If you go outdoors in the USA you seem to be truly alone as there are no signs that other people have ever been there; not always, but in most places that has been my experience. If you go hiking in the UK, on the other hand, it feels like all the people you have ever known have been to every single place you’ve ever been – there are cigarettes butts, fruit peels, empty bottles, beer cans, tissues, you name it. I’m sure that Brits are not really into destroying the natural beauty (I hope), but we seem to be miles (hundreds of miles?) away from the Americans – why?
The main reason that going outdoors in North America usually leaves you feeling that you are the first person to have been there is thanks to an organization called Leave No Trace. Based on a 1960’s campaign started by the U.S.D.A. Forest Service, Leave No Trace became a non profit organization dedicated to teaching all Americans about having a responsible presence while being outdoors. The organization has ambassadors, but mainly it is a grassroots program that has managed to create a very strong social norm in USA of no littering and having minimal impact while outdoors. To read all about the history of this great organization just go here and be ready for a great success story. So how can we take those ideas and use them in the UK? There is a UK presence of Leave No Trace, but as an outdoors enthusiast I have yet to see anything in the UK that mentions Leave No Trace or even litter prevention while outdoors. The popularity of the higher mountains in the UK makes them especially vulnerable to littering, graffiti and just plain disrespect; so much so that those spots are becoming extremely unappealing to nature lovers (me among them).
I’m a big supporter of creating a British equivalent of Leave No Trace to create a wash of good public change with regards to leaving no trace. I remember as a child, when Israel had a big problem with flower picking (mainly the very pretty and very rare native flowers), the government initiated a program that taught children in kindergartens and primary schools that “you don’t pick the wild flowers” (I can still hear the slogan in my head, works better in Hebrew). That was a huge success and kids started teaching their parents, siblings and just random strangers (kids have no limits) that you must protect the native flowers. The campaign still works and you will find no Israeli (who has connections to Israel in the 1980’s) who will pick native flowers. The UK needs a similar program, as soon as possible. Until such program starts, I’d like to offer my take on the American Leave No Trace and how we can adjust it to the UK so it will be easily implemented.
What is Leave No Trace?
I’ll start by saying that Leave No Trace is pretty logical, simple and obvious; if you are an outdoors person, you already pretty much know what Leave No Trace is. In a sentence, leave no trace is about just that: being in nature while being able to leave it without our presence ever be noticed; that means we leave nothing behind and taking nothing with us. It is a very basic concept of avoiding any impact on the environment while passing through nature. The 7 principles of leave no trace are:
- Plan a head and prepare
- Travel and camp on durable surface
- Dispose of waste properly
- Leave what you find
- Minimize campfire impact
- Respect wildlife
- Be considerate of other visitors
Those are the 7 principles as described by the American LNT organization. Each of the lines above is linked to the corresponding page on the American site. I’d like to go over each of the principles, giving the general “gist” and adjusting it to the UK with some practical implementation tips.
The UK version of the Leave No Trace 7 principles
Plan a head and prepare
Adequate trip planning and preparation helps backcountry travelers accomplish trip goals safely and enjoyably, while simultaneously minimizing damage to the land.
- Weather conditions – this is the main point for the UK with our changing conditions. When the weather is extreme, it is vital to be able to deal with it properly to avoid too much disturbance to local areas, either due to rescue needs, finding yourself dealing with hypothermia and needing to make fire in an area where open fire is not allowed, etc.
- Terrain conditions – In the UK you can pretty much always expect muddy trails, so having the right footwear will protect not only you, but the trail too. Slipping around or walking around wet/muddy sections increases soil erosion and creates unnecessary trails. If you will be encountering snow, know how to travel safely on it and how to reduce the chances of causing avalanches. Rocky routes are more delicate than they seem and avoiding rock movement will protect the natural habitat around them.
- Environmental conditions – animals, thick vegetation and hard topography are all potential challenges; knowing in advance what you will encounter on the trail will mean less impact as you pass the area. Pack bear canisters if needed, plan routes that avoid extreme challenges and pack gear relating to the kind of activity you choose to do.
- Resources – is there water in the way? Will you need to resupply and if so, where? Knowing what resources are available and how to deal with them (will you need to filter water?) means needing less of those resources at the end of the day. No matter which resources you bring or pick up on the way, make sure you pack it all out.
- Skills – the more skills you have, the less you need to rely on your gear and on the natural resources around. Good navigation skills, risk assessment, camp choosing and more will keep you safe, your pack light and will make sure you Leave No Trace as you pass on or pack up after the night.
- Gear – Make sure you are packed for the conditions you are going for, including the right tools to pack all waste out, the means to cook without an open fire pit etc. Gear is just a tool and can be a life saver for you and the environment when used right. To pack like a pro, there is some extra reading here.
- Walkers’ conditions – plan for the size of the group that is taking part, know the skill levels, fitness and expectations in order to reduce the risks and the impact you will leave behind.
Travel and camp on durable surface
Travel damage occurs when surface vegetation or communities of organisms are trampled beyond recovery. The resulting barren area leads to soil erosion and the development of undesirable trails. Backcountry travel may involve travel over both trails and off-trail areas.
Usually when walking in the UK, you are pretty much bound to trails due to by-laws and right of passage, so this is less of an issue. Also, camping (aka wild camping) is not allowed in England and Wales (except in Dartmoor), unless in organized campsites or with permission of the land owner. The inability to camp freely leads to an increase of bivying, which is a lower impact form of camping, but can easily cause issues as you are less bound by land conditions to camp. Due to the above, we often find ourselves going off trail for camping or to connect routes, so we should be extra careful looking at what we are stepping on. Sometimes we (yes, me included) might cross a field/jump a fence without much thinking, so I’d like to make a few points about avoiding travel damage in the UK:
- Keep to set trails even if they are already wet and boggy – walking around will only erode bigger sections, causing more mud and bog.
- Avoid crossing fields in any way – walk around and be respectful of other people’s livelihoods.
- If crossing off trail in a group, spread around the area to cause less erosion instead of traveling in a column.
- If wild camping with a bivy, be extra careful not to camp on sensitive areas where flora might get damaged.
- Choose camping spots that are less used, trying to leave the least impact on them, placing your tent/bivy on the ground without cleaning it. When you leave, the squashed plants will bounce back.
Another important point to remember is that the UK has different laws in terms of land access and our right to cross or pass it. In Scotland, the whole country is under the “right to roam” while England is more restricted. The right to roam allows walkers and runners to pass any private land even if a path is not there. If you choose to act on your right to roam (and you should), make sure to conform to the spirit of Leave No Trace and be considerate: leave gates as you found them (open or closed), avoid busier or active farming areas, do not step on crops and just be nice in general.
Dispose of waste properly
Proper disposal of human waste is important to avoid pollution of water sources, avoid the negative implications of someone else finding it, minimize the possibility of spreading disease, and maximize the rate of decomposition.
- Pack your toilet paper out. I keep my toilet paper in a 1 litre dry bag with a hand santizer and 2-3 ziplock bags for the waste. Keep filling the ziplock bag until full and then chuck it into a bin on the way. By the way – sani pads/tampons/bandages etc all fall into the toilet paper group – pack it all out.
- Choose your potty carefully: away from water, trails, houses, farms, camp sites and anything else that might get a disease from e-coli.
- Make and use cat-holes everywhere you can. Carry a spade, use a stick or your walking pole and dig a small hole at least 6 cm deep and bury it all.
- Know when you can’t bury and carry human waste out – when on ice, snow, rocky areas, packed grounds, bog etc, where decomposition is practically impossible – use either the smear method (mix with water and smear around) or learn how to poop in a bag and carry it out. You can find some poop specific bags out there.
Use common sense here and avoid being lazy, keep in your mind the last time you wanted to set camp or have lunch just to find a pile of smelly poop and tissue a couple of meters away.
Leave what you find
Allow others a sense of discovery by leaving rocks, plants, archaeological artifacts and other objects of interest as you find them. The activities for this Leave No Trace principle deal with cultural artifacts; however, leave what you find involves many aspects of outdoor use. The following information addresses a variety of ways to respect natural settings.
Less relevant to the UK, but it is relevant to our more cultivated areas:
- Leave crops in peace, they are someone’s income
- Don’t take momentos, stones or anything else from one point of the trail to another
- Avoid building cairns when they are not needed
Minimize campfire impact
Fires vs. Stoves: The use of campfires, once a necessity for cooking and warmth, is steeped in history and tradition. Some people would not think of camping without a campfire. Campfire building is also an important skill for every camper. Yet, the natural appearance of many areas has been degraded by the overuse of fires and an increasing demand for firewood. The development of lightweight, efficient camp stoves has encouraged a shift away from the traditional fire. Stoves have be come essential equipment for minimum-impact camping. They are fast, flexible, and eliminate firewood availability as a concern in campsite selection. Stoves operate in almost any weather condition, and they Leave No Trace.
Learn about wildlife through quiet observation. Do not disturb wildlife or plants just for a “better look”. Observe wildlife from a distance so they are not scared or forced to flee. Large groups often cause more damage to the environment and can disturb wildlife, so keep your group small. If you have a larger group, divide into smaller groups if possible to minimize your impact.
- Go around if you can. You are at the animal’s house so try and avoiding disturbing its easy chewing of grass and leaves – find an alternative route around the herd.
- Walk confidently and in a comfortable hurry to minimize the time you impose your presence on the animals, but avoid quick and sudden moves.
- If you must move an animal from your way, create noise from afar to allow the animal to choose its own direction of escape. You can bang your walking poles on each other, rattle stones in a metal cup and just give a few shouts and “shoo”s.
- Don’t get between a mother and its offspring. If you are traveling during a time that newborns are around, avoid crossing paths between the young ones and the adults, you might get attacked – go around!
There are, of course, some wild animals to be found, from wolves (rarely, in Scotland), snakes, and many many birds. Staying far from the animals, observing them quietly and avoiding following them will allow them to continue their day. When camping be aware that animals may need the water resource you are (probably) camping next to – give them space.
Be considerate of other visitors
One of the most important components of outdoor ethics is to maintain courtesy toward other visitors. It helps everyone enjoy their outdoor experience.
Looks – can you be seen?
- Avoid bright colours – this is true for your clothes, gear and camping setup; just make sure it blends well and doesn’t stand out. A note: make sure you carry at least one item that is bright and garish in case you need to be spotted for a rescue.
- Take breaks off the trail and in a protected area
- When camping, be away from trails and bodies of water
- Set camp late and break camp early
Be quiet as a mouse
- If you are in a group, avoid shouting and loud conversations
- NO SPEAKERS of any kind, none what so ever when outdoors (or anywhere else for that matter, use headphones)
- Use mobile phones discreetly and quietly
Behave courteously and kindly
- Yield to fellow trail users. I find that stopping for the fastest moving person is easiest and expect slower people to yield for me. By law, in the UK, cyclists must give way to walkers and horse- riders on bridleways, just something to keep in mind.
- Keep dogs under control – leash or vocal leash (only if they really obey!). Not everyone is a big fan of your pooch.
- Move off the trail for horse riders (horses can get spooked) and farm animals.
- Try and go outdoors in the less busy times, both for you and to reduce strain on the environment.
Leave No Trace in the UK
Despite having no official Leave No Trace system in the UK, we do have many support systems such as the countryside code, the various national parks’ authorities and many guides and outdoor advocates supporting the low impact philosophy. It would be great to see the same level of commitment and impact that the the Leave No Trace organization has had in the USA take place in the UK. Until such times arrive, we will need to continue be our own watch guard and carefully educate others around us for proper Leave No Trace behavior when going outdoors so we can all enjoy an even better experience.