Scouts and leaders can minimize the impact of backcountry camping by learning skills and making decisions based on an outdoor ethics program to conserve the environment.
“It’s a West Virginia day, that’s for sure,” said park ranger Steve Bair, gazing down on the Shenandoah Valley and then across to a ridge of mountains in the distance.
“What do you mean?” asked a Scout from Troop 1509 of Alexandria, Va. He and the other boys joined Bair on an outcropping alongside a trail in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park.
“I mean you couldn’t ask for a finer day to go hiking; the sun is shining, the air is crisp and cool, and the haze that normally hangs in these valleys during the summer is gone,” Bair responded. “See those mountains on the horizon? Those are the Alleghenies in West Virginia – at least 60 miles due west of here.”
The Scouts and their leaders, Dominick Caridi and Charlie Marineau, took a few moments to savor the view. Stands of red oak and ash mixed with basswood and yellow poplar. These woods were home to deer, bobcats, and the greatest concentration of black bears in the country. A sense of tranquillity belied the park’s proximity to the nation’s capital – at some points less than 75 miles away.
To any hiker with a backpack and sturdy boots, this scenic wilderness offers nature and solitude – two reasons Troop 1509 enjoys backcountry hiking and camping there.
But a “hiker’s high” brought on by the beauty of nature can swiftly fade if one encounters an example of others’ disregard for the land. A campsite scarred by multiple fire rings, littered with food scraps, or soiled by a garden of toilet-paper “blossoms” peeking out from beneath rocks spoils what otherwise would be a pristine environment.
Minimizing our impact
America’s public lands – national parks, forests, and recreational areas – are more popular than ever. Shenandoah National Park hosts more backcountry visitors per square mile than any other national park; each year nearly two million people visit.
Conserving our natural environment so that it may be enjoyed by future generations is more important than ever and the responsibility of everyone. To give his troop’s junior leaders a better understanding of their role in conserving the backcountry, Dominick Caridi brought them to Shenandoah for a day of outdoor skills and ethics awareness training called Leave No Trace (LNT).
Last fall, the BSA joined three federal land management agencies – the National Park Service, the Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management – along with the National Outdoor Leadership School, to provide educational materials in Leave No Trace camping. Unit-based LNT training, piloted in three BSA councils, promotes land stewardship, minimum-impact skills, and wilderness ethics.
“We’ve trained more than 100 Scout leaders from the National Capital Area Council in Leave No Trace principles,” said Kelly Hartsell, a park ranger in Shenandoah’s education department. “Some of those leaders then passed an advanced course of requirements, qualifying them as ‘Masters of Leave No Trace,’ and now they are training other Scout leaders and adults.”
Rangers Bair and Hartsell introduced Troop 1509’s leaders to the training program with an overview of LNT’s seven principles.
“When I was a Scout in the 60s and 70s, we were very skilled in ‘maximum-impact’ camping,” admitted Bair. “If we needed firewood and saw a tree, we hacked it down.”
Instead of wood fires, he said, LNT encourages the use of fuel stoves, which in some areas is the only type of “fire” allowed.
Do your homework
Of LNT’s seven principles, both rangers agreed that the first – Plan Ahead and Prepare – determines how effectively campers can limit their impact on the wilderness.
For example, campers should check out their destination far enough in advance to get information about camping regulations, backcountry permits, water levels for rafting and canoeing, and weather conditions.
About a month ahead of time, a camper should get a good map of the area and make sure it’s current, Bair suggests. “A common mistake,” he said, “is to bring a map that’s dated 20 or 30 years ago. The mountains don’t change, but the trails do.”
Brush up on your compass skills, too. “It’s amazing how many people have a compass but, when they get lost, don’t know how to use it. That’s not the time to pull out the directions and learn,” Bair said.
Other tips the rangers suggest:
- Repackage food products before leaving home to eliminate excess cardboard, paper, and plastic wrapping. Plan meals carefully so that no leftovers have to be carried out. Don’t carry cans, glass jars, or bottles.
- If weather permits, use mosquito netting or a rain fly as a tent. A tarp tent like this doesn’t need tent pegs to stick into the ground and, having no floor, doesn’t leave a large “footprint” on vegetation.
- Sleeping pads allow campers a wider choice of durable surfaces on which to place a tent, such as on rocks or pebbles.
- In camp, switch to soft-soled shoes, which are less destructive to vegetation than heavy-soled hiking boots.
- Pack a couple of large, collapsible water containers. This will minimize the number of trips you have to make to collect water and therefore minimize erosion and the trampling of vegetation.
- Take rope, carabiners, and a bear bag to secure foodstuffs away from camp and out of the reach of animals.
Outdoor toilet training
When Troop 1509’s discussion with the rangers turned to disposing of human waste, it was time for a new perspective on toilet training as applied to the outdoors. The guideline on urination is simple: Do it at least 200 feet away from camp and water sources. Disposal of solid waste, how-ever, requires more thought and effort.
“Find a place at least 200 feet away from campsites, trails, and water,” instructed Hartsell. “Use a trowel to cut out a plug of sod about five or six inches in diameter. Lay that aside and dig a cathole about six inches deep. Use toilet paper sparingly and either bury it in the cathole or carry it out. Do not burn it – the chances of a fire spreading are too great. Cover the hole with the plug of sod.”
A metal trowel – especially one that folds and fits into a small pouch – is best, said Scoutmaster Caridi. “A friend of mine used to carry a lightweight plastic trowel,” he added. “It worked just fine – until it broke in half at a most inopportune moment.”
After lunch, the group shouldered their backpacks and headed down the trail for a five-mile hike and an opportunity to practice their LNT skills.
When the Scouts reached their destination, they faced the important decision of selecting a campsite. They had to consider the fragility of vegetation and soil and the likelihood of disturbing wildlife, assess previous impacts, and judge their own potential to cause or avoid impact.
When the spot was picked, the boys quickly went about setting up a model LNT campsite based on a triangular layout. One corner was set aside for the kitchen, another for sleeping, and the third for hanging the bear bag.
“A triangular layout allows you to manage the amount of damage to a campsite,” Caridi said. “Campers reach each area by walking along the triangle’s perimeter. This keeps the site’s less durable surface area, such as meadow grasses, in the middle and free from activity.”
“Since the kitchen area receives the heaviest use by campers for cooking and eating, it should be set on the most durable surface available in camp,” Bair said. Examples include sites already heavily used and lacking vegetation, exposed bedrock, or sandy areas.
LNT becomes second nature
Does following the principles of Leave No Trace make camping more difficult and time-consuming for Scouts? No, says Caridi. It soon becomes second nature.
“These Scouts have a new appreciation for hiking and camping in the backcountry and using methods that lessen their impact on the land.”
As the group sat down to eat their “boil-in-bag” chili mac and chicken teriyaki dinners, Kelly Hartsell noted how the LNT training provided to National Capital Area Council Scouters was making a difference in the park.
“We have lots of Scouts who hike through Shenandoah,” he said. “Other rangers tell me that since we began this training a year ago, we are not seeing resource damage from Scouts in your council. “Remember, these Leave No Trace principles aren’t rules and regulations or a series of do’s and don’ts, but rather an ethic we try to follow.”
It’s an ethic to which the BSA hopes all its members will subscribe while remembering the proverb: “We have not inherited the land from our forefathers, we have only borrowed it from our children.”
Scott Daniels is executive editor of Scouting magazine.
Leave No Trace education and training materials are available on the Internet at http://www.lnt.org.Publications may also be purchased from Leave No Trace Inc., P.O. Box 997, Boulder, CO 80306, (800) 332-4100.
How to Qualify for the Leave No Trace Awareness Award
Youth and adults who participate in unit-based Leave No Trace training are eligible for the BSA’s Leave No Trace Awareness Award. The award patch may be worn on the uniform shirt pocket. To qualify for the patch, complete the following requirements and submit an application signed by a unit leader to your local Scout council service center. [Requirements and application are included in the BSA brochure "The Principles of Leave No Trace" (Bin No. 21-105), available at council service centers.]
Boy Scout and Venturer requirements
- Recite and explain the principles of Leave No Trace.
- On three separate camping/backpacking trips, demonstrate and practice the principles of Leave No Trace.
- Earn the Camping and Environmental Science merit badges.*
- Participate in a Leave No Trace-related service project.
- Give a 10-minute presentation on a Leave No Trace topic approved by your Scoutmaster/Advisor.
- Draw a poster or build a model to demonstrate the differences in how to camp or travel in high-use and pristine areas.
* Venturers substitute requirement No. 3 from the Scouter/Advisor list.
Scouter and Advisor requirements
- Recite and explain the principles of Leave No Trace.
- On three separate camping/backpacking trips, demonstrate and practice the principles of Leave No Trace.
- Share with another Scout leader/Advisor your understanding and knowledge of the Camping and Environmental Science merit badge pamphlets.
- Actively assist (training, advice, and general supervision) a Scout/Venturer in planning, organizing, and leading a service project related to Leave No Trace.
- Assist a minimum of three Scouts/Venturers in earning the Leave No Trace Awareness Award.
- Plan and conduct a Leave No Trace awareness session for Scouts, Scouters, Advisors, or aninterested group outside of Scouting.
The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace
1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
Proper trip planning and preparation help hikers and campers accomplish trip goals safely and enjoyably while minimizing damage to natural and cultural resources. Campers who plan ahead can avoid unexpected situations and minimize their impact by complying with area regulations such as observing limitations on group size.
Proper planning ensures:
- Low-risk adventures, because campers obtained information concerning geography and weather and prepared accordingly.
- Properly located campsites, because campers allotted enough time to reach their destination.
- Appropriate campfires and minimal trash, because of careful meal planning and food repackaging and proper equipment.
- Comfortable and fun camping and hiking experiences, because the outing matches the skill level of the participants.
2. Camp and Travel on Durable Surfaces
Damage to land occurs when visitors trample vegetation or communities of organisms beyond recovery. The resulting barren areas develop undesirable trails, campsites, and soil erosion.
Concentrate activity or spread out?
- In high-use areas, campers should concentrate their activities where vegetation is already absent. Minimize resource damage by using existing trails and selecting designated or existing campsites.
- In more remote, less-traveled areas, campers should generally spread out. When hiking, take different paths to avoid creating new trails that cause erosion. When camping, disperse tents and cooking activities – and move camp daily to avoid creating permanent-looking campsites. Always choose the most durable surfaces available: rock, gravel, dry grasses, or snow.These guidelines apply to most alpine settings and may be different for other areas, such as deserts. Learn the Leave No Trace techniques for your crew’s specific activity or destination. Check with land managers to be sure of the proper technique.
3. Pack It In, Pack It Out
This simple yet effective saying motivates backcountry visitors to take their trash home with them. Minimize the need to pack out food scraps by carefully planning meals. Accept the challenge of packing out everything you bring.
Backcountry users create body waste and wastewater that require proper disposal.
Wastewater. Help prevent contamination of natural water sources: After straining food particles, properly dispose of dishwater by dispersing at least 200 feet (about 80 to 100 strides for a youth) from springs, streams, and lakes. If you must use soap, use biodegradable soap 200 feet or more away from any water source.
Human waste. Proper human waste disposal helps prevent the spread of disease and exposure to others. Catholes 6 to 8 inches deep and 200 feet from water, trails, and campsites are often the easiest and most practical way to dispose of feces.
4. Leave What You Find
Allow others a sense of discovery: Leave rocks, plants, animals, archeological artifacts, and other objects as you find them. It may be illegal to remove artifacts.
Minimize site alterations
Do not dig tent trenches or build lean-to’s, tables, or chairs. Never hammer nails into trees, hack at trees with hatchets or saws, or damage bark and roots by tying horses to trees for extended periods. Replace surface rocks or twigs that you cleared from the campsite. On high-impact sites, clean the area and dismantle inappropriate user-built facilities such as multiple fire rings and log seats or tables.
5. Minimize the Use of Campfires
Many areas have been degraded by the overuse of fires and the increasing demand for firewood. Lightweight stoves make low-impact camping possible by encouraging a shift away from fires. Stoves are fast, eliminate the need for firewood, and make cleanup easier. After dinner, enjoy a candle-lantern instead of a fire.
If you build a fire, the most important consideration is the potential for resource damage. Whenever possible, use an existing campfire ring in a well-placed campsite. Choose not to have a fire in areas where wood is scarce – at higher elevations, in heavily used areas with a limited wood supply, or in desert settings.
True Leave No Trace fires are small. Use dead and downed wood no larger than an adult’s wrist. When possible, burn all wood to ash and remove all unburned trash and food from the fire ring. If a site has two or more fire rings, you may dismantle all but one and scatter the materials in the surrounding area. Be certain all wood and campfire debris is “dead out.”
6. Respect Wildlife
Quick movements and loud noises are stressful to animals. Considerate campers practice these safety methods:
- Observe wildlife from afar to avoid disturbing them.
- Give animals a wide berth, especially during breeding, nesting, and birthing seasons.
- Store food securely and keep garbage and food scraps away from animals so they will not acquire bad habits. Help keep wildlife wild.
You are too close to wildlife if an animal alters its normal activities.7. Respect Others
- Travel and camp in small groups (no more than the group size prescribed by land managers).
- Leave their radios, tape players, and pets at home and keep the noise down.
- Select campsites away from other groups to help preserve their privacy and solitude.
- Always travel and camp quietly to avoid disturbing other visitors.
- Make sure the colors of their clothing and gear blend with the environment.
- Leave gates (open or closed) as found and respect private property.