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.
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
- A Table of Select Ultralight Gear for Leave No Trace
and then the specific topic areas of
- Food Storage: Bear Canisters & Ursacks vs. Bear Bag Hanging in a Tree.
(Or why hanging your food in a tree is not great.)
- Sanitation and Human Waste Disposal
- Low Impact Camping – Tents and Other Shelters (sometimes a challenge for Ultralight Backpackers)
- Low Impact UL Backpacking Footwear
- Respect Wildlife with a Long Zoom Camera — phone cameras get you do damn close!
1. Table of Select Ultralight Gear for Leave No Trace
|Sanitation and Potty Needs|
|Deuce of Spades Potty Trowel||0.6||$20||Lightest effective trowel for digging catholes to bury human waste. See LNT Principle 3: Dispose of Waste Properly|
|Zerogram Cathole Trowel||1.0||$5||Nice light stainless steel trowel. Great value.|
|GSI cathole Trowel||2.9||$5||Low-cost, readily available. More comfortable handle but heavy.|
|Wag bag||2.5||$3||When 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 Bag||7.8||$80||Game 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 canister||41||$80||Low cost. Approved by almost all areas. Readily available.|
|Wild-Ideas Weekender||31||$288||Lightest bear canister approved in most parks. Pricy tho.|
|Hang a Bear Bag
(traditional, e.g PCT method)
like MLD Pro Bear Bag Sys.
|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||$6||Use with all methods for less food scent & animal attention|
|Tents for LNT|
|REI Quarter Dome 2 Tent||53||$349||Lower cost freestanding tent with minimal staking needs. Easier to setup on hard, durable LNT surfaces like rock.|
|Big Agn. Copper Spur HV UL 2||44||$450||A lighter but more expensive freestanding tent.|
|Zpacks™ Duplex Flex Tent||33||$725||2 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 per||8||$175||Low cost, low weight, no stakes. Fits into small areas where tents won’t. (may need to supplement with a UL tarp)|
|Hammock: Hennessy or Dutchware||8 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 Peak||18||$110||Great shoes with soft soles and minimal tread. Light. Huge toe room. Super comfortable!|
|Brooks Cascadia Shoes||24||$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 camera||11||$480||Low 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!?
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)
- Catholes must be 200 feet from trails and flowing water
- Catholes should be 6x6x6 inches in soil rich in organic material
- Accelerate the decomposition process by stirring with a stick before filling in the hole.
- 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:|
- 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.
- Camp on the most durable surfaces possible. Slick rock and pine duff are good examples.
- 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.
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
Hammock Camping – Another UL, Outside the Box LNT Option
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
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.
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.
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.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
- Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Travel and Camp on Durable surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize campfire impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- 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.
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