Ask a Thru-Hiker: What Do I Need to Know About Leave No Trace?

Most thru-hikers are careful about LNT rules—but a few scofflaws can make us all look bad.
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forest ranger digging a cathole

USFS Recreation Officer Charis Parker demonstrates how to dig a proper cathole for human waste. (Tip: Keep your pack light with an ultralight trowel like the TheTentLab TheDeuce #1.

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Dear Snorkel,

I’ve heard Leave No Trace Principles described as the “ethics of being outdoors.” As a thru-hiker to be, I’m curious what parts of the outdoor contract I should take extra care to follow?

-Learning to be Like Bigfoot

Dear Learning,

As individualistic and self-sufficient as thru-hikers are, most of us have a deep respect for LNT principles. The greenhorn thru-hiker who leaves behind trash or doesn’t bury human waste gets “can you believe this guy?” stories told about them for years to come. (Literally: In researching this column, I heard stories about perps that go back a decade or more.)

Thru-hikers aren’t afraid to confront their fellow distance walker when they’re not following our community rules. The reason: We thru-hikers often look (and smell) similar. If one of us leaves behind a campfire that turns into a wildfire, we all get blamed. We thru-hikers watch our own community. That means caring for each other if someone goes missing, but also means teaching each other about our codes.

The good news: Thru-hiker and Leave No Trace Master Educator Amanda Jameson says there are many LNT principles distance hikers tend to be good at: “Generally they plan, they [camp on] durable surfaces, and they generally don’t do campfires.”

Still, no one’s perfect, and there are a few areas where thru-hikers as a whole could do better. The most obvious: disposing of their poop. Many thru-hikers don’t dig deep enough catholes, or they go less than 200 feet from water or camp (gross). Thru-hikers often have miles on the mind, so we don’t always think we have the time required to dig deep enough or scuttle far enough away from camp.

But long trails are popular, and the people who use them tend to camp (and poop) in similar spots. Digging a shallow hole increases the chance that that someone else will dig up your leavings. I’ve done it, and unpleasant is an understatement.

Even as an ultralight backpacker, I’ve found carrying a lightweight potty trowel has been a game-changer, making it easy to dig deep holes past rocks and roots. Compared to the days when I used a shoe or my trekking pole for bathroom time, the quality of my catholes has gone through the roof. There’s nothing like walking away satisfied after nature calls, and knowing I do my business in the most LNT way possible adds to that satisfaction. (Pack out your TP, too, or do without: In some places, it doesn’t break down.)

Overall, the most important principle thru-hikers need to remember is to respect other users. We know it in our head and hearts, but after living in the woods for so long, some folks forget social niceties. Just because thru-hikers are on trail for weeks or months at a time doesn’t mean they own the trail: Some thru-hikers often camp or take breaks right on the path, getting in the way of day hikers who have come to nature for solitude.

Music is another pain point: It’s fine to enjoy some music or a podcast for a mood-booster, we should use headphones rather than bluetooth speakers. First, they weigh less and use less phone battery to operate (both important to thru-hikers in particular). More importantly, music can startle other hikers and wildlife. (There are much, much better ways to keep bears away.)

Thru-hiker entitlement can manifest in other ways: It’s the rare thru-hiker who litters on the trail, but it does happen. Day hikers and people backpacking a section of the Apppalachian Trail or Pacific Crest aren’t less “important” than thru-hikers, and they’re not there to carry out our trash. While garbage cans and pit toilets may feel like they’re too “near civilization” to some distance hikers, self-sufficiency means carrying out your garbage, including your peels and apple cores.

We also need to respect our fellow thrus too. In desert sections of the PCT and CDT, water sources are precious, but there are stories of thru-hikers who feel entitled to wash their socks and underwear or even bathe in the only water source for 30 miles. The wildlife may not mind the taste of your underwear, but I assure you that the rest of the hiking community is livid.

Just because we walk for thousands of miles doesn’t mean we’re above the rules that other folks have to live by: permits, bear canisters requirements, and other local regulations. We may think we’re special. But the locals who see folks like us every year know if we're acting "holier-than-thou."

Remember: To locals who live in trail towns, you’re representing the thru-hiking community, and your behavior (or misbehavior) helps form their opinion of us. From permits to bear canisters to rules on where you can and can’t camp, we need to live by the same requirements other hikers do. Learn Leave No Trace guidelines ahead of time and you’ll set yourself up for success.

—Snorkel