7 Principles of Leave No Trace
By Laura Waters
We hikers love nature. In the wilds is where we can enjoy the bliss of roaming far from civilisation and its noise, where we can watch wildlife do their thing. To keep enjoying these places as they are, and to avoid any detriment to the plants and creatures that live there, we need to tread lightly and leave the place as we found it. An internationally recognised code offers guidelines to help us achieve it.
Plan ahead and prepare
If you’re wondering how good planning affects your ability to leave no trace, consider how lost hikers might be tempted to bush bash, or how walkers arriving into camp after dark might inadvertently set up on delicate vegetation. Consider how fire bans might throw a spanner in the works when it comes to cooking dinner. When things get challenging, looking after the environment slips down the list of priorities. The factors constituting good planning are extensive but include such things as ensuring you have the necessary skills and equipment, choosing an appropriate route and campsites, and checking the weather and any relevant restrictions.
Travel and camp on durable surfaces
Sticking to trails and using designated campsites funnels traffic into already impacted areas rather than degrading new ones. Walking on trails not only avoids erosion that can destabilise an environment but also helps avoid spreading diseases like phytophthora, and remember that the weight of a boot is damaging to super slow-growing plants like lichen and moss.
When wild camping in backcountry areas, it’s best to set up on durable surfaces rather than soft vegetation, muddy areas or fragile soils. Avoid scraping away leaves and organic matter that help insulate the soil against compaction and erosion from rain. Setting up a good 50m from water avoids accidental pollution and keeps access routes for wildlife clear. When you leave, there should be no obvious signs you camped there. The goal is to disperse hiker traffic so that no one spot gets repeated visitation and impact.
Dispose of waste properly
If you carry it in, carry it back out again. That includes all rubbish and food waste. Egg shells, orange peel, apple cores, remnants of your drained two-minute noodles not only look unsightly but they take ages to decompose and are bad for wildlife.
When it comes to human waste, urine is pretty harmless but faeces should be buried in a hole at least 50m from any water source. Dig 15cm deep (about the depth of your trowel blade), the optimum depth to allow soil bacteria to break it down. If you’re in fragile alpine settings or rocky areas where digging isn’t possible, pack it out in a poo tube.
When washing yourself or your dishes, collect water and carry it 10m away from the source to avoid polluting it with grease, sunscreen, insect repellent and body oils. Keep soap use to a minimum - even the biodegradable type can affect water quality.
Leave what you find
It’s tempting to covet natural treasures we find such as seashells, flowers, driftwood, rocks and feathers, but it’s better to leave them where you found them. Not only does it allow others the joy of discovering them but these things are all part of a complex circle of life, perhaps providing habit for animals or breaking down and the nourishing soil.
Leave the land as you found it, too. That means no breaking off tree branches, hacking at tree trunks, no digging channels around tents, and definitely no engraving your name into trees and rocks. Flowers exist to attract pollinators - vital to a plant’s reproduction - so resist the urge to pick them. A few might not seem like a big deal but if a lot of people take a few, the impact can be significant. The making of stone stacks has surged in popularity but the displacement of pebbles and rocks can destabilise environments as well as disrupt habitat for tiny critters, even if you can’t see them.
And finally, never disturb Aboriginal sites.
Minimise campfire impacts
There’s no doubt campfires add atmosphere to your camping experience but they should really only be used when absolutely critical for warmth, and only in established fire pits. Stoves are far safer and more efficient for cooking.
Campfires are a bushfire risk and leave unsightly soot-scars on the landscape, plus they deplete the environment of wood. Remember that even dead wood has its purpose, harbouring critters or getting broken down by moss and fungi to release nutrients that replenish soils for the next generation of plants.
If you do have a fire, ensure it’s extinguished completely with water before you leave. Any retained heat can flare up into flames with just a little fanning from the wind.
It’s great to watch wildlife but do so from a distance. The goal is to peacefully coexist with without disturbing their usual behaviour. Noises and quick movements are stressful for wildlife so move slowly, keep voices down and give them a wide berth. If they feel threatened they may flee, perhaps losing valuable feeding time or even abandoning their homes or offspring.
Be careful not to set up camp next to a wombat hole or other apparent animal habitat, and make sure you store food securely and pack up all food scraps and rubbish. Never feed wildlife. Human food can make them sick, aggressive or deter them from finding their own natural food.
Be considerate of your hosts and other visitors
Many people head out into nature to enjoy the serenity and since it’s a shared environment, be courteous and considerate of others. Travelling in small groups is less obtrustive. Take care to keep noise to a minimum – use earbuds for music rather than broadcasting it for all to hear, and keep voices low, especially in camp. This is doubly important after dark when people might be trying to sleep. Many people find drones noisy and intrusive so use with care and consideration.