The nine of us embarked on the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) near Interstate 81 close to Atkins, Virginia. We set off across the open pastures under the bright blue sky, and just as quickly as we were afoot, the sounds of traffic faded as silence of the vastness around us began to prevail.
Silence doesn’t last too long among a group of gregarious, energetic A.T. Ridgerunners and Forest Service and Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) interns. This walking classroom was the setting of a Leave No Trace Trainer course, designed to immerse participants in the teachable moments found along the world’s most famous long-distance Trail.
Just a few hundred feet into the woodland break between pastures, we came upon a wad of toilet paper. Right there, not three inches from boot soles. This is why we were there: to raise consciousness and encourage good practices among Trail visitors so others don't find the same ugly sight that we encountered on that blissful summer morning.
We're educators, not janitors. So, despite picking up a lot of garbage along our two-day hike, we did not pick the TP up. Why? Because it's disgusting. Which leads me to takeaway #1.
#1: Pack out TP: Be it tissue, toilet paper, or bootie wipes, it's all gross to see and encounter. Packing it out in a resealable bag is the best way to minimize the disappointment others feel when coming across it, and the A.T. is a highly popular route. This leads to our next observation.
#2: Cumulative Impact: What happens if my "it's just me, it's just this once" justification is multiplied by 20, 30, or more, other hikers on that same stretch of Trail that day? We get a deteriorated experience overall. It's less natural and more littered. The best takeaway is a long-time Leave No Trace standard mantra: "Pack it in, Pack it out."
#3: Outside Voices Matter: A few weeks after our course when I asked our participants about their greatest takeaways, one said, “Respecting your neighbors (talking on the phone in a closed space).” This might sound funny, since by the shear fact of our outdoor classroom, we weren’t enclosed. Yet, we felt trapped at our campsite by one of three thru-hikers who talked at length with his spouse on the phone. Even with his attempts to hush his tone, we heard it all: from her household woes to his hiking exploits. Trapped! He talked from dusk into nightfall, and eventually carried his phone and conversation southbound with the light of his headlamp bobbing with voice and gait. It still annoyed us.
For many of our group, we’re just as connected to technology and the relationships that exist on the other side of it as this hiker is. We get the longing to communicate with loved ones, but we were certainly struck with the value of respecting others in this teachable moment. We can’t know all the reasons that other people come out to walk in wilderness, but we know it isn’t to hear us chat it up with people far away.
#4: Sweat the Small (and Smelly) Stuff: Experience counts when it comes to trying new techniques. Even seasoned backpackers got to learn new food-bag hanging techniques on this outing. With a “PCT hang,” a slick two-tree directional pull by Ridgerunner Regina, and a classic bear line, we used three different options for hanging food out of the reach of bears and other wildlife. We hung the last bag late to make sure everyone had a chance to hang their toothpaste and other “smellables.” Everybody slept better knowing we were helping to keep the wildlife wild.
#5: People Got the Power: It’s been a few months since our Leave No Trace Trainer course, and I’m amazed with what the participants have been doing with their training! Forest Service Student Conservation Association interns have led Leave No Trace Awareness workshops in popular campgrounds and with Youth Conservation Corps trail crews. ATC Ridgerunners in Virginia spent nine weeks sharing their expertise and best practices with Trail users. An ATC intern has been making presentations at campgrounds and to youth groups. Everyone has had more informal conversations than they can count with Trail users about how they can help make the Trail a better place. These aren’t the conversations they would have had before the Trainer course—now they understand the recreation ecology and social science behind the seven principles of Leave No Trace. Both personally and with other hikers they meet, these new Leave No Trace Trainers are confident about heralding the best positive experience for all of us.
#6: They WILL Follow Your Lead: It only takes a few people following the same route to trample vegetation, compact the soil, and create a new “social trail” that everyone who comes after you will notice and use. Whether you shortcut a switchback, create a new fire ring, or flatten a patch of ferns and moss—the sad truth on the A.T. is that someone will pass through soon who will follow your lead.
The flip side is that they will also follow your lead if you model good Leave No Trace practices. If everyone else at camp packs out their trash and hangs their food, no one wants to be “that guy” who dumps trash in the fire ring and causes the wildlife to come snooping around at night. Leave No Trace Trainers and responsible hikers of all stripes are spreading a positive message that with a few simple changes in our behavior, we can all be a part of keeping the Trail beautiful, wild, and free.
# 7: It’s the Easy Thing to Do: Leave No Trace recommendations actually make hiking on the Trail easier. It’s easier to hang your food at night than to clean up after an animal gets into it. It’s easier to carry a trowel and dig a proper cathole well away from camp than to try to dig a hole in compacted or rocky soil with a stick. It’s easier to sleep well when you’re prepared for bad weather than to shiver all night. It’s nice when the right thing to do is also the easy thing to do.
Are you ready to learn more about Leave No Trace? Visit www.appalachiantrail.org/lnt.
More about Leanna and Kathryn: As the A.T.’s southern trail resources manager, Leanna enjoys working with ridgerunners, trail crews, and volunteers from the five maintaining clubs in her region. She’s currently working on an initiative to establish an ATC accreditation program for individuals or groups who train people on hiking the A.T. Working with seven clubs in Southwest and Central Virginia as the Education and Outreach Coordinator, Kathryn mobilizes Trail to Every Classroom educational opportunities for teachers, the outreach of ridgerunners, and has recently helped galvanize the McAfee Knob Taskforce, a new group of volunteers focused on protecting the most photographed spot on the A.T. through education and cooperative management.