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Backcountry Garbology: How to Leave No Trace
KC Nattinger
November 17, 2011 - 9:13am

We talk a lot about the Garbology of what we throw away (or reuse, compost, or recycle) at home, but one aspect of Garbology seldom discussed outside of environmental education is the garbage left in the wild lands where people explore and experience nature.

Nobody likes to arrive at a stunningly remote and beautiful location to find someone else’s trash. To this end, students of every age are being taught in schools, camps, and at national park visitor centers to Leave No Trace.

In many places, education about "Leave No Trace" principles has led to cleaner parks and recreation areas. From day hikers to weekend campers to recreational paddlers, I am inspired by how many outdoor enthusiasts are cleaning up after themselves so well. The last time you went for a camping trip or a walk in your neighborhood park, did you pack out your trash? If yes, thank you!

Sadly, not every outdoor enthusiast has taken on this ethic. When I take groups of NatureBridge students out on the trail, we often see and clean up the trash that someone else left. Strangely enough, the hard core mountaineers—the people climbing the world’s biggest peaks—often times do not leave a clean camp.

The route to climb Mount Everest is littered with trash left by climbing groups that have ascended the mountain, such as oxygen bottles, plastic wrap, and toxic materials like batteries—this trash not only is ugly but also pollutes the water coming from the mountains. And this is the water that people drink and rely on to survive.

Following the guidelines of “Leave No Trace” is a huge and important step in reducing the impact that we have on our parks and wild places, but it is not the whole story. What happens to your waste after you pack it out? Does it all go in a landfill? Or do you make sure to sort it and reuse, compost, and recycle what you can?

As every student of ecology knows, everything on earth is connected; pollution in one part of the world affects the rest of the world. As outdoor enthusiasts, we must work to find a way to live in balance with the entire earth—not just where we take our vacations.