Sunday, March 29, 2009

Leave No Trace: A basic introduction to Wilderness travel and camping for the Horseman

Riding and horse camping in the Wilderness may seem overwhelming at times, with a long list of rules and regulations to follow in order to “leave no trace.” But it’s actually remarkably simple. In fact, one of the best parts about the Leave No Trace principles is its simplicity. Stay simple! It makes riding and camping with horses easy and doable. And the experience of being in the Wilderness where folks have and do treat the wilds with deserving respect is incomparable.

The basic principles of Leave No Trace for the horseman are the same as for the hiker or backpacker, with just a few additional considerations. I’ll go over the general points today, and in the future, we can show you each one in greater detail, through recounts of our hands-on experiences.

I understand that each Wilderness Area may have specific concerns and considerations, so please take an extra few minutes to look up any additional recommended guidelines for the area you intend to be travelling in. Most of this information can be found on line today.

The basic principles for LNT travel and camping are:
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
You can sum this up even more simply by just remembering to be thoughtful and considerate of the land, the trail, wildlife and other people. I figure this is a big, beautiful world. Respecting that basic principle is easy.

We do it both for a living and for the love of it. When it’s just the three of us, we travel as light as possible, everything thing we need for the three of us packed on one horse. And yes, we seriously limit our weight and bulk on our packstock because of the high elevation and challenging mountain terrain.

When we take a group into the Wilderness, our impact is slightly greater, with a larger number of persons and stock, sleeping tents for our guests, and a portable camp kitchen which really helps me in order to prepare good meals for a larger group.

In any case, when we leave a camp, we do our best to see that signs of our ever having been there are minimal. You’d have to search for clues.

Here are some specific principles and practices to keep in mind with the LNT ethics:

Planning ahead first means limiting your group size. For foot traffic only, group size is limited to 15 people. For those of us travelling with stock, we are limited to no more than 25 heartbeats, persons and stock (riding and pack) combined. Plan accordingly: limit your gear, repackage food for minimal waste, pack well and wisely, and be prepared (I’ll share our packing suggestion list in the future).
In choosing a camp site, find a durable surface, 200 feet from any water source, and use what’s there. Good sites are found, not made. Don’t alter the landscape. Choose an area that won’t be impacted by your horses, gear and tent. For horse travelers, get well off the beaten trail. You don’t want to be in the way with your stock. Allow for stock grazing where you won’t disturb trail traffic. Tuck you high lines in the trees. Use a downed tree to store saddles and tack. I’m big on privacy. I don’t like to see anyone else from my camp, nor disturb anyone else. I’m out here for a reason, and it’s not the social life.
Limit campfires. Don’t burn if you don’t have to. Cook on a campstove. Use a lantern or candle for light. We have a fancy double burner aluminum pannier set we pack for cooking for groups. I can prepare a good three course meal for a crowd, and never have to burn a stick. But I admit, a campfire is magical and special and warm (and it’s pretty cold up here), so when we camp during times that fires are not permitted (it is your responsibility to know if a fire ban is in effect), I miss a camp fire. When you are permitted and do choose to have a campfire, keep fires small, use only small sticks and twigs on the ground. Burn fire completely to fine ash, and be sure the fire is dead out before leaving camp. We dump water in the hole, stir it up with a stick or shovel, and then put our hand in. That will tell you if it’s out! In some locations, there may be designated fire pits. In our part of the Wilderness, there are not. If we see “rings” folks left behind, we scatter them. I guess some people don’t realize that a fire ring is not only completely unnecessary, but it’s leaving a mighty big trace. I don’t want to know you were there before me. That’s the point of the Wilderness. Instead, we dig out our top soil, the top 6-8 inches, stash it under a nearby tree, and build our fire in this hole about 15x15 inches. When we are leaving the campsite, we make certain the fire is dead out, then replace the topsoil. I’ve heard about fire blankets – small squares of fireproof materials that you can pack with you and place right on top of the ground, build your fire on it, and be certain that you’re leaving no trace when you carefully clean up from this. This would be a good thing to pack in many areas.
As for some horse specific considerations to keep in mind: feed must be certified weed free, but I’d say this is a consideration for folks camping at the trailhead or at the few Wilderness locations that are so close to urban centers that use is heavy. In the majority of the back country, at least where ever I have been so lucky to camp, there’s more than enough horse feed already there. Don’t pack in feed. Let you horses graze. In our elevations covering trails between 10,000 and 13,000 feet, and riding/working an average of six or seven hours a day, our horses are in excellent condition on high mountain grass alone, and without fear of colic from packing in rich or unnatural horse feeds. Just like we’re trying to limit our impact, allowing your horses to graze will be far less of an impact over keeping them tied up and eating feed you hauled in.
Don’t cut switchbacks. Horses will leave a greater footprint than two human feet, especially in wet, muddy areas. Keep this in mind and use thoughtful consideration. Our goal is to leave only footprints, but even minimize these. If going off trail to stop or set camp, spread out, don’t leave a new trail behind.
As for horse manure – I haven’t figured out how to clean up on the trail behind us as we travel, so my apologies to the foot traffic that does have to step over the occasional pile. But at camp, there is no excuse not to take the time to kick or spread with shovel or stick the manure your horses leave behind. A broken up pile of horse poop will be all but impossible to see after a day drying in the sun, or an afternoon of rain. A pile left intact can remain visible for a full season.
Then there is the issue of human waste. Again, this is simple, so please keep it simple. There is nothing worse than finding a camp where someone had set up (and left) a big hole for a latrine. Think small and simple. When you need to “go to the woods,” find a private location in the woods or brush, and dig a cat hole 6-8 inches deep, at least 200 feet from water source. When you are done, cover and disguise the cat hole. Don’t forget to pack your shovel! We use one of those good sized folding ones that fits easily into either a pannier or large saddle bag. We have a bright yellow one, and lean it up on a tree with a roll of TP hanging from the tree in a ziplock bag. If the bag and shovel are gone, you know the woods are “occupied.” TP is supposed to be packed out, though in an area of minimal use like where we camp, I will use biodegradable paper and bury it with my humanure. Back in the day, people thought you should leave TP out on a rock or something. No. I don’t want to see your TP, and you don’t want to see mine, right? Leave no trace! Handy-wipe type products are great for personal hygiene, but be sure to pack these out.
Respect nature in everything you do. There no need to be out there if you don’t. Enjoy looking at the wild flowers, the grasses, the trees, but don’t damage, pick, or cut anything alive. For the horseman, this also means limiting time stock is tied to trees; rotating location of stock staked out to graze, and using tree-savers when putting up a high line.
Respect wildlife. Observe only from a distance. Bottom line, leave them alone. Control pets or leave them at home. Store food and trash securely.
Respect others on the trail and in the Wilderness. Be courteous, yield to others on the trail. People, on foot or horse, should step to the downhill side off the trail to allow for packstock to safely pass. Being nice goes a long way! Make a good name for horsemen. If you have to encounter anyone else on the trail, have it be your goal to make the encounter be a positive one for you, your stock, and the folks you meet.
If you packed it in, you can pack it out. Take out all your trash. Everything. Don’t bury or burn it. Plan on bringing trash bags if need be.
You know what they say: Take nothing from the wilderness except photos and memories. Leave nothing but footprints, and as a horseman, take extra precaution to limit these. Damage nothing during your stay.
Double check that you have in fact left no trace. Do a final sweep around your camp area – check for trash, scatter horse poop (with boots and branches), if there was any pawing around trees, cover this back up. Take the time to clean up. Check and double check. Even if, on the unfortunate chance, you find litter or signs of an obvious camp left behind by someone else, clean up after them. I’ll jump off my horse any time I see a piece of trash on the trail and stuff it in my saddle bag. I’ll spend time bagging and packing up someone else’s trash if I find it left behind at camp. I don’t appreciate it, but I sure am not going to leave it for someone else to see. Leave the campsite and the Wilderness as you wish you found it.

I hope this doesn’t sound complicated. It’s not. It’s so simple. But if we choose to use the Wilderness, we need to accept and abide by these principles. Remember, it’s our choice. Choose to use it wisely.

For more information, and more specific details, check out these web sites: