Backcountry Practices

“Leave No Trace” (LNT) is a hands-on, practical approach to caring for the land and respecting other visitors. In the backcountry, LNT practices enable us to protect the natural qualities that attracted us there. This approach requires a willingness to learn and commit knowledge to action. Flexibility, judgment and experience are critical, as LNT techniques depend just as much on attitude and awareness as they do on knowledge of rules and regulations.

You’ll find that you can quickly adapt LNT techniques to changing conditions by considering the variables of a place—its soil, vegetation, wildlife, moisture, the amount and type of use it receives and the overall effect of your own use—and then using your judgment to determine how particular practices apply.

The following practices suggest ways of caring for desert and canyon wildlands. We hope that you’ll use them and enjoy the satisfaction of “leaving no trace.”

Desert and Canyon Travel

As desert travelers, we must recognize that although the desert appears tough, it is actually quite fragile. Desert life depends upon complex associations of water and soil—which are limited resources. For this reason, we must choose our paths of travel carefully.

  • Concentrate your activities on more sterile spaces or established trails and campsites, and avoid the fertile islands of vegetation and rich soil. Camping and traveling on exposed mineral soil, such as sand or gravel, often causes the least impact simply because fewer plants struggle for survival there. Sandy washes or arroyos also provide good paths for travel. In elevated areas, try to stay on slickrock to avoid vegetation.
  • Keep your group small. In trail-less areas where soil is forming but there is no cryptobiotic crust, group members should walk side by side to avoid creating a new trail.*
  • In desert areas with low visitation, a pristine campsite is a good choice provided it has no vegetation and is a highly resistant environment—for example, slickrock, dry washes (if there is no flash flood hazard) and even open ground between shrubs (if there is no cryptobiotic crust). Keep your stay short and disperse your camp activities over a wide area.
  • In popular areas with high visitation or when you can’t be certain that you’ll leave no evidence of your stay, choose a campsite that shows obvious signs of use. This prevents surrounding undisturbed areas from becoming impacted.

*Note that the presence of cryptobiotic soils dictates walking single-file, whereas your group should walk side by side in all other areas.

Cryptobiotic Crust

Cryptobiotic crust looks like tiny castles of dark, thin mineral crust, but is actually a self-sustaining biological unit. Cryptobiotic crust grows on barren ground and requires little nutrition from the soil. A critical part of the desert soil-building process, its anti-erosional and nitrogen enriching qualities prepare the ground for a succession of future plant communities. Cryptobiotic crust may take as long as 100 years to mature but can be destroyed by just a few steps.

  • When choosing areas for camping and hiking, watch for cryptobiotic crust. If you find yourself in an area with cryptobiotic crust, stay on established trails. If there’s no way to avoid the crust, follow in one another’s pathway to minimize disturbance.

Water

In deserts where running water isn’t available, a spring, seep or pothole is often the only supply for miles. Visitors must not pollute, over-consume or waste this valuable resource. Remember that desert water sources are not readily replaced, and if polluted, their purity is not restored. Overusing or misusing water will deplete it for all forms of desert life.

  • Camp well away (at least 200 feet recommended) from water sources, and avoid using water sources after dark. Most desert animals are active at night and congregate around water. Camping near a water source may be convenient for us, but local animals depend on it for survival. Our presence may keep thirsty wildlife away.
  • Conserve desert water. Adjust your water consumption according to the replenishment rate of the source. Use small water sources for drinking only. Springs and flowing streams may have adequate supplies for washing clothes and bodies.
  • Avoid polluting water sources. Use only clean cups or pots to dip from sources. Dogs and riding and pack stock should be closely monitored to avoid trampling and defecation in water sources.
  • Do not wash directly in potholes. Body oils and synthetic lotions and sunscreens will pollute someone else’s drinking water. Washing should be done at least 200 feet from running water and away from potholes. Wash water should be emptied over sand or gravel or other filtering ground.

Fires

Because of the low productivity and scattered growth of vegetation, campfires are usually inadvisable in the desert. In arroyos and washes, however, periodic flash floods often deposit substantial amounts of driftwood and flood debris. In these areas or where scattered dead and down wood is present, small campfires are possible. Remember, however, that dead and down wood provides habitat for many creatures.

  • Consider using a portable stove. This relieves you of searching for wood and protects what limited organic material is available.
  • If you must make a fire, use low-impact fire building methods: use small wood and keep fires small; avoid building a rock ring—try a sand pit instead—and always burn wood completely. Use only dead and down wood for fires.
  • Consider using a fire pan or fire blanket to contain your fire and to prevent blackening of the soil or rocks.
  • Do not build fires in alcoves. This permanently blackens the rock and may damage hidden archaeological sites.
  • Leave no evidence of your fire. Scatter cold ashes widely in wash bottoms or other areas away from campsites and trails.

Sanitation

Desert soils have few microorganisms to help break down human feces so decomposition occurs slowly. Sanitation practices require extra attention to maximize decomposition and to avoid polluting water sources.

  • Consider using a personal sanitation device. Many different models are now available and minimize inconveniences.
  • Look for organic soil under trees and away from cryptobiotic crusts to locate your well-hidden, deeply buried, (6-8 inches deep) cathole. Toilet paper should be carried out and disposed of properly.
  • Choose a site that is at least 200 feet from trails, campsites and water sources.
  • Urinate on rocks or bare ground, avoiding vegetation so salt-starved animals don’t defoliate plants.
  • Always pick up after your pets.