Leave No Trace is built on seven core principles that have one common objective: they communicate the best possible way to enjoy the outdoors without causing much harm to the environment. The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace educates and guides recreationists to adopt sustainable methods that help them in leaving the outdoors as they found them. These Principles are the most robust and widely utilized minimum impact outdoor practices.
Although Leave No Trace has its roots in backcountry and wilderness, the practices have been adapted so that they can be applied anywhere - from the backcountry to local parks, to your backyard - and for any recreational activity. Each Principle covers a specific topic and provides detailed information for minimizing impacts.
In this article, we aim to provide you a brief understanding of all the LNT principles in the context of trekking in India-
We will begin with the first one.
- Know the regulations and special concerns for the region you'll visit
- Littering, smoking, use of plastic are banned at almost every tourist destination and even if they aren’t officially banned - as a good outdoor enthusiast, one should avoid these things while on a trail. There are also certain regulations that are followed by some specific states, and it's equally important to know about them. E.g. – Night stay, camping, and campfire are banned in Pithoragarh, Uttarakhand, you should have an in-line permit to go sightseeing in Ladakh.
- While looking for regulations and special concerns in the place you are going to visit, pay special attention to local beliefs and customs. While these may not be officially sanctioned, it does well to be respectful of the traditions in the region. For example, in Sikkim, the left hand is somewhat considered to be cursed, and hence, people there avoid using it for lending money or greeting someone. In Ladakh, it is advised to stay at a distance from dogs (most of them are guard dogs for the domestic animals in the region) as they are not very friendly and might attack you. There have even been cases of dogs killing humans.
- Prepare for extreme weather, hazards, and emergencies.
- Weather, being one of the most unpredictable things, can ruin your whole trek if you aren’t prepared for it. In addition to this, high altitude peaks have reduced air pressure which makes it difficult for the body to adjust if you ascend too quickly from sea level. This is because your body does not get the amount of oxygen that it needs to get accustomed to the conditions.
- When you are training for a trek, you need to train for the one-off possibility of weather changes/hazards that might take place on the trail. Trek leaders at Bikat Adventures are prepared and trained to handle hazards and weather changes- but only a good fitness level can get you through these extreme conditions. The best way to prepare your body for lower levels of oxygen is to improve your VO2 max—the highest level of oxygen your body can consume. To do this, focus on your aerobic fitness by getting involved in running, cycling, and swimming.
- Also, Proper layering techniques can help you survive in these extreme conditions by maintaining your core body heat and by protecting you from cold air and freezing snow.
- Schedule your trip to avoid times of high use.
- If you can avoid treks that start on weekends or holidays. In one of our studies, we noticed that 74 % of our trekkers booked treks that started on a Saturday while 12.8 % of trekkers opted for treks starting on Sundays. Only a minuscule portion booked treks falling on weekdays.
Find out more: Over-crowded Himalayan Treks
- Heavier footfall adds more risk to the fragile ecosystem of the Himalayas. If you are looking for treks that are not crowded; consider avoiding famous, commercialized trails or embark on a trek during the off-season. This helps you as well as nature.
- Visit in small groups when possible. Consider splitting larger groups into smaller groups.
- More people result in more litter which puts a great amount of ecological stress on the environment. Water sources at campsites get polluted. The vegetation on the trail gets destroyed by so many people and mules walking over it.
- So, when booking a trek, look for Trek Operators who not only place a cap on group sizes but also limit the number of batches they take into a trail each season. Limiting group sizes is ineffective in the absence of caps on the number of batches. For example, at Bikat Adventures, the group sizes are capped at 15 members and the batch numbers are restricted to 180 per trail per season.
- Repackage food to minimize waste.
- You can repackage your food from plastic packaging to a more sustainable option that causes less impact on the environment. Plastic contains chemicals like lead, mercury, and cadmium that stick around in the environment for ages, threatening wildlife and spreading toxins, and also contributes to global warming.
- Maggi is one of the most commonly used foods in the mountains and we don’t deny that it tastes even better in the midst of the Himalayas. But, because of its plastic packaging, it causes a great amount of stress to nature. A research conducted by The Himalayan Cleanup, where more than 350 people from across the states participated in cleaning the Himalayas, revealed that 60% of the plastic waste was multi-layered food packaging that was non-recyclable. So, when you are in the Himalayan villages, opt for local options like Rajma Chhaawal or Dal Chaawal which are not only delicious but are great for the environment and health.
- Use a map and compass to eliminate the use of marking paint, rock cairns, or flagging.
- Marking paints, rock cairns, and flags are often used to mark trails but they cause harm to nature. Marking paints contain chemicals and toxic ingredients that emit harmful compounds. Building numerous rock cairns disturbs the soils and makes the area more prone to erosion and 1 or 2 flags used at certain distances can add up to a lot of trash.
- Durable surfaces include established trails and campsites, rock, gravel, dry grasses, or snow.
- Protect riparian areas by camping at least 200 feet from lakes and streams. Avoid camping on bugyals or meadows - as they form an extremely important component of healthy watersheds and ecological function. Using rolling tents instead of the fixed ones are healthy practices that we can follow to avoid the degradation of these fertile lands and the water bodies around them.
In popular areas:
- Concentrate use on existing trails and campsites.
- Good campsites are found, not made. When you are on a trail, try to stick to campsites that have previously been used. Altering a site is not necessary. You can easily find existing campsites for well-known treks like Nag Tibba, Kedarkantha, Brahmatal, Bhrighu Lake etc.
- Walk single file in the middle of the trail, even when wet or muddy.
- Make sure to stay on the trail – no cutting switchbacks. Walk straight through the mud puddle if required. If you walk off-trail you are trampling plants and compacting the soil. This does more harm to the ecosystem than you think as -
- Every time you leave a well-used path, you are walking on plants that harms them or even kills them.
- These plants could be the main food source for some animals and insects and destroying them forces these animals to migrate elsewhere which causes an imbalance in the ecosystem.
- Keep campsites small. Focus activity in areas where vegetation is absent.
- Roopkund used to receive a lot of trekkers on its trail but in 2019, it was banned by the Uttarakhand High-court because of the harm increased footfall was causing to the biodiversity of the alpine meadows on the trail. So, try to keep the campsites as small as possible to lessen the impact it causes to the environment.
In pristine/less crowded areas, follow the opposite of what we discussed above.
- Disperse use to prevent the creation of campsites and trails.
- It is advisable to spread out tents, avoid using the same path every night, and relocate camp. The goal is to keep any area of the site from being trampled on as much as possible.
- Avoid places where impacts are just beginning.
- Avoid advancing into areas like impromptu trails created by other hikers stepping off as the damages there are just beginning.
- Pack it in, pack it out. Inspect your campsite and rest areas for trash or spilled foods. Pack out all trash, leftover food, and litter.
- Do not leave any kind of waste behind as it contaminates the environment. It is essential to keep a healthy environment and protect your health as well.
- Deposit solid human waste in catholes dug 6 to 8 inches deep, at least 200 feet from water, camp, and trails. Cover and disguise the cathole when finished.
- Proper disposal of human waste is important to avoid pollution of water sources, avoid the possibility of spreading disease and maximize the rate of decomposition.
- Pack out toilet paper and hygiene products
- Toilet papers, tampons, and napkins are required to be placed in plastic bags and disposed off later. Burying them is not a good idea because they do not decompose easily and animals may dig them up.
- To wash yourself or your dishes, carry water 200 feet away from streams or lakes and use small amounts of biodegradable soap. Scatter strained dishwater.
- If you are going on any of the lake treks like Kashmir Great Lakes Trek, Deoria Tal Trek, Kedar Tal Trek, it is advised to stay at a distance of 200 feet to wash yourself or the dishes. This is not only because the lakes and rivers are considered to be sacred in India, but also because it lessens the trampling of lakes and rivers and helps keep soaps and other pollutants away from the water.
- Preserve the past: examine, but do not touch cultural or historic structures and artifacts.
- You might find some cultural and historic artifacts on public land that might fascinate you, but make sure to observe them from a distance. Appreciate their beauty and let them stay at their place.
- Leave rocks, plants, and other natural objects as you find them.
- Natural objects like shells, rocks, plants add to the beauty of a particular place and hence, should be left as they are. Let others enjoy the originality of that place.
- Avoid introducing or transporting non-native species.
- Invasive species can change the food web in an ecosystem by sabotaging or replacing native food sources. The invasive species are of no significance for wildlife and they can also alter the abundance or diversity of species that are important habitats for native wildlife.
- Do not build structures, furniture, or dig trenches.
- Avoid causing harm to nature for your momentary happiness. Some trek operators have established fixed camps on trails like Rupin Pass, Hampta Pass, Har Ki Dun, and Bhrigu Lake. As much as fixed camping is economical, reduces the cost of manpower associated with carrying the resources from one campsite to the next, it is alarmingly harmful to the environment- especially on treks with meadows.
Avoid campfires at high altitudes. One must be well aware of the fact that wood uses oxygen to burn. In a surrounding where the availability of oxygen is low, burning a campfire is not at all a good idea.
- Campfires can cause lasting impacts on the environment. Use a lightweight stove for cooking and torch with rechargeable batteries for light.
- Think about the reasons for wanting to light a campfire. Is it for cooking? For a cup of tea? To provide light? Or simply to have a social gathering? It is advised to use a stove for cooking as it boils water far quicker than a campfire can. LED lanterns are excellent sources of light and are ideal for car camping trips. Again, they’re much more effective sources of light than a fire.
- Where fires are permitted, use established fire rings, fire pans, or mound fires
- If you are a Himalayan Hiker, you must have seen many times a circular ring made of stones to make a fire. This helps in containing the fire and the ashes later on. The fire can later be reduced with water and brought down. Then you can bury the ashes. Or you can also dig a pit beforehand and build fire in it and bury ash later.
- Keep fires small. Only use sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand
- Always try to find the twigs and branches that lie on the ground. These are dry and burn better.
- Burn all wood and coals to ash, put out campfires completely, then scatter cool ashes.
- Use woods that reduce down completely to ash. Instead of burying the ash, it's better if you bring them down. If it’s organized camping, use coal or dried cow dung and Indian Bukhari. Indian Bukhari is nothing but a tin container to make and contain a fire.
- Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow or approach them-
- Do not touch, get close to, feed, or pick up wild animals. It is advised to observe wildlife from a distance so they are not scared or forced to flee. If you plan to visit a Wildlife Sanctuary or a National Park like Jim Corbett in Uttarakhand, you should always keep your distance from the wildlife. There have been cases of them killing humans.
- Never feed animals. Feeding wildlife damages their health, alters natural behaviors, and exposes them to predators and other dangers-
- We see people throwing bread to ducks, bananas to monkeys and bears that does far more harm than good to wildlife. While many animals happily eat human food, it may not be the right food for their needs. Wild animals, no matter how fascinating, are still wild animals—and feeding them can result in humans getting hurt when they don't realize where the food stops and your fingers begin. Keeping a respectful distance is the only way to make sure you don’t get injured—or worse.
- Protect wildlife and your food by storing rations and trash securely-
- Sometimes, we unintentionally invite wildlife to a party when we leave garbage cans exposed outside our camps. Make sure your garbage cans are securely fastened.
- Control pets at all times, or leave them at home-
- Some areas prohibit dogs or require them to be on a leash at all times. If you are taking your pet along with you, keep them under control at all times and make sure you pick up dog feces from camps and trails.
- Avoid wildlife during sensitive times: mating, nesting, raising young, or winter-
- It is advised to not disturb wildlife in hot or cold weather. Disturbances can affect an animal’s ability to withstand the rigorous environment. During sensitive times like raising the young, animals removed or touched by well-meaning people may cause the parents to abandon their babies. Mating also requires animals to be left undisturbed.
Be Considerate of Other Visitors
- Respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience
- One must always maintain courtesy toward other visitors, it's an important component of outdoor ethics. Never let your experience affect someone else’s enjoyment.
- Be courteous. Yield to other users on the trail
- Always be courteous to other riders and hikers on the trail. If you encounter bikers, horses, and hikers coming from the opposite direction, you must slow down, pull over, and yield the right-of-way.
- Step to the downhill side of the trail when encountering pack stock
- Groups leading or riding pack stock have the right-of-way on trails. Hikers and bicyclists should move off the trail to the downhill side. Avoid the valley side on routes when waiting for cattle or mules to pass by. A little push from the mules can have you tumbling down the slope.
- Take breaks and camp away from trails and other visitors
- Take frequent breaks. Choose durable surfaces and sites where rocks or trees screen your tent view while camping. Keep the noise down in camp so that the other campers or those passing by on the trail do not get disturbed.
- Let nature's sounds prevail. Avoid loud voices and noises
- Most of the hikers come to the outdoors to listen to nature. Avoid external speakers and instead, use earbuds to enjoy music.
Whenever you plan a vacation outdoors, make sure you or the organisation you book with follows these principles. All of these principles are based not only on respect for nature and other visitors but they are also based on and supported by scientific research. The majority of this research aligns with the fields of Recreation Ecology and Human Dimensions of Natural Resources.