Here at Curious.Earth we love to encourage you to get outdoors due to the positive impact it can have on your wellbeing. While recreational activities have nothing but benefits for humans, can the same be said for the environment?
Humans 1 – 0 Nature
We turn to nature for recreation in many ways; hiking, camping, cycling, skiing and golfing, to name a few. Whilst the impact of these activities isn’t equal, they can all be detrimental to the environment.
Some of the impacts include contamination of water, soil erosion, and vegetation loss. Even supposedly low impact activities can be harmful – but surely something like hiking can’t cause too much damage? While one walk along a trail has a pretty low impact, the repeated use of pathways by multiple visitors can damage plants and reduce plant cover, decreasing biodiversity over time. Even just our presence out in nature can disturb wildlife, and in the worst case scenario, has the potential to displace animals from their habitats.
Despite the diversity in recreational activities, littering remains a common thread, particularly on busy weekends. Sunny long weekends have seen swathes of Brits flock to the seaside and parks, leaving behind ‘seas of litter‘. This litter goes on to pollute our land and water, and endangers wildlife.
So, does that mean we should avoid outdoor recreation?
Of course not; by no means should we stop going outside! But it’s important to be mindful that we aren’t sacrificing the environment for our own enjoyment. Fortunately for us, there are guidelines to help us when planning a trip out in nature. Enter the ‘Leave No Trace principles’! These aren’t hard and fast rules, but they act as a helpful guideline for how to approach an excursion responsibly.
So, let’s break down the seven Leave No Trace principles and delve into what each one involves.
1) Plan ahead and prepare
Spontaneous excursions can be fun, but it’s always worth spending some time researching before you go somewhere new. Not only is this for our own safety, but it ensures we’re looking after the planet too.
- Know the rules and regulations of where you’re visiting. Check online and always look for signage.
- Be prepared for extreme weather and hazards.
- If possible, use public transport or carshare. This can help reduce the CO2 emissions of your journey by 42% if you travel by bus and 73% via the train.
- If you’re planning on taking your pet with you on your excursion, check if it’s allowed in that area. Do local rules require your dog to be on a lead at all times? Sticking to these rules helps minimise disturbances to wildlife and plants.
2) Travel and camp on durable terrains
Wet, muddy terrain not only leads to compaction and erosion but also churns up the pathway, which makes future usage of trails difficult for other visitors.
- A good rule of thumb to follow is – if you know it’s going to be particularly wet, ensure you stick to gravelly or rocky paths, or think about postponing your excursion to another day.
- Avoid camping next to watercourses; allow a distance of at least 60 metres (200 feet) between your campsite and water source. This avoids pollutants from entering the watercourse and allows wildlife access.
- When setting up camp, check for and avoid small plants in the early stages of growth that could be damaged by a tent.
- Stick to the trails! It can be tempting to veer off the beaten track, but this can lead to animal and vegetation disturbances and even soil erosion.
- If there are no trails, avoid creating one – if you’re in a group, disperse over a wider area so your footprints aren’t localised to one pathway.
3) Dispose of waste properly
If you bring it with you, take it away with you! Simple.
- We all love a picnic, but it’s inevitable that there will be some wrappers or waste. Take a designated container or bag with you that can become your rubbish bin.
- Do a good deed for the day and pick up any other litter that you spot whilst out and about.
- It can be tempting to litter leftover food if it’s compostable because it’ll decompose, right? Unfortunately, this can take a long time – banana peels can take up to two years to decompose. In the meantime, it’s just litter. Pop it on your compost instead!
- The animals also don’t want your scraps! It’s unhealthy for wild animals to have non-native foods introduced into their diets, and reliance on humans to provide food can result in creatures losing their innate wariness.
4) Leave behind what you find
This is a hard one, as it can be super tempting to take pretty shells or cool looking rocks as a souvenir. But it’s always best to avoid this and leave items in their natural environment. Fortunately, we have smartphones now, so we can take pictures of our cool finds instead of adding more clutter to the living room!
- Leave the flowers for the pollinators!
- Refrain from moving rocks and stones – this can expose soil and exacerbate erosion.
- Leave the shells and stones at the beach. Small creatures, such as crabs and algae depend on rocks for shelter and protection. Removing stones can mean destroying their homes.
- If you’re foraging, firstly, always know what you’re picking. The golden rule – leave plenty behind so you don’t deplete flora and fungi in the area! Follow this Woodland Trust guide to help you forage safely.
5) Minimize campfire impacts
This principle is extremely important and can have drastic repercussions if done unsafely. The best practice is to avoid having a campfire unless you’re in an area with designated with fire pits. If in doubt, always hold off.
- Always check if fires are permitted in the local area. Often, there are signs or information available online that will inform you if it is a fire prohibited area.
- If you are having a fire, find fuel from the ground – dry, dead wood is best and avoids damaging an ecosystem. Don’t chop down trees or saplings.
- Watch for critters! Moving wood can introduce insects, such as beetles, to a new environment, threatening native trees.
- Follow this guide to practice good campfire safety.
6) Respect wildlife
The environment is shared by all living creatures – what might be a scenic forest to us, is a crucial habitat for many animals. Just like when we visit our friends’ homes, respect is key.
- Stick to trails to avoid disturbing habitats. It’s not always obvious where habitat is; ground-nesting birds often have inconspicuous homes that aren’t easy to spot.
- If you come across wildlife, leave it be! Observe from a distance and give plenty of space.
- Keep noise to a minimum: avoid playing music out loud or excessively shouting. Noise can disturb animals, causing them to flee from distress and burn energy levels – the result of this can be fatal.
- Be especially careful during breeding periods, usually between spring and early summer. It’s best to avoid visiting sensitive habitats during this period as disturbance is too risky.
7) Be considerate of other visitors
This one is easy, being considerate of others is important in any social interaction.
- Just like the above, be mindful of the noise you’re making. Not everyone likes the same music or podcasts! Being outside is a great time to enjoy nature’s soundtrack.
- Be mindful that some areas you visit may be Indigenous land and have cultural significance. Be respectful, and check for any guidelines specific to that area.
- Clean up after your dog! Furry friends are great companions for a nature excursion, but their waste can contaminate nature and harm wildlife.
It goes without saying that not every Leave No Trace principal will apply for your weekend beach trip or park run, but they’re a good starting place for ensuring our pleasure doesn’t come at the detriment to the environment. Be safe on your excursions and embrace the feel-good-factor of getting outdoors!
- If you’re planning a camping trip, browse for eco-campsites.
- Want to experience nature more but don’t know how to get started? Get inspired by these nature-based activities from The Conservation Volunteers.
- Be prepared! Check out trails to explore before you leave; AllTrails has pictures and reviews to help you pick the trail best suited to your needs.
- Check out Leave no Trace’s free online training courses.
- Read more about outdoor recreation in our archives; here and here.