Leave No Trace is more than just not throwing your granola bar wrapper on the ground. It also means leaving the landscape in its most natural state by not moving, removing, or damaging in any way rocks, plants, trees, and other items native to an area. In other words, no matter the season, leave areas as you found them.
“This means striving to ensure that the amazing place you love is just as nice for the next person,” says Alex DeLucia, Leave No Trace programs manager for AMC. “What if everyone who visited took a cool cobblestone, picked a bouquet of wildflowers, or took home the cultural artifacts? That would be a loss for you and for everyone else that followed.”
Campers should restore campsites to a condition that is equal to or better than when they arrived. Don’t cut live branches or dig trenches to make space for tents, and if stones or sticks were moved to create a sleeping surface, replace them before you leave. Do not camp in unauthorized sites or build fire pits where they’re not allowed—such as at AMC’s backcountry tent sites and shelters—as these are a forest fire risk and heat the ground to a point that vegetation often can’t grow back.
The stacking of rocks into cairns, often done near riverbeds or above treeline, can be disruptive to following visitors’ outdoor experience—or downright dangerous, DeLucia says. Cairns built by professional trail maintainers are occasionally used as trail markers above treeline. But in remote locations, DeLucia says visitor-built rock piles act as a “billboard advertising that others have been there before you,” potentially disturbing the sense of discovery and aloneness. Above treeline, visitor-built rock piles can lead hikers down the wrong trails or disturb fragile alpine vegetation. AMC’s trail staff and volunteers dismantle any visitor-built cairns, DeLucia says.
“I also hate to see the trend of painted rocks being left around our public lands,” DeLucia adds. “It might be a fun art project, but [painted rocks] do not belong in outdoor spaces and wild places in our public lands.”
Carving into the trunk of a tree is a clear violation of Leave No Trace principles. But so is tying a tent guyline to a tree trunk, which can remove the bark and, over time, kill the tree. Instead, affix guylines to stakes hammered into the ground, or, in winter, tie guylines to sticks or rocks and bury them in the snow.
Any firewood should be collected from the forest floor, not cut from live trees. (Read about how Leave No Trace’s guidance around campfire impacts.)
And instead of picking wildflowers, DeLucia recommends sketching them or taking their picture, which leaves their beauty for the next visitor to enjoy. “Wild things are more special in their natural elements,” he adds.
The prospect of spotting a shed moose antler, an impressive mushroom, an arrowhead, or a particularly stunning wildflower is a main reason people enjoy spending time outdoors. But these items must remain where they fell or are growing. DeLucia says many of AMC’s outdoor leaders will intentionally take groups past such items to “experience that wonder” in a context that also teaches why they ought to be left alone. On most public lands, keeping archaeological or cultural items like arrowheads or pot shards is against the law.
“I think it is important for outdoor recreators to think of themselves as guests in the outdoors,” DeLucia says. “We appreciate the beauty, but do not need to bring it home with us just to put it on our shelf or end up in a closet or attic.”