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This sign is not just decoration. Please stay on the trail. (photo by Amy Gosch)

Learning Not to Leave It

Article and photos by Amy Gosch

People are flocking to the outdoors in record numbers. Every year, the nation’s national parks report staggering crowds. In 2016, Rocky Mountain National Park alone had more than 4.5 million visitors.

It’s great that people are getting more active in nature, but it takes a toll on Mother Nature. Hanging Lake near Glenwood Springs and Conundrum Hot Springs by Aspen are two Colorado areas considering a visitors’ permit system to lighten the impact of thousands of people.

While the Leave No Trace concept was created in the 1960s by federal public land agencies, including the Forest Service, Park Service and Bureau of Land Management, the nonprofit Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics incorporated in 1994. Its mission is “to protect the outdoors by teaching and inspiring people to enjoy it responsibly.” Executive director Dana Watts is a native Coloradan who has been with the Leave No Trace Center, which is in Boulder, from the beginning. She was moving back to Colorado from Washington, D.C., when a friend told her the nonprofit was forming and she would be a great fit for it. She started as the center’s marketing director and became executive director a year later.

(photo by Amy Gosch)

Watts grew up camping outdoors nearly every weekend in summers. “One thing I remember specifically is that it rained almost every single time we tried to put the tent up, and there was moaning and complaining and everyone crying,” she says. “Then we’d get it set up and go to bed, and waking up the next morning made it all worthwhile.”

We all need to be aware of how we impact nature so future generations can have pristine outdoor experiences, Watts says. Here are the major Leave No Trace principles for creating a sustainable outdoors for everyone.

Know Before You Go

When planning a hike, research the trails you’ll use. There’s a wealth of online information, including maps, rules, regulations, and even reviews and notes from other hikers. Once at the trail, read trailhead signs to learn about any special requirements in the area you’re entering.

Travel on Durable Surfaces

(photo by Amy Gosch)

When hiking, stick to the trail. It might be tempting to veer off for a closer look at something, but doing so can start a “social trail” created by people walking randomly rather than sticking to the trail. Trails are thoughtfully designed with regard to impacts on vegetation, wild-animal paths and natural drainage. Switchbacks might seem like a pain, but they’re there for a reason. A steep trail washes away quickly, leaving a deep trench. Switchbacks allow for a less-vertical trail that’s not as susceptible to erosion. Cutting trails kills plants, as well. Tundra plants take years, even decades, to mature; it doesn’t take many steps to destroy them. Shoes are made to get dirty! Heading off a trail to sidestep mud only widens the trail, creating more space for larger mud pools. If rocks or branches are blocking a trail entrance, don’t follow it, as this means the trail is being restored. The rocks and branches are there to deter you.

Pack It In, Pack It Out

Really? You couldn’t put the poop bag in the trash yourself?

Trash, food and pet waste are on the “pack-it-out” list. Trash also includes natural things, like peels. Besides being unsightly, banana and orange peels aren’t native and don’t break down quickly in the wild. Bring an empty bag for wrappers and scraps and pack them out. Also, animals get accustomed to human food and start to not hunt or forage on their own (why do that if you have a free restaurant?). In terms of pet waste, it’s not natural (the act, yes, the product, not so much). Either bag pet waste and carry it out, or bury it. Scented bags and soft-sided containers can hide the smell and keep poo from getting squished. And never leave pet bags next to the trail—they’re not the prettiest sight when you’re trying to enjoy the outdoors. You can bury solid human waste, though in some locations you’re required to carry it out (again, read trailhead signs). For human pee and poop, stay at least 200 feet (about 70 steps) away from water sources to avoid contaminating the water. Toilet paper should be packed out in zip-lock bags.

Take Only Pictures, Leave Only Footprints

Unless it’s trash, leave whatever you encounter where you find it in the outdoors, including plants, rocks, pinecones, branches and artifacts like old cans from mining camps. If every single one of the 4.5 million RMNP visitors picked a flower, what would be left? In addition, don’t bring in plants or rocks, especially painted or decorated rocks, as the coatings are harmful to flora and fauna. While rock towers are fun to build, they serve a navigational purpose in wilderness areas. Cairns (pronounced like “Karen” without the e) are landmarks to guide hikers on a trail, especially above tree line where trails are often difficult to see. Superfluous rock stacks can lead people off the trail, potentially getting them lost, particularly if they’re hiking through fog or snow. Some creatures also use rocks for their homes. Would you want a giant picking up your home?

Respect Wildlife

Each year we read stories about wildlife charging people. In theory, we all know not to approach wild animals, but snapping that perfect photo is pretty tempting. However, getting too close to wild animals stresses them. If an animal attacks, it’s most likely to protect itself or its offspring. Once an attack happens, that animal is flagged. It might be immediately euthanized or get a second chance, but we shouldn’t put any animal in that position. Binoculars are great for getting a close look without risking your safety or an animal’s life. Respecting wildlife extends to birds, chipmunks, squirrels, and even spiders and insects. Never feed wildlife, and keep pets under control. Many wilderness areas have leash laws for a reason—to protect you, your pet and wildlife.

With a little foresight and knowledge, your wilderness experience will be a success for you, the environment, and the generations who follow in your footsteps.


Amy Gosch is an avid outdoorswoman and photographer. She gets expansive about subjects of passionate interest to her, so please see www.GetBoulder.com/leave-no-trace and www.LNT.org for more information.