Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 14, 2018

Leave No Trace? How Much Is “No?”

A phrase I often cite when writing about hiking or visiting natural and wild places is, “Tread lightly.” An alternative version is, “Leave no trace.” Stating either one, though, provides no specific guidance about compliance, and it’s up to the individual to decide what treading lightly or leaving no trace consists of.

Environment sign Brad Nixon 8748 (640x480)

A degree of common sense goes a long way: Don’t trample on native vegetation, don’t add your name to the prehistoric petroglyph inscriptions on that rock face, and don’t toss your freaking plastic water bottle into the blankety-blank bushes. Really.

The fact that one commonly sees those bits of common sense ignored suggests that such sense is not so common as one might wish.

All of you are travelers, and in one way or another, you enjoy the outdoors. The matter of how lightly we can and should walk is something we should consider. One of the reasons we go into “the outdoors” in the first place is specifically to find “traces” of the full time residents. If we don’t catch sight of an elk, a Pileated Woodpecker or — ahem — a skunk — we might see a footprint, hear that loud hammering bird or, yes, detect the skunk’s unmistakable scent. That assumes we’re paying attention, and that we’re not stomping right on top of the rabbit tracks in the sand or snow.

No animals Marcy Vincent 2010 (640x480)

We, of course, are quite noticeable to the residents as we pass through their territory. We leave highly visible tracks (not to mention trash), we’re uncommonly noisy and I have no doubt we and all that stuff we’re toting emit an extremely pungent odor. Duh. That’s why the non-human animals are so darned hard to spot: They see, hear and smell us coming from a mile away. I assume many of them actually sense us in one way or another, a capacity only the rarest of highly attuned humans might possess.

Anza Borrego Brad Nixon 487 lion sign (448x640)

Although we’re animals, thousands of generations of acculturation, adaptation and behavioral adjustment have left us poorly equipped for the trail, backcountry and wilderness. We need to wear all sorts of protective coverings and coatings and carry an endless array of stuff, including food, which we’re poor at finding. If you stick to the trails at your local, state or national park, going out and returning in a few hours, only the most egregious disregard for the environment should have you tossing aside uneaten food, empty wrappers and containers, without dealing with spent fuel containers, broken carabiners or torn ground cloths. Backpackers and campers have more to carry in, more to carry out, more potential waste and trash.

Parks, trails, preserves and seashores inevitably feature signs, at least at the beginning of the trail or beach access, about prohibited behavior, substances and so forth. We don’t always pay heed — part of being human is to consider one’s self an exception. Awareness is still our job.

Redondo Beach warning sign 2 Brad Nixon 640

Leave No

I recently learned something about that phrase, “Leave no trace,” I was unaware of. A blog post by the avid outdoors people and adventurers, The Dihedral, informed me there’s an actual Leave No Trace nonprofit organization (LNT). LNT has articulated a set of seven core principles that “Provide guidance to enjoy our natural world in a sustainable way that avoids human-created impacts.” Here is the simplified list:

  • Plan Ahead and Prepare
  • Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  • Dispose of Waste Properly
  • Leave What You Find
  • Minimize Campfire Impacts
  • Respect Wildlife
  • Be Considerate of Other Visitors

There are specific behaviors within each of the seven principles. For just one example, under “Plan Ahead and Prepare” is “Repackage food to minimize waste.” If you’re not going to eat the entire bag of pretzels, take fewer, and in a container you’ll reuse. Less chance you’ll leave behind some hydrogenated fat-, salt-laden product a deer will eat, along with the packaging. That’s oversimplifying, but it makes sense.

Some of the details do primarily apply to those of you on back country or overnight camping trips, but many of those camping rules are just as appropriate if you’re setting up a family picnic at the state park.

Merely having some rules to consider can make us more mindful of just how we might tread lightly, whether we’re at the local park or venturing into the pure wilderness of Denali. Studying them and considering how to incorporate them into our hikes is productive.

Denali river Brad Nixon 1958 300 680

A Discussion, a Process of Understanding

If you click on that link to The Dihedral’s blog post, you’ll see that they were inviting discussion, and — to provoke reactions — they took rather extreme positions, questioning some of the principles. I believe that’s productive. With tens of millions of human beings streaming into parks, seashores, river valleys, lakes and elsewhere worldwide, we owe it to ourselves to have exactly this discussion: “What trace do we leave?” The Dihedral provoked me to comment, and, ultimately, to write this blog post. Merely posting rules on signs at the parks and trailheads won’t save the wild places of the earth. Steadily, fewer and fewer of them are truly wild. Many more are direly threatened. The Leave No Trace principles are, ultimately, common sense, but they’re finite, specific, doable, and it’s in the doing that the difference will prove out.


When you visit the LNT site, note that there’s a link: “Science Behind the Principles.” LNT cite studies and research underlying and supporting the principles. Admirable. The current administration of the United States Environment Protection Agency is attempting to remove science from the protection of our environment. That’s a battle they’ll ultimately lose, but it’s up to us to carry the torch until they lose a few hundred court cases and then their jobs.

End of the World Brad Nixon 640

Tread Lightly, Leave No Trace

As highly evolved animals, we ought to be able to include a few basic guidelines in our outdoor survival kit.

And it is about survival, make no mistake. Not just ours.

De-Na-Zin boundary Brad Nixon 4347 (640x480)

© Brad Nixon 2018. One photo © M. Vincent 2018, used by kind permission. information retrieved June 13, 2018.


  1. Great post! You are the second person I know of today to be talking about treading lightly. One of my coworkers was talking to me used some of your phrases as well. I’m beginning to sense a theme…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Always good to hear. There are a very large number of people who love the outdoors worldwide, and very many of them are diligent in doing all they can to be respectful. I think it’s important to feel a sense of comradeship with them, and avoid falling into the mindset that one is the only torchbearer and everyone ELSE is the problem. We can encourage one another. Thanks.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. When my wife and I were walking around the flat grounds of Marly le Roi outside Paris a few years ago, we decided to venture up a steep slope to get a better look at the expansive landscape below. When we finally reached the top of the slope we stopped on a little plateau. There we saw a sign, in English, that said “Danger.” Unforgettable!

    Liked by 1 person

    • My favorite-ever warning sign in French was one I saw after waking up from sleeping on a hillside overlooking the Mediterranean: Regardez les serpents!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, in both cases, “Hey, thanks for the warning.”

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Interesting signs in the parks. I know in the great lakes they don’t want people walking on the sand dunes or allow vehicles because they destroy the costal ecosystem. I remember seeing signs like this in SandBanks Provincial Park on Lake Ontario near Belleville Ontario.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s my understanding that there are vast differences between dunes systems and their fragility. There are extensive dunes fields here in California where large-scale off road sports are permitted. Man, it’s like The Road Warrior out there on weekends. Other places have flora and fauna that are extremely specialized, rare or threatened, and it makes perfect sense to ban at least vehicles. I suppose in extreme cases, people, too, although what you report is new to me. Thanks for the info.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You are right, Brad. We must start to learn not to leave our traces when we are outdoor.
    By the way, this sign about mountain lions and their attack without warning is very optimistic.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Victor, that is a hilariously funny comment. I was slow to comprehend what you’d noticed: Difficult to report a mountain lion once it’s attacked you. Fortunately, they do tend to stay AWAY from people.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Only a day or three ago, I read an article about the mountains of trash, waste, and debris that are building up atop Mt. Everest. One of the assortment of eye-rolling reasons offered was that the tourists less serious mountaineers are expecting the Sherpas to carry their gear both up and down the mountain. Guides who used to carry everything from trash to human waste back down the mountain are finding it increasingly hard to do that, since many of the climbers apparently can’t be bothered to help.

    It’s a complaint I increasingly hear from acquaintances and friends who live and work in eco-tourist regions. Those who arrive often have no prior understanding of the region or cultures, and really are more interested in checking off a destination or grabbing photos to impress others back home. Not all, of course, but some. And those “some” often are careless about how they leave the sites that they visit.

    For two weeks after Memorial Day, I wandered home from Kansas City through Missouri and Arkansas. I traveled a lot of back roads, as well wildlife management areas and prairies. Of course there were signs of human presence, but I didn’t see more than a few bits of litter, and no serious damage. A cynic might say, “Well, of course — no one wants to go to to those places.” But I suspect something different: that a connection to the land leads to care for the land.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve read about the trash on Everest and the fact that there are some attempts being made to address it. I had not really thought about the attitudinal origins, though. There is arguably the single most iconic wild place on earth being treated as a sort of adventure theme park, except there is no custodial staff: It’s a wild place. It does argue for an entirely different mindset, doesn’t it? It would be hellishly strenuous to cart all the discarded containers, ladders, ropes, oxygen bottles and other detritus back down, but why shouldn’t the climbers consider that part of the price for thumping their chests about the fact that they summited (or failed to) Everest? Glad you had good experiences on the byways in the south. MANY people care. MANY. We can encourage one another.

      Liked by 2 people

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