The Leave No Trace Black Belt

There are more than 4,000 stories in the AJ archive. Occasionally we like to paw through the stacks, pull one out, dust it off, and put it back on top for new readers to enjoy. So, enjoy!

For decades, the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics has advocated principles for backcountry users to help us preserve the natural environments we enjoy. Things such as traveling and camping on durable surfaces, disposing of waste, and respecting wildlife. Basic stuff.

I have abided by these guidelines for years, and along the way utilized some ideas that go a little above and beyond Leave No Trace’s basic guidelines, which I have half-jokingly called “The Leave No Trace Black Belt,” as if it is the highest order of LNT, the practices of true masters of the craft. (It’s worth noting that I’ve never done formal Leave No Trace training.)

Obviously the ultimate in Leave No Trace would be to just stay home and watch television instead of going out into wild places. Think about it: You would leave no footprints, no rocks moved, no catholes dug and re-filled with soil after use, not so much as a branch pushed aside for a second of passage. But, let’s be realistic. You’re not going to do that. Instead, you can try harder to leave minimal trace.

Imagine it like this: When you’re traveling in bear country, everything you have is suspect. You put all your food, dishes, and any toiletry items that have the slightest scent in a bear bag and hang it from a tree. You suspect the bear can smell anything and will kill you in your sleep if it so much as sniffs a faint odor it finds appetizing. Did you spill pasta sauce on your pants? You’re dead. Take them off and put them in the bear bag.

When considering the Leave No Trace Black Belt, imagine a fierce, hypersensitive bear who will kill you if it detects the slightest ripple in its environment-minute food scraps scattered into the woods, coffee grounds buried under a rock, wildflowers smashed by a tent. Did you really do everything you could to leave no trace of your passage here? Here are a few concepts I’ve come up with. Feel free to add your own.

1. Swallow Your Toothpaste
Yes, the LNT method of tooth brushing says to vaporize toothpaste spit in the air by blowing it through pursed lips. This is great, but you’re still spraying toothpaste all over the place. Plus some people really suck at this, and still end up with a big glop of white foam on the ground in front of them. Astronauts have safely swallowed toothpaste for years, and you can probably do it for a couple days on your backpacking trip and not die. Or, if you’re really worried, just skip the toothpaste and brush with some water.

2. Pick Up Other People’s Trash
Found a Dasani bottle on the side of the trail? Pick it up, put it in your pack, and haul it out. Beer can in an old fire ring? Pick it up. Plastic bag that blew away from someone? Old sock? Tent stake someone forgot? Grab it. In addition to not leaving your trash behind, you’re actually producing negative impact by hauling away someone else’s garbage. I personally draw the line at picking up someone’s cast-aside underwear (which I seem to stumble upon way too often) and wet wipes, but it’s your call.

3. Drink Grey Water
Finish your pesto pasta, pour five or six ounces of water into the pot, scrub it with your index finger, and what do you have? Five or six ounces of water that smells and tastes a lot like what you just ate. Do you just pour it on the ground next to your campsite, or scatter it into the trees? Not if you’re a black belt. You drink it. That’s right. Oh, that’s disgusting, you say? Come on. It’s grey water. And it’s barely grey, really. You didn’t just wash a dead raccoon’s ass with it; you diluted food waste. It’s basically food tea. Have a sip, then chug it. If you’re at high altitude and you’ve been exerting yourself all day, it’ll help you get hydrated. Pro tip: If you’ve strained water you used to boil pasta into a mug or pot, drink it before the top layer of it starts to solidify. Because that’s a little gross.

4. Destroy Suspect Fire Rings
You follow Leave No Trace guidelines and never camp within 200 feet of a lake or stream. But that doesn’t mean everyone does. If you stumble upon a campsite that’s too close to water, take a minute and scatter all the log furniture and fire ring stones into the surrounding terrain. Now it doesn’t look like a campsite anymore, and the odds someone will decide to wash their dishes in the creek (or poop really close to it) are much less.

5. Don’t Use Toilet Paper
That’s right. We are not that far removed from the pre-toilet-paper generation of our ancestors, who used rocks, sticks, and leaves to clean their backsides. You can do it. If you are wild enough to shit in the woods, you are wild enough to use organic materials to clean up with. Think of it as more of a “dab” than a “wipe” and you’ll be fine. This is the ultimate step in becoming a true LNT Black Belt, the thing that seems to gross out the most people. Trust me, it’s not that big of a deal. No matter how civilized you think you are, no matter how many electronic gadgets you use and different types of utensils you require to eat a meal, you are still an animal. You don’t see grizzly bears whining about not having two-ply Charmin to wipe their asses with.

Top photo: Sergei Akulich



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