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:

Idyllic campsite along the PCT. Image via

Respect Wildlife

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.

image via

Bathroom Etiquette

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.

 

Noise Pollution

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).

Painted “1200 mile” marker on AT. Image via

Trail Graffiti

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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Comments 7

  • thetentman : Jul 24th

    Thanks for the article. A little editing is needed. ‘Noise Pullution’

    Cheers.

    Reply
  • pearwood : Jul 29th

    Thank you!

    Reply
  • Walkabout John : Jul 30th

    Great article. I would like to suggest that ATC clubs along the way post a small mileage sign on a tree for each 100 miles. They can be small and attached to trees in a manner that does not hurt the tree and that can be moved as the trail changes. This would remove the need for folks to put signs up using improper methods, though the few I’ve seen were well done and artistic. Second, if it is not windy then some people have burned toilet paper. Just sayin. Making plans for springtime on the trail. Happy Trails and God Bless

    Reply
    • Ashley : Aug 1st

      Aside from the fact that trail clubs are stretched thin with the responsibilities we already have, NOBO mileage signs are only meaningful to a small percentage of hikers on the AT. For many years, hikers have used sticks and rocks to make a signs when they want to commemorate a mile stones and it’s worked just fine.

      Reply
  • TBR : Aug 4th

    I’ve always burned toilet paper, at least in most cases. Sometimes buried it.

    Am I a LNT outlaw?

    Reply
  • Michelle : Aug 13th

    Wow people actually haul paint around while thru-hiking? I do like Dixie’s method of just using sticks and rocks to write out her mileage number and then recording that to share online… didn’t know about the swallowing toothpaste one

    Reply
  • Turtle Man : Sep 2nd

    The lack of consideration for the trail extends beyond what the article notes. On a recent hike of the Pemi Loop in the New Hampshire White Mountains, there were hikers camped literally on the trail above treeline, a double violation of regulations.

    I just watched a vlog episode of a couple hiking the Long Trail (Vt.) in which one of them was soaping himself up at the edge of a lake. These were people who had considerable, previous hiking experience.

    And, as another Trek article notes, campfires in backcountry areas have become so problematic, that i think that more regulations are likely in the future, even in the woodsy East. Areas around shelters and some popular “stealth” sites (now there’s a misnomer) have become so denuded of fallen deadwood that people are cutting down standing dead wood to make fires. In the West, open campfires of any sort are banned in many place because of forest-fire danger.

    A common thread that seems to tie these acts of inconsideration together is that people who engage in them seem not to be aware of how their actions affect the environment or others who share these areas. Or, they don’t care, and feel entitled to exercise their “freedoms” no matter what.

    Reply

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