Last week I took a 5-day Leave No Trace, Master Educator class in the White Mountains. This is the highest level of training provided by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics and enables me to train people who want to become Leave No Trace trainers as well as children, teens, and adults who want to take less intensive LNT awareness classes.
This class was a mind-blowing experience for me on many levels. It was taught almost entirely outdoors during a multi-day backpacking trip where we hauled a lot of group gear, camped, and cooked together. I don’t do that very often myself, but it put me in the shoes of many of the people I will be teaching Leave No Trace too.
The outdoor classroom was also instructive because Leave No Trace is best taught during a hiking or camping experience, rather than in a classroom. That can be challenging for instructors since you need to recognize “teachable moments” on the fly as you encounter them. Each of the students in my class had to teach two LNT principles to the rest of the group this way, where you pretty much had to make up a lesson plan on the fly. It’s definitely doable, but requires that you pull in factual information and present it in a fun, interactive format that is appropriate to a variety of different audiences.
The LNT principles P-T-D-L-M-R-B can be easily remembered as Pass The Donuts Left My Rasta Brother!
- Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Guidelines Not Rules
Finally, this Master Educator class really made me take the LNT principles to heart and apply them in a variety of ambiguous situations including on-trail and off-trail, in managed and pristine camp sites. For example:
- Is it ok to camp at a moderately impacted stealth campsite instead of an adjacent heavily impacted one?
- Is it ok to cook inside a shelter?
- Should you always hang a bear bag or use a canister in bear country, even if you are staying at a shelter?
- Is it ok to bushwhack?
- Is it ok to stealth camp in pristine locations?
- Is it ok to camp less than 200 feet from water?
- Is it ok to use biodegradable soap in a stream or pond?
- When is it ok to light a campfire?
Truth is, the Leave No Trace principles are often interpreted as rules that specify what you should and shouldn’t do in the outdoors. It’s easy to understand why people think that because they look like rules when listed in print, but they’re really not as black and white as you might think.
Making Conscious Choices
Instead, Leave No Trace is a system of ethics or guidelines designed to help preserve wilderness and outdoor recreational area so that current visitors and future generations can enjoy them. That might sound uncomfortably ambiguous, but ethical judgments about human behavior are like that. If anything, the role of the Leave No Trace principles is to help you make behavioral choices that minimize the impact that a human presence has on the outdoors and other peoples’ experiences.
To illustrate the control we have over the choices we make, consider the following LNT Principles and scenarios that illustrate them:
Be considerate to others
Have you ever taken a hike with a group of other hikers to de-stress from work, only to have one of the hikers answer their cell phone and start a long conversation about some crisis in the office that everyone has to listen too?
A group of mountain bikers yields to hikers and horseback riders on a trail; they move to the side of the trail for others to pass, and dismount from their bikes when they encounter pack animals or riders.
Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
A tree has fallen across a hiking trail and instead of climbing over or under it, hikers create a spur path around it, trampling a stand of wildflowers that were growing in their path, creating a mud wallow, and accelerating erosion when it rains.
A group of 8 hikers decides to camp off-trail at a stealth location in the woods that is carpeted with moss and new saplings. While they could all look for tent sites individually, they send one person ahead to find a good location for their camp that is relatively clear of understory growth and covered with more durable forest duff to reduce the damage that 8 people would probably have if they all blundered around in the woods at the same time.
Teaching Leave No Trace
I’m quite excited to become a Leave No Trace Master Educator because it will give me the opportunity to teach a lot more people about hiking and backpacking and how to do them responsibly. Teaching has really become important to me over the past year in my career transition from an internet professional to a outdoor writer, and something I want to continue to develop as a vocation. I just can’t get enough of it!
But even more, the ethics of Leave No Trace and their application to real world situations resonates more and more with me as I apply them on my own trips and expeditions. That’s a bit of a surprise because I’m not big into institutionalized belief frameworks.
On balance, I see the good that can come from adopting the ethics in order to preserve the outdoors and respect others’ experiences. There are a lot of outdoor users, most I suspect, who don’t think about the consequences of their actions on others or the future of the places they like to visit. If I can make just a few more aware of their choices by exposing them to Leave No Trace, I can be satisfied with that.