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The Best Leave No Trace Principles To Minimize The Effects of Crowds

There’s a lot going on right now, which is why our ability to escape to nature is even more valuable than ever before. But you’d be mistaken if you thought you were the only one looking to get outside. One of the biggest takeaways from a recent study by Leave No Trace of the outdoor recreation community navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, shows participants reporting an intention to increase their use of public lands and participate in more types of outdoor recreation. We’re guessing you can anecdotally verify this surge from your own experiences.

Right now, our natural areas are receiving more visitation than ever, which is compounded by inconsistent local ordinances that can lead to areas receiving less attention from park staff and unreliable trash services and restroom facilities. Many visitors are also new to the outdoors and uninformed about their impacts. This is exactly why it’s more important than ever to act with intention when venturing outdoors.

Fortunately you aren’t left in the dark when it comes to being a good steward of the land thanks to the longstanding (but continually evolving) 7 principles of Leave No Trace. These seven basic principles include: 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 and 7) be considerate of other visitors. We thought it’d be helpful to highlight and add to the principles we’ve found to be most relevant in this time of COVID-19.

Plan Ahead And Prepare

This is the very first principle of Leave No Trace and in our estimate, currently the most urgent. First off, research ahead of time to determine any travel restrictions and whether the area is open and to what extent. This should help you determine what to pack—prepare by packing your own food and snacks and bringing essentials like hand sanitizer and a face mask.

Planning to visit during off-peak times can help in every aspect of LNT—it’s easier to mitigate damage to the natural environment when you’re not having to step off to the side of a trail repeatedly or choosing an appropriate campsite after the crowds have cleared. If it’s crowded when you arrive, have an alternate destination available.

Planning ahead can also include researching the COVID-19 rates in the area to be able to evaluate the risk to yourself or locals in traveling to this destination.

Be Considerate of Other Visitors

To help ensure everyone has a positive and safe experience, especially when encountering crowds, we’re leap-frogging ahead to Leave No Trace Principle 7, which encourages consideration of our fellow visitors. Traditionally, this principle revolves around maintaining courtesy toward other visitors, by avoiding excessive noise, managing pets, and not damaging surroundings to ensure a quality outdoor experience for everyone. These considerations can be expanded on to include maintaining the appropriate six-foot social distance (you’ll likely encounter signage at trailheads encouraging this practice). In busy areas, it’s also recommended to wear face masks. Keep these practices in mind especially in areas that tend to bottleneck like trailheads, footbridges and scenic overlooks. And of course, if you’re experiencing any symptoms, stay home!

Dispose Of Waste Properly

Being responsible for your waste is extra important right now, especially with some outdoor areas experiencing visitation while facilities are closed or limited. Also, this is a great opportunity to model good behavior to those who may be new to outdoor or wilderness recreation.

With many campgrounds and facilities closed, it’s likely that you’ll need to make a plan for managing your waste. LNT outlines the best methods for disposing of or packing out human waste, both of which require planning and special tools (shovel, wag bag).

LNT also educates on disposing of trash including micro-trash, which might not register for some people as littering—think sunflower seed shells, tangerine peels, cigarette butts. Planning ahead by bringing the appropriate waste containers is critical (see principal one).

Now is a great time to freshen up on all seven Leave No Trace principles. With the increased burden on outdoor areas, it’s up to each of us to keep it wild!

Annie FastAnnie Fast writes about winter sports and outdoor adventures from her home in Bend, Oregon.You can read more about her and her work at