Six Basic Rules for Low-Impact Hiking

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As an avid hiker, you should be familiar with some basic rules for proper behavior on the trail. You can’t just put on a pair of hiking shoes and do whatever you want on the trail, unless you’re a jerk of course. You need to comply to the so-called “trail etiquette” if you want to enjoy nature in a sustainable way. However, you can learn more about the trail etiquette in a future post in our blog because this time we’re going to talk about how to practice low-impact hiking. It is as simple as that: you just need to follow several rules so that you keep the trail in the same condition you’ve found it.

Natural landscape in Arizona

Photo by Dan Gold

Low-impact hiking principles

Don’t leave any waste


Carefully planned meals reduce impacts since they help you minimize leftovers. Just try to always repackage food into portions appropriate for your group. Any leftover should be removed from cans, bottles, and foil, and then stored in resealable plastic bags. In the bear country, carry a bear canister for storing food and trash. In other areas, a waterproof bag and long enough cord can be used to counter-balance your food and garbage from a tree limb.


Don’t scatter your garbage on the ground. Carry a litter bag and use it. Don’t bury food scraps and other waste. Wild animals will dig them up and scatter them about.

Toilet paper

Using careful sanitation techniques is an important part of hiking in the wilderness. Good methods prevent water contamination, speed decomposition, and prevent humans and animals from contact with waste.

To prevent water contamination, always site toilets at least 70-100 meters from any water. Heading uphill is usually a good way to achieve this. Look for somewhere that is out of sight of trails, campsites, and anywhere people might see you. The best way to achieve rapid decomposition is to leave waste on the surface, where the sun and air soon break it down. However, doing this is not recommended in popular areas because of the following two reasons: it’s being unsightly and it attracts insects and animals. Instead, dig small individual catholes 15-20 cm deep, in dark organic soil if possible, since this is rich in the bacteria that break down feces. You can use a trowel or a tent stake for digging catholes. After you’ve finished, break feces up with a stick and mix them with the soil so that they decompose more quickly. Then fill in the hole and camouflage it. Pick up a site for the catholes where water won’t flow and wash the feces downstream or where there’s enough sun since heat speeds up decomposition.

So far so good, but there remains the problem of toilet paper. Although toilet paper seems fragile, it is amazingly resilient and shouldn’t be left to decorate the wilderness. You have two options – burning it or packing it out. If you have a campfire, it makes sense to burn used toilet paper in it. However, never do this when there is even a small fire risk. Mostly you should pack it out in doubled plastic bags as required in some areas where campfires are banned. As long as the bags are kept sealed, the used paper doesn’t smell. The paper should be disposed of in a toilet, the plastic bags in a garbage can. There are also some natural alternatives to toilet paper such as sand, grass, large leaves, snow, though using any of these is not recommended for most people.

Urination is a matter of less concern. Urine is sterile, so it doesn’t matter too much where you pee. However, the salts in urine may attract animals, so it’s best to pee on a rock or on the bare ground rather than vegetation that could be damaged by animals licking the salt of the leaves. The only time urination becomes a problem is when you wake in the middle of a cold, stormy night and are faced with crawling out of your sleeping bag, getting dressed, and venturing out into the wet and wind. The answer is to pee into a wide mouth plastic bottle. While men can do this easily, for women pee bottles clearly present problems. A reasonable solution for overcoming this is using a close-fitting plastic funnel with an attached tube that can be used with any bottle.

Don’t take anything

Leave what you find and don’t take anything but pictures. Don’t pick up flowers, don’t damage trees or plants, and don’t alter in any way natural or historic items and artifacts that have cultural value. If you travel with kids, try to teach them how to appreciate and enjoy nature without causing any harm.

Yellow daisies - sun shining

Don’t go off-trail

Walking around mud holes may keep your shoes or boots drier and cleaner, but it widens the trail over time and leads to the creation of multiple, parallel trails. Don’t parallel a trail to experience off-trail walking because most damage is caused when walkers walk along the edges or just off a trail, widening it and destroying the vegetation alongside. In addition, avoid taking shortcuts and cutting corners on switchbacks. It causes erosion and leaves unsightly scars in the woods. Be especially considerate when hiking in deserts or in national parks since the soils, plants, and wildlife can be very fragile. For example, alpine plants such as lichens, mosses, flowers, and seedlings grow very slowly, enduring the harsh mountaintop environment, but they cannot withstand trampling.

Generally, when walking cross-country you should always consider your impact on the terrain and pick the route that will cause the least damage. Rock, snow, and non-planted surfaces suffer the least damage; gravel banks of rivers and streams are regularly washed clean by floods and snowmelt, so walking on them causes no harm.

Don’t damage natural sites

In searching for a campsite, your goal is to find an area that will not be damaged by your stay. Camp at a pristine site only if you are willing to leave no sign of your stay. However, it’s always better to camp at established sites where your stay will cause no additional damage.

Unlike established campsites, lightly impacted sites should always be avoided. If you use them, they will deteriorate further; if left alone, such sites might eventually recover.

Minimize the impact of your camp if you decide to do it in a pristine site that has never been used for camping before. Camp no more than a single night in any such a place, and camouflage the site by covering any scuffed-up places with duff or other native materials before leaving.

Use stoves for cooking, whenever possible, but if you must build a fire, use an existing fire ring and keep your fire as small as possible. Don’t burn foil, plastic, food, or anything with food on it because this attracts animals, creates an eyesore, and releases toxic fumes.

Don’t disturb wildlife

If you want to observe wild animals, do it from a respectful distance. Remember that wild animals aren’t used to seeing us so don’t frighten them. When tracking wildlife for a photograph or a closer look, avoid sudden movements and never pursue the animals. Respect the privacy and needs of wild animals and birds, and try not to disturb them, especially at watering holes and feeding grounds. Do everybody a favor and learn about local birds and animals before entering a particular area. Don’t feed wildlife intentionally or unintentionally – store food out of reach of bears, raccoons, and other wild animals by using special food storage devices. Additionally, clean up food spills completely. Eat or pack out all food scraps because feeding wildlife alters their natural behavior and wild habits.

Elk up in the mountains

Photo by Andrew Gosine

Don’t disturb others

Move quietly in the wilderness. Try to keep voices and noise to a minimum so that all can enjoy the serenity of the wilderness. Don’t forget that some hikers prefer and enjoy their share of peace and solitude on the trail and protect the quiet experience that many seek. When selecting a campsite, keep a low profile and choose an area not visible to other visitors, where rocks and trees will screen you from view. Don’t occupy a large area with your camp – let others enjoy nature as you do.


Carry a litter bag and use it for proper disposal of food and trash. Eliminate or minimize any use of soap near water sources. Don’t damage natural sites by taking anything else but pictures or when building a camp. Follow the trail and don’t think about keeping your hiking shoes clean by going off-trail. Don’t disturb wildlife and be considerate of other people on the trail. Follow these simple rules and enjoy the natural world in a sustainable way that avoids human-created impacts.


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