The leave no trace misnomer

No doubt you have heard the phrase “leave no trace” and such like. The aim of such sayings, of course, is to leave a place in the same state as you found it.  Normally people apply this to their campsite, clearing up their fire scar and taking home all the litter they brought in.

An impossible task

This, and I am sure you will agree is the least you should do. However the more I think about this little phrase “leave no trace’ the more it seems an impossible task. As soon as my saw cuts a sapling to make a peg for a tarp, I have left my mark. Leave no trace also seems, to me at least, to fly in the face of the other well-known phrase of “The more you know the less you carry”. A phase often spouted at people with huge backpacks new to Bushcraft carrying more kit then they will ever need. By applying these phrases without thinking about the bigger impact on the natural environment leads people into the trap. 

For example; I know how to make a tent peg in the woods with my knife and saw, so I won’t carry tent pegs – This fits perfectly with the know more carry less. So when I head to the woods put up my tarp and make my peg, I have left my trace.

Wider impacts

The same with stoves. You might think that by having a metal stove which raises your fire off the ground is better for the natural environment and helps you leave no trace. Surely though it is far better to have that fire on the ground, well managed and cleared away than to buy something that has been made overseas shipped halfway across the world. I’d argue that the stove has far more on an impact on our planet then your little fire will ever do.

True ethos of leave no trace

Which leads me nicely onto my next point. To truly appreciate, understand and respect something you must participate fully with it. We’re not talking about a quick stroll round the woods here folks. We’re talking about Bushcraft, Wilderness Living. What we’re talking about the world we inhabit and its wild places and our connection to them. The notion that one can somehow spend a week, a weekend, a night in the woods or any wild place without leaving a trace is not only wrong but extremely misguided. Leave a trace, leave your mark. We all do. But make yours a single coppice shoot from that hazel stool, a handful of cobnuts, a few pine needles. If you’re there for a week,  make a stool so you have a comfortable place to sit. You might find that by gathering, making, and using things from your surrounding environment you not only gain immense satisfaction, but also a new understanding of what is necessary and the true value of things. That camping stool made from polluting plastic polymers doesn’t seem so comfortable after a while.

Too idealistic?

Some will argue that all this is very idealistic and lovely, but with such an overpopulated nation if we all went out and took a few cob nuts, pine needles, and that hazel branch there wouldn’t be much left for anyone to enjoy afterward. While I appreciate fully that there are places so sensitive and important that they need very strict protection; I am not talking about those places. What I am talking about is the in-between places. The hidden stream amongst the willows on Dartmoor. The perfect camp between the gnarled pines in the Cairngorms. The vast secluded coppices of Sussex. All we need is more respect and understanding of these places. I don’t want to live in a world where the wild is a place we observe whilst sticking to the way-marked path. The only way we can truly protect wild places is by them meaning something to us.  Without direct participation in those places, without its dirt under our fingernails, its fruits in our stomach, its deadwood keeping us warm and its leaves keeping us dry, I fail to see how we will ever really care or understand enough to protect them.

To wrap it up

What I am trying to get at is to follow these sayings without thinking about the larger scale or bigger picture is the wrong way to go. We should be thinking more about balancing these two opposing phases, maybe a better phrase would be – just because we can, does not mean we should! I carry tent pegs so I don’t cut trees when wild camping, I have my fires on the ground which I then clean up. I’ve learned a little about trees and woodlands and how they grow, so my understanding of what I can take and what I should not is improved. I source my carving wood from fallen trees, snapped limbs or even the local tree surgeons. Tapping birch can be done by just a small pruning cut on a branch rather than boring in to the tree with a drill!

Source you’re kit from people in the UK who make things by hand in small batches. Yes, you may pay more, but I can assure you it will last so much longer and be more of a joy to use than any cheap mass produced equipment will ever be. Even better, make it yourself, or at least have a go. Then you might just appreciate why these things cost what they do.  This is where “Leave no trace should be changed to leave as little trace as possible. Go out enjoy the wild places, that’s what they are there for and next time you head to the woods think about the bigger environmental impact and now because you know more maybe you will carry that little extra!

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