Leave No Trace in Alpine and Arctic Environments

photo of an alpine environment

Leave No Trace is a national program that promotes the protection of our nation’s wildlands through education, research, and partnerships. The program’s seven core principles promote the importance of minimizing human impact on the environment:

  • Plan Ahead and Prepare
  • Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  • Dispose of Waste Properly
  • Leave What You Find
  • Minimize Campfire Impacts
  • Respect Wildlife
  • Be Considerate of Other Visitors

Leave No Trace has its roots in the backcountry, but each principle can be adapted and applied to any environment, including your backyard. In this article, we focus on minimizing human impact in alpine and arctic ecosystems, such as Denali National Park in Alaska, and Mount Rainier and North Cascades national parks in Washington State.

In these environments, it gets progressively colder as you move up the slope. The climate changes from season to season and vegetation becomes sparser as you reach higher elevations. At some point on the slope, trees can no longer survive and tundra-like plants take over. While tundra-like plants have evolved to survive in the harsh environment, they are incredibly fragile and delicate. Repeated footsteps can easily destroy these plants and cause exposed soil to blow away. Recovery can take hundreds of years.

For hiking and climbing concessioners working in alpine and arctic environments, mitigating damage to these fragile ecosystems is a top priority. Strategies for protecting the environment and adhering to park mandates include:

  • Ensuring group size is no bigger than 12 people at any time.
  • Setting the standard for what others do on the mountain through example, including where they camp and how they take care of the environment.
  • Understanding that most litter and messes are caused by carelessness and lack of appropriate planning, rather than actively trying to litter, leave mess, or injure the fragile ecosystem. Ways to combat this include:
    • Planning for storms and expecting them to crop up in any camp.
    • Stopping people from stuffing garbage in pockets.
    • Having communal garbage bags in the cooking area.
    • Keeping a small plastic bag in the top of your pouch and using it to store all garbage until it can be thrown into the communal garbage bag.
    • Packaging as much gear as possible to eliminate unnecessary wrappers before heading out on a tour.
    • Buying food and candy in bulk, rather than in individual wrappers.
  • Using a blue bag system for carrying human waste out of the park, rather than burying it in a hole or crevassing it and sullying the environment when the snow melts.
  • Teaching hikers and climbers how to share the trail and get past large groups without stepping off the path and potentially damaging the surrounding vegetation.

For more information on Leave No Trace principles, click here.