Here's How to Minimize Your Impact When Exploring the Wilderness

Leave no trace with this advice from the US Geological Survey.

hiking view of a mountain lake
That woman's dog should really be on a leash.

Getty Images/Brigitte Blättler

It's that time of year when people flock to the Great Outdoors, donning hiking boots and backpacks, hauling tents, and packing climbing gear out to the beautiful wild spaces where the air is fresher, the view is better, and the general pace of life is slower.

It sounds idyllic, except for the fact that when thousands of people head to the same places, those places do not remain as lovely and untouched as they are to begin with. Human interaction causes inevitable wear and tear on a natural landscape, but fortunately, that can be mitigated through a series of efforts. 

Exactly which efforts are most important and effective is being studied by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), which has released a list of top-rated tips for minimizing one's impact on the environment this summer.

Some of the tips in the following list may sound like common sense to well-seasoned hikers, campers, and adventurers, but with more and more people visiting national parks and other nature preserves for the first time in their lives, they bear repeating. Even experienced travelers can benefit from reminders of why these practices matter.

Jeff Marion is a research ecologist with the USGS. He tells Treehugger that, as visitation increases to protected areas around the United States, it's more important than ever to implement good land management practices that improve the sustainability of recreation infrastructures, such as access roads, trails, day-use sites, and overnight camping spots.

Marion says: "Our USGS recreation ecology studies seek to ... identify actions that managers can apply to enhance their sustainability—to accommodate visitation while minimizing any negative resource impacts, e.g. practices to design, construct, and maintain trails and campsites that facilitate low impact use even when intensively visited."

Recommended tips include:

  • Not feeding wildlife, as this can result in "food attraction behavior," where animals start to associate people with food and put themselves at risk to get it, as well as bring humans into closer contact with potential diseases.
  • Keeping a safe distance from wildlife, and observing with binoculars, rather than trying to get close. On a recent trip to Tofino, British Columbia, a sea kayaking guide told me that 328 feet is the minimum distance they're required to keep away from any wildlife they encounter.
  • Selecting established campsites with a durable surface such as gravel, rock, snow, dry or grassy areas; sloped terrain is recommended whenever possible, as it discourages campers from spreading out and causing more water and pollutant runoff into surrounding soil and waterways.
  • Avoiding cutting down trees for campfire wood, which is unfortunately common. USGS research found that 44% of sites in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota had 18 trees cut down per campsite, which adds up to significant destruction. USGS says that land managers should consider "enhancing existing low-impact educational messaging on gathering small diameter dead and fallen firewood and urging or requiring visitors to leave tools used to cut down trees at home."
  • Staying on hiking trails and not forging one's own path through the bush, or even parallel to a trail, as this causes damage to vegetation. Based on research done along the Appalachian Trail, the USGS found that trails with side slopes are preferred as they allow for water drainage, while trails in flatter terrain are more likely to result in muddiness, widening, and soil loss.

Keep these tips in mind the next time you venture outdoors and do your part to keep these places healthy and beautiful for subsequent visitors. 

View Article Sources
  1. "Leave No Trace This Summer as You Explore the Outdoors." United States Geological Survey.