The seven principles of Leave No Trace outdoor ethics are relevant year-round, but how you implement them can change from season to season. Winter, in particular, can seem like a puzzle in regard to doing the right thing, but it’s really quite simple. Read on for some tips on leaving a low impact as you travel through wintry environments this season, in Vermont and beyond.
1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
Being unprepared can lead to poor decision-making at any time. In winter, the stakes are higher due to potentially more serious consequences (frostbite, hypothermia, etc). You’ll need to account for harsher temperatures and sometimes rapidly changing conditions. Make sure to check the weather right up until the start of your hike as a forecast that’s a few days old may no longer be accurate. You can also check online sources for trail conditions that people who have recently hiked have shared.
Make sure you have many clothing layers to add or remove depending on the air temperature, wind, and your level of exertion. (Doubles of some of these layers are good to have since they can wet out from snow or sweat.) Traction is a big concern too – even if the beginning of the trail looks packed down and suitable for microspikes, there’s no guarantee there won’t be drifted snow later along your path which would require snowshoes. We recommend bringing both microspikes and snowshoes on any winter hike in Vermont.
Gear isn’t the only thing that can save you, however. Even more important are knowledge and skills. For example, do you know how to navigate with a map and compass? The trail is not always obvious when covered in snow. Blazes on trees marking the path could be covered as well. For the Long Trail, whose blazes are white, it’s even more difficult to discern between a blaze and a patch of snow on the bark, and you can easily find yourself off trail. Blazes on rocks or rock cairns on the ground can be even more difficult to find if they are covered in snow. Also, do you know how fast you hike through snow? It’s a pretty safe bet that it’s slower than in the summer. Setting unreasonable goals can lead to being out later than intended, and then are you prepared to hike in the dark?
There are many considerations to staying prepared on a winter hike, and it’s better to consider them from the warmth and safety of your home before getting out on the trail than it is to be surprised by unexpected circumstances while you’re outside in the cold wilderness.
2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
One perk of winter hiking is that snow is a durable surface! Once there is enough snow to cover the vegetation (two feet of snow is a good baseline), you don’t need to worry about trampling it. There are fewer visitors to the backcountry in winter in general and the packed down snow they are treading upon melts come spring so there is virtually no increased impact to the trail itself.
However, one thing to remember is that you need thick snow cover to protect the vegetation and soil. At the beginning of winter, during mid-season thaws, and at the end of winter, conditions can be more like mud season and it’s important to be aware of changing conditions. This is also relevant in the alpine zone where there may not be as much snow coverage. Trampling vegetation and compacting soil are big no-nos. Not only do they hurt the environment, but it makes trail maintenance much more difficult with increased flooding and erosion.
3. Dispose of Waste Properly
The main thing that gets more difficult in winter is disposing of human waste. Digging a 6-8 inch deep cathole in frozen ground that could be a foot or many below the surface of the snow is probably not going to happen. (If you are below treeline and able to dig a correct cathole, go for it!) But burying your poop in the snow is just going to leaving it sitting on the ground once all the snow eventually melts. If you are hiking near one of the many overnight sites on the Long Trail or Appalachian Trail in Vermont, just use their privies. Otherwise, the best solution is to pack out all solid human waste and toilet paper. If you are new to packing out human waste, winter is the best time to get started – everything soon freezes so the odor is almost nonexistent. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics offers some great options to get you started.
Aside from solid human waste, make sure you pee on bare ground if available, and always well away from any water sources, even if they are currently covered or frozen. If bare ground is not available to pee on, just cover up the yellow snow with some fresh snow to avoid the visual impact for other hikers. Treat wastewater from cooking the same way (after straining it for any bits and pieces of food, which should be packed out with your trash). And it should go without saying that backcountry travelers need to pack out everything they pack in. Littering is never acceptable.
4. Leave What You Find
Leaving what you find is no different in the winter. Removing things from their natural environment can adversely impact the surrounding area, and it takes away from the next hiker’s experience as they won’t be able to see the special object you just removed.
Leaving what you find also means not adding anything to the environment. While snowmen or snow shelters will eventually melt away and not impact the environment itself, they are still a visual impact to other hikers, who are just as eager as you to visit a wilderness unmarred by other people. It’s best to move through the backcountry making as few changes as possible.
5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
You might think winter is the perfect time to have a campfire – what could be better than a toasty fire to help you stay warm? However, finding appropriate firewood in winter can be difficult, if not impossible. Firewood should be dead (please do not cut live trees!), down (meaning it’s already fallen to the ground), dinky (smaller than an adult forearm), and for the purposes of actually burning, it needs to be dry. Dead and down wood of the appropriate size can be hard enough to find when it’s not covered in snow. When it is covered in snow, even if you can find it, it’s almost certainly not dry.
Relying on being able to find firewood in winter is a bad idea. Instead, make sure to bring a stove if you’ll be camping in winter, or even just day hiking if it’s a long day, for cooking food, melting snow into water, and for hot drinks. Appropriate clothing layers, a hot water bottle in your jacket or sleeping bag, as well as heated hand and foot warmer packets, can all help keep you nice and toasty without the need for a campfire.
(Another option is to reserve one of GMC’s Camps for a night out – they each come with a wood burning stove to keep you warm.)
6. Respect Wildlife
Winter is a very vulnerable time for most wildlife so it’s especially important to interact with them as little as possible. There is less food to be found, travel over snow takes more energy, and humans disturbing animals can cause them to expend an excessive amount of energy in getting away. All of that leads to more stress on the animal. Never approach an animal in the wild and if you are traveling in a group, keep everyone together so that if there are any interactions, the animal only has to deal with you once as a group as opposed to multiple times as individuals. If you hike with dogs, make sure to keep them close also. A good rule of thumb for keeping your distance while observing wildlife is that an animal should be no larger than your thumbnail when observing with your arm extended.
It’s also best to camp away from places where you see signs of wildlife – tracks, bedding spots, and open water sources – and make sure you are practicing proper food storage if camped in the winter as animals may be extra desperate for scraps.
7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors
One thing that’s great about winter backcountry travel is that there are generally a lot fewer people around than in the warmer seasons. Still, it’s always a good idea to keep noise to a minimum, yield to faster travelers, choose campsites out of sight of the trail, and be respectful of everyone you encounter. Some more wintry considerations are to try to avoid hiking on ski tracks if possible, and avoid postholing in the snow as the holes can then harden and become a tripping hazard for other people and wildlife.
Winter is a great time to get out and enjoy our natural spaces. As long as you are knowledgeable and prepared, you’ll have a great time and maybe see some things you’d miss in warmer weather. If you are looking for tips or ideas of places to hike in Vermont, you can check out our Winter Hiking Guide or Snowshoeing in Vermont.
Let us know your tips for how to leave no trace in the winter in the comments section below!