Leave No Trace Is Dumb

A Rant About “Leave No Trace” Outdoor Attitude

What a dumb idea.

OK, maybe not entirely dumb, but certainly egocentric, narrow-minded, and with the worst sort of political or market spin.  I submit the premise that “wilderness tripping” never, under any circumstances, actually leaves “no” trace.

Who do you think you’re fooling?

First, the fact that you’re there in the first place leaves a trace.  If you’re on a trail, the trail itself is the most obvious trace.  So, all of us cross-country skiers, backpackers, day-trippers, and mountain-bikers have already violated the pseudo-sacrosanct mantra of “leave no trace.”  Then, there are parking lots, landings, signs, camp sites, rest areas, benches, maintained overlooks, and so on. 

Now, I am not suggesting that these structures are bad ideas, although there are arguments to be had.  In most cases, these are good things.  But . . . they leave a trace.  So, to most of those proselytes of “no trace” precepts, you’re already well into the red zone of hypocrisy.

Ah, but what about snowshoers, bushwhackers, and paddlers who don’t use trails and maintain a higher and purer aesthetic than the mindless trail troglodyte?  Well, avoid any smug self-righteousness.  You parked you car somewhere.  You’re not naked.  You have chased wildlife away, even if you haven’t seen them (which may be why you haven’t seen them?).  Ever thought about that?

The fact that our featured destination is likely some sort of reserve is an ethical trap.  It is a direct “trace” of our seeking the holy grail of the wild.  Many of us seem to view these reserves and parks as “the” places to do our thing.  The distinction allows many to subtlely accept the ruin of anything outside these arbitrary boundaries.  Additionally, we become so enamored with these special places that our high use leads to the degradation of the experience. 

For example, the Park Service requires heavy, clunky “bear-proof” food containers that cost $80 apiece, to enter the Sierra Nevada (although it’s unlikely you’ll see a bear).  For a trip into the Boundary Waters, you must submit, and abide by, a schedule.  Where is the sense of wildness with these impositions?  Can you not see the huge “trace” with this idea?  Herein lays some perilous philosophy. 

Wildness,” as suggested by John Muir the Great, is not necessarily found only in “wilderness.”  In fact, the wildness that he advocated is too often wanting in many of wilderness areas, and better found in landscapes free from such designations.  The loss of this sense of wildness, or freedom, has a very discernible and disagreeable flavor.  This loss is a blatant “trace,” at least to those who have the experience to know otherwise. 

More important than the actual traces of our recreational and environmentally-friendly activity, are all the traces that enabled you to participate.  Most of us drive cars to places where we can practice our “no trace” religion.  As a result, we contribute to deforestation, road construction, fossil fuel consumption, nudging the global climate a bit warmer, and supporting mines, oil fields, and the social conflict that goes along with them.  For what, so we can hike a few miles to enjoy nature? 

How far have you driven to reach your favorite wildland meccas?  How much gasoline did you consume?  How many linear miles of asphalt despoliation have you contributed to?  And you still suggest that you have left “no trace?” 

Another glaring “no trace” violation is all the money that we dutifully spend on gadgets, widgets, and the coolest new stuff.  Maybe you should have spent that money helping poor farmers in the Sudan?  Or, making donations to credible organizations that work to improve the lot of those who will never get the chance to ponder environmental enlightenment?  I challenge any sense of self-righteousness that might be attached to a “no trace” concept.  It’s riddled with selfishness and short-sightedness. 

Of course, I’m not suggesting that quiet sports enthusiasts forego their passion, or that they impose guilt-trips on themselves.  Reaching for greater human consciousness is a worthy goal.  However, we need to understand that it comes at a price.  Hiding that cost behind an ersatz “leave no trace” cliché does us harm; and distances us from the wildness that we claim to seek.

Does this notion of “leave no trace” make any sense at all?  I argue a resounding “no.”  It’s a blathering and child-like notion evolved from an irrational enviro-centric, new age, urban lifestyle that makes no sense.  Of course we leave a trace!  A big one!  It’s far better to understand our impact and work to minimize it.  You’ll never eliminate it. 

Does taking care of the environment make sense? 

Of course, it does.  But traditional (and nearly forgotten) constructs of “conservation” go a lot further in emplacing a respect for nature in the context of the human footprint.  The Boy Scout Handbook from the 1950s has far more “environmental consciousness” than the current flashy and shallow sound bytes such as “leave no trace.” 

Parcelizing our perceptions and separating them from the context in which they exist, does nobody any good.  It’s irrational rationalization, plain and simple. 

These days, I fear that too many outdoor recreationalists have psychologically isolated their activity from the societal infrastructure that allows them to participate in such adventures.  It’s sort of like the guy who puts a solar panel on his roof and declares himself energy self-sufficient.  Where did those panels come from?  How did they get transported to his roof?  What are the science, economy, and sociology that went into design and manufacture of the panels?  Self-sufficient?  Hogwash!  Only with a very narrow definition is he self-sufficient. 

Naturally, marketers have taken full advantage of this isolation psychology. 

Think about all that specialized and severely over-priced equipment?  Do you really think that that $100 Columbia jacket came without an environmental price-tag?  How about that $250 backpack made from Nigerian petroleum and Bolivian aluminum.  It didn’t grow on a Kelty tree, ripe for harvest! 

Gortex is another fine example of technology running amok over practical sense.  Since when did any fabric keep you dry when you’re already sweating like a horse from active physical activity?  Gortex only works if you’re sitting on your butt doing nothing but breathing.  Maybe the bar on “dumb” should be lowered a bit more?

Do you really need those electrolyte-balanced drinks in disposable plastic containers?  Is your metabolism so poor that you require the “nth” degree of edge?  How many of us are Lance Armstrongs?  Water held in a simple canteen works just as well.  However, that canteen won’t have all the colorful misinformation to lead us down the road of minimal returns!

How about those ridiculous-looking telescoping, maxi-lite, walking poles?  My gosh, how does the rest of the world get along without them?  Have you ever considered the impact of using all this unnecessary equipment on the rest of the world?  For what purpose do we buy into these silly ideas?  So we can have all the “right” paraphernalia that provides external proof in our membership in the snooty “no trace” club?  How elitist is that?

Do we need the premier and most recent kayak model to seek wilderness?  After all, we’re just paddling for crying out loud.  Do we really need a $1000 bike when a $200 bike will do just about the same thing?  You’re out for exercise, right?  So, you spend hundreds of dollars so you can expend less energy?  Is that weird logic or what?

If you’re backpacking through that remote area that you’ve been dreaming about for months . . . resist the temptation to think that you’re leaving no trace.  Think holistically.  Think globally.  You are, indeed, leaving more than a mere set of footprints.  Yet, you can still have lots of fun, seek inner peace, visit with Gaia, and any other objective you wish.  Enjoy the outdoors!  Certainly make every reasonable attempt to minimize your impact.  But don’t think for a moment that you’re leaving no trace. 

The “no trace” illusion will lead down a very scary road of blind elitism.  Human beings are part of nature, not separate from it.  Everything we possess was processed from natural materials.  Everything we do is dependent upon natural resource extraction.  We should not fool ourselves into thinking otherwise.  As soon as we perceive ourselves above consumption, we are free to do some really serious damage. 

“No trace?”  I don’t think so. 


  1. To belittle the main tenets of Leave No Trace is a harmful method that promotes irresponsible recreation in the frontcountry and backcountry. This article does not benefit the preservation of our limited natural resources as recreation numbers continue to climb.

    Of course recreation leaves an impact, which underscores the importance of preventing the avoidable impacts (defacing trees, playing loud music, etc.)

  2. “Of course we leave a trace! A big one! It’s far better to understand our impact and work to minimize it. You’ll never eliminate it.”

    LNT doesn’t say we don’t already leave a trace. It’s an ethic we use to, exactly as you just stated, understand our impact and work to minimize it. Good job prescribing actual LNT as an alternative to your warped perception of it that you belittled prior.