Common Leave No Trace Mistakes Made By Thru Hikers, and How To Avoid Them
It’s time to have an honest talk about Leave No Trace and thru hikers. Yes, most of us know the principles, and what it takes to accurately follow them, but after a few hundred – or maybe even a few thousand – miles, there is the understandable urge to start slacking.
We get it, nobody enjoys digging a proper cat hole every time they go to the bathroom. Swallowing your toothpaste gets old after a while, and posing next to make-shift mileage signs is fun, even if it is technically graffiti along our beloved trails.
The luxuries of thru hiking are obvious – like living in world renowned wilderness areas for months on end – but with this privilege comes responsibility. As the ones who are arguably getting the most use out of each trail, it is our duty to set an example of how we want others to care for the trail too. While it’s essential to have your next state-line or final terminus in mind throughout your hike, it’s equally as important to respect and pay attention to the “less flashy” sections of trail, and care for them as you would the iconic summit.
Think of this as a friendly refresher on how to be a stickler for LNT, even after your trail legs kick in:
The amount of thru hikers – especially in the East – who sleep with food in their tent is alarming. Please remember that correctly storing your food is not only about your safety; it is also for the safety of every other hiker who is sleeping at the shelter that night, as well as any animal who approaches your tent for food. Animals associating shelters with food oftentimes end with unsafe or permanently closed camping locations, which means added work for trail crews and inconveniences future hikers. In severe cases, it can also end in an animal losing its life. Please be mindful of the trickle down effects this seemingly small decision may have, and use a properly hung bear bag, bear canister, or provided bear storage systems.
Properly Dispose of Waste
Disposing of waste properly goes beyond just packing up your food wrappers – it includes orange peels, apple cores, and excess crumbs at shelters. Many thru hikers don’t realize that this principle applies to toothpaste as well. When brushing your teeth, spitting toothpaste onto vegetation can kill plants and harm animals who eat it later down the line. Please try to either swallow, or spit toothpaste into your trash bag when possible.
It’s understandable that digging a proper cat-hole in the dark at 2am, or when it’s pouring rain and bitter cold, isn’t exactly high on the “favorite parts of backpacking” list. Although this is sometimes the annoying reality of thru hiking, following backcountry bathroom etiquette is also a vitally important LNT principle. When you incorrectly bury your waste you are increasing the chances of another hiker stepping in it, which leads to unsanitary camping and shelter conditions (think: Norovirus, stomach flus, or worse). Toilet paper blooms are also a major issue among many backcountry campsites. Luckily, toilet paper can be buried with waste if it is biodegradable. If not, then it’s always best to pack it out with the rest of your trash. To keep things hygienic, try keeping a smaller bag inside your primary trash receptacle specifically for toilet paper and bathroom waste.
For the ladies, it’s essential to pack out menstrual products with the rest of your bathroom waste. Trail crews also greatly appreciate when hikers keep these items out of privies as each one needs to be removed from the pit for the waste to be properly disposed of. Every time you resist the urge to drop these items down a privy, I would only assume that a trail crew does a little happy dance.
When thru hiking, it may feel as though you have the trail to yourself more often than not. However, it’s still important to keep conversations to a reasonable volume and to only play music through earphones. Although the trail may be absent of other hikers, animals are likely abundant and your loud conversations or “greatest hits” playlist will disturb their natural habitat. Additionally, you never know when a fellow hiker, who is likely wanting to enjoy the sounds of nature, will come up from behind you. (The exception to this rule is when hiking in Grizzly country and trying your best not to sneak up on the bear).
Finally, although mileage signs are great photo-ops and fun reminders of the progress you have made, non official signs that are painted on trees or rocks are a strict violation of LNT. Posing next to these signs only encourages additional hikers to paint more in the future, and increases the potential of more natural formations being destroyed by graffiti. Resist the urge to post a photo on social media that includes these signs, and respectfully remind any hiker who you see painting trees that, although their intentions might be good, they are harming the natural beauty of the trail. These signs are also bad news since they leave a lasting scar on the land, but the “official” 100, 1,000, or 2,000 mile point will change yearly after trail reroutes, basically leaving these signs obsolete within a few months.
With the physical and mental demands of thru hiking, it’s understandably easy to fall into the trap of getting lazy with Leave No Trace. Being a stickler for the principles may feel daunting after a long day on trail, but it is vitally important to ensuring future hikers have the same wilderness opportunities as you. When in doubt about how to properly follow a principle, always try to “leave it better” than you found it, and think about what would keep the trail thriving and healthy for classes of thru hikers 20 years down the line.
Have more questions about the 7 principles? Refresh your knowledge over on Leave No Trace’s website.
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