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Leave No Trace Camping

Compressed Leaves Where I Slept Under My Tarp
Compressed Leaves Where I Slept Under My Tarp

One of my facebook readers left a comment yesterday, questioning why anyone would bury the ash generated by a wood stove (see my Solo Wood Stove Review) when it would naturally dissipate on its own.

Burying my ashes is one of the things I do to practice Leave No Trace Camping. The idea is simple. When you camp at a wild site, try to leave it in the same condition as you found it so the next guy or gal to visit can experience the same level of wildness.

Fluff Up Leaves and Restore Removed Branches
Fluff Up Leaves and Restore Removed Branches

Here’s another example: When I break camp in the morning, I fluff up the compressed leaves and dirt that were under my sleeping pad at night so that they look like the rest of the forest floor. I also scatter the twigs and branches I removed the previous night on top so no one will know I’d slept there.

Why Practice Leave No Trace?

When I see ash piled on the ground, a pile of rocks built up in a funky cairn, a hastily-built and scorched fire ring, or partially burned logs at a camp site, it immediately ruins the feeling of wildness I like to experience when camping in wilderness areas. With a growing population, we can’t expect our wilderness areas to survive if we don’t become more conscious about our impact on them when we visit. And if we don’t do it voluntarily, some government agency will step in, permit the area,  and eliminate wild camping in wilderness areas altogether (like they’ve done many places out west.)

Here’s are a few of the other things I do keep a wild campsite as wild as when I found it:

  • I collect all my trash, including used matches and tea-bags, and drop them in my bear bag to carry out. 
  • I bury grey water from washing and feces in a proper cat hole.
  • I don’t sleep along stream to avoid harming delicate plants that grow along their banks (200 feet or 80 steps away is best practice).
  • I avoid pitching camp on non-durable surfaces like fragile growing plants.
  • I avoid walking to and from my water source over moss or other fragile vegetation.
  • I don’t remodel a site by creating a fire ring or move rocks and logs to make better seats.
  • I don’t break branches off trees for firewood and only use wood that’s already on the ground.

Adopting these practices has made me much more conscious of my potential impact on the wilderness experience of others and the quality of experience I want to enjoy when I camp in a wild area. I can’t make other people practice them, but they make a lot of sense to me and have become part of the ethical framework I practice when I’m hiking and camping.



  1. When I got a thicker air pad, I realized that I did not have to remove every little acorn or smooth rock where I was going to sleep. Instead of a swept-clean space, I could leave something more natural. Plus, it is more comfortable.

    Mine is a NeoAir (got a good deal), but any thicker pad will have the same advantage.

  2. I was told that the new LNT policy for getting rid of grey water was to scatter it. This is what is taught at Baxter Park, and a few places in the ADK’s. (Insure there is no food bits, first.)

    Natural stuff, like the tea in teabags, can be burried.

    Like Walter was saying, the NeoAir is good for avoiding small stuff under you.

    • Marco, this sounds like one of the many grey areas in LNT. The Green Mountain Club’s field manager recommended a sump hole rather than scattering (mainly for toothpaste, since the toothpaste spray method, when performed by a dozen summer camp kids, usually leads to a forest pockmarked in white dots). With grey water that has no food bits, I can’t imagine there’s any major difference between spraying and sumping, unless you’ve got a ton of water. I just drink mine– no sense wasting good water and a few calories :)

      As for burying “natural stuff”, that sounds pretty suspect to me. Where do you draw the line between natural and not natural? Apple cores and banana peels are natural, but I certainly wouldn’t leave those in the woods.

      • Guthook, Apple cores, banana peels, orange peels, etc are all natural food leftovers. I do not think it hurts to burry these. Tea leaves, coffee grounds, etc. are all just natural. That stuff gets burried, too. I usually take them out about 20-30 yards, kick a kitty hole, dump stuff in, then kick the duff back over it, givving it a stomp or two.

        • In the areas we do most of our backpacking (midwest), those items would attract the thing we’re more worried about, bears (and other critters like squirrels, coons, etc.) that can wreck havoc or worse. We carry a “yum-yum” bag for any and all leftover food parts and particles. We seine the wash water and food particles go into the ziplock yum-yum and only grey water and feces goes into the ground or sump hole. Everything else gets carried out. Those critters can come behind you and quickly uncover what you thought you had left as a pristine camp area.

        • I take issue with that idea for two reasons– Although in low elevations in New England, those things will probably decompose just fine, the fact that they’re natural doesn’t necessarily mean they’re natural to the area. Oranges and bananas certainly don’t grow up here, so by burying them, you’re introducing something non-native to the area. In many places in the world, those things won’t decompose no matter how well you bury them. I’ve seen all manner of food waste hidden in alpine zones and deserts– nothing is going to rot very well there.

          The bigger issue, for me, is the “what if everyone did that” argument. First of all, if an experienced outdoorsperson says “burying it is okay in certain circumstances,” many less experienced people will only hear the first half of that sentence. Or they’ll miss the “bury” part. Or they’ll get everything right, but start burying all of their food waste. Think of the reason for outhouses at campsites on the AT/LT– it’s not for the convenience of the hikers, but to prevent thousands of catholes from being dug. Because even if 99% of people bury their poo or food waste correctly (and the percentage is probably far below that), that’s still a lot of incorrectly disposed waste.

          I do agree with you that, in certain cases, burying is probably okay, but I think it’s a really bad habit to make when you could stress better practices like not having as much food waste (eat the whole apple, don’t bring foods with inedible peels, eat all your leftovers, etc.)

        • Well, in the ADK’s there is about 4′ of forest duff, basically 99.9%(likely more) is rotting organic matter: leaves, trees, pine needles, cones, acorns, other seeds(elms, maples, cherrie. ash, etc.) In the past, I have visited the same campsite a week later (at least go by it.) Guess what? No critters have dug up anything. In some cases, I go by the same campsites two or three times over the course of a year. Still nothing has been dug up. Generally, burrying stuff in the ADK’s is fine. I diisagree with animals digging up poo and natural type peels up there. A ground squirril might, but I think this is more of an accident as they search for a place to burry things. Bears are certainly not drawn to these “caches.” I have seen many bear (black bears) up there, and literally about a ton of bear scat. They eat whatever they can find for plant matter, but it is rare for them to even sniff around a kitty hole. There is too much much easier food around. Protien sources are another matter. They will tear a tree apart to get at ants, bees, termites and other high protein foods.

          Getting back to Guthooks remarks, most tropical plants, banana’s, oranges, etc, will not grow there. Mostly, it is a simple water shed. Most campers stay at state parks. I meet few people out in the backcountry, though at times it feels like 3-4 per day. They often make fires, but nobody cleans the firepit. The ONLY place a lot of grasses, and other weeds grow is IN THE FIREPIT. Potash is a good fertilizer and has been used throughout recorded history. I agree that charcoal will stay around for long time, though…not very biodegradable unless ground up fairly fine.

          Anyway, I think we can agree that it is area dependent.

  3. When possible, put the ashes from the fire stove into the cat hole along with your scat. No need to dig two holes.

  4. Great reminders Philip! I think too many people take for granted the beauty of an unspoiled camp area and get in a hurry to move on to their next camp. We all want to experience a clean unspoiled camping area, but that requires all of us to leave it as such.

  5. The fire ring is the biggest nuisance for me. Down south on the AT, where people are concentrated the most, you’ll find about a dozen campsites a day along the trail, each with a stone fire ring. Nothing impacts a campsite as quickly as the fire ring, and nothing draws more campers to a site, either.

    What bothers me the most is that the stones serve absolutely no purpose except to make that fire ring permanent after the builder has left. You can have a perfectly safe campfire without surrounding it with rocks, and it cleans up better. The rings just become permanent fixture of a campsite, and often a magnet for trash.

  6. How about no fire. I know many hikers love the smell. Why I have no idea. Use a box stove.

    Sounds gross, but I carry a wag bag especially in the winter and early spring. When the snow melts seeing piles of doo is really disgusting. Drop it in the town in a trash can when hike is over. I try also on my last day of a hike near a trailhead to pack up just as much I can carry of other peoples trash they have discarded. Trail heads are where I found most are the stupidest.

    Also do a little math. How many people hike the AT each year and poop within 200 yards of trail. By my math they should harvest that area and spread it on farmers fields for fertilizer. Then remember you are sleeping on that stuff.

    Make no trails, and go where there are no trails. Try not to be seen or heard, and you will feel much closer to nature.

    Rocks do serve a purpose. Not many people do this any longer, but heat a rock up next to the fire. Then put rock underneath your arms to keep you warm at night. Rotate rocks. More survival, but for fire rings they tend to just do nothing. One could argue that most forest fires caused by people are caused by floating embers and such not some fire that got out of control unless you are in a field and that is dumb to begin with.

    Burying organic materials is a no no unless it was the stem of a fiddlehead fern you cooked up in a skillet. Something will find it. Apple cores produce apple trees, and banana peels produce banana trees. Last thing we need is banana trees in the woods of North America :)

    • Banana peels do not produce banana trees, nor will a whole banana. Nearly all of the banana trees on earth are females, and thus the bananas we find in markets have no fertilized seeds in them. That said, they do smell delicious to bears and should be packed out.

      • sarcasm Jason sarcasm. I know on the bananas. I am glad they are females however. Maybe we should let bananas rule the world. It would be more peaceful.

  7. “my potential impact on the wilderness experience of others”

    Food for thought?

    There’s another kind of impact. Consider the impact on the resource also. I’m with you all the way concerning avoiding visual traces. But why not dilute the resource impact by screening solids from grey water (for packing out) and then diluting the impact by WIDELY scattering the water. Same for ashes … compare the resource impact of a buried clump of ashes vs WIDELY scattered ashes?

    • That makes sense too.

      I am glad we are all arguing about this. Even the bananas.

      • I’m getting hungry… for bananas… and a good hike.

        The leave no trace principle generally doesn’t apply to my body–it usually shows that I’ve been hiking, either through bruises, casts, bandages, or limping.

  8. The idea behind the cathole is to keep the run off and water away from the feces and other items. Yes decomp takes much longer, but quick hard rain in areas can take your stuff above ground to the nearest stream quickly. So its kind of a strange combo if you go the LNT way. In sun is better, yet in as much organic soil you can find. I don’t usually find that type of soil in the sunny areas, and most people don’t like to air the rear on sunny hillsides :) But if there are bananas who cares.

  9. Philip I agree with leaving a site as it was or in some cases even better, in that I mean removing garbage and return sites to thier original condition by other less educated or uncaring visitors. A practise that has become necessary because of the disrespect for our enviroment. We can only set the example and spread the word thru vehicles such as your site. I have found hanging to be a good way to reduce might impact when enjoying my time in the out of doors.practise to

  10. I’m sorry, but I’m afraid there is no way I can consider someone who makes campfires to be a leave-no-trace camper, so arguing about where is the best place to dispose of your ash is kind of silly. The best thing is to simply make no ashes, period. Ask anyone who actually manages backcountry or frontcountry park areas and they will probably agree with me that campfires are pretty close to the worst impact of campers. Cutting and breaking wood, digging pits, semi-permanently smudging rocks, polluting the air with over 300 noxious chemicals, most of them allergenic or carcinogenic, and leaving ashes that will last for thousands of years (ask an archaeologist how they find ancient campsites).

    Use a stove, as is required in most national parks at higher altitudes, or, like I do, simply don’t cook.

  11. The only time I’ve ever had a fire while hiking is if I’m on a well-used trail with camping sites along the route. It’s pretty dry in my area and we have lots of fire bans as a result, and I certainly wouldn’t want my fire causing a wildfire in the area. That said, I bury a lot of my biodegradable garbage in my catholes. An apple core or a peach stone, leaves from a tea ball, and the like are unlikely to hurt anything. Same goes for my used TP.

    A guy I used to hike with quite a bit, who loved to have a campfire, used to carry a pot. We’d set up camp, find a larger rock, set the pot on it, and have a fire in the pot. He’d occasionally cook on it, burn his TP and other non-toxic trash, and then bury the ashes in his morning cathole. He had a lid for the pot, which could put out the fire in a hurry, and a collapsible bucket full of water in case the whole thing spilled over. When our fire was over, he’d submerge the pot in the bucket to cool it, and on a cold night, he’d take the rock into his sleeping bag. I thought it was a pretty great idea(worked really well), but I’ve never felt the need to have a fire out while backpacking. If I were going to have a holdover day in a nice spot, I might feel differently, but I’d have to plan ahead for it, and lug in a fire pot setup.