees with kids, looking at the plants of the forest and alpine zone. Bring along guides to identify what you see: "When we put names to things, that often correlates to more care."

Dispose of human waste properly. When DeLucia talks to children about going to the bathroom outdoors, he gives them the analogy of cats using a litter box. He explains that they can also make "cat holes" out in the woods. DeLucia encourages parents to make site selection into a game: Is it 200 feet from water? Is it far away from a trail? "They're exploring off the trail, so it becomes an adventure at the same time." Pack wet wipes instead of toilet paper — more sanitary, less waste. Above treeline, carry out all solid waste, including used wipes.

Think broadly about reducing impact. Even careful outdoors families sometimes overlook harmful impacts. Before swimming, for instance, fill a pan or water bottles, move 200 feet away from the water, and rinse off bare skin. It's the same principle as showering before entering a swimming pool. The quick rinse keeps sunscreen, insect repellent, and other chemicals on the skin from entering and potentially damaging natural water sources.

Resist the temptation to collect shed antlers and other natural treasures. DeLucia encourages the teens he works with on trail crews to think of the excitement other people will feel when they come across those same moose antlers. For keepsakes, take pictures.

Our impacts even include the noise we make. DeLucia suggests re-thinking the whole notion of "indoor voice, outdoor voice." By listening more and using quieter voices, he says, we gain a deeper appreciation of nature — and give others the same opportunity.

DeLucia and other Leave No Trace educators are trying to change the perception that we are "alone in the woods." As visitors dramatically increase in front-country natural areas, such as roadside campgrounds and picnic stops, and as more people rely on city parks and green spaces, we want to teach Leave No Trace principles to the next generation of hikers — and also to millions of people who may never set foot in the backcountry.

Learn more
- Learn about Leave No Trace principles from The Center for Outdoor Ethics.
- AMC holds five-day Master Trainer courses for outdoor educators, as well as general two-day trainer courses in Leave No Trace.
- As members of trail crews, teens also participate in workshops on LNT principles. In 2010, 36 teens on four Berkshire Trails Leadership Crews became Leave No Trace trainers, taking the LNT message back to schools, scout groups, and communities. Leave No Trace training is also included in the Camp Dodge Leadership and Conservation Crew program in the White Mountains.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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