This year has seen a spike in visitors to state parks, national parks and forests, nature reserves, and just about every other nature area in the United States. The increased number of visitors is great in that it means more people are seeing new places and experiencing the great outdoors, but high traffic comes with its own problems.
Ann Schwaller is a forest program manager for the Superior National Forest; she manages the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. She’s been working in wilderness management since the early ’90s.
After we published an article about our favorite hikes in Minnesota, we spoke with Schwaller, who informed us that the wilderness area has experienced more resource damage than usual this year and that more leave-no-trace and tread lightly messaging could make a positive difference. We interviewed her to learn more about how travelers can implement leave-no-trace principles into their next adventure.
Below are seven tips worth considering before your next visit to the great outdoors.
1. Research Where You’re Going
Schwaller’s first tip seems simple enough, but planning ahead is about more than booking your reservation.
“One of the main leave-no-trace principles is to plan ahead and prepare. I think that would go a long way,” Schwaller said.
She suggested adding a few items to your travel checklist. First, be familiar with leave-no-trace -- or tread lightly -- principles ahead of time. Also, look up rules and regulations at your park or wilderness area of choice. You will likely be able to find these on their website. If you’re having trouble finding that information, call a forest ranger or other employee ahead of time to get the scoop.
2. Visualize What You Need To Pack
Packing mindfully is essential no matter where you’re going, but it’s especially important if you will be heading to a primitive or isolated area. Schwaller’s suggestion is to visualize what you need and pack based on what you know about your destination.
“Being prepared for any kind of weather is really important. Make sure that if for some reason the temperature does plummet in the summer, you’ve got warm and dry clothing,” she said. In addition to extra clothing for unexpected weather, make sure you’re packing for the location you're visiting.
For example, in the wilderness area she serves, the east side of the forest may experience different weather than the west side. If you’re planning on exploring more than one area, make sure your gear reflects all the locations you’ll be visiting. And though it might seem like a good idea to be over-prepared, consider weight and what you're carrying, since it may slow you down and alter your plans.
“Think about the waste you’re going to generate in the wilderness. The less stuff you bring with packaging, the less waste you’re going to have to pack out,” she said. It’s all about finding a good balance.
If you’re traveling alone, you’ll need to rely on yourself to bring everything you need -- from the basics to emergency care. If you’re camping or hiking with a companion or a group of friends or family members, you can distribute the packing weight more evenly.
3. Know What Food You’re Bringing
The food you bring is a huge decision. Be mindful of the choices you make and their possible outcomes.
“If you’re going to bring things that are smelly like fish, chops, or bacon, make sure you’re properly hanging it in a tree far away from your camp,” Schwaller said. Storing food away from your campsite prevents big animals from finding your food source (and your group).
“If you’re fishing for your dinner, be really careful where you’re preparing your fish -- where you’re gutting it and what you’ll do with the remains. If you’re doing it all at your campsite, you’ll attract animals, and maybe big animals, like bears,” she said.
Another thing to consider is food preparation. Though many campsites offer grates to cook your food over, be honest with yourself about whether building a fire is the best way to go.
“If you are going to cook on a fire, make sure you know how to gather small dead and down wood and that you're comfortable with fire. Or just bring a small camp stove!” Schwaller recommended.
4. Make Sure You Have The Licenses And Permits You Need
Depending on where you’re going and what you’ll be doing there, you might need a specific license or permit. For example, fishing and motorboat licenses may be required if you’re staying near a lake and want to participate in water-based activities, and a wilderness camping permit might be needed if you’re staying in the rugged wilderness. Licenses and permits vary in cost and availability.
Some destinations offer permits on-site, but it’s best to have a game plan ahead of time. To find out where you can buy the proper licenses, call the forest, park, or area in advance or visit their website.
By researching locations and activities ahead of time and knowing what’s safe and allowed, you can protect natural resources, yourself, and others.
5. Don’t Rely On Your Cell Phone
Though a cell phone might be useful when a photo op arises, don’t rely on your cell phone for much else. It might take you out of the moment and give you a false sense of security.
“Going in the wilderness is a perfect time -- and reason -- to unplug,” Schwaller said. If you go into the camping trip with your cell phone as your sole source of direction and crisis management, you’re likely setting yourself up for trouble. You might even be putting yourself or others in danger.
“Turn your phone off. Get a compass. Get a map. If you have to, get a GPS unit,” Schwaller said.
6. Consider Your Impact
The most important tip of all: Be mindful. We all explore the great outdoors for our own reasons, but make sure to be considerate of other people’s reasons and experiences, too.
“One of the reasons people go out in the wilderness -- especially in remote areas -- is to find solitude and quiet, and they want to hear and see wildlife. And when you’re out singing camp songs into the night, it’s really impactful,” Schwaller said. Sound travels more than you might think across water, so if you’re traveling with a group, be considerate of fellow travelers who might be there for a primitive experience!
“One of the big things is thinking about others. [Think about] the impact that you’re having on them while you’re visiting and the impact you have on them after you leave,” she said.
It’s also key to be aware of your impact on the land you’re visiting.
“Are you preventing water pollution? Are you careful about noise? Are you protecting the vegetation and the trees? Are you protecting wildlife?” These are questions Schwaller encourages each of us to ask ourselves as we visit the wilderness.
7. Leave Places Better Than You Found Them
You already know the phrase, but it rings especially true here! Helping in little ways does make a difference, even if it seems small to you or those you’re traveling with.
“We’ve had a lot of visitors hauling out trash, which is great,” Schwaller said. “So we have our long-time visitors who really do respect the rules and regulations designed to protect physical and social resources, and have been trying to help.”
Clean up after yourself, clean up after others, and remember, when you visit public lands, you’re responsible for yourself and your group.
Being in the great outdoors offers a release from the struggles and stresses of everyday life in the modern world. If we want to continue enjoying Mother Nature, we all need to do our part and implement leave-no-trace principles when possible. Happy exploring -- no matter where you are!