Leave No Trace Confessional: Hikers (Anonymously) Admit Their Worst Outdoor Sins

Several hikes share a confession, and we're here to dole out penance—and advice.

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Most hikers do our best to travel lightly, sticking to the trail and trying to leave our campsites looking like they did before we pitched our tents. But we all slip up sometimes, and anyone who says they’ve never lost an energy bar wrapper to an errant breeze or dropped a deuce in a cathole that was just a little too shallow is lying. Everyone makes little mistakes once in a while.

That’s not what these are. From a hiker who poured their white gas into the Grand Canyon to one who accidentally killed a skunk, these are the stories of six hikers who left, well, a little more than a trace. We heard their confessions—and doled out penance to soothe their guilty consciences.

Confession: I Dropped a Case of Beer Cans Into a Creek

Illustration by James Decker

Some friends and I polished off a 12-pack of beer while camping near a creek in a national park. We left the empties on the bank and went to bed. Torrential rain fell during the night, causing the creek to rise. I woke up to find all of the cans had been swept away. We hiked downstream to look for them, but no luck. I feel terrible about it. –Backcountry Bender

Dear Bender,

Well, unless some park employee or volunteer picked up those empties, they’re definitely still out there (aluminum cans take hundreds of years to decompose). We hear the remorse in your letter, but still have to point out that you should secure all of your trash before going to sleep, no matter how trashed you might be. In addition to littering, you could have attracted some local wildlife to your campsite. Bears and other animals like beer (maybe as much as you do), and can sniff out your empties. Also, reading between the lines, it doesn’t seem like your campsite was 200 feet from the creek. Unless it’s a designated site, you’ll need to choose a better spot next time. Booze and the backcountry can mix, but do so responsibly. Happy hour shouldn’t become a sad day for wildlife and other hikers.

Your Penance

Remember those park volunteers who (hopefully) cleaned up your mess? Welcome to their ranks. Join a river cleanup; if you pick up six cans for every one you left, you’ll feel better.

Confession: My Dog Chases Deer

Illustration by Jason Schneider

“I like to let my dog roam off-leash. He usually behaves, but sometimes he chases deer. Is this the natural order of things, or am I a bad dog parent?” –Free-Range in Fayetteville

Dear Free-Range,

Few things in this world bring more joy than a happy dog, and if that’s your main priority, head to the dog park. But if you want to share the wonders of the wilderness with your pooch, better rein him in. Some dog owners will argue that canines are built to chase, and herbivores could certainly use a little more exercise in places that lack natural predators. Plus, some pups can go off-leash safely (where it’s permitted), and if you know you can call off the hunt with a whistle, your dog might be one of them. But if your best bud forgets his manners as soon as he catches a good sniff, he might be at risk for a crime of passion—dogs do catch their quarry on occasion.

Even if your pup’s of suspect athletic ability, a laissez-faire strategy can lead to the spread of parvovirus and distemper to foxes, coyotes, and bears (and dogs can pick up strains of plague). Plus, the presence of canines has been shown to stress some species so much that their population declines. One example: bighorn sheep in Arizona’s Catalina Mountains.

There are also reports of dogs wandering home with new “friends” in tow, including bears and mountain lions. So it’s not just the wildlife that’s at risk. It’s you.

Your Penance

Let your dog lose his head once or twice? Treat yourself to some team bonding in obedience class. More than once or twice? Volunteer for a day at your local wildlife rehabilitation center.

Confession: I Poured White Gas Into the Grand Canyon

Illustration by Maldo Malacek

“On a Grand Canyon overnight, I did a terrible thing. When I reached the bottom, I realized I’d packed a pound more fuel than I’d need. I tried to give it away, but no one would accept. So, rather than hike 4,400 vertical feet with the extra weight, I found a sandy strip far from the water, and poured it out. I can’t stop thinking about that white gas as it seeps, seeps, seeps toward the Colorado River.” –Penitent in Portland

Dear Penitent,

Most hikers are guilty of burning too much fuel, rather than dumping it out, but we’ve still got bad news: Studies show that the toxic effects of fuel contamination are greater in sandy soil than in dense, loamy stuff, and that fuel contaminants are pretty bad for underground microbes, which the rest of the ecosystem depends on to break down debris and keep plant life thriving. Gas also contains carcinogens. However, if you dumped the fuel at least 200 feet from water, the sand will likely absorb and trap toxins before they reach the river. And while your 20 fluid ounces of white gas can, in theory, contaminate as many as 120,000 gallons of water, about 100,000 gallons flow through the Grand Canyon every second on average. If a bunch of people followed your lead, the cumulative effect could be far worse, but a single, isolated spill is a drop in the proverbial bucket (just don’t do it again).

Your Penance

If you were writing from the canyon floor, we’d have you scoop up the fuel-soaked sand and carry it up the Bright Angel Trail. But you can make up for it: Next time you pass an illegal backcountry fire pit, scoop up all the ash and carry that out. (Ash isn’t harmful, but piles of it encourage use of the site and look unnatural.) May every weighted step remind you that a little exercise is better than a dirty landscape.

Confession: I Killed a Skunk

Illustration by James Decker

I was camping in Pennsylvania when a skunk nosed under my tarp. I bolted and it moved on, but it kept coming back. The fourth time, I threw some stones to scare it off—and landed a direct hit, severely maiming it. I knew it wouldn’t survive, so I did the only thing I could think of in the face of its suffering and performed the coup de grâce with a rock. I still feel terrible. What should I have done differently? –Bill Killed, Boulder, CO

Dear Bill,

Sorry, no sugarcoating for you: This is terrible. That skunk was associating you with food or salt; entering your shelter was like visiting a restaurant. This is common behavior for smaller mammals like skunks, raccoons, and marmots, and they can be persistent, as you well know. You weren’t wrong to try to scare her off, but that’s small consolation to the dead skunk. Keeping a clean camp is the first step to avoiding unwanted visitors. But if a critter still sniffs you out, try a non-lethal method, such as banging on your cookpot. If all else fails, a marine-grade air horn should do the trick. It may seem silly to carry something like that in the backcountry, but it’s lighter than regret.

Your Penance

It seems like there was an element of bad luck at play, so we’ll go easy on you. Carry the air horn as penance, and clean up microtrash at every campsite you sleep in to help break the association between hikers and food. If the salty sweat in your shoulder straps, hiking pole handle, or boots will be irresistible, hang your gear in a tree.

Confession: I Pooped on the Trail

Illustration by Jason Schneider

“I was on a solo hike a few weeks ago and, well, I really had to go. There was just no time—I crapped right next to the trail. I feel really bad.” –Incontinent in Idaho

Dear Incontinent,

We’ve all been there. We go out into the woods to follow one call of nature, and sometimes another hits before you can do much more than drop trou.

Since you’re writing in, we assume you fled the scene of the crime without, er, disposing of the evidence. We know the number-one rule of trowels as well as you do (the trowel touches dirt—only dirt), but this is an emergency. Dig yourself a 6- to 8-inch hole as far from the trail as you can reasonably get (70 steps is the recommended minimum; make sure you’re also that far from water sources). If you need to, get creative with leaves, sticks, or rocks to perform the relocation (plastic bags work too, but pack them out).

Fail to do this, and you’re taking a few risks: Critters could get into your leftovers (gross), other hikers could stumble upon—or in—them (super gross), or surface runoff could wash your waste into drinking water, contaminating it (super gross and unhealthy).

If someone walks by during your operation, blame it on a dog and grumble loudly about irresponsible pet owners. And if you find this happening to you often, we recommend a WAG bag. And maybe a trip to the GI doc.

Your Penance

Trail dumps are a pretty big no-no, so we prescribe a volunteer day at your local trail. Sign up, reflect on how much you appreciate a sweet-smelling footpath, and relieve yourself responsibly from here on out.

Confession: I Cut an AT Blaze Off a Tree

Illustration by Maldo Malacek

“When I was young and hiking the Appalachian Trail, I came across a downed tree with a blaze on it. Since I thought it was only a matter of time until a trail crew cleared the deadfall, I flaked off the blazed bark and brought it home as a memento. Now it sits in my garage, a constant reminder of a good, formative time—and my lousy outdoor ethics. What can I do to feel less guilty when I see it?” –Nostalgic in Nederland

Dear Nostalgic,

When starry-eyed thru-hikers say that everyone brings a piece of the trail home with them, they don’t mean it literally. You know the code: Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.

While the AT is pretty hard to miss in most places, in others, blazes are the only means of wayfinding, and they’re often already fewer and farther between than most hikers would prefer. Chipping one off a tree is about as helpful a move as uprooting a trailhead sign (albeit easier to fit in a toplid).

So next time you want to remember your time on a trail, take a photo. Or, you know, do what those other thru-hikers probably did and get a calf tattoo.

Your Penance

We haven’t heard about any mass lost-persons events in the AT’s history, so your pilfered blaze likely didn’t cause any large-scale damage. Still, you’ve got a debt to pay. Sign up for a volunteer crew marking the Continental Divide Trail, which sorely needs it. Setting blazes is guaranteed to be a healing experience—as long as you resist the urge to remember it by bringing one home.

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