If you’ve ever hiked near Vancouver and saw a group of people leave the trail and start digging small holes, that might’ve been me. We weren’t searching for buried treasure… we were learning how to poop in the woods. Yep, you heard that right, I teach people how to poop outdoors – along with how to choose a tent site, what to do with orange peels, what kind of wood to use for a campfire, and a whole lot of other wilderness responsibility skills. It’s all part of being a volunteer Leave No Trace trainer.
What is Leave No Trace? It’s a set of 7 simple principles that help guide us when we spend time outdoors. The aim is to make sure that we keep the wilderness wild for everyone to enjoy. If you’re planning to camp or hike this year, here’s a look at the 7 things to keep in mind:
1. Plan ahead and prepare
It’s no fun showing up to a fully booked campground or discovering snow on the trail when you’re wearing shorts. To have an awesome adventure, do some research before you load your tent in the car or put on your hiking boots. Check the weather forecast, trail conditions and park regulations ahead of time so you know what to bring. Don’t forget a first aid kit and other emergency supplies so you’ll be prepared for what mother nature throws at you and won’t risk damaging the environment.
2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
Tolkien said, “Not all those who wander are lost,” but wandering off trail is actually a good way to get lost (and it hurts the plants too). Hundreds of footsteps or dozens of tents can damage fragile ecosystems that may take years to recover. The areas that are the most sensitive are often the most beautiful: think meadows, wetlands and lakeshores. Keep your impact on nature as light as possible by staying on trail and camping in designated sites. If you’re in a backcountry area with no designated campsites, remember that the best campsites are found, not made. When you pitch your tent, look for gravel, dry grass, snow or bare dirt.
3. Dispose of waste properly
You already know you should pack out your granola bar wrappers and water bottles. But what about orange peels, apple cores, egg shells or those crusty noodles that burned to the bottom of your cooking pot? While it’s true that they’ll biodegrade, it’s also true that it will take a long time – it could be months in some cases. Plus, biodegradable waste doesn’t look nice and animals might be tempted to eat it. So biodegradable or not, if you packed it in, always pack it out.
And what should you do if “nature calls” while you’re in nature? If you can’t make it to the nearest outhouse, then the first step is to get at least 70 paces away from trails, campsites and water sources. This distance gives you privacy, makes sure you don’t pollute water, and prevents anyone else from coming across your deposit later. Dig a small hole about 15cm (6in.) deep. If you aren’t packing a portable trowel, a rock, stick or the heel of your boot makes a great substitute. When you’re done, fill in the hole with dirt. If possible, pack out your toilet paper in a plastic bag (otherwise bury it in the hole). I carry hand sanitizer to clean my hands afterwards.
4. Leave what you find
Taking photos of our lives is now easier than ever. And if your life includes finding pretty wildflowers, cool rocks or historic artifacts on your outdoor adventures, snap a pic instead of taking them home with you. (Bonus points if it’s a selfie.) Leave the things you find in nature so that other hikers and campers can discover them too.
5. Minimize campfire impacts
Crackling sounds, the smell of smoke, and sticky marshmallow goo on your fingers… a campfire is an essential part of many camping trips. Thankfully most campsites already have a fire ring, since that’s the best (and safest) place to build your campfire. Make sure your fire is never left unattended and make sure it’s out and cold before you leave it. (You don’t want to be the person that started a forest fire!)
Instead of gathering wood at your campsite, it’s best to buy bundles of dry firewood. Popular camp areas get overharvested, which damages the forest. If you do collect firewood, choose wood from dead and downed trees. Live trees don’t burn very well and are a valuable part of the forest ecosystem.
Summer fire bans are becoming more common and fires might be prohibited year-round in sensitive environments such as alpine meadows. Check regulations in advance and come up with a campfire-free evening plan. (My favourite is playing board games around a lantern.)
6. Respect wildlife
One of the things that gets me the most stoked on outdoor adventures is spotting wildlife: eagles, deer or even bears. You might be curious about an animal, but remember to give wildlife space to eat and roam. Use binoculars or the zoom lens on your camera to get a closer look, not your feet. And if you bring your dog hiking or camping, carry a leash so they don’t get too close either.
Squirrels and birds may play cute and beg for snacks, but don’t give in. Human food isn’t healthy for them and they might lose their ability to find their own. (And if the animal eating human food is a bear, things can get scary.)
7. Be considerate of other visitors
You’ll likely be sharing the trail or campsite with others, so be a good neighbour. Keep your #adventuresquad small and make sure other people have space to enjoy nature. Many people head outdoors to listen to the birds or the wind in the trees, so if your life requires a soundtrack, consider wearing headphones. The outdoors are for everyone, and we need to compromise and share so we can all go home with great memories.