Leave No Trace: The Low-Impact Hiker

7 strategies for keeping the backcountry pristine
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7 strategies for keeping the backcountry pristine

New hikers constantly ply us with questions: What gear should I buy? What's the best trail in Oklahoma? How can I leave the woods in better shape than I found them? For a refresher on the last question, we went to Ben Lawhon, education director for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, a nonprofit group dedicated to reducing recreational impact on the wilderness. He described the seven guidelines Leave No Trace recommends.

»Plan ahead "An unprepared hiker creates a higher risk for impact. If you didn't know you needed gaiters," explains Lawhon, "you might trample vegetation to keep your boots dry instead of hiking through the puddles." Call a ranger to learn about terrain, weather, and regulations.

»Travel on durable surfaces "They rebound better than delicate ones," says Lawhon. Hike on rock, sand, gravel, and established trails; avoid stream banks, cryptobiotic soil, and alpine plants.

»Dispose of waste properly Pack out what you bring in (including toilet paper), disperse cooking and washing water, and bury solid human waste in a 6-inch cathole. Wash, do dishes, and answer nature's call at least 200 feet from the trail, camp, or any water source.

»Leave what you find "Hikers can spread nonnative species, which is a huge cause of habitat destruction," explains Lawhon. "By not taking plants or animals, and cleaning your boots before you leave the trailhead, you can make a difference."

»Minimize campfire impact If fires are legal, use established rings, a mound, or a fire pan, and gather only dead wood no thicker than your wrist.

»Respect wildlife Observe animals from a distance and never feed them. "This is a safety issue," says Lawhon. "Once a squirrel or a bear gets a taste for human foods, it actively seeks them out, which can lead to dangerous behavior."

»Be considerate of other visitors "This is the do-unto-others rule--yield to fellow hikers, keep noise levels down, and camp away from the trail," says Lawhon. "Remember, we're all trying to enjoy a finite resource."

For details on each principle, visit www.lnt.org. Leave No Trace also offers Awareness Workshops across the United States; check Web site for days and locations.