Leave No Trace

Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.
      Franklin Delano Roosevelt
plan ahead

camp on durable surfaces When I visit the wilds, my goal is to experience the environment without altering it. I realize my goal is an impossible reality, but still something to which I can strive. Even if I am only on a day-hike, using no fire, no camping, and not even a toilet break, my footsteps and simple presence have a small impact on the inhabitants and their home.
I do have choices on where that impact occurs and how severe it is. The most obvious one, and the one that occurs no matter the length of the trek, is the decision of where to place your feet. Being aware how travel, rest breaks, and campsites cause impact is a critical step in approaching minimal impact.

Durable Surfaces
There are many different surfaces on which to travel. Choosing the most appropriate one available will help minimize the evidence of your travel.

High-Use versus Pristine Choices
The most complicated part of making choices when attempting to minimize impact is deciding when to concentrate impact and when to disperse impact. As long as you are thinking about how to keep the area as natural as possible, the decisions are pretty easy. But, there will be some fuzzy grey areas where you decision might not match someone else's.

Concentrate Impact - nearly all the time, you should concentrate your impact in established areas. That means use existing trails and established campsites. If it is obvious that a place is being used already, you will affect no new space by concentrating your activity in that area.
Many areas have designated campsites, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota for example. You are required to use those sites and if one is occupied, you must travel until you find an open one. Other places may allow camping anywhere, but that doesn't mean you should camp anywhere. Any area that gets much traffic will have numerous and fairly obvious campsites - use one that already exists.
If you can tell a trail is a shortcut or inappropriate route, then stay on the correct trail. If a campsite looks like it is too small for your group, find a larger one.

Disperse Impact - you will rarely need to disperse your impact. Pristine wilderness areas are remote, undisturbed and very fragile. There is no indication of previous explorers which means no trails to follow or campsites to use. For most people, this is the escape they want to experience when they go backpacking. Unfortunately, we have historically invaded these areas with no concern for future explorers looking for similar experiences. In these areas is where the ethic of minimizing impact is most important to use - not to practice, but to use. Before exploring areas with no established trails, you should be completely rehearsed in how to leave no trace and confident you will follow these principles.
Impact should be dispersed whenever there is no existing trace. You should still choose the most durable surfaces, but spread out your impact as much as possible.

Campsite Choices
While hiking, you are only impacting a spot for a few seconds. You step, crush, and move on. If you have others with you, then the impact is repeated, but is still for only a short time.
When you stop to rest, you may impact that spot for up to a half hour. Rest stop impacts are more damaging because you plop your pack on the ground, mill around looking for snacks, stretch your legs, maybe drop scraps of food, and go pee. Choosing an appropriate spot to rest is an important choice.
Even more important is to select the best possible location for your evening campsite. You will be setting up home here for more than half a day. During that time, you will use the restroom, wash up, cook food, take out the garbage, relax, and explore. You may put more pressure on this one place than you did on all your hiking throughout the day.

Good campsites are found, not made.

Tips on Using Durable Surfaces:

Using Durables Surfaces is Important because it:

Examples to Consider
disperse impact in pristine areasThese backpackers are taking a break. They have moved off the trail and are each finding their own spot to rest. Notice they are sitting on very durable rocks rather than on the grass.
rock is a good campsiteSetting up camp on a large flat rock leaves minimal impact.
This site in a pine forest has had the lower spots on the rock filled with pine needles over time. There is also plenty of room for a cooking area. There is little chance of leaving an impact here.
hike through the mudWhen a trail is present, its important to use the trail.
By wearing waterproof boots, you can walk through mud down the center of the trial, not skirt it to keep your feet dry.
This trail is becoming wider due to pampered hiking boots.

rock hopping The most common concern people have with this principle of Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces is the uncertainty of when to concentrate impact and when to disperse.
In well-traveled areas, the choice is easy and there are usually well-used paths and campsites. In pristine areas, you may encounter people that feel hikers should stay in single file to minimize the amount of area impacted. This is sometimes appropriate, for example if there are rocks to step on rather than have each person on a different route trampling plants and grasses.
Rock Hopping is one of my favorite games. In a field like that pictured here with plenty of bare rocks visible, I like to step from rock to rock and see how far I can travel without touching grass or flowers. If lichens are growing on the rock, walking on the grass is a better choice.

Teaching Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

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