seven principles

Leave No Trace - Outdoor Ethics and Loving Our Lands by ellie berry

Last month I wrote a piece titled The Unwritten Rules of Wild Camping, where I discussed the very grey area around wild camping in Ireland. In that post I talked about some of the important things I've both known and learnt about the outdoors: such as public and private rights of way, camping shelters, National Parks, and the important movement called Leave no Trace

I'm not sure when or where I learnt about Leave No Trace, as it's something that I feel like I've known since I was a child. However, since writing the wild camping blog post I've had more discussions about the outdoors with more and more people. It turns out Leave No Trace are not as famous as I've always personally assumed they were. Which leads us to this post! I am here to share with you, my thoughts and ideas of:

Leave No Trace - Outdoor Ethics and Loving Our Lands

Lets start with Leave No Trace first. To take from their own blurb, Leave No Trace is an outdoor ethics programme designed to promote and inspire responsible outdoor recreation through education, research and partnerships. Summarising a whole global movement and organisation into one sentence is a pretty impossible task - however this is probably, technically, the best one line summary you could give it. To use a couple of sentences, Leave No Trace is a non-profit organisation working to protect the outdoors by teaching and inspiring people to enjoy it responsibly. They are here to help sustain healthy, vibrant natural lands, for now and future generations. To do this, Leave No Trace typically works as an educational and ethical programme, teaching people how to responsibly enjoy the outdoors. Therefore, it's not so much a set of rules and regulations, but a goal for people who venture into the outdoors to strive towards. 


While this concept of "Leave No Trace" is over half a century old, the movement really developed in the 1960's by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) Forest Service, who at the time were witnessing a huge rise in people using their lands for recreation. By the mid-1980’s, the Forest Service had a formal “No-Trace” program emphasising wilderness ethics and sustainable travel and camping practices. Their success lead to the Forest Service working with the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management to create a pamphlet entitled “Leave No Trace Land Ethics.” In the early 1990s a hands-on, science-based training course was developed to teach how to have minimum impact on the land for all non-motorised recreational activities. And then finally, in 1994, Leave No Trace became an official nonprofit organisation to continue the teaching of these key outdoor concepts. (source)

Since then the movement has spread around the world, with the main principles being translated into over a dozen languages. There are organisations developing in New Zealand, Israel and India, and training programmes being carried out in Ukraine, Philippines, China, Tanzania and Bolivia. Outside of the US there are only 3 other fully independent branches established: Australia, Canada, and Ireland. (source)
This was a big surprise to me while researching the Leave No Trace history - that Ireland is one of only 4 countries in the world with its own Leave No Trace organisation! 

Found this wonderful looking leaflet when researching - haven't been able to date it yet

Found this wonderful looking leaflet when researching - haven't been able to date it yet

Applying concepts to reality

While Leave No Trace is more about ethics than enforcing rules, I can only assume that when you're trying to teach as many people as possible about loving the land and want to distill that message down to something simple and clear, one of the easiest ways is to give them a list of "do's and don't's". This leads us on to The 7 Principles.


1: Plan Ahead and Prepare
2: Be Considerate of Others
3: Respect Farm Animals and Wildlife
4: Travel and Camp on Durable Ground

5: Leave What You Find
6: Dispose of Waste Properly
7: Minimise the Effects of Fire


All seven principles are simple, achievable steps to ensuring that whoever goes out can enjoy the outdoors whenever they want, without damaging and possibly ruining it for everyone else. If you go for walks on coillte, national, or regional trails odds are that you've seen this list before: practically every information board at the beginning of a walk or hike in Ireland has this information on it. But, at least for me, just reading a list doesn't fully cement an idea in my head. So lets look at each of these principles, combining the details provided by LNT and my own thoughts on each topic.


1: Plan Ahead and Prepare

Before you go check, where possible, if access is allowed and your activity is permitted in the area you wish to visit - permits are sometimes needed for activities on public lands. Lot's of outdoor recreation takes place on Coillte lands, and while can walk and hike on all Coillte lands (and cycle in selected sites) without a permit, they have a list of other activities where a permit is needed (thank god hiking is permit free, otherwise I think I would have drowned in paperwork many years ago). 
Respect any signs, regulations, policies and special concerns for the area that you wish to visit. The Waymarked Trails that we walk typically span long distances and cross lots and lots of different people's land. Because of this, there's nearly always something going on on the trail that we're not going to know about. In the beginning we were fixated on walking all the trails perfectly. Once we started accepting that the trails are always going to be in some sort of flux, it was a much more enjoyable experience - we're out walking today, and we're just going to walk.
LNT encourage to travel by public transport or share cars where possible. For most of the Waymarked Trails I think sharing cars is the best option - there's not always a large car park at the trail heads, but public transport doesn't always get you to those middle of no where spots (we should know as neither of us drive).  Ensure you have the skills and equipment needed for your activity and to cope with emergencies that could arise - the weight of a first aid kit never hurt anyone. Check the weather forecast and always be prepared for changing weather conditions, because you wouldn't believe how often it's changed on us while we're hiking For environmental and safety reasons (and to minimise your impact on other users) keep group numbers small; split larger parties into smaller groups. So much of Irish land is marshy or boggy as it is, and if lots of people hit it at once it's just going to become impassible. 


2: Be Considerate of Others

Respect the people who live and work in the countryside. Park appropriately: avoid blocking gateways, forest entrances or narrow roads. We have seen some amazing and woeful parking at different trail heads - although generally I think we're not too bad. This also clearly links into car sharing and space. Remember that farm machinery, local residents and the emergency services may need access at all times. Take care not to damage property, especially walls, fences and crops. It's so easy to not really think about the fact that the stone wall beside you is often hundreds of years old. There's a really rich history of working with stone in Ireland, and I hope to one day get to visit the West Cork Stone Symposium (I might be a massive nerd, but to me that sounds magical and cool).
Respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience. Let nature's sounds prevail. Keep noise to a minimum - which means no speakers, no boom box, no marching band. Actually it would be incredibly surreal to meet a marching band on the top of a mountain. So if you can very quietly carry all your gear to the top of the next mountain I'm climbing, and erupt into empowering music when I reach the summit, I think you'll be allowed to hike with your band.


3: Respect Farm Animals and Wildlife

Dogs should be kept under close control and should only be brought onto hills or farmland with the landowner's permission. I understand how frustrating it must be for dog owners to arrive to a trail head and see a sign saying no dogs. We both desperately want to have our own dog, but just so much land in Ireland is used for farming that bringing a dog with us right now is impossible. I remember the first time we saw a sign beside a stile into a field saying "dogs have been shot in the past and will be shot again". It churned my stomach to think about. However, if people aren't respecting the fact that the farmer doesn't want dogs on his land to protect his animals, then I understand that very strong language might be used. I can only hope that it was scare tactics that they were going for. 

We had a wonderful experience in Kerry recently where we'd stopped to chat and film something, and only realised 20 minutes later that there was a deer standing behind us, chill as a cucumber munching on some bushes. It even turned to us and did that upwards nod thing to greet us. We then very excitedly and quietly stood there marvelling at it before deciding to move on. Clearly it wasn't phased by us if it stood around before we noticed it (and when we were being much louder), but we still didn't want to over stay our welcome. Ten minutes or so later along the trail we met a lovely woman with her very well behaved dog trotting along beside her. We mentioned that there was a deer ahead and she immediately put a lead on her dog. It was such a pleasant experience where she immediately understood what we were talking about and we could all be happy and enjoy the trail. 
Some public areas stipulate that dogs must be kept on a lead at all times, so please adhere to local guidelines. Observe wild animals and birds from a distance (unless the sneak up on you like that deer did to us). Avoid disturbing them, particularly at sensitive times: mating, nesting and raising young (mostly between spring and early summer). Keep wildlife wild, don't feed wild animals or birds - our foods damage their health and leave them vulnerable to predators. Farm animals are not pets; remain at a safe distance (calves may be cute - but cows are one tonne lumbering blocks that can accidentally squish or lick you, so be prepared!).


4: Travel and Camp on Durable Ground

Durable ground includes established tracks and campsites, rock, gravel, dry grasses or snow (not that snow is ever really here to wander on). 
In popular areas: Concentrate use on existing tracks and campsites. To avoid further erosion, travel in single file in the middle of the track even when wet or muddy - I know, this bit kind of sucks. But we're saving the ground! I also find that sometimes the middle isn't actually that bad as most people have been walking on the sides, thinking that the edges are stronger. So not all bad!

In more remote areas: Disperse use to prevent the creation of new tracks and campsites. Avoid places where impacts are just beginning to show. However be careful in bogs, often the lush green inviting sections is going to swallow you. Also, bogs have such diverse wildlife and plants that are thick and dense on the ground that I think it's better to walk in one area to avoid damaging the plants and ground. I think this is why more places are trying to put in boardwalk in such areas - it makes crossing much easier, but it protects the bog from too much passing erosion. Here's a list of some of the most common plants you encounter in a bog, and here's a leaflet by the Irish Peatland Conservation Council about why we should protect peat bogs

If camping: Protect water quality by camping at least 30m from lakes and streams. Keep campsites small and discreet. Aim to leave your campsite as you found it, or better! I actually have a mini photo series of places we've camped, just after we've packed up the tent so that all you can see is maybe a little bit of bent grass. For more specifics on camping, there's the unwritten rules of wild camping.


5: Leave What You Find

Respect property. For example, farming or forestry machinery, fences, stone walls etc. Leave gates as you find them (open or closed). Preserve the past: examine - without damaging - archaeological structures, old walls and heritage artefacts e.g. holy wells, mine workings, monuments. Conserve the present: leave rocks, flowers, plants, animals and all natural habitats as you find them. Fallen trees are a valuable wildlife habitat; do not remove or use for firewood. If it's a fallen tree on the trail, contact the people who maintain it (the contacts are often listed on, just find the specific trail and check out the contact info associated with it!) 
Avoid introducing non-native plants and animals e.g. zebra mussels in rivers and lakes. Do not build rock cairns, structures or shelters. As I'm writing this there are actually quite a few articles popping up (I only noticed that pun when proofreading) abut the harmfulness of stacking stones on beaches, hillsides, etc.  


6: Dispose of Waste Properly

"If you pack it In, take it out" - take home all litter and leftover food (including tea bags, fruit peels and other biodegradable foods - not all climates are actually suited to breaking that stuff down!). We use zip lock bags - specifically the ones that have the little zip, as opposed to the ones you just squeeze. That way I know it's definitely sealed when I'm putting it in my bag. I've been thinking of using the compostable bags you can now buy, but there's still a lot of debate as to how bio-degradable they really are, so we'll wait and see. 
To dispose of solid human waste, dig a hole 15-20cms deep and at least 30m from water, campsites and tracks. Cover and disguise the hole when finished. Bring home toilet paper and hygiene products. Seriously, if you are one of those people who leave tissues on the side of a mountain ... please don't. 
Wash yourself or your dishes 30m away from streams or lakes and if necessary use small amounts of biodegradable soap (soap leafs are great too!). For more information on sanitation in the outdoors there is a "Where to go in the outdoors" leaflet available at many national parks, etc. I haven't yet found a copy online to link to. 

One of the saddest moments we have when hiking is when we come across just a mound of dumped rubbish. Clearly this was done with intent, I hope no one hikes with a fridge on their back, so it's not outdoor users to blame for such horrible acts. If you do need to get rid of old appliances, there are lots of places that will take it for free


7: Minimise the Effects of Fire

Fires can cause lasting impacts and be devastating to forests, natural habitats and farmland. Therefore when camping use a lightweight stove for cooking. Where fires are permitted: Use established fire rings, barbecues or create a mound fire. Keep fires small. Only use sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand. Do not use growing vegetation for use as firewood. Avoid burning plastics or other substances as they emit toxic fumes! Burn all fires to ash, put out fires completely, and then scatter cool ashes. I personally don't have the association with camping and campfires that other people have, so I am very happy not setting camp fires and just using a small stove. Please don't set fires, or be careful if you do! 


And that's it! The seven principles for outdoor ethics and loving our lands. Some might seem obvious to you, and some might be things you've never really thought about. Either way, I hope you have a fantastic time enjoying nature in whatever way you do. 

One of the coolest results from my Wild Camping post is that Leave No Trace Ireland themselves saw it - and really liked it! Since then we've met up with them, chatted about our projects and theirs, and become official members of Leave No Trace Ireland! It is really amazing to get to work with such amazing people, and I am so excited for all I'm going to learn from them.

The wonderful "Leave No Trace Outdoor Ethics" logo on the header image is a patch from the Boy Scouts of America. The Leave No Trace Tech Tips were created by Keen Footwear for Leave No Trace. Tough Soles are proud member of Leave No Trace Ireland

We’ve made our own Tough Soles maps! These maps are free to use, remix, and redistribute under CC-BY 4.0. All you need to do is attribute us! Here are all the maps we’ve made.

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