The second of the Leave No Trace principles is all about minimizing our impact on the surfaces of the areas we pass through on our adventures. This would seem to be the most obvious of considerations when thinking about reducing our mark on the land. Often there is actual visible evidence that is left behind, but there are a lot of other things to keep in mind which you might not have thought about before.
Preparation before you go is as always important and it plays a big role again here. Knowing as much as possible about your intended route, what environments you’ll pass through both generally and any especially sensitive, will help you plan ahead to minimize your impact. You’ll definitely want to be aware of any local regulations. The gear you bring and how you use it come into play so you need information to make the right choices. I guess that is why the first LNT principle was Preparation.
Impact while traveling is important to think about even on a day hike, but when backpacking becomes even more important. The heavier load means every step has greater potential to do damage. If at all possible it is better to follow existing trails. By concentrating activity to a smaller area the over all impact is lessened and can be mitigated. Conversely when a trail is not available it is better to spread out and disperse your group’s impact.
When on a trail you should stick to the trail as closely as possible. Things like cutting corners on switchbacks or walking on banks to the side of a trail to avoid a wet center not only create damage as you pass, but the trace of your passing will encourage others to follow you off trail. If bog boards are available they should be used even when the ground is dry unless a well worn path exists beside them. Even when hiking on rock above the treeline sticking to the trail is best as lichen and other organisms living on alpine rocks grow very very slowly.
Only when an area does not already have trail access should you consider traveling off trail. If you are hiking off trail you now have an extra task to be mindful of. Being off trail means making an effort not to create a new trail. Your goal should be to leave so little sign of your passing that another person would not be drawn to follow your path. If traveling in a group dispersing and avoiding following the same exact path helps. Never slash or paint blazes and if using so called “eco” tape to mark a return path take the time to remove it on your way out.
Impact when you stop needs to be considered as well. This includes breaks along the trail, nature calls and overnight camps. The same basic concepts above apply here. If there are existing areas of high impact use them. If there are none then leave so little trace of your use that another passing by would not be drawn to choose this spot over any other. High use areas often have designated campsites and while they are often less than pristine they do focus the damage in areas that can best be maintained. Some areas require you to only camp in designated sites for this reason and if such rules exist should always be followed.
Again, if you are camping in totally unimproved areas your goal should be to leave no sign of your campsite when you leave so that others would not be drawn to use the same spot. This starts with choosing a good spot with more durable surfaces preferred. If rock, dirt or sand are available such surfaces should be your first choice. If you must camp on vegetation, grasses are usually the most resilient. When staying in an area for more than one night it can help to relocate your camp each day. As you break camp a fallen branch or trekking pole can be used to help flattened vegetation start standing back up.
In lesser used areas you’ll really want to consider how you use your camp, especially as group size expands. Nature calls, wood gathering, water collecting and just general puttering around camp can lead to a lot of footsteps. Dispersing again is very useful so try to spread your impact out. Try not to take the same path each time you are headed to the same place and think about how you can reduce trips. Water collection is a good example. You can make one trip and fill a large reservoir rather than multiple trips for smaller amounts or if making multiple trips then try taking a different route each time.
So much depends on exactly where you are headed that these basics are enough to get you started, but if you really want to get serious about LNT expect to do a little extra research before you head out on a day hike or extended trip. Some places are so fragile that a footstep’s damage can take 100 years or more to repair so knowing whats out there before you go is vital. Get out there, enjoy all nature has to offer and give a little thought to leaving your path looking a little less traveled by