Winter back country use has increased 27% in national parks over the past ten years, while summer use has only increased 7%. As more people experience outdoor recreational opportunities Leave No Trace guidelines become more important for outdoor visitors. Leave No Trace is a set of ethical and sustainable practices which promote environmental sustainability and conservation of natural resources. LNT practices make people more concerned about their environment and to help them protect it for future generations. Leave No Trace helps one to better understand and appreciate nature and strengthens the respect toward the environment. One person with thoughtless behavior can spoil the outdoor experience for others in the future.
Winter is a wonderful time to experience the back country. Many find that winter offers solitude, scenic beauty, and a chance to hone back country skills. With winter use on the rise, users and land managers are beginning to witness more winter recreation-related impacts such as user conflicts, inappropriate human waste disposal, vegetation damage and significant impacts on wildlife. As a growing number of skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers, telemarkers venture out in winter for day or overnight trips, the need to practice Leave No Trace winter techniques is greater than ever.
Fortunately, many of the usual concerns about the impacts of three-season back country use are of little concern in winter. Although growing, the visitor numbers are significantly lower than those of other seasons, and in northern latitudes the soil and vegetation are covered under a thick covering of snow which greatly helps to minimize impacts. By following Leave No Trace winter use principles, you can help to ensure protection of resources and the quality of winter experiences for future users..
The following seven tenets are taken from LNT and adapted for winter camping conditions.
3.1 Plan Ahead and Prepare
This amounts to knowledge of the area you are traveling in and what to expect. Check avalanche and weather reports prior to departure. Always consult maps and local authorities about high danger areas, safety information, and regulations for the area you plan to visit. Be prepared for extreme weather, hazards and emergencies. Monitor snow conditions frequently. Carry and be ready to use an avalanche beacon, probe and shovel. Educate yourself by taking a winter backcountry travel course.
Know how to use a map and compass to eliminate the need for tree markings, rock cairns or flagging to mark your route. Visit the backcountry in small groups, but never alone. Leave your itinerary with family or friends.
3.2 Travel and Camp on Safe, Durable Surfaces
The concept of durability is an important one for back country travelers to understand. Natural surfaces respond differently to backcountry travel. Durability refers to the ability of surfaces to withstand wear or remain in a stable condition. Snow cover provides a durable surface that protects under lying vegetation and soils from damage.
3.2.1 Traveling on a Durable Surface
The effect of travel across ice and snow is temporary, making snow and ice a good choice for travel assuming good safety precautions are followed and the snow layer is of sufficient depth to prevent vegetation damage. The impact of traveling and/or camping on snow is temporary- usually erased by the next snowfall or melt.
The goal of back country travel is to move through the back country while avoiding damage to the land. Land management agencies typically construct trails in back country areas to provide identifiable routes that concentrate foot traffic. The constructed trails are themselves an impact on the land; however, they are a necessary response to the fact that people travel in the back country. Concentrating travel on trails reduces the likelihood that multiple routes will develop and scar the landscape. It is better to have one well-designed route than many poorly chosen paths. Trail use is recommended whenever possible. When hiking on the trail, travel on deep snow cover whenever possible. Travel and camp safely away from avalanche paths, cornices, steep slopes and unstable snow.
Encourage everyone to stay within the width of the trail and not short cut trail switchbacks (trail zigzags that climb hill sides). Avoid traveling close to tree limbs and brush as when these are frozen, they are fragile and can be easily broken. Travelers should provide space for other hikers if taking breaks along the trail. The principles of off-trail travel should be practiced if the decision is made to move off-trail for breaks. Hikers in the same group should periodically stop to rest and talk. Avoid shouting to communicate while hiking as loud noises usually are not welcome in natural areas.
Crampons may be helpful on icy trails, but they damage rock and are quickly worn down from rock. Be prepared to take them on and off as needed or do without.
3.2.2 Camping on Durable Surfaces
Winter camping allows camping in remote areas, the likelihood that you will see few visitors, and have no obvious impacts. Selecting an appropriate campsite is perhaps the most important aspect of low-impact back country use. It requires the use of judgment and information and often involves making trade-offs between minimizing ecological and social impacts. A decision about where to camp should be based on information about the level and type of use in the area, the fragility of vegetation and soil, the likelihood of wildlife disturbance, an assessment of previous impacts, and your potential to cause or avoid impact.
At camp choose a site with a durable snow surface at a safe, stable site out of view of heavily-traveled routes and trails. In setting up camp, disperse tents, cooking areas and storage of backpacks on durable snow sites. Use removable tent anchors, such as ice axes, ice screws, and poles rather than moving rocks or tying to trees.
3.3 Dispose of Waste Properly
To adhere to “Pack It In, Pack It Out” you should pack out everything you bring with you. Yes, I mean everything. Burying trash and litter in the snow or ground is unacceptable. Pick up all food scraps, wax shavings and pieces of litter. Pack out all trash – yours and others.
You should pack out all solid human waste. Use toilet paper or wipes sparingly and pack them out.
Keep pollutants out of water sources by camping at least 200 feet (roughly 70 adult steps) removed from lakes and streams. If snow cover is obscuring the landscape it may be necessary to consult your map to estimate underlying water courses.
Inspect your campsite for trash and evidence of your stay. Dismantle all snow shelters, igloos or wind breaks. Naturalize the area before you leave.
3.4 Leave What You Find
You have heard the expression “leave only footprints and take only memories”. Leave plants, rocks, animals and historical or cultural artifacts as you find them.
3.5 Minimize Campfire Impacts
Campfires cause lasting impacts in the backcountry which is easily overcome if you carry a lightweight camp stove for cooking. If you have a campfire, use dead downed wood and use existing fire pits. I dislike seeing fire pits where a previous camper has tried to burn an oversized green or wet log and left the charred remains. It is best to keep your fire of a manageable size.
3.6 Respect Wildlife
Winter is an especially vulnerable time for animals. Observe wildlife from a distance and don’t follow or approach them. Never feed wildlife or leave food behind to be eaten. Protect wildlife and your food by storing rations and trash securely.
3.7 Be Considerate of Other Visitors
People you encounter in the back country during the winter are there to appreciate their environment and enjoy the solitude. Be respectful of these other campers by sharing the trail and being courteous. On the trail yield to other users and move off the trail. In camp be aware if others are camping nearby and minimize your visual and auditory effects.