The Ultralight Backpacker’s Guide to Leave No Trace

Want to practice good Leave No Trace (LNT) but keep your pack ultralight? No problem, this guide gives you some think-outside-the-box, ultralight (UL) options for LNT. It also covers areas of caution where UL backpackers need to pay special attention with regard to LNT. As such, this Ultralight Backpacker’s Guide to Leave No Trace covers specific UL gear and techniques that will keep the wilderness looking like wilderness & your pack weight low!

Lead photo: Thinking outside the box, a simple 10 oz. bivy sack might be your lightest and best LNT option. You can easily camp on ideal durable surfaces like this slickrock in Utah (which is great LNT!). In addition it’s super fast & easy to setup & take down. In contrast, many popular ultralight tents & shelters rely on numerous stakes and guy-lines for support and therefore are extremely difficult to pitch on solid rock! [Photo Alan Dixon]

Why Leave No Trace?

Standing atop Ryan’s Peak in the blazing heat of Joshua Tree National Park, I looked south over the vast desert of Joshua trees. The wind on the peak was the only sound as I happily chatted with my hiking partner on the way to the top. At the summit, we were alone, and it was easy to imagine we were explorers in a new land – the first eyes to look on the desert below.

Far too often that magic moment is suddenly shattered when we see a strip of toilet paper waving about from under a nearby rock.

 

The good news is that it isn’t difficult or a lot of work to dramatically reduce our impact when we hike or backpack. And it can be ultralight. With just a little effort, we can leave places just as we find them, and preserve magic moments for those that come after us — the essence of LNT. In summary, this article will give Ultralight Backpackers some of the gear and skills to be LNT ambassadors.

Leave No Trace for Ultralight Backpacking

Keep that TP and poop from poking out of a shallow hole! An Ultralight Backpacker’s Caution: Using the heel of your shoe or a stick, it is very difficult to impossible to dig a correct LNT cathole. Better to carry the right UL tools for the job! Right: an 1.5 oz ultralight potty kit – Deuce of Spades Potty Trowel, minimal TP, and small (1/2 oz) bottle of Purell allow for good LNT Waste Disposal. Left: a “Wag bag” is a light sanitary solution for when regulations require you carry EVERYTHING out.

The Ultralight Backpacker’s Guide to Leave No Trace

This guide focuses only on select areas of LNT specific to Ultralight Backpacking. Specifically, options are proposed to keep pack weight low, or cautions (in red) where standard ultralight gear or practices might need to be modified for good LNT. As such, this is NOT an exhaustive treatise of all LNT guidelines. For a complete listing of the all 7 principles of Leave No Trace see the Appendix.

6 Select Areas of LNT Specific to Ultralight Backpacking

  1. A Table of Select Ultralight Gear for Leave No Trace
    and then the specific topic areas of
  2. Food Storage: Bear Canisters & Ursacks vs. Bear Bag Hanging in a Tree.
    (Or why hanging your food in a tree is not great.)
  3. Sanitation and Human Waste Disposal
  4. Low Impact Camping – Tents and Other Shelters (sometimes a challenge for Ultralight Backpackers)
  5. Low Impact UL Backpacking Footwear
  6. Respect Wildlife with a Long Zoom Camera — phone cameras get you do damn close!

1. Table of Select Ultralight Gear for Leave No Trace

ItemOz$Comments
Sanitation and Potty Needs
Deuce of Spades Potty Trowel0.6$20Lightest effective trowel for digging catholes to bury human waste. See LNT Principle 3: Dispose of Waste Properly
Zerogram Cathole Trowel 1.0$5Nice light stainless steel trowel. Great value.
GSI cathole Trowel2.9$5Low-cost, readily available. More comfortable handle but heavy.
Wag bag2.5$3When reg’s require you carry EVERYTHING out! e.g. Mt Whitney
Bears — LNT Food Storage
Note: Bear canisters and the Ursack are as easy as it gets to effectively protect your food vs. the far more difficult and less effective method of hanging a bear bag (see below)
Ursack S29.3 Bear Bag7.8$80Game changer! Same benefits as a bear canister but 5x lighter and much less bulky in your pack. Caution: Still pending approval in a few parks, e.g. Yosemite & Sequoia Kings Canyon.
Bear Vault BV500 canister41$80Low cost.  Approved by almost all areas. Readily available.
Wild-Ideas Weekender31$288Lightest bear canister approved in most parks. Pricy tho.
Hang a Bear Bag
(traditional, e.g PCT method)
like MLD Pro Bear Bag Sys.
4.1$10 to
$50
Low cost & low weight. Not great for areas with bear problems. Time consuming & difficult to do correctly. Finally, by the time you hang it so bears can’t get it—you may not be able to get it.
 Aloksak OP Sak 12.5″ x 20″1.0$6Use with all methods for less food scent & animal attention
Tents for LNT
REI Quarter Dome 2 Tent53$349Lower cost freestanding tent with minimal staking needs. Easier to setup on hard, durable LNT surfaces like rock.
Big Agn. Copper Spur HV UL 244$450A lighter but more expensive freestanding tent.
Zpacks™ Duplex Flex Tent33$7252 lb freestanding shelter! Crazy light. Pricy! (I haven’t tested it.)
Think Outside the Box LNT Shelter Options
Bivy Sack: Mountain Laurel Designs Superlight 1 per or 2 per8$175Low cost, low weight, no stakes. Fits into small areas where tents won’t. (may need to supplement with a UL tarp)
Hammock: Hennessy or Dutchware8 to 32$40 to med.Great LNT. No ground contact. Expands campsite options into the woods. Many low weight. See: 7 Reasons Why Hammock Camping is Fantastic – How To Get Started
For Minimal Ground Damage Hiking — Light Shoes with low profile tread & soft soles
Trail running shoes: Altra Superior or Altra Lone Peak18$110Great shoes with soft soles and minimal tread. Light. Huge toe room. Super comfortable!
Brooks Cascadia Shoes24$130 Slightly heaver and stiffer option with a snugger fit.
Respect Wildlife with a Long Zoom Camera  — phone cameras mean you will have to get too damn close!
Panasonic Lumix DC-ZS70 super zoom camera11$480Low weight. Long, 720mm zoom lens brings wildlife to you. 25x further away than an iPhone!
Many compact zoom cameras 8?A 120 mm zoom keeps you 4x further away than an iPhone

2. Food Storage: Bear Canisters & Ursacks vs. Bear Bag Hanging in a Tree

Caution area for ultralight backpackers. Bear bag hangs, while light, are likely NOT the best option. An Ursack or Bear canister is likely better. Where allowed, Ursack S29.3 Bear Bag is the lightest, simplest and most effective choice. And, both the Ursack and canisters are also much faster and easier to use than a bear bag hang.

Leave No Trace for Ultralight Backpacking

A bear canister like the BV-500 (L) or an Ursack (R) are the most reliable way to protect your food. In addition they are much easier and faster to use with fewer mistakes/failures vs. hanging a bear bag in a tree. And the sad truth is that by the time you hang a food bag in a tree so bears can’t get it, it is extremely likely that you won’t be able to get it down either!

The fastest, easiest and most effective way is to store your food in a bear canister. And a number of bear canisters are approved for food storage in almost all US parks. Bear canisters such as the (41 oz) Bear Vault BV500 Food Container (canister) canister seal tightly with a double locking mechanism for smart bears and small rodents. They also make great camp stools!

Where allowed by regulations, our first choice would likely be the much lighter and also quite effective alternative Ursack S29.3 Bear Bag. At only 7.8 oz. it is 5x lighter than the BV-500, less bulky and takes up far less pack space. Ursacks are literally bulletproof—even if a bear gets to your bag, it won’t be able to tear through to your food. The downside is that the Ursack is still not approved in a few National Parks like Yosemite and Sequoia Kings Canyon. And, if a bear does get a hold of an Ursack, it is possible (probable) the food inside might get a bit squashed.

Note: it is also possible for bears to batter rigid bear canisters and seriously damage the food if given time to get into the container. Or, since a canister isn’t anchored to a tree like the Ursack, if given time they can roll the bear canister to an area where you’ll never find it. Per the Sequoia & Kings Canyon page on Wilderness Food Storage: “You can often scare bears away by making loud noises and throwing objects before they get to your food. Be bold, but keep a safe distance and use good judgment. Never attempt to retrieve food from a bear. Never approach a bear or get near a cub.

Hanging a Bear Bag

If the section above about Ursacks and canisters hasn’t convinced you, and if wilderness regulations permit, you may consider Hanging a Bear Bag in a tree. For better (or possibly worse) hanging food in bags out of reach of wildlife is an extremely common practice. Unfortunately, as hanging bear bags continues, bears and other wildlife are getting better and better at beating the bag. Bears have been known to cut them down or cooperate with each other to reach these bags. The irony of bear bagging is that when done properly, humans as well as animals struggle to retrieve the food inside. If you still want to hang a bear bag, there are a couple of things to consider:

  1. Do your research on the areas you’ll camp in to make sure there will be something to hang your bear bags from. It’s really hard to hang a bear bag in the desert or on coniferous pines.
  2. Decide which bear bag technique you want to use ahead of time. The PCT method and the double rope method are both effective in bear country.
  3. For more reading see Leave No Trace on Hanging a Bear Bag

3. Sanitation and Human Waste Disposal

Caution to UL Backpackers: the heel of your shoe, stick or another found object are NOT great tools to dig a deep enough or large enough cathole to properly bury human waste. Do yourself and other hikers a favor and carry a good potty trowel. How can you argue with a UL Potty Trowel that weighs only 0.6 oz!?

Leave No Trace for Ultralight Backpacking

At 0.6 oz, the Deuce of Spades is one of the best and lightest potty trowels for UL backpackers.

Another UL potty trowel is the 1.0 oz, stainless steel Zerogram Cathole Trowel.

Catholes and Potty Trowels

For every well-travelled campsite in the backcountry, there’s likely a space close by dotted with exposed toilet paper “blooms” and torn up moss. A common backcountry pooping practice, catholes can be easy and effective if used properly, but disruptive and harmful when poorly executed. For lightweight backpackers interested in catholing, the Deuce of Spades Trowel and the Zerogram Cathole Trowel are excellent potty trowel options.

The basic standards for backpacking human waste disposal are listed below (excerpted from: LNT Principle 3: Dispose of Waste Properly)

  1. Catholes must be 200 feet from trails and flowing water
  2. Catholes should be 6x6x6 inches in soil rich in organic material
  3. Accelerate the decomposition process by stirring with a stick before filling in the hole.
  4. You may need to carry out used toilet paper (but “Natural TP” is always OK). And it may be acceptable to bury certain types TP in your cathole in certain environments. But in unsuitable areas like the arid desert, the best practice is to carry your TP out. And it not a good idea to burn your TP. For more on TP use see: LNT Principle 3: Dispose of Waste Properly

When Regulations Require you Pack EVERYTHING Out!

In some areas, catholes are not acceptable as wilderness bathrooms. This is because, either the soil lacks bioactivity to break down feces, or because high traffic overwhelms the capacity of a space to accommodate everyone’s restroom needs. In these situations, hikers are obligated to pack it out. Some examples are the Grand Canyon, Mt. Whitney area in California, and Buckskin Gulch and Paria Canyon in Utah. In this case, The $3 – CleanWaste Wag Bag,  RESTOP Wilderness Waste Containment Pouch and Biffy Bags are all effective and lightweight options for these trips. They can be used repeatedly and are leak proof.


4. Low Impact Camping – Tents and Other Shelters

Caution for UL backpackers. Many popular UL tents and shelters may NOT be a good option for camping on hard durable surfaces like rock, or even very hard and/or rocky soils. This is where you can think outside the box about your shelter.

Where to Camp for LNT

First, if there are approved and established campsites the park wants you to camp at, use them as your first and best campsite option rather than finding your own. Otherwise, follow these 3 critical goals when finding an ideal LNT campsite:

 

  1. Follow the 200 Rule: Highly impactful backpacking moments like cooking, sleeping, and pooping and sensitive environments like rivers and trails should be kept at least 200 feet from each other.
  2. Camp on the most durable surfaces possible. Slick rock and pine duff are good examples.
  3. Find how you fit into the environment: “Good campsites are found, not made.” That is, don’t cut away brush, dig trenches, pull out large rocks, bend down small trees or otherwise modify an area to fit your tent. When you leave, your campsite should look exactly as you found it.

 

Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL 2 tent at ~3 lb is a good UL choice for LNT: The main tent body is supported by poles and can be pitched without stakes on hard, durable surfaces like rock. [You may need a few rocks to anchor the rain fly tie-outs.]

Durable surfaces are almost by definition hard and difficult to get stakes into—and it’s impossible to get stakes into rock. Certain ultralight shelters that depend on many stakes and guy-lines (non-freestanding tents, tarps, pyramid shelters, etc.) struggle on the most durable surfaces (e.g. slickrock) because they can’t be staked out. Alternatively, freestanding tents, those whose structure is supported solely with poles, e.g. the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL  2 tent or REI Quarter Dome 2 Tent offer greater versatility in choosing where to sleep, since they can be pitched on hard/durable surfaces with no stakes or a minimum of stakes anchored with rocks.

Bivy Sack – A Very Light, Outside the Box LNT Option

Leave No Trace for Ultralight Backpacking

Only 10 oz (1/4 the weight of the tent above) a bivy sack is a super fast, super easy way to practice LNT camping. You can camp on the hardest of surfaces like this slickrock, but without the need for stakes. Setting it up and taking it down is a breeze. In addition, a bivy sack takes up the smallest area allowing you to squeeze into sites that would far too small for a tent.

Hammock Camping – Another UL, Outside the Box LNT Option

Leave No Trace for Ultralight Backpacking

Sunrise hammock camping along the AT. Note that the hammock is directly over a sloping area covered with large rocks that would be un-campable with a tent.

Hammocks offer a fantastic LNT alternative to ground-based shelters like tents; there is no contact with sensitive terrain or wet ground. Also, hammocks can be used where durable terrain isn’t flat enough for an on-ground shelter like a tent. When camping with a hammock, it’s easy to avoid impacting trees, just use wide tree-straps 1″ to 1.5″. Almost all backpacking hammocks are sold with this type of strap. For more see Leave No Trace.org on Hammock Camping.


5. Low Impact UL Backpacking Footwear

Think outside the box hiking shoes: Alan used very low profile tread, 9 oz UL “road running” shoes (Brooks Pureflow)  on a 100 mile technical canyoneering trip (Escalante Overland Route), and to hike multiple 30+ days on the AT. Although they are called “road running” shoes, they obviously work great for backpacking, even on technically challenging terrain and wading.

Hiking on trail, ultralight backpackers have an LNT advantage. Using a very light set of gear like this  9 Pound Full Comfort UL Backpacking Gear List, ultralight hikers can move away from heavy, ankle supporting, deep-lugged boots to lighter, ecologically friendly shoes with low profile tread. These are great for minimizing the weight of footsteps and reducing ecological damage. If your pack is light enough, consider wearing trail running shoes with low profile treads like the Altra Superior Trail Running Shoes or the sturdier Lone Peaks. Most truly lightweight shoes implement low profile treads into their design, so finding the right low-trail-impact shoe shouldn’t be a challenge.

Two great ultralight backpacking shoes for LNT: (Left) The 9 oz Brooks PureFlow “road running” shoes. The minimal tread on the Pureflows works quite well almost all surfaces. On the (Right) the more mainstream, 10 oz. Altra Lone Peak Trail Running Shoes (R).

Travel on Durable Surfaces

Caution: Backpackers who travel off trail (and there are a number of UL’ers who do) must hold themselves to the highest standards of LNT hiking. Off trail treks through sensitive areas leads to degradation and development of trails—the end of off trail hiking in the area. But Ultralight backpackers are doubly fortunate in meeting this standard as lighter packs and higher energy allows them to find and navigate more durable terrain.

Durability is a key concept when deciding where to hike. Stay on established trails whenever possible. When off-trail, backpackers should spend as much time as possible on durable surfaces like rock, gravel, sand, mud, firm grasses on dry ground and temporary terrain like snow. And scrupulously avoid sensitive surfaces like wet meadows, biological crusts, and delicate vegetation.

Leave No Trace for Ultralight Backpacking

The rut of the John Muir Trail on the left as it goes through the fragile meadows of Lyell Canyon. It is hardly Leave No Trace and besides being an eyesore it has significant environmental impact. Meadows and other wet areas are example of surfaces that are neither hard or durable. They are easily damaged by even moderate walking. The current convention is to route trails around meadows bogs and other fragile areas. This what the Yosemite Conservancy is doing with the John Muir Trial, rerouting it to higher ground above the meadows. Photo: courtesy the Yosemite Conservancy. Check out their site to learn more.


6. Respect Wildlife with a Long Zoom Camera

Caution to UL backpackers and anybody else photographing wildlife with cell phone cameras: In keeping with LNT Principle 6, Respect Wildlife, you should keep respectful distance from wild animals. A common pitfall is to try and get way too close with the wide angle lenses common on almost all phone cameras. Obviously you could get seriously injured, as in the recent fatal bear attack in West Milford, NJ.

Using a telephoto lens to photograph wildlife: A telephoto lens brings wildlife to you. Here Alan is filling the camera frame with a telephoto lens. And it makes sense to lie on the ground, or conceal yourself behind rocks or vegetation, and move slowly to keep you presence discreet and not alarm wildlife. You’ll get better photos too! [photo: Colby Brown]

Wilderness photography is an important part of hiking for some ultralight backpackers. And a great photo of moose, rare bird or other animal can be a trip making experience. With that said, backcountry photography has its place in the LNT guidelines. Animals acquainted with humans lose their fear causing them to encroach into more populated areas endangering humans and themselves. As such, telephoto lenses for photography should be used to put distance between yourself and animals.

A few very light telephoto camera options are:

  • Panasonic Lumix DC-ZS70 super zoom camera: Low weight. Long, 720mm zoom lens brings wildlife to you. 25x further away than an iPhone!
  • Many inexpensive, compact zoom cameras have a 100mm to 120 mm equivilent zoom, which keeps you 4x further away than an iPhone. (Chances are, you may already own one.)

For more information on backpacking cameras and lenses see the Best Backpacking Cameras 2017 list and the 5 Most Important Features for a Backpacking Camera.



Appendix – Reference

Developed in the 1960s by the U.S.D.A. Forest Service, Leave No Trace principles were first designed to minimize the environmental and ecological impacts of outdoor activity in state parks. Even then with far fewer hikers than today, hikers & backpackers were having profound & long lasting negative impacts on beautiful areas. LNT is well known in outdoor circles thanks to decades of work by the Leave No Trace Organization. The original guidelines were outlined by the Forest Service in seven critical principles to leaving the path behind you unchanged.

The 7 principles of Leave No Trace

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable surfaces
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly
  4. Leave What You Find
  5. Minimize campfire impacts
  6. Respect Wildlife
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

The brilliance of these guidelines is that they are universal & can be implemented regardless of budget, equipment, or experience. With that said, certain outdoor communities must lead the way as standard bearers & LNT innovators. Ultralight Backpackers have the skill & commitment necessary to fulfill this role as LNT ambassadors.


Disclaimer

This post contains affilate links. If you make a purchase after clicking on the these links, a portion of the sale helps support this site at no additional cost to you. I do not receive compensation from the companies whose products are listed. For product reviews: unless otherwise noted, products are purchased with my own funds. I am never under an obligation to write a review about any product. Finally, this post expresses my own independent opinion.

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