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Backpacking Leave No Trace Wag Bags

Rethinking Leave No Trace

With the standard leave-no-trace guidelines failing, it is worth considering how we can do better. Otherwise, we can expect more wilderness restrictions.

LNT 2.0?

In the PNW most people hike July-September and this concentrated use can put considerable strain on the trails. To control the adverse impact, Oregon is now expanding permit areas to limit the number of hikers and the same is likely to happen in Washington state in the years to come. The popular area known as the Enchantments, had over 17,000 visitors in 2017 with 3000 overnight permits issued (over 20,000 people applied). These permits are just for six months—May 15 through October 31. July and August probably get the highest number of visitors.

In the hiking community, everyone is expected to follow voluntary leave-no-trace (LNT) practices. However, if even 1% of 10,000 visitors per season on a 20 mile trail don’t know or don’t care about LNT practices and leave garbage or human excrement along the trail, that’s 100 incidents of the environment being trashed each year.

Low-impact snow camping
Camping on deep snow is a low-impact way to experience popular hiking destinations.

One way to mitigate this practice is to hike in small groups and encourage a culture of commitment to LNT practices. It also helps to avoid the high season and popular locations. Having the skill to hike September to July, rather than July to September can help. The advantage of this winter or cold season hiking strategy is more freedom, solitude, and less environmental stress. This approach also requires lighter gear, route-finding skills, snow travel skills, and avalanche awareness, but the rewards are higher. Winter backpacking allows hikers a chance to rediscover the backcountry experience.

Fire scars, wood scavaging, off-leash trail dogs chasing wildlife, human waste, noisy drones, trashed campsites. This is the sad reality of the modern hiking experience.

marten photo
You can see wildlife such as this beautiful Marten and protect ground-nesting birds by hiking without a dog.

The standard LNT practices were developed and promoted in the 1970s and 80s after National Park visits dramatically increased from around 3 million (1958) to 20 million (1967). At 20 million, the impact noticeably threatened the wilderness. Today the number of annual visitors exceeds 300 million, but leave-no-trace recommendations have changed very little.

Those managing National Parks and Public Lands are unable to protect the land and for this reason they promote LNT education to encourage people to be better voluntary stewards of the outdoors. Education and awareness are thought to be the best methods, partly because regulations can’t be enforced and people resent rules and often retaliate making the rules counter productive. With the standard leave-no-trace guidelines failing, it is worth considering how we can do better. Here are some LNT 2.0 suggestions:

  • Travel more off-season and less during the high season
  • Always camp on snow when possible (usually possible in the PNW, September–July)
  • No campfires (campfires are unnecessary and usually prohibited in Alpine areas due to the lack of organic materials and the impact fires have on the landscape)
  • Only use liquid fuel or canister stoves (no alcohol or wood “twig” ultralight stoves)
  • Travel in smaller groups (3–12). The maximum group size in wilderness areas in Washington state is 12.
  • Use WAG bags (pack out human waste)
  • Leave pets at home. Pets are great companions, but unfortunately, they are sometimes unhappy in cold weather and deep snow, impact ground-nesting birds and other wildlife and unintentionally puncture air mattresses (which happened on one trip causing several people to leave after the first day).
  • Do not run or travel fast on trails as this activates the prey instinct of predators, resulting in human/predator conflicts, with predators being put down.
  • Use social media cautiously: Avoid including specific locations or names of destinations in your personal social media posts.

WAG Bags

For years, climbers have been throwing feces in a crevasse on Mount Denali. A deep hole in the remote Alaskan wilderness—what could go wrong? Of course, if you are the next climber visiting the area, it’s not remote to you. So what happens to all this waste, which has been preserved by the cold, and tucked away in this crevasse? We are about to find out because with the climate crisis, the glaciers are melting and this mountain of human excrement—an estimated 66 tons of excrement—is expected to be released across the landscape.

Michael Loso, a National Park Service glaciologist says, “It will be biologically active, so the E. coli that was in the waste when it was buried will be alive and well. We expect it to still smell bad and look bad.” (Read this article for a glimpse of the future of hiking: USA Today)

WAG bags
Above: Two popular WAG bags (WAG stands for “Waste Alleviation and Gelling”). The brand on the left, Cleanwaste GO, is more robust. The Biffy Bag on the right is more specifically designed for use in tight spaces such as a tent. Both work fine. Both include a bag with powder that converts liquids to solids instantly.

WAG bags are now required on many Wilderness Area trails and popular mountain routes, such as around Mount Rainier and Mount Baker. However, with thousands of hikers on most trails looking for a place to dig a cat hole, it makes more sense to pack it out year-round where ever you hike even if not required. In the winter, when there is snow covering the ground, it is especially important to pack it out. Otherwise, when the snow melts, the human waste will be exposed and pollute nearby water sources.

On some routes you can expect a ranger to hand you a blue bag when you are issued a permit. If you want a better experience, bring your own WAG bag. Some popular ones (see photo above) contain a large main bag with odor-reducing powder that turn liquids to solids. They also include another bag to seal in the main bag. The toilet paper included is a bit skimpy, so bring some extra.

These can be ordered online and cost $2.95–3.49 each. For the Cleanwaste Go option click here. For Biffy Bags, click here.

Once sealed, you may wonder how you are going to safely attach this package to your backpack. One solution is a common grocery or bread bag that you can tie to your pack.

Campfires

What could be better than a campfire? The answer to that question is having no campfire. Without a campfire, you can better enjoy the natural sounds and sites of the nighttime wilderness sky. No distracting noise or bright light from a fire. Eliminating campfires will help you feel truly connected to the wilderness. Once you experience the evening lighting and stars without a campfire, you will not want to go back. For years, we have been camping in the winter and we never built fires.

Good gear and simple practices will save you the trouble of collecting firewood and trying to maintain a fire through the night.

With the right layering, it is possible to stay warm and comfortable without a fire. Instead of building a fire, use a stove to create a hot water bottle to go in your jacket and sleeping bag. This will provide extra warmth. A hot water bottle in a 10ºF sleeping bag on a 20ºF night will last half the night allowing you plenty of time to fall asleep in sauna-like conditions.

Campfires leave scares on the landscape—burnt ground, fire-scared rocks, torn apart trees. Campfires require resource gathering, which often involves destroying scarce organic material needed for the soil and important to plant and animal life, especially in alpine areas. Campfires are also a major human cause of wildfires.

With over 7 billion people on the planet and growing, and very little wilderness remaining, it is probably time to rethink how the experience and share the wilderness. You may even find that once you experience the wilderness without old-style bush craft and fire building, you will like it even more.

Leave-no-trace winter backpacking
Leave-no-trace winter backpacking. Only foot steps in the snow which will pass with the next snow fall.

We are sharing a fragile land with millions of other human visitors and with many species that have no other home. We may be the last generation to experience the privilege of being in the “backcountry.” Let’s do what we can to create a better LNT hiking culture.

Have thoughts and suggestions for better LNT practices? Your comments are welcome.


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