Without a doubt one of the most discouraging things I see on backcountry trips is evidence of another’s visit left behind. Whether left intentionally or by careless accident, it IS preventable and quite frankly, it taints my experience…and I don’t like it.

I don’t mean to make this all about me, because it’s not.  I am fully aware that “leaving a trace” so to speak, affects more than my own experience; it affects us all.  It affects our fellow backpackers, it hurts the earth, our land, the animals, the future of our parks and trails we enjoy and want our children and friends to enjoy going forward.

As a responsible backpacker, I am a firm believer and participant in leave no trace practice.  I do this because I have a respect for our amazing parks and planet and the people who take care of them.  I do this because I respect my fellow backpackers and the critters that I share these places with. I do this because I’m grateful to be granted these incredible and natural places to adventure and want to find and leave them wild.  This all seems obvious… a no brainer.  So why are we still seeing so much CRAP (literally and figuratively) left behind.

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On my latest backcountry trip in a once rugged and wild park, I was heartbroken at the amount of devastation left behind by the holiday-weekend crowd’s rambles in the backcountry.  Young, healthy trees were slashed stripped and hacked to burn (when plenty of dead wood was available). Trash was left in the fire pits and around camp. Pots, pans, cans and grill grates left scattered about. Human feces found in the camping area when outhouse facilities are provided at each campsite.  Nails driven into trees simply for convenience.  Used toilet paper left dangling from bushes and trees.  Compostable food left floating in the lakes and streams.   Drunken shenanigans and its aftermath left behind in camp.  I left that trip feeling discouraged and disheartened.  In retrospect, if I had packed out all of the trash I discovered on my last trip, I could have filled my backpack with it all and still kept collecting.

For those who care about the state of our trails and the health of our parks, we are faced with a moral dilemma… How can I play a role in preventing this from happening? Where do I personally draw the line?   I pose these questions as food for thought for my fellow backpackers, not as a right or wrong approach or debate.   Do we report people we see in the backcountry to the rangers days later when we finally emerge to the front country?  Do we approach the offenders ourselves in the backcountry and potentially jeopardize our own safety?  How far do we go to clean up the messes left behind by others?  I always do my very best to pack out trash left behind by previous campers, but I draw the line at burying someone else’s feces or packing out the offenders used toilet paper.  Do you shoulder the burden of potentially carrying pounds of someone elses trash with you on a long trek ?

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As responsible backpackers and self-proclaimed protectors of the planet (that has a nice ring to it!), we all feel a responsibility to protect these places. Unfortunately, one’s web of influence can often feel impossibly small. Ultimately I am responsible for myself.  I can and do take responsibility for the people I hike with; to educate and ensure they know about leaving no impact on the places we visit. I take pride in teaching our younger generation at every opportunity about the blessings in nature and how to respect them.  But who is responsible for everyone else?  With cutbacks to park funding and ranger coverage across the board, it’s no surprise that controlling the activities of others in the backcountry proves difficult if not impossible.    How does one get the message across to the offenders leaving these places in such a sorry state or do they even care to change?

A dilemma indeed…and one we are all faced with at one time or another.  I turn to my fellow backpackers for their insight, their thoughts.  Do you often feel the burden in the backcountry of the dilemma on how to treat another’s disrespect for the places you enjoy? How do you influence change and what role do you take in encouraging others to obey the same principles you value for backcountry travel?

For now, I commit to leaving no trace, of spreading the message and ensuring those who I travel with uphold the same values. Do you commit to do the same?

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