A phrase that is often heard in backpacking circles is 'leave no trace' but what exactly does it mean?
A good, though simplistic, explanation is the old saying "leave only footprints and take only photographs". While this is a really nice summary of the idea that paints a pretty clear picture of the philosophy it doesn't tell us (it's not intended to) the nitty gritty of what to do in specific situations.
Some of these situations will be fairly clear, such as what to do with garbage. Here there can surely be no better answer than "pack it in, pack it out". In other words, if you've brought anything with you, it should not be left behind. No matter what it is. So this may include food scraps as well as the more obvious food packaging.
But what to do in the case of making a campfire? Here the situation is not so clearcut. There are no strict rules over what exactly 'leave no trace' means in every case. There is a broad set of ground rules though. As a philosophy it originally grew in the 60s and 70s partly through institutions such as the US Forest Service and partly through NGOs such as the Boy's Scouts of America, the Sierra Club and NOLS outdoor leadership schools. Eventually this piecemeal philosophy was given a clearer set of 'rules' known as the seven principles.
- Plan Ahead and Prepare: Poorly prepared people, when presented with unexpected situations, often resort to high-impact solutions that degrade the outdoors or put themselves at risk. Proper planning leads to less impact.
- Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces: Damage to land occurs when surface vegetation or communities of organisms are trampled beyond repair. The resulting barren area leads to unusable trails, campsites and soil erosion.
- Dispose of Waste Properly: Though most trash and litter in the backcountry is not significant in terms of the long term ecological health of an area, it does rank high as a problem in the minds of many backcountry visitors. Trash and litter are primarily social impacts which can greatly detract from the naturalness of an area. Further, backcountry users create body waste and waste water which requires proper disposal according to Leave No Trace.
- Leave What You Find: Leave No Trace directs people to minimize site alterations, such as digging tent trenches, hammering nails into trees, permanently clearing an area of rocks or twigs, and removing items.
- Minimize Campfire Impact: Because the naturalness of many areas has been degraded by overuse of fires, Leave No Trace teaches to seek alternatives to fires or use low-impact fires.
- Respect Wildlife: Minimizing impact on wildlife and ecosystems.
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors: Following hiking etiquette and maintaining quiet allows visitors to go through the wilderness with minimal impact on other users.
So far so good but let's get back to that campfire. The fifth principle says "minimize campfire impact." Let's get down to specifics by looking at two or three situations. In the 'alpine' (above the treeline) we might say that a fire should not be lit unless in an emergency situation. Why is this?
Quite apart from the difficulty of making a fire when there are few trees around (so that there are no great bundles of dead 'firewood') there are other reasons for this. Trees and shrubs have difficulty growing at higher elevations. Building fires around the Krumholz line will destroy a resource which cannot regenerate quickly thus negating the 'leave no trace' principle. If more backcountry campers built fires in the alpine it would not be long before the area was denuded of trees.
There is also the issue of a campfire being unsightly in an area where the lack of vegetative cover makes human impact all the more obvious (to say nothing of the fact that it is often illegal in parks and reserves). Can the campfire be 'disguised' when finished with so that other users of the area will not notice it?
Contrast this situation with coastal hiking. Often on coastal hikes there is an abundance of driftwood and other assorted flotsam and jetsom. Certainly this is the case with regards to BC as any coastal hiker can tell you. Not only is there a ready supply of dead (and often dry) wood to be used there is an easy way to dispose of the traces of the fire - tides. It is generally accepted that, so long as you build your fire below the high tide mark, any trace of a fire on a beach will disappear at the next high tide.
Of course this doesn't necessarily mean that you should build one. If there is no need we might say that building a fire is only likely to increase the likelihood of leaving a trace of some kind or other, even if it is only clashing with the seventh principle - "be considerate of other visitors".
Campfires in other areas, such as besides a river or on snow or in the desert, bring other considerations into play but the overriding idea is to minimise the impact one makes. How this will be done varies greatly with the terrain one is in.
So, while it might be impossible to leave no trace in the absolute sense, and while there might be disagreement and differences of opinion over what to do in every circumstance, we can at least say that we can use it as a guiding principle and that best practice is that which is closest to the ideal. This is what we strive for at West Coast Wonders.