Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace

This summer I joined a “Leave No Trace” trainers course at Glenmore Lodge.  Minimal impact is something that Wildwood Bushcraft has always built into its outdoor practice, but I was interested in learning more about this formalised approach and the prospect of passing this on to other outdoor users.  Leave No Trace originates from the Center for Outdoor Ethics in the States, but its framework is being increasingly accepted by outdoor providers here in the UK.

Literally leaving no trace can be tricky, but it is an aspiration that makes us think about the effects we each have and the multiplication of those effects by the many people using the outdoors.

Leave No Trace is founded on 7 key principles:

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly
  4. Leave What You Find
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
  6. Respect Wildlife
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

Leave No Trace has arguably a higher relevance in Scotland where  Outdoor Access rights allow greater freedom to roam and camp in the countryside.  You only have to look at areas close to population centres to see the effects of irresponsible land use.  I once collected up 3 bin bags worth of rubbish left by a single group of campers on the side of Loch Lomond!  Litter is an obvious blight and one that most of us are aware of, however people vary in what they consider acceptable to leave.  For example some people burn cans and plastics and leave the residue in a fire site or leave bio-degradable food waste and cigarette butts behind.  These signs can be ugly for others to see and there is also the effect that organic waste may have on plant growth, nutrient levels in streams and the effects on animal movements. It is also quite surprising how long some common items persist before they decompose.  Here are some decomposition times for common items given by the Australian Department of the Environment:

  • Banana Skin 3 – 4 weeks
  • Paper Bag 1 month
  • Cardboard 2 months
  • Apple core 1 – 2 months
  • Aluminium Cans > 1 million years
  • Orange Peel Up to 2 years
  • Cigarette Butts Up to 12 years
  • Plastic Bags * Up to 20 years
  • Plastic Bottle * 450 years
  • Glass 1-2 million years

* Petrochemical products never truly breakdown and remain in the environment forever.

For these reasons we  burn organic matter and carry out all other litter on Wildwood Bushcraft courses.

Wild fire in Inverpolly, Scotland

Wild fire in Inverpolly, Scotland

Fire is another potentially big impact.  A campfire is fundamental to bushcraft and a wonderful thing to experience in the wild, however, when fires get out of control the effects can be devastating.  I remember a couple of years ago encountering a massive wild fire in Inverpolly during one of our canoe expeditions.  During the same weekend multiple fires took hold all over the country – this was  due to the combined effects of dry, windy conditions and a bank holiday weekend with lots of campers.  One of the main problems was that people didn’t recognize the high risk conditions and carried on with their normal firelighting practices.  Burning toilet paper was reportedly responsible for a least one fire.  Apart from the human safety risks caused by wild fires there are also the impacts on nesting birds, invertebrates and tree regeneration programmes.  It is therefore vital to recognize the changing fire risk levels and then either avoid fire lighting altogether, or take extreme precautions.

It  is also worth thinking about the effects of our activities on the ground and erosion in general.  One person is unlikely to have much impact but in popular areas we need to consider the cumulative effects.  Leave No Trace philosophy suggests we travel and camp on durable surfaces.  In popular areas we should stick to existing paths, where practical, and in remote places distribute our impacts.  We should build our fires on mineral ground where the fire site  is more easily restored, less likely to damage the ground, use an existing fire site or use a fire bowl or similar that protects the ground and the seedbank.  If we ignore this advice we end up with multiple burnt patches which are ugly and unnecessary.  Managing, extinguishing and disguising fires is also an important part of the Leave No Trace approach and also good bushcraft.  When I am traveling in the wilderness  I really don’t like finding traces of other people and their camps – it’s as if the wildness of the place is somehow diminished.

Respecting wildlife is another important cornerstone of Leave No Trace.  This includes an awareness of protected areas, breeding birds and avoiding damage to plants and ecosystems generally.  Many of us love to watch wild animals up close, when we can, but we must balance this with the need not to disturb them.  We should also avoid feeding animals and keep our pets under control.

Leaving things as we find them is potentially a challenge when practicing bushcraft.  Nevertheless, with a little thought and effort we can minimise our impacts.  I have already mentioned managing fire impacts but when we build debris shelters or harvest materials such as live wood or edible plants we are obviously not leaving things exactly as we find them!  Here I think the key is to minimise ecological and visual impacts and operate in a sustainable way.  For example, if we need to cut small amounts of live wood for carving we just remove a few branches not young trees. We weigh up the visual impact of removing a branch and tidy up offcuts. We also select trees that can withstand coppicing and will thus re-grow.  As for leaf shelters, in the wild sites we use in Scotland we tend to dismantle shelters after use and distribute the materials.  When foraging, be it for plants or shellfish, we make sure we don’t over-exploit an area by spreading out our efforts and allowing areas to recover if necessary.

Another more general consideration is the spread of non-native invasive plants.  If visiting an area where invasive species are rife we should make a concerted effort to clean our shoes and clothes to avoid spreading seeds to pristine areas.

One important thing we can do to help with all this is, to plan our trips into countryside.  A well planned trip will mean we are well equipped to deal with waste disposal, fires (including back up methods such as stoves if fire risk is high),  we will also have researched and have considered wildlife issues.

In my opinion  Leave No Trace provides a useful framework for taking care of the countryside and minimising our impacts.  Wildwood Bushcraft provide one day workshops on request,  offering guidance and training in the 7 principles.  This can also be incorporated into an expedition or other outdoor activity.  For those attending such training days we provide  a recognised Leave No Trace certificate.  Give us a call on 01687470415 if this is of interest to you or your group.






Leave a Response