Leave No Trace

Dr Helen Smith, Activitives Officer, National Parks Association of NSW

Nothing is more heartbreaking than seeing natural areas trashed by current and previous visitors. Particularly when we all work so hard to protect natural places through our campaigns at the NPA. But protecting natural areas isn’t just about being loud through media coverage and campaigns. It also comes down to setting a good example to others when we’re out exploring.

We know we’re preaching to the converted here, but it’s worth refreshing the Leave No Trace Principles so you can clearly articulate them and their importance to others. Leave No Trace Australia is an organisation dedicated to inspiring and promoting responsible use of the outdoors through research, partnerships and education. The Leave No Trace guidelines describe best practice for visiting natural areas. They consist of seven principles:

Plan ahead and prepare

Planning and preparation is about being able to cope with the expected and unexpected parts of the trip. If there has been good planning and preparation, the group can cope with unexpected situations or conditions with minimal impact.

First, bring all gear the group will need, including backups in case anything breaks, as well as making sure the gear is appropriate for the trip grade and conditions. Next, look ahead for public transportation changes, track closures, or weather warnings near your destination.

Another consideration should be group size. Small group sizes minimise noise levels and disturbance to wildlife. In general, National Parks guidelines suggest group maximums of eight in wilderness areas and twenty in other areas, but it depends on parks planning, so check specific park guidelines. A group size of 4-8 is generally recommended.

Travel on durable surfaces

It’s tempting to cut corners on a bushwalking track, particularly if the track twists back on itself, but stepping off the track disrupts natural processes, and becomes particularly exaggerated if many people follow the same shortcut. Straying from the track damages native vegetation and can lead to soil erosion. The same goes for creek crossings. Sticking to the intended track is usually the safest option but also minimises the amount of rock and sediments that get dislodged into the waterway, which can disturb aquatic wildlife.

Also, select break and lunch stops where the group will have minimal impact. If walking along beaches or waterways, stick to hard sand, gravel or rocky outcrops to minimise the impact on soft sand and intertidal wildlife.

Dispose of waste properly

Always carry a sealable garbage bag to secure any rubbish and carry out all waste, including fruit peels and cores. Every bushwalker has the responsibility to keep the bush pristine.

If it’s within the capacity of the group to carry out found rubbish, then do it. If you can’t remove it, try to clean it up, record the location, and report it to a park ranger.

Always do a final check for any loose items before you leave an area. Lastly, dispose of human waste properly. Bring a small trowel to bury human waste, along with another sealable bag for used paper.

Leave what you find

By leaving behind every element of nature just as they found it, bushwalkers can have minimal impact on the natural ecology of the system, and minimal disturbance to wildlife.

Do not touch or remove any natural material. This includes flowers, feathers, rocks, plants, fossils, shells and so on. Also, never interfere with Aboriginal artwork or artefacts. Leave everything as you found it and the bush will be just as beautiful for future walkers as it was for you.

Minimise campfire impacts

Campfires can be a wonderful way of bringing a bushwalking group together to keep warm and cook food on, but it’s impossible to have a fire without leaving some trace of being there. Fires leave a scar behind on the earth and can be quite damaging if not constantly tended to. Lighting a fire involves complete removal of firewood that may provide valuable habitat for wildlife in that system and also increases the risk of bushfire. Thousands of kilometres of bush are destroyed every year by fires caused by human negligence, whether from a cigarette butt tossed into brush or a campfire that grew too large.

If you’re looking for a campfire alternative, check out portable fuel stoves. They’re lightweight and can boil water for a cup of hot tea in under two minutes! You can control the size of the flame, and there’s no worry about looking for suitable firewood. For those shorter day hikes where you want to sip on a hot drink or a warm meal, but may not require a fire, think about packing a thermos or insulated bag.

If you like to create a campfire to light up a dark camp, consider packing a LED headlamp or lantern. LED lights are long-lasting and will shine even brighter than a fire.

If you do choose to make a fire, choose a location away from dry vegetation and tents in case the wind blows any hot embers. Never cut down any live branches for firewood; use dead and fallen wood. To make sure the fire never gets too large or out of control, never leave it unattended and keep enough water on hand to extinguish it if necessary. Before going to bed, make sure the campfire is completely extinguished with water and that there are no hot coals or embers left.

Remember always to follow the rules of Total Fire Ban days. New South Wales has a ban on fuel stoves for those days too. Check out the Rural Fire Service website (rfs.nsw.gov.au) for more information on the days of your planned bushwalk.

Respect wildlife

Give wildlife as much space as possible and do not interfere with them. Make sure to carry out all food scraps and do not feed wildlife. Also, never approach or corner an animal as this may cause them unnecessary stress, as well as risk your own safety.

For great wildlife photos, invest in a lens with a good zoom, so you can sit back and enjoy wildlife from afar.

Consider hosts and other visitors

Although people escape to the bush for a variety of reasons, most people enjoy entering nature in a quiet and reflective state to reconnect with nature and escape from their loud and busy city lives. Say a polite “hello” or “g’day” to other walkers on the track, but be aware that not everyone will be up for a lengthy chat.

The exception, of course, is if people look in trouble, or lost. It’s definitely ok to start up a conversation to gauge if they are capable of getting out safely and what equipment they are carrying.

Remember that rangers and land managers work tirelessly to maintain tracks and trails, signs and information in natural areas. Make their job easier by respecting signs and other infrastructure, and reporting any damage.

Want some more information?

Leave No Trace is a great set of guiding principles to help everyone look after our natural areas.

For more details about each of the principles, head to the bushwalking101.org, where we’ve got some great little videos about each of the principles. Please help share how to Leave No Trace in the beautiful natural parts of NSW!