“Ladies first,” the hiker said, stepping off the trail and gesturing to the thin strip of rooty ground next to the swampy trail. He watched in bemusement as our group of women splashed straight through the mud and puddles, chattering to each other about the best place to dig a cathole.
I do this frequently: walk through puddles and talk about poo. I volunteer as a Leave No Trace (LNT) trainer and, on that cloudy morning in February, I was leading an Awareness Workshop in the North Shore mountains near Vancouver for fellow members of my local Outdoor Women’s Alliance Grassroots Team.
The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace are a set of guidelines designed to help us understand how to keep the wilderness as untouched by our presence as possible. The principles are:
- Plan ahead and prepare.
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
- Dispose of waste properly.
- Minimize campfire impacts.
- Leave what you find.
- Respect wildlife.
- Be considerate of other users.
I met the women that signed up for the course at the trailhead. I like to teach my workshops outside; people generally learn better by doing and it’s much more fun to go on a hike than sit in a stuffy classroom. We headed into the forest, every so often stopping to chat and learn about one of the principles of LNT. Even though each of the women knew a little bit about LNT beforehand, there were still lots of questions to answer and myths to bust.
On vs. Off-trail Travel
The group funneled onto the trail, moving from walking in pairs to walking in single file. “What should we do if we are travelling off-trail, like in an alpine meadow?” asked on of the women. “Should we walk single file like we are now?”
“Anyone know?” I asked the rest of the group, and to stir more debate, I added, “And while you’re at it, how would that be different than how we crossed the swampy stretch earlier?”
They debated among themselves for a minute before I spoke up to debunk a common belief with the following: When on a distinct trail, concentrate the impact on a durable surface (e.g. the trail), but when off-trail, hikers should spread out in order to reduce their impact. And as for the swampy section, dispersing around the edges of it destroys vegetation and widens the trail, which is why we got our boots dirty and trudged straight through the swamp.
Campsite Selection and Food Waste
Halfway through our hike, we found a spot to stop for a snack. This would also be our opportunity to set up a mock overnight camp. We stopped in a large clearing near a trail junction next to the river. I asked the group to pick the best place for our “campsite.” After a quick discussion, I was pleased when they correctly selected a gravelly site set back from the river and away from the trail. Gravel is an ideal surface for Leave No Trace camping because of its durability, unlike the grass and moss in the rest of the clearing. Their spot was also ideal because it was at least 200 feet from the river and the trail to avoid camping in sensitive riparian areas and to respect other trail users.
We spread out a tarp to have a picnic and boil water for hot chocolate. Afterward, we practiced doing camp dishes.
“Can we just use biodegradable soap and wash in the river?” the group wanted to know.
While biodegradable soap is much better for the environment than regular soap, it’s still not safe for plants or fish so it shouldn’t be washed directly into a water source. Unless your food is really greasy, a quick rinse might be all your dishes need. If you do use soap, use as little as possible. We washed our dishes 200 feet (70 paces) away from the river and dispersed our grey (dirty) water afterward by throwing it out in an arc to spread it as widely as possible.
“Can we just throw these in the bushes? Won’t they decompose quickly?” One the participants poised with a leftover apple core in her hand.
I quickly responded that food wastes last much longer than you may think: banana peels and apple cores can take a month or two while orange peels can last for up to six months, leaving plenty of time for animals to learn that food can come from hikers. We shove the core in a bag: pack an apple in, pack a core out.
On the hike back to the car from our picnic spot the talk turned to poop, as it always does at a Leave No Trace Awareness Workshop. One woman asked: “What’s the best way to dispose of toilet paper? Can I burn it?”
The most LNT way to clean yourself is to use natural toilet paper like moss or snow or to pack out your used toilet paper in a plastic bag. Be sure to dig your cathole away from water sources, trails and campsites (again: 200 feet or about 70 paces), dig down six inches and cover it fully afterward.
Before long, we were back at the car and the rain that had been threatening all morning finally let loose. As we hastily piled back into our cars, we rejoiced at our awesome timing and the lessons that we had learned. A cloudy Saturday morning had resulted in skills that we would carry forth into the rest of our adventures.
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About the author
Taryn Eyton’s home is in Vancouver but her heart is in the great outdoors. Her first backpacking trip was a five-day blitz of Canada’s West Coast Trail; she’s been hooked on hiking ever since. You can find her on the trails of Vancouver’s North Shore on weeknights and somewhere in the backcountry of southwestern British Columbia on weekends. She is passionate about keeping the wilderness wild and, as a certified Leave No Trace Trainer, offers free LNT awareness workshops. Her Instagram channel features LNT-related posts on Tuesdays as part of the #LeaveNoTraceTuesday movement.
Find her online
From February 6 - March 3, 2017, OWA is raising $25,000 to expand access to their Grassroots Program. We want women everywhere to connect, grow skills, and build in-person communities right in their own towns. Find out how you can support our efforts and what we plan to accomplish with your donation by visiting our crowdfunding campaign.