Low-Impact Techniques – AMC Outdoors

October 14, 2003

AMC Outdoors, May 2001

By Michael Lanza

As my two backpacking companions pitched our tents in the woods, I wandered over to the shore of Unknown Pond, in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest. I exchanged friendly greetings and small talk with three other backpackers in an established campsite beside the pond, then crossed their site to the shore to fill my two-gallon water bag.

While filling the bag, I did a double take upon noticing something on a nearby rock: their fresh bar of regular soap.

Four friends and I were backpacking the Carter Range when, at a heavily used campsite, one of my buddies pulled out a razor and shaving cream and headed for a nearby brook — the site’s water supply. As he was a neophyte backpacker, I politely tried to convince him that shaving in the brook wasn’t the height of environmentally friendly behavior. But my efforts failed — he shaved every morning of that trip.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail in Maine’s 100 Mile Wilderness, two companions and I approached a couple who’d stopped with their unleashed dog. The dog charged us, growling and barking. A few hours later, we encountered the same couple, and their dog charged us again. Near the end of that trip, as we ate lunch under a warm sun in the company of at least a dozen other backpackers, a different party with a dog hiked up. Their pet ran up to a stranger and stuck its mouth in his food. When the man complained to the dog’s owners, they chuckled and continued up the trail without responding.

I wouldn’t call the people responsible for these acts mean or stupid. I doubt they would throw trash on the trail. They’re just ignorant of widely accepted rules of low-impact backcountry travel and trail etiquette. But by being uninformed, they compromise the backcountry and affect the experience of other people.

Whether you’re a backpacker, paddler, day-hiker, mountain biker, or backcountry skier or snowshoer, you should adhere to the following guidelines on low-impact backcountry practices. These are not hard rules, and anyone violating one of them is not necessarily an enemy of the Earth. “People need to come from a position of knowledge, but more important is a commitment to an ethic,” says Scott Reid, Education and Projects manager for Leave No Trace, Inc. “You can bring up a million different scenarios, but what it comes down to is you have to make a judgment call based on [being] educated.”

On the other hand, the more informed we are as backcountry travelers about how to protect the land and water from our own overuse — especially here in the crowded Northeast — the better off our forests, mountains, and rivers will be. “Often you’ll have people thinking, It’s just me; one person doesn’t make a difference,” says Reid. “Unfortunately, the impacts are so much greater with so many people out there.”

Leave No Trace and other groups have developed helpful guidelines for outdoor activities. Here are a few:


  • Plan ahead and prepare. Know what to expect in terms of weather, travel conditions, and regulations so that you don’t inflict damage on the environment through mistakes like being forced to camp overnight in an illegal spot.
  • Consider alternatives to heavily used trails.
  • Keep group size to 10 or fewer to reduce your impact on the land and on the experience of other people, and minimize your noise.
  • Stick to trails or durable ground like sand, rock, snow, dry grass, and pine needles. Do not shortcut switchbacks.
  • In alpine areas, avoid stepping on vegetation, and be aware of when you’re in a place where managers encourage staying on the trail to protect plants, as in some Northeast alpine areas.
  • Avoid hiking in mud season.
  • Carry out everything you carry in.
  • Respect regulations regarding dogs on the trail. Always keep your dog under control to prevent it from approaching strangers without their consent.

Backcountry Camping

  • In popular areas, use established campsites and shelters; in pristine areas, camp at least 200 feet from trails and water. Scatter leaves, twigs, and other natural debris over your campsite when you leave — it should show no evidence of your stay. Never trench around a tent.
  • Large groups should notify land managers of their trip in advance and seek out less-used areas.
  • Cook with a stove. In high-use areas, campfires are often discouraged or prohibited. If you make an approved fire, collect only dead wood no bigger around than your wrist and scatter your campfire ashes. In remote areas, use no-trace methods such as a fire pan.
  • Plan meals so you don’t have leftovers, or pack them out. Strain cooking water and put food scraps in your garbage. Learn how to hang food, or carry a bear-proof food container.
  • If you don’t have access to a pit toilet, bury human waste in a cat hole six to eight inches deep and at least 200 feet from any water source.
  • Disperse cat holes by finding a spot away from camp, or finding a spot during the day that’s well off any trail and that other visitors are unlikely to accidentally discover.
  • Carry out used toilet paper and tampons in double plastic bags.
  • Human waste buried in snow does not decompose. Try to find open ground under a tree, at least 200 feet from the nearest water source, for a cat hole. If you cannot find open ground, bury the waste in snow next to a tree or rock, preferably on a south-facing slope, where sunlight will break it down sooner. Make sure it’s far from travel routes and water sources. Packing out solid waste is becoming a more feasible option thanks to products on the market like PVC pipes that seal at one end and durable bags; climbers on popular multiday, big-wall routes already use these products.
  • Where possible, urinate on rocks or sand to prevent animals digging up the urine for its salt.
  • Even biodegradable soap introduces chemicals into the environment. Wash your cook gear with hot water at least 200 feet from any water source. Wash yourself with disposable alcohol wipes and pack them out.


  • Plan daily distances and campsites wisely. Find out the river level and how much it fluctuates. Don’t miss your planned campsite and be forced to stay in a less-desirable site.
  • Whenever possible, launch, land, and camp in established sites or on beaches, sandbars, or nonvegetated sites below the high-water line. Otherwise, camp at least 100 feet from the river and 200 feet from tributaries and springs. Avoid sensitive plants. Stay on trails and wear soft-soled shoes around camp.
  • Avoid areas with nesting seabirds from early April through mid-August, and seals from mid-May through mid-June. Leave pets at home.
  • Where appropriate — especially with large groups — carry out solid human waste.
  • Use fire pans, or don’t build a fire.
  • In heavily used areas, dump dishwater and urinate in the river, because moving water can disperse the waste better than the land.
  • Do not bring breakable bottles or Styrofoam coolers.

Mountain Biking

  • Behave responsibly. Ride at a safe, controlled speed; announce yourself to hikers and other users; and pass slowly.
  • Help maintain your favorite trails.
  • Respect trail and road closures and rules. Do not trespass on private land.
  • Do not ride under conditions where you will leave evidence of your passing, such as after a rain or in mud season. Do not cut switchbacks or create new trails.
  • Control your bicycle. Do not skid. Always yield the trail to other users.
  • Never spook animals. Always stop, pull well off the trail, and remain still when horses pass. Don’t harass wildlife.

All but biking guidelines are from Leave No Trace, Inc., 800-332-4100. Biking guidelines are from the International Mountain Bicycling Association, 888-442-4622.

—Michael Lanza is author of The Ultimate Guide to Backcountry Travel, from AMC Books.

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