One hiker details camping and hiking missteps from over the years, and how the Leave No Trace seven principles have changed how he hikes.

Hiking is really just walking, right? I mean… sure, it involves rough terrain at times. Sometimes it’s over long distances. If you’re really ambitious, it could mean walking for several days on end!

But we’re ultimately just walking here, right?

Well… Yes! Sort of.

Over a couple decades of hiking and camping, I’ve crossed many types of terrain and explored vastly different areas. I’ve begun to refine my definition of hiking. I owe much of this expanded view to my exploration of the Leave No Trace Seven Principles – which you can apply in any place you roam.

I’ll give you my new, neatly-packaged definition of hiking a little later. First, let’s talk about some of the missteps I’ve made while out in the wild. Maybe you can learn from my mistakes?

1. Let’s Just GO, Already!

Since you’re visiting our page, you’re probably a lot like me. You have an adventurous spirit and no small measure of wanderlust! New areas are exciting, and hiking and camping allow you to get a fresh perspective on the world. So… what are we waiting for – let’s get out there!

Well, just a minute.

Are we fully prepared here? Do we really know what we’re getting into?

In my case, those questions would be answered with a strong YES… by my wife, Sarah.

Leave No Trace Principle 1: Plan Ahead and Prepare

By me? Maybe not so much. (I am working on that whole “preparedness” thing, though.) While you may be lucky enough to have an epic planner in your party, and – by all means – go ahead and let them play to their strengths! But be careful.

There have been a few times where my own lack of preparation has led to… less than ideal times. My own ignorance of what I’m getting myself into has meant:

  • Wearing flip-flops where a good pair of hiking boots were needed!
  • Getting drenched by cold rain while wearing cotton/wool. No fun!
  • Finding it hard to get my bearings… because someone else has the only map & directions!

Things like weather, potential hazards, meals, and maps ought to all be considered according to item #1 in the Leave No Trace Seven Principles: Plan Ahead and Prepare.

2. Blazing New Trails? Hold your Horses, Cowboy…

Personally, I love to explore and find fresh perspectives.

BUT, before I go climbing trees or scrambling over rocks for that awesome photo-op, I like to just take a breath…

Look down. Is there a trail?

If there is a cleared or marked section, it’s there for good reason.

I grew up in the Gulf South where the vegetation is resilient, green, and always growing. In some areas, it takes a lot more work for life to take hold. When I keep that in mind, it changes the way I hike.

Leave No Trace Principle 2: Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

In recent hikes through desert areas, I’ve realized just how fragile life can be. One misstep into the lumpy cryptobiotic soil can damage an ecosystem the sparse desert life thrives off of. The damage to the soil can take over 30 years to repair, resulting in a loss of life along the trail.

This is why the Leave No Trace Principle #2 tells us to Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces.

3. Do I Have to Carry my Poop? Really?

You’ve likely heard the whole “pack it in, pack it out” mantra repeated a hundred times. I also like the idea of “Take only Pictures, Leave only Footprints” – I really do. But… there has to be a line drawn somewhere.

Does a bear s**t in the woods? Yes, it does. And you can too.

When you gotta go, you gotta go.

Leave No Trace Principle 3: Dispose of Waste Properly

There’s this thing they call a “cathole” though.

To minimize impact, the guiding principles are: steer clear of water sources, dig a decent-sized hole, and – when you’re done – disguise it.

The guiding Principle here: Dispose of Waste Properly.

4. Just One Leaf, for My Scrapbook

Fall hikes in the Midwest and northeast take my breath away. The colors of the leaves offer up a crazy variety, from bright yellows to deep reds to safety-vest orange! While hiking in Maine, I remember picking up one leaf that had at least two of these colors. I carried it with me all the way back to the trailhead.

Leave No Trace Principle 4: Leave What You Find

Then I realized… I don’t actually keep a scrapbook. But I sure wanted to hold onto that leaf! I thought, “What’s the harm in taking one little leaf. It’s not like it’s some cultural or historical artifact.” Fact is, it’s going to degrade – and degrade quickly. Probably best to let it decompose near its home, and become plant food.

The trail was kind of busy that day. What if everyone had kept “just one” leaf for their scrapbook… know what I’m saying?

The fourth Leave No Trace Principle says to Leave What You Find.

5. I Love a Good Fire, But…

Is it cool if my campfire is more of an epic bonfire? …No?

Campfires are great when camping on those chilly nights. They’re especially good for warming your bones when you’re weary from hiking. For me, a good fire – made without the use of lighter fluid – is a special point of pride!

I may or may not do a Tom Hanks impression now and then and yell “I make fire!” In fact, I… may do that pretty much every time.

Leave No Trace Principle 5: Minimize Campfire Impacts

There’s a special art to cooking over a fire, too. Beyond just s’mores, that is. I used to love building fires to make our meals. Still do, in fact!

That’s not always an option, though. And campfires do make an impact on the environment. For cooking, a lightweight stove is a good alternative.

Nowadays, when I build fires I keep them small(ish) instead of building bonfires. I also make sure to put them out completely. Sometimes this is easier said than done. Dousing a fire always takes a lot more water than expected!

#5 in The Leave No Trace Principles reminds us to Minimize Campfire Impacts.

6. That Fox Was so Skinny, Though!

That one time an emaciated-looking fox circled our camp? Yeah… I may have been tempted to leave a morsel or two behind. I thought I’d be doing so out of kindness! But feeding wildlife actually does them a disservice.

Leave No Trace Principle 6: Respect Wildlife

If I’d gone with my impulse to leave some food for it, the poor little guy might have started associating hikers with food. A hungry & aggressive fox not scary enough for you? How about bears or mountain lions? Nobody wants one of those in their camp!

I’ve also heard it’s a bad idea to pose or take selfies with bison. Not that it stops everyone, you understand. Personally, I’d never turn my back on a wild animal weighing nearly a ton and able to charge at 40mph. Probably best not to pose with any wild animal, for that matter.

Leave No Trace Principles remind us to show those critters proper respect.

7. Hiking, Socializing, Singing, and… Scaring off The Bears

Yes, I’ve broken into song while hiking. There’s a good reason for this, which I’ll talk about.

Come, walk with me…

So. A nice “walk & talk” with Sarah is one of my favorite ways to conduct a business meeting. For a while, this used to mean we’d have long conversations while hiking.

But then I realized how cool the sounds of nature can be.

Leave No Trace Principle 7: Be Considerate of Other Visitors

For a lot of people, going on a hike is a great time to socialize… and that’s totally fine! I still love chatting while on trails. The distractions are fewer, by far. But I also try to respect that others might be seeking solitude or discovering the sounds of nature for themselves.

One exception here? Bears.

If you’re trying to scare wildlife away, feel free to announce your presence with your best rendition of Backstreet Boys, or NSYNC if that’s more your jam

… am I showing my age?

Sarah’s first concert was Backstreet Boys. True story.

The final Leave No Trace Principle Reminds us to Be Considerate of Other Visitors

The Leave No Trace Seven Principles Have Enhanced My Definition for Hiking

When you really boil it down, the activity of hiking still amounts to mostly just walking. In practice, though? It’s certainly more than that.

In the same way that camping is more than just… sleeping in tents.

Being aware of your surroundings, taking it all in, appreciating and respecting the perspective that these journeys lend. All this has become important to me — just as critical as picking the proper footwear. No more flip-flops for this guy!

Leave No Trace: Hiking

To learn and apply the principles I outlined above means being constantly aware. Aware of your impact, aware of your environment, aware of your fellow hikers/campers, and aware of the animal and plant life that surrounds you.

Keeping this awareness top-of-mind leads to an advanced definition of hiking. It’s a really simple one, but it’s been very powerful for me.

Hiking is: Walking. With awareness.

In this sense, awareness also extends to an appreciation. A sense of awe in the beauty surrounding us. This is why I started hiking in the first place. To explore. And I think we can all appreciate a good long walk hike now & then.

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Leave No Trace: Seven Missteps I've Made Hiking and Camping