Our national parks are beautiful land meant for everyone to enjoy. That means we have to be stewards of the land when we step out into nature. The physical and mental health benefits of visiting parks cannot be oversold. After months of travel restrictions and the parks being closed on and off, it’s good to have them all open again. But it’s good to brush up on what it means to “leave no trace” and visit responsibly. When you visit responsibly, you protect yourself from injury, help the staff and volunteers not to have to clean up or endanger themselves to rescue you and you maintain the health of the natural world you’re visiting.
Leaving no trace goes beyond simply not littering. The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace can help you minimize your impact on the park to ensure that they are beautiful for when your grandchildren’s grandchildren visit! The first principle is to plan ahead and prepare. When you plan ahead, you make great choices that help you act responsibly later. You’ll end up carrying only what you need into the park, decreasing your trash and helping you stick to your plan. The second step is to stay on the paths, rocks and campsites. While it might be enticing to walk through all the gorgeous greenery, you can trample and kill plants and catch yourself on something wild. If you are injured off the path, you might need medical help and need help out of the park.
The third and fourth principles are ones we were taught as children. First, whatever you bring in with you, you take out. If there are no garbage receptacles along the path, bring your trash back to your car. Second is the idea of taking nothing but photos. Nature should be left in nature. Taking home plants, rocks or other things you pick up in national parks is illegal or prohibited in most states. And, when you are done with your trip, you should clean the soles of your shows, bike tires or tents to be sure you don’t transplant wildlife from one park to another, in case you introduce a new species somewhere it shouldn’t be!
The fifth principle is to be mindful of the impact of your fire. Be sure you are in an area where it is safe and permitted to have a fire; use a fire ring to stop it from spreading and make sure your fire is out and cold when you are done with it. You don’t want to be like the two separate groups of people who started massive fires with gender reveal explosives! Causing a fire is not how any of us want to end up on the news. Instead, be sure your fire is manageable and safe as you enjoy the great outdoors.
In addition to being cautious about your fire, you also need to be aware and respectful of the wildlife. Getting out into the world allows you to see animals in their natural habitat. They are outside of a zoo, and it can be a wonderful experience. However, if you get too close, it can be stressful for the animals. It can also be dangerous for you, especially if it is mating time or if an animal is caring for its young. Bring binoculars or a camera with a zoom to enjoy watching them from a safe distance!
Finally, the seventh principle of leaving no trace is not impacting others’ enjoyment of the parks. Everyone gets away to the park to have their own lovely day out. While you can walk for hours, possibly days, without seeing another soul, the trails can be busy in popular parks. It’s important that everyone gets to enjoy them together. That means that we should all be considerate in our noise levels and how much space we use on the trails. Keep your dog on a leash that is under six feet long. If you plan on taking long breaks, consider using the side trails where you are less likely to block traffic. Use common sense and pick paths that meet your physical abilities to limit your risk of injury. Choosing an activity or a trail that is right for you stops you from landing in a local emergency room where resources may already be strained.
Getting out into nature, be it a national, state or local park is a wonderful way to boost your health and spirit. Doing it safely and responsibly makes sure you have a great day and that people will be able to enjoy the spot for decades to come!