Leave No Trace in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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Hiking along Abrams Creek near Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Hiking along Abrams Creek near Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Wildland Trekking founders explain why they teach their travelers to reduce their impact while exploring national parks.

Even if you live by the phrase “take only photos; leave only footprints” when you’re outdoors, it still might seem counterintuitive to pack out food scraps rather than leaving them to decompose or be eaten by animals.

But packing out your trash—regardless of what it is—is a vital Leave No Trace principle, and it’s important to practice Leave No Trace the best you can whenever you’re adventuring in our national parks.

Seven Principles of Leave No Trace

The seven principles of Leave No Trace were written by the National Forest Service in the 1970s to help people understand how to best interact with the environment when they’re outside. They basically boil down to making as little impact as possible.

  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.

“One of the core philosophies is to be considerate of other people’s experiences around you while you’re there and after you’ve left,” says Steve Cundy, co-founder of adventure tour company Wildland Trekking, which makes a point to teach its customers about Leave No Trace principles on every trip. “You need to make sure you take appropriate action to make sure that happens.”

Practicing Leave No Trace

Wildland Trekking runs hiking and backpacking trips in national parks throughout the country and world. Its national park destinations include Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Great Smoky, Rocky, Yosemite, Olympic, Zion and Bryce. Because their customers are often first-time backpackers, Wildland Trekking guides give an overview of the practices at the beginning of each trip and then reinforce each one out in the field. Sometimes, it takes a few reminders. Not everyone understands right off the bat that you can’t toss food scraps on the trail. Even though they’re biodegradable, they could pose a hazard to wildlife and the ecosystem.

“Some guests might even see it as a little bit silly sometimes,” Cundy says. “They might not understand why you can’t throw a little bit of food in a creek… [but] it shows a respect for the national parks and the environment as a whole, and we try to instill that respect for the land in all of our guests.”

Going to the Bathroom in the Backcountry

Backcountry bathroom etiquette in particular is something that’s easier to learn when you’re out on the trail than it is to memorize when you’re reading about it online. So when Wildland Trekking brings customers out on backpacking trips, they’ll make sure everyone understands how to bury their waste properly (at least 6 to 8 inches deep, and 200 feet from water, camp, and trails), and that they pack out toilet paper. They camp on durable surfaces to protect fragile ecosystems, and avoid burning food scraps, which can attract wildlife.

If you’re not familiar with Leave No Trace principles, start by reviewing the full list at lnt.org/learn/seven-principles-overview.

Perhaps the most important rule is the first one, “plan ahead and prepare,” co-owner Seth Quigg says. If you plan thoroughly from the outset, you won’t run into issues where you don’t have a permit to camp, or you get to camp too late and end up stomping over fragile ground in the dark. And if you prepare for whatever might come your way, you can often avoid emergency situations that can be destructive to the environment.

No matter how prepared you are, though, it’s always important to be ready for the unexpected, too.

Next time you head out into the backcountry, consider going a step further than leaving no trace of your own. Bring a separate trash bag and look around your campsite or lunch spot for wrappers and other trash previous hikers left behind. Pack out as much as you can. The wildlife, and the next set of hikers, will thank you for it.

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Ready to go on nature-friendly guided hike in your favorite park? Wildland Trekking offers hiking and backpacking tours at national parks in the U.S. as well as internationally. Learn more at www.wildlandtrekking.com.

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