In 2020, national parks across the U.S. clocked more than 237 million visits. If that sounds like a lot, you might be surprised to learn that the figure was 90 million less than in the previous year, thanks to park closures and travel restrictions as a result of COVID-19.
Our national parks are designed to preserve some of the most unique and beautiful landscapes, formations, and other natural features our country has to offer for visitors to see and enjoy. But more visitors means more of an impact left behind on those features.
Popular parks like Yellowstone, the Great Smoky Mountains, and our own Zion National Park are no exceptions. Graffiti, litter, and damage to foliage as a result of visitors creating their own pathways and trails damage the park’s natural features, as well as the wildlife and plant life that call it home.
No matter how you plan to enjoy your time in a national park, it’s important to do your part to protect it. Keep reading to learn the 7 principles of “Leave No Trace” you need to follow on your next trip.
1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
The first principle of “Leave No Trace” is to plan ahead and prepare for your trip before you ever arrive. What you need to do to follow this principle depends on the types of activities you plan to enjoy during your next visit.
For instance, if you plan to hike during your next visit to Zion, you’ll want to research trails ahead of time. Get an understanding of the lengths and difficulty ratings of various trails, as well as how the weather conditions might affect them. Always let someone at home know where you plan to hike and when. Plan to hike in a group; one that’s small enough to avoid crowding the trail.
Another way to plan ahead is to make sure that you have the right supplies along with you. This includes plenty of water, the right shoes and clothing, a first aid kit, and other essentials. If you’ll be bringing along disposable water bottles or snacks, make sure to bring something to carry out your food waste and garbage, until you can get to a proper trash receptacle.
2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
If your next national park adventure includes plans to camp in the backcountry, it’s important to make sure that you’re setting up your tent on a durable surface. Never alter the landscape in any way in order to make a campsite.
When hiking, keep to the center of the trail, and never create your own trails. Stay on designated roadways and only park in designated spots. Driving, parking, and hiking in grass or on dirt and other surfaces can damage the plant and animal life that lives there. It can also contribute to erosion.
3. Dispose of Waste Properly
Regardless of what you’re planning to bring with you into a national park, always follow this rule: Pack it in, pack it out. From food scraps to plastic to paper, never toss trash in anything but a garbage can.
When exploring backcountry areas, you should also plan to pack out any toilet paper and hygiene products you need to use.
4. Leave What You Find
When you spot a flower blooming on the side of the trail or an interesting rock, it might be tempting to take it home as a souvenir. But in addition to being illegal, this also damages the delicate ecosystem around those items.
5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
A campfire is a great way to warm up on a cold night of camping, as well as to roast marshmallows or even cook your own dinner. But if you’re going to build a campfire, make sure that you’re following any posted rules, and that you’re minimizing the impact of your fire.
Check with the park office for the national park that you’re visiting before you start a fire to make sure that there isn’t a ban in place. Only use firewood that you’ve purchased in the area or dead wood that you’ve found on the ground.
Keep your fire small, and keep a bucket of water on hand to put it out in case of an emergency. Never go to bed or leave the area without making sure that your fire has been put out entirely. Once the fire is out, scatter the cool ashes. If you’re camping in a campground, use a designated fire ring or portable fire ring to minimize the effect of your fire and to keep it safely contained.
6. Respect Wildlife
Getting too close to wildlife isn’t just dangerous for the animal; it can also have deadly consequences for visitors. Tourists frequently discover that in Yellowstone, when seemingly gentle bison suddenly charge as people get too close.
In Zion, rock squirrels, which are frequently fed by tourists, may become accustomed to people. This causes them to get too close, which can end in a tourist getting bit.
Respecting wildlife also means following all rules about pets in the park. Never allow your pet to run off a leash in the park, or to harass wildlife. Packing out all food scraps will also ensure that they don’t wind up eaten by wildlife.
7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Leaving no trace doesn’t only apply to respecting animal and plant life in our national parks. It also means respecting other visitors.
Share the trail when hiking, moving to the right side to allow other visitors to get past in narrow spots. Talk in conversational voices to avoid disturbing the peace others are enjoying on trails and in picnic areas.
Enjoying a Safe Visit to Your Favorite National Park
Enjoying a safe visit to your favorite national park means not only protecting your own safety but also watching out for the park’s natural resources and the wildlife that calls that park home.
Following the 7 principles of “Leave No Trace” can help with that. Put these principles to work on your next outdoor adventure!