When traveling through nature, the goal of LNT is to prevent as much damage to land and waterways as possible. Trampling land – especially land that isn’t on the trail – can lead to soil erosion and damage to vegetation that species rely on.
Most importantly, follow the designated trail. Since people want to get into nature, trails are necessary, even though they do have an impact too – but, concentrating travel on one deliberately-designed trail prevents further damage. Avoid shortcutting the trail by climbing straight up through switchbacks or walking into the woods to avoid muddy patches (a good pair of hiking boots will keep your feet dry!).
Unlike well-trafficked natural areas, in the backcountry, recreation might entail going through areas without a trail. Consider two primary factors when forging your own path: durability, and frequency of use. To minimize impact on the landscape, you’ll want to walk on the most durable surfaces available. Rock, sand, and gravel are very durable, as are ice and snow since footprints will disappear as it melts. If you must walk through vegetation, dry grasses are best, or sparsely-covered areas where you can walk between plants. Wet areas and fragile vegetation, on the other hand, can easily get trampled and create illegitimate paths that future recreationists might be tempted to follow. Living soil (sometimes called cryptobiotic crust) – often found in the desert – are little raised crusts in the ground that retain water and create habitats for tiny species. Unlike other areas where you should space out walking so as not to trample a single section, in living-soil landscapes, groups should travel in a straight line to minimize impact, and only walk over the area if it’s absolutely unavoidable. If you know you will encounter living soils, consider the size of your group and whether your impact justifies your use.
Choosing a campsite also requires finding durable surfaces. A rule of thumb to follow: good campsites are found, not made. If one is already there, then don’t make a new one. Choose spots deliberately when dispersed camping, although relevant factors will vary by location. In popular, high-use areas, choose a spot that has already been used, and/or already has trampled vegetation and other signs of use. Try to sleep on rock or sand when possible, keep your site small and tents densely-packed, and set up well away from water and trails. Basically, the goal is to consolidate your impact and isolate it to areas that have already been compromised to prevent further damage. In remote, pristine areas – like the backcountry – on the other hand, you’ll want to spread out over a large area to avoid making a noticeable impact on a single spot. Set up the kitchen and leave gear on rocks, if possible, and spread out tents. Try not to stay longer than two days to avoid overuse and compaction of soil. When walking to get water from nearby sources, walk a different route every time to prevent the development of a distinct path. Try to clean up the area when you leave so future campers won’t identify the area as a campsite and use the area themselves.