3 Tips for ‘Leave No Trace’ Camping

Camp responsibly by following the 'Leave No Trace' principles.

We were over 100 miles into the Appalachian Trail in April of 2020 when The Great Smoky Mountains closed due to the spread of COVID-19. We were devastated to head home, but the path forward had stopped being one foot in front of the other and had become riddled with uncertainty. Choosing to leave a place I had dreamed to be for over ten years was a big decision, but it was the right choice. Looking back, I can see the same underlying value drove me onto the trail and off it — a deep care, brimming with wonder and awe, for the creation around me. 

Although cut short, I was able to learn so much from my Leave No Trace hiking experience from Georgia to North Carolina. Some lessons were practical, like how to make sure I woke up and walked the right direction (I learned that lesson the hard way). Other lessons were more ephemeral, and took some deep introspection to find, like how I chose to take care of myself in tough moments. Overall, even when it requires extra work, following Leave No Trace principles encourages more natural and compassionate outdoor adventuring. For those looking to minimize their footprint on their next hike, here are a few places to start.

Hang your food before bed

One of the hardest things I learned to do, from nothing more than concentrated effort, was separate myself from my snacks overnight. I love a sneaky late night snack. When primitive camping in areas where critters, bears, and bugs abound, the state creates laws to protect the animals around you. In North Carolina, you have to hang your food from a tree, and preferably you need to hang it with the sun still up. 

The first time I hung my food with my partner, we had just crossed the state border and gone were the easy-to-use bear boxes. Instead, doing a bear hang of your food is required. I respect and love this rule, however, because it allows bears to stay wild, not indulging in my beloved treats, and it allows people to coexist in these natural spaces too.

To do a proper bear hang, the food must be hung far from where you are sleeping — at least 12 feet off the ground and six feet away from the trunk of the tree — on a branch that will hold your food and not a bear. Sounds easy when you hear it, but the execution is a challenge, to say the least. My (now) husband and I searched for the perfect tree for about 20 minutes before finding a suitable match, halfway down a hill and about a five-minute walk from our campsite. It took us an hour in total to hang the food (first-timers folly), only to walk back to camp and find everyone else had hung their food immediately above their tent, about eight feet off the ground.

Lucky for us, the bears did not prowl around us that night. Done correctly, hanging food a small hike away keeps the campsite safe and ensures the longevity of the bear families. Inviting others into these practices in fun and engaging ways can create room for sharing the love of the wild with an eye towards conservation. Leave No Trace is an intentional commitment to caring for those around you, both big and small. 

Respect your fellow hikers and hellbenders

Leaving No Trace is also a mental game. It takes preparedness, it takes planning, and it takes heart. Modeling through words and actions, we have guidelines on how to treat the privilege of exploring the natural spaces around us. There are simple guidelines such as, don’t build rock cairns on or off trail. Cairns are the little stacks of rocks you sometimes see at trail intersections or along paths. At first it may seem fun to stack rocks, but they are important landmarks on the trail. Cairns serve as essential markers for hikers to be able to establish where they are, or when to turn. They are wonderful to look at, but don’t touch!

Building new cairns also destroys the natural habitats of many little creatures. Hellbender Salamanders, which live in low flowing creeks, love the rocks just as they are! Their interstitial habitat thrives on the rock and sediment patterns.

Stay on trail and be careful how you descend mountains 

Staying on trail is an essential way to Leave No Trace. At first it may seem obvious — you are out there to hike a trail, so stay the course! But when conditions turn suboptimal, people tend to creatively route themselves off trail. In an effort to avoid mud, some may create little side paths. When fatigue sets in, people cut corners and avoid following the marked trail. In the thru-hiking world, I love to hear the phrase, “Cut toothbrushes, not switchbacks.” Shaving down the handle of your toothbrushes saves you weight in your pack, and keeping your feet on the trail saves the ecosystem around you.

It wasn’t until my descent of Blood Mountain in Georgia that I truly understood why people plunge straight down the mountain and avoid the switchbacks. Going downhill, day after day, really hurts your knees. The constant pressure to maintain the 30-plus pounds of additional weight makes your knees rethink the dream of hiking the AT. Admittedly, halfway down I started to cry, weaving through the steep switchbacks and corners. I kept to the course, though, sidestepping to take the pressure off my joints (to no avail). I did imagine sledding down the path, rolling like a log down the mountain, riding on my partner’s back, but I never strayed. I didn’t want to ruin it for everyone else that followed me, knee pain and all. I couldn’t bear the weight of my poor choices impacting the incredible beauty all around northern Georgia. Leaving No Trace was the only option that would honor my commitment to loving the creation around me. 

Many of our natural spaces are currently threatened by consistently growing high volumes of people. Many of our parks aren’t prepared to support that influx on the roads, the trails, even the bathrooms. It is important to educate yourself on the best practices for minimizing your impact. Each environment and ecosystem you enter has different, specific needs. Take every chance to learn and share in the exquisite natural spaces around you. And remember — the best hike is the hike that leaves no trace!

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