After a year spent indoors, Americans are embracing the great outdoors in record numbers. It’s wonderful to see a new appreciation for nature and public lands across the country—but this huge influx of campers and hikers may pose a threat to wildlife and habitats. Parks, campsites, and trails, particularly the more popular among them, have all seen an uptick in litter and violations of rules designed to protect the environment.

We can do better. By following the principles of “Leave No Trace” when camping or hiking, we protect both the land and its wildlife inhabitants. To discuss the current situation and explore ways we can “leave no trace,” the GCI team checked in with three of our Ambassadors, Sonya Staples, Doris Wang, and Kelsey Kagan.

What is “Leave No Trace” Camping?

The principles of “Leave No Trace” help us enjoy nature while leaving it pristine for the wildlife inhabitants, the next visitors after you, and the future generations to come.

Kelsey Kagan explains how she keeps this idea in mind while camping: “When I step outside, I repeat one little mantra over and over, to ensure I am doing my part: ‘I was never here.’ That’s my way of reminding myself that I need the spaces I occupy to look almost as if I was never there at all. This includes packing out trash that others may have left behind, not rearranging campsites to my preference, and never engaging with wildlife.”

And whether she’s on the trails or setting up camp, Doris Wang refers to the “Leave No Trace” principles as simply “common sense things.” Although she dispenses with the label, she connects with fellow campers on “picking up after yourself, picking up after others if you do see trash on trail, and just educating others of why there are certain things you shouldn’t do while hanging out on the trail.”

The Problems

Litter

Photo: Doris Wang

As visitors to local, state, and national parks have drastically increased, so has the amount of waste left behind. Sonya Staples has seen “an increase in litter at campsites,” and Doris agrees that proper waste disposal is one of the “most common rules broken… I have picked up countless beer cans, orange peels, granola bar wrappers, and water bottles on trails.”

Kelsey has found that fruit peels and food waste tend to be the worst offenders. “It is easy to think that food items are natural, and that they can be left behind. This is not the case. An orange peel can take six months to two years to decompose, and in dry, desert climates, they may last indefinitely. Think of how many creatures can come in contact with it before then. Pack these out, please!”

Human Waste

Another of the biggest issues today is the proper disposal of human waste. Doris explains that, while not ill-intentioned, many visitors simply don’t understand the rules for “digging a hole to go to the bathroom, burying human waste, how to properly dispose of toilet paper, and how deep to dig, etc.”

Kelsey agrees that this has become a huge problem, noting that she’s “seen an absolute BOOM in toilet paper gardens in wild places over the last year. Picture this: you’re arriving at a secluded dispersed campsite; it has a stunning view, trees for wind and shade coverage, and level land for your tent. The perfect spot. Now picture it completely covered in tufts of white toilet paper.”

Going Off-Trail

While we understand the desire to find a road less traveled, “more people adventuring outside of marked hiking and off-road trails” is a growing problem that Sonya’s noticed. Straying from the trail can be harmful to wildlife, including protected plant species and animals that may not be accustomed to humans. Plus, there’s always the potential for you to get lost!

The same holds when off-roading, Kelsey says: “If just one set of tires veers off onto their own path, they could set the stage for dozens to follow, creating a new road that was not intended, and should not be there. When in doubt, assume that it’s not a real road, and move on.”

Campfire Impact

Photo: Kelsey Kagan

The campfire is one of the most beloved parts of any camping trip—but there’s a right way to do it to ensure a minimal environmental impact. “I feel like this is a hard one,” Doris says, “because not everyone knows that you shouldn’t have a fire right next to a lake or river, and that you need to be 100+ feet away or so, or that it’s better to buy local wood to burn vs. bringing wood from outside the area.”

Another thing that’s tricky, Kelsey adds, is that “burn bans can go into effect at any time, and often cell service is minimal in all the wild places people camp.” To reduce your fire’s impact, she advises using only the campsite’s established fire ring rather than creating your own, and when you’re finished, ensure that fires are “dead out. If you can’t push your hands against the coals, it’s too hot to leave unattended. Smother everything entirely with water until the logs are cool to the touch.”

Advice for Responsible Outdoor Adventures

Even if you’ve been guilty of leaving trash and other traces behind in the past, the good news is that it’s never too late to make a positive change.

“Everyone starts somewhere,” Doris says. “Learn from your mistakes and pass on the knowledge you have learned. Be aware of your surroundings and observe what others are doing. If someone is doing something wrong, speak up, maybe they don’t know they are doing the wrong thing. And if someone is picking up trash, follow suit.”

And even on the remotest trails, you can usually find someone willing to offer advice if you need it. “When in doubt,” Sonya says, “always ask a fellow explorer for clarification on rules/guidelines…and try to leave an area better than when you arrived.”