Leave only footprints; take only pictures and memories: No Trace Camping

When I first started camping as a young kid, the concept of “No Trace” camping was alien to me. I went camping on private property such as a friend’s backyard or some woods maybe owned by a family member of mine or theirs. We only took what we figured we needed, and as a general rule, we took everything out of the woods that we brought in, without really much thought.

To be fair, my early days of camping were mostly spent as a means to sneak beer and wine into my teenage body so I can see what that was all about, and it was not until much later in life did I discover that being in the woods was far more than that. So I did not have the same level of respect, and consciousness that I have today about time spent in the wild.

I am sure in my waning years as a greenhorn out there trying to “camp” that I made mistakes with how I policed up my site when I was done. I have foolishly left fires smoldering that probably needed more water. I have dug latrines and cat holes and have buried waste and trash. I am sure I have left discarded beer cans and other really rude and inconsiderate mistakes that I have made due mostly to ignorance. I did not grow up in a family that camped, I was a kid figuring it out on my own with other kids, who also had parents that never spent time in the woods.

I have since learned from the errors of those ways and I would like to pass onto others so that maybe they can learn and not repeat these same ignorant errors. Nature has a delicate balance and every time we enter that balance we have an obligation as self-aware beings to be better than “nature”.

Wait? Better than nature how is that possible? Nature never makes mistakes and always regulates itself! Except when it does not…nature can be a very harsh and cruel mistress. Consider this, 99% of every living thing on this planet that has walked, crawled, swam, or flown is dead and died before humans learned to walk upright. Given the chance, nature will wipe itself out. When I say nature has a delicate balance, I am not meaning to suggest that nature is actually delicate. On the contrary, nature is quite destructive and since we, as humans come from nature we need to try and be LESS destructive.

We know what we are doing, we have a choice. We can choose to pick up our trash and place it in a secure bag to pack out with us. We have a choice to secure our food in bear-proof storage containers or up in trees to that wild animals do not get a taste for human food and associate people with free meals. We can choose where we urinate and defecate so that we do not contaminate clean drinking water. These are all things nature cannot choose to do, and these things just sort of “happen” in the natural world.

Trash is a major part of no-trace camping. Simply put what you take with you needs to come back with you and I mean everything. Whatever you bring out there does not belong and therefore is not natural and with the exception of bio-degradable toilet paper buried in a latrine or a cat hole with your waste you need to take it out. Having said that, I have actually been in protected wilderness areas where people were not even allowed to leave their poop behind. You had to pack that out as well in scent proof bags designed for that purpose. When people say no-trace they mean it…because everything we bring with us into the wild could have an impact on the natural order of things, it could upset that delicate balance. If nature is naturally a destructive and powerful force, we as people need to take steps to mitigate those destructive forces by not being an additional force.

Humans know better, and since we know better we have an obligation as stewards of the natural world to preserve what little we have for future generations. Part of that “No-Trace” thought process includes leaving things that you find in the wild, where you find them. Leave only footprints and take only pictures. I will give you a personal example of why this is so important, and its a lesson I learned as a Park Ranger for the National Park Service.

Millions of years ago, the area I live in was a vast prehistoric forest that was consumed by a massive volcanic eruption that changed the entire layout of this area for the next few million or so years. In its wake, it left a petrified forest of ancient trees that dwarfed even some of the largest redwoods alive today in the Pacific Northwest. Fast forward to the late 19th and early 20th century when tourists started to visit these new, national parks. There was no thought or planning for no-trace visiting of these areas. Like when I was a little kid being ignorant in the woods people had no idea what they were doing or the consequences that would follow. These petrified trees would break off in parts and there would be thousands of little sections of these massive trees about, some small enough to be put in your pocket.

So what happens? Well, there are thousands of these little rocks around, so who cares if I grab one or two for myself? Over the course of 150 years of people putting little bits of rock in their pockets at a time adds up. Right now there is only 1 tree remaining and it is surrounded by an iron, man-made gate that was erected to keep people from taking parts of this last piece of natural history.

Part of not leaving a trace is making sure you leave what is there alone. That is not yours, that is for everyone to enjoy and experience. Something as tiny and insignificant as a hunk of petrified wood fallen off an old tree, adds up to people never being able to share the experience that you had when you first saw them. I would love to go back 150 years and see what these areas looked like before we learned how to be better than nature.

It is a lot of education, training, experience, and learning that we as humans will need to do if we intend on keeping wild places, wild. It starts with us, the stewards of the wild being self-aware. We know what is right and what is wrong and as such we have an obligation to do the right thing. We need to be sure that we leave no-trace when we entire the wild. We need to make sure we leave only footprints, and that we take pictures and memories only. We only get one shot at nature, so let us make it a good and fair shot.

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