Let’s say you’re walking through the woods, munching on a carrot.
A real, whole carrot. Mmmm.
You continue walking and chomping, enjoying the calm that surrounds you.
When you eventually get to the end of your carrot, that last little stub, what do you do?
Go ahead, picture yourself doing what comes automatically.
If you saw yourself chucking the carrot end into the forest—because it’s organic and obviously going to break down naturally out here, just like compost—then I’m so glad you’ve found this post! Keep on reading, because you’re about to meet Leave No Trace (LNT), seven principles to follow whenever you’re in the outdoors—from local parks to National Scenic Trails.
If you saw yourself pocketing the carrot stub, or putting it into a ziplock of trash to pack out, perhaps you’re already familiar with the letters LNT. Thank you, and keep it up!
Why Learn LNT Principles?
Your small daily actions have impacts beyond what you can see. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics has done research and identified seven proven solutions to protect the natural world.
Following their seven principals will help:
- keep natural areas clean and trash-free,
- protect water,
- keep yourself safe,
- protect wildlife,
- prevent/reduce trail erosion, and more.
Here are all the problems that LNT’s principles are solving.
Especially if you’re going to be thru-hiking, it’s important to set an example by practicing LNT and sharing the knowledge if a teachable moment arises.
The 7 LNT Principles
Below I’ll give a brief intro to each principle, including the points that are most important for thru-hikers. Please visit the link for each principle to learn it fully.
1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
This includes—but is not limited to—making sure to know:
- your skill/ability,
- the trail and surrounding terrain (maps),
- your average hiking speed, and more.
2. Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces
Stay on trail! This means don’t cut switchbacks or follow social trails; stay on the official trail.
Allow for enough time at the end of the day to find a suitable camp site on a durable surface—this is our responsibility. The most durable surfaces are rock, sand, and gravel.
Learn about the environments in which you’ll be hiking, to know what surfaces are most fragile. For example, in the desert, avoid walking on crypto—a living soil that can be destroyed by a single footstep. In the alpine, avoid vegetation—which is extremely fragile due to the low amounts of oxygen, and can also be destroyed by a few footsteps—and walk on rocks instead.
When thru-hiking, you’ll be hiking off trail when you find somewhere to camp and when you dig catholes, so it’s important to know what’s better to step on and what to avoid.
3. Dispose of Waste Properly
When you need to poop, walk 200 feet (~70 steps) from the trail and from any water sources. Find a spot where other people are unlikely to walk or camp. If it’s elevated and in the sun, all the better.
Dig a cathole 6-8″ deep. Take your dump, bury it, and then cover the spot with natural materials.
If you use toilet paper, make sure it’s unscented and pack it out. Designate a ziplock as a toilet paper trash bag. Another option is to use natural toilet paper—i.e. leaves, stones, snow. Give it a try! In the desert I like using hot stones to dry off after peeing.
Tampons must be packed out. I stopped using tampons in 2016, and use a menstrual cup instead. When camping, I simply empty the cup in a cathole. I highly recommend menstrual cups!
Even if your soap is biodegradable, wash 200 feet away from water sources. On the AZT I would fill my Sawyer bag with water and wet the item in the water source. Then I’d walk 70 steps away, rub in some soap, and use that water in my Sawyer bag to wash/rinse.
And, as illustrated with the carrot in the intro, all food waste must be packed out as well.
4. Leave What You Find
This one is straightforward: leave areas as you find them.
Meaning don’t pick flowers, don’t take stones. If you clear an area of branches/pinecones to camp on, rescatter them before you leave in the morning.
5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
I did not make any campfires while thru-hiking the AZT; it wasn’t even an option to consider. You’d need to know the fire danger level for your location and if there are any current restrictions, you’d need to have enough water to safely put out the fire, you’d need abundant wood for burning, etc.
6. Respect Wildlife
Observe wildlife quietly from a distance. (Loud noises and fast movement would stress them out.) The obvious exception to this would be making noise in bear country.
So, on the AZT when you come across a rattlesnake on/near trail, first freeze, then slowly back up, and finally carefully make your way around the snake, off trail, giving it lots of space so you don’t disturb it further.
7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors
The most important one here for thru-hikers is that uphill hikers have the right of way. So when you’re hiking downhill, yield to any uphill hikers. This means get to the side of the trail, or off trail, and let them pass.
When hiking at the Grand Canyon, you may encounter mules or horses. If you see equestrians coming, move off trail to the downhill side. If you talk to the equestrians as they pass, use a quiet voice so as not to spook the horses.
Additional LNT Resources
- Leave No Trace: Center for Outdoor Ethics created these seven principles.
- Nature First is the alliance for responsible nature photography, which I learned of via my friend Brent Clark.
- New Social Media Guidelines on the blog of Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics.
And that’s your intro to LNT! By learning and practicing these principles, you can be proud every time you dig a cathole, leave what you find, or do your washing 200 feet away from water sources.
Your actions are helping—thank you for respecting and protecting our shared Earth!
This post is part of the Complete AZT Thru-Hiking Guide.