Leave No Trace: Plan Ahead and Prepare
Of all the Leave No Trace principles, the very first principle is conveniently the most important one as well. Being properly prepared and starting your hike with a plan can make following the other six principles much easier. Research all of the necessary permits and regulations, current, recent and expected trail conditions and make sure you and your hiking group are best prepared when you hit the trail.
We've broke down LNT's first principle of outdoor ethics into actions you can take before starting your hike:
Know Your Herd
Being familiar with where you’re headed is important, but knowing the trail-readiness of everyone in your group is equally important. Make sure everyone is hitting the trail with adequate water and food for the duration of the trip with weather extremes considered and accounted for. Knowing whether an individual isn’t able to meet the requirements for a technical crossing or pass can be the difference in completing your hike as planned or not. So ensure everyone is being honest about their capabilities and informed about any difficulties to be expected on the trail.
Land Use and Access Permits
Know what kind of land you are traveling on, through or parking on. Many trails do not require permits to travel them but require parking permits for day use or overnight. Often parking fees (and fines!) are how trail managers cover much of their maintenance costs. We’ve provided a list of quick links to visit many popular North American parks, trails and public lands.
National Park Pass
Northwest Forest Pass
PCT Long-distancce Permit
Canada PCT Entry Permit
California Fire Permit
New Mexico State Trust Lands Recreational Access Permit for CDT
Blackfeet Nation Fish & Wildlife Recreation Permit for CDT
Glacier National Park Backcountry Camping Permit for CDT
Yellowstone National Park Backcountry Camping Permit for CDT
Rocky Mountains National Park Backcountry Camping Permit for CDT
Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest Permit for CDT
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Backcountry Camping Permit for AT
Shenandoah National Park Backcountry Camping Permit for AT
Baxter State Park Permit for AT
State Park Passes and Permits by State
Trail Conditions Past, Current and Future
Take the time before packing to research what the weather has been like before arriving at the trailhead. For example, if there’s been much rain, anticipate muddy conditions and prepare for changing elements. It’s also best to check as some weather conditions can close access to certain trailheads to allow for environmental management of the trail and not aggravate erosion with foot traffic. As you're checking the weather for your hike, don’t forget the adage ‘dress for the last mile, not just the first’ and layer up appropriately.
Read trail reports from similar weeks in previous years to see what you might expect for your hike. Note what concerns previous hikers may have had or if they would do anything differently were they to return to the trail.
Be prepared to reroute or change plans if hiking in burned areas after wildfires, as they can make the ground very unstable and unpredictable. These areas are often closed to hiking traffic and posted by the Forestry Service on their site.
Hiking with Pets
Whether you’re day hiking or camping in a local state park or wilderness, be familiar with pet leash regulations and other visitor rules regarding dogs. While all dogs are good dogs, not all dogs are great on trails. Know your dog and their own limits when it comes to opportunity for chance wildlife encounters or interacting with other dogs or hikers on trail.
Many national parks and state parks do not allow pets to be on their trails or in public buildings; here are Yellowstone National Park’s pet rules as an example:
Pets may only accompany people in developed areas and must remain within 100 feet of roads, parking areas, and campgrounds.
Pets are not allowed on boardwalks, hiking trails, in the backcountry, or thermal areas.
Pets may not be left unattended or tied to an object.
Pets may not be left in a situation where food, water, shade, ventilation, and other basic needs are inadequate. Pets may remain in vehicles for short periods of time, but we recommend that someone stay behind to ensure their wellbeing.
Owners must bag and dispose of pet waste.
If you’re unfamiliar with Yellowstone National Park, these rules prevent you from participating in most of what Yellowstone has to offer visitors. Pet owners that are unable to comply with any one of these rules are perhaps better to choose other activities to share with their pet.
Lastly, be prepared to report back on your trip. Take photos of notable features like waterfalls or wildlife sure, but also take quick shots of trail conditions like growing mud puddles or fallen trees or overgrowth to include in your report. Reporting your trip experience on local trail-listing or managing sites like AllTrails or WTA.org can help others identify problematic trails that need attention from volunteers. Think of it as paying it forward to the next hiker doing their pre-hike due diligence.
So, what happens if I don’t follow this LNT principle?
Being prepared in the wilderness and backcountry is critical to your safety. Hiking and backpacking can be a very safe and rewarding experience, but hiking in a new area without any research can leave you and your group at risk. Traveling through areas that are susceptible to flash floods or along vulnerable ridge tops during a chance of lightning activity without knowledge of the weather conditions can be a fatal mistake. Hikers exploring arid and desert lands can often misjudge how much water is adequate or don’t pack a way of purifying water from natural sources. A poorly prepared hiker may plan to cook meals with only a campfire, to find at the trailhead that a fire ban is in effect or that firewood is a scarcity in the area. These campers often build a fire regardless, breaking the law or creating preventable risk all because they hadn’t planned for alternatives. Fire bans or scarce wood supplies are signs that an area is experiencing the effects of heavy recreation use or the conditions are at risk of wildfire ignition. Not following the basic rules of our forestry and wilderness areas can result in areas no longer being maintained, and losing our access to those backcountries.
If protecting your well-being or trail system isn’t incentive enough to follow LNT during a fire ban, some of these fines may help. From the USDA Forestry FAQ page:
State: Misdemeanor. Actual cost of suppression (this would include water, chemicals, transport, communications, fire fighters, enforcement, air control, fire trucks and tanks).
Tribal: If violating a fire restriction order results in a wildfire, the violator will also be liable for any and all suppression costs resulting from the wildfire and damage to property and resources. Criminal charges may also be imposed.