When people head into the Oregon outback looking for pristine natural beauty, they are often surprised at how much evidence remains from previous visitors.
"I spend a lot of time in the outback, and it's always frustrating to see the amount of trash in the woods and the illegal trails that people have made," says Steve Kominsky of Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics.
Take any new camping gear out of its package before going to the mountains.
Kominsky, a broker and Medford resident, spent much of this summer promoting the Leave No Trace ethic. He embarked on a "10-in-6" feat, attempting to climb Oregon's 10 highest peaks in six days. Unusually heavy snows kept him from reaching all the peaks, but it didn't stop him from talking to groups along the way about the importance of leaving the back country the way you find it.
"It's good for the backcountry and the environment, and it doesn't take a lot of money," says Kominsky. "You basically stay on the trails, and you pick up your trash. It's respecting what we have."
The do's and don'ts of leaving no trace — which can be found online at www.lnt.org — fall into seven basic categories: Plan ahead and prepare, travel and camp on durable surfaces, dispose of waste properly, leave what you find, respect wildlife, be considerate of other visitors and minimize campfire impacts.
Issue No. 1 is always going to be fire, he says.
"A little fire can become a big fire very fast," says Jim Moore, an executive committee member of the Rogue Sierra Club. "Leave no trace (LNT) is important because we're the dominant species, and we need to do all we can to preserve other species. If you were the only person in the woods, it might not matter, but we're overusing the wild and need to lessen all possible impacts."
A roaring fire may be romantic, but LNT encourages use of a lightweight cooking stove and a candle lantern for light. If you're in an area where fires are permitted, use established fire rings and don't make new ones. Keep fires small and use sticks from the ground that you can snap by hand.
A tiny, backpack-sized, butane stove in lightweight tin is always going to be preferable to starting a fire — and Scott Keith of Northwest Outdoor Store in Medford stocks half a dozen brands. His favorite, the Pocket Rocket, weighs only a couple ounces and goes for $39.
Another big impact is human waste. It's hard to think about packing it around, but in fragile zones, like the Wild and Scenic Rogue, you have to — and there are recloseable, industrial zip-type bags with enzymes that begin breaking it down, says Keith.
In the outback, do it at least 200 feet from any water sources and dig a "cat hole" 6 or 8 inches deep for solid waste. You'll need to carry a small trowel to do this. As for used toilet paper and sanitary products, pack those out.
Washing of dishes and bodies should also be done at least 200 feet from water sources and with biodegradable soap; strain dishwater and scatter.
For the rest of the waste, the old saying goes: Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but pictures.
Pack out trash; don't burn it. Don't move rocks around, build trenches or make furniture. Don't bring in nonnative species or remove plants. Don't disturb historical features. Don't follow or approach any animals — and definitely don't feed them, as it harms their health and natural behavior, makes them dependent on people and exposes them to predators. Secure your food where animals can't get it.
Dogs love being in the wild, but no one else loves it. They can chase animals and leave scat around, and that's not part of the natural environment. Learn the vulnerable times of animals — mating, nesting, raising young and wintering — and avoid them.
As for other humans, respect the fact that they probably came to the outback for silence, so don't hoot and leap around, disturbing their communing with nature. Be courteous and yield to others on the trail. When encountering pack animals, step off trail to the uphill side, so heavy animals don't go off the downhill side and erode it.
Camp on durable surfaces. That means rock, gravel, grasses, campsites and snow. Stay 200 feet from riparian zones. Hike trails down the middle, even if muddy.
As part of planning ahead, avoid high-use times. Go during the week, not weekends, whenever possible. Repackage food to make it small. Use a map, compass and Global Positioning System instead of marking with cairns or paint. Avoid expected bad weather.
A lot of people love the outback, says Keith, "but we can love it to death, it's so beautiful."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.