Leave No Trace Behind When in the Woods

Herd path at the top of South Hill in High Tor.
Story and photos by Madis Senner

Now that spring is here and the weather is improving many of us will be taking a walk in the woods, or even camping outdoors. If so, it is important that you minimize the impact of your visit upon the environment. In other words, leave no trace behind that you were ever there. If we want to ensure the sustainability of our natural environment all us need to make effort to minimize our impact on Mother Earth.

The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics lnt.org has an informative website with lots of recommendations and advice. One of its pages ‘The Leave No Trace Seven Principles’ lnt.org/learn/7-principles lists 7 rules to follow when visiting Nature. The Seven Principles are,

Plan Ahead and Prepare – Know the rules and regulations of where you are going and bring a trail map. Travel in small groups. I would suggest a maximum of 10-12 people. Break up larger groups if necessary. Large groups put lots of stress on trails and can be very loud and disruptive.

Travel and Camp on Durable Areas – Stay on trails and camp at designated areas. If camping in a non-designated area stay at least 200 feet away from water.

Letchworth State Park

Dispose of Waste Properly – Bring out what you brought in. Bring a hand shovel so that you can dig a 6- to 8-inch hole to bury human waste and any associated paper. Cover it with logs or stones to hamper animal’s ability to dig it up. Wash yourself, or dishes at least 200 feet from a water source. Use biodegradable soap.

Leave What you Find – Leave things undisturbed. Don’t bring home any rocks, plants or pets. Don’t dig any holes or trenches.

Don’t bring firewood with you. The NYS DEC has firewood restrictions dec.ny.gov/outdoor/63460.html to prevent the transport of invasive species.

Minimize Campfire Impacts – Use a portable stove. Where fires are allowed use established fire rings. Check to make sure that no restrictions on fires have been placed before your visit if you plan on starting a campfire. Thoroughly drown out the coals with water before you leave. Use dead wood.

I would suggest having fires at designated areas only. Years ago I came upon a root fire at Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. People had started a fire close to the water near a ganglia of tree roots. It was September and dry. After a few days the embers from the fire ignited the roots of some of the trees close to the water. Fortunately the Park Rangers caught it. It appeared that the people had drowned out the fire but once roots catch fire they can be tough to extinguish.

Respect Wildlife – Observe wildlife from a distance. Don’t feed animals. Keep your dog(s) away from wildlife.

Be Considerate of Others – Be courteous and respectful of others. Yield to others when hiking a trail. Avoid loud voices and noises. Let nature’s sounds prevail.

Here are a few more.

Bring a litterbag – Most of the time I attach a litterbag to my backpack when I go hiking. This way I can pick up any debris I find. It is always good to leave a place in better condition than you found it.

Bare Hill, with Canandaigua Lake in the background.

Minimize contact with Wildlife – While many people go into the woods to see wildlife, I don’t. To me a good day in the woods is when I don’t see, or have any contact with anything besides bugs and birds. The bible says seek and ye shall find, and when you go seeking wildlife you might find something you might not want to see. I have run into bears, snakes including rattlers, coyotes, porcupines and more.

Make your presence known – This does not mean shouting but making just enough noise that you will not startle an animal. The last thing you want to do is surprise a bear and her cubs. You can cough, sing or talk softly periodically. You don’t need to be loud because animals can hear you from far away.

Leave Some Firewood Behind – If you use the wood at a Lean-to, especially on the Finger Lakes Trail (FLT) replace it with more than you used. It is always a good practice, or should I say good karma, to leave more firewood behind.

Years ago one spring I went to the same area in the Finger Lakes and made a fire at the lean-to because it was cold. The first time I gathered lots of firewood. When I came back next week most of it was gone. I gathered more firewood and it was all gone the next time I came again. So uncool. If you are new to hiking understand that firewood is a community effort. Thru hikers (those doing a big chunk of the FLT at one time) can be in a bind, or others may come there when it is raining and everything is wet. If you use it, replace it.

Respect the Lean-to System – Lean-tos are meant for all of us, but most importantly they can be a great aid to thru hikers; those that are hiking all or a significant part of the FLT. They are into trekking and might not have the time, or could be stuck in bad weather. Years ago I remember hiking the Onondaga Trail and running into a few folks from Rochester who were hiking along the Onondaga Trail and its environs for a few days. Unfortunately the lean-to on Morgan Hill was being monopolized by a family that had their stuff strewn all over and there was no place to pitch a tent. So the trekkers had to find another place to go to late in the day.

Since Morgan Hill is one of my favorite hikes I go there often. That summer that same family treated that lean-to as their private campsite. Sad.

Spring is upon us. Get out and enjoy the bounty of the Finger Lakes. Treat your visit with respect and leave no trace behind so that others many years from now will be able to enjoy our area the same way you can today.

Madis Senner is an author who lives in Syracuse. You can read his musings at motherearthprayers.blogspot.com. His latest book is Sacred Sites in North Star Country: Places in Greater New York State (PA,OH,NJ,CT,MA,VT,ONT) That Changed the World. It is available at Books, ETC. in Macedon (facebook.com/booksetcmacedon).

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