Belongs in the backcountry
Fresh snow is a gift in many ways. As a skier, the one I like the best is how it wipes the slate clean. With a snap of Jack Frost’s fingers, the slopes can go from tracked up to pristine.
The one downside: I think these resets change our perception of our impact on the environment. When there’s no snow our footprint is often, literally, obvious. We leave tracks and break branches. When we drop something, it sits there waiting to be picked up. But in the winter, our tracks will disappear with the next snowfall and, later, melt away. Vegetation is safely cushioned below the snow. And drop a wrapper or an orange peel in the snow and it can quickly disappear.
I think that’s why many people don’t think of Leave No Trace (LNT) during the winter. LNT’s seven principles outline guidelines for minimizing impact while recreating, camping and travelling responsibly. The concepts were developed by federal land managers in the United States in response to increased use of backcountry areas during the 1960s and ‘70s and formalized by the Leave No Trace Centre for Outdoor Ethics in 1999. The U.S.-based non-profit now works to educate the public, conduct research and promote the message. There are LNT chapters in countries around the world, including the volunteer-run Leave No Trace/Sans Trace Canada (LNTC).
LNTC is increasingly promoting the principles beyond the backcountry to everywhere and all seasons. They have always guided operations at backcountry lodges. LNT principles are integral to creating an atmosphere of immersion in the mountain environment. They’re why remote lodges minimize their garbage and switch to renewable power or invest in wildlife stewardship. And LNT is a core ethic to any wilderness guiding, including in winter.
A few years ago, the grassroots non-profit Winter Wildlands Alliance worked with the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics to tweak the seven principles into a winter-specific code of ethics. The result goes beyond minimizing impact to a general guideline for approaching any day in the winter backcountry.
1. Plan and prepare
It’s number one because proper planning prevents poor performance. The first principle helps with all the following ones. It starts with who you’re going with, where you’re going and what to expect, including reading guidebooks and trip reports, bringing a map and navigation aids, checking forecasts, knowing rules and access restrictions, and packing for the weather, conditions and emergencies. Winter adds avalanche knowledge, including bringing and knowing how to use safety gear. With a busier backcountry, it’s also about dispersing: travelling in small groups and at less crowded destinations.
2. Travel on durable surfaces
More important in the summer is usually about avoiding walking and camping on sensitive vegetation. When there are more than 15 centimetres of snow, which is enough to protect the most sensitive vegetation, the principle shifts to picking safe routes away from dangers like avalanche paths, cornices and open creeks. It’s still worth considering vegetation, particularly in shallow snowpacks.
3. Dispose of waste properly
The only thing you should leave in your wake is ski tracks. Pack out any trash, including wax shaving and fruit peels and cores. It takes years for them to break down, especially in mountain environments. When it comes to human waste, bury it at least 20 big steps from regular travel routes and at least 70 steps from creek beds and lake shores. Avoid peeing on lakes and in gullies.
4. Leave what you find
This one speaks to the whole idea of LNT: to allow the next person to have the same experience as you. Don’t collect plants, rocks, or historical or cultural artifacts so the next person can enjoy them as well.
5. Minimize campfire impacts
In the summer this is about campfire scars and forest fires. In the winter, think of it as a nudge to use stoves, lanterns and headlamps. If you are going to have a winter campfire, only use dead and downed wood that’s smaller than your wrist. Burn it to ash and spread the ash around. This is also a good point to add to cabin etiquette. Always leave huts and cabins better than you found them and don’t leave food or trash behind.
6. Respect wildlife
Winter is one of the hardest times for wildlife. Disturbing them forces them to burn more calories and can move them away from their prime habitat. Observe from a distance and never feed them. Dogs are man’s best friend, but the same can’t always be said for wildlife. It’s best to leave dogs at home.
7. Be considerate of others
As the backcountry gets busier, the final principle is becoming increasingly important. It starts with how you park and step aside when taking a break. It extends to holding back on the yodelling and wearing earbuds. Some people like the music on the track, but crazy as it may seem, not everybody wants to hear the Barbie soundtrack. This respect extends to landowners, both public and private. Ask permission and obtain the right permits before entering.
With these principles in mind, I find myself better prepared and having more fun on my ski days. Especially those special fresh snow days.
Written by Ryan Stuart – @Ryan_Adventures