When it comes to leaving no trace, winter conditions bring challenges.

In my home council, at our Camp Maple Dell, for example, we’ve held weekly Klondike Derbies every winter for years. At these district-sponsored events, campers arrived in the dark and rushed home on Saturday, leaving layers of campfire ashes, tarps and lost and found.

Then, a fresh layer of snow fell covering ashes and other trash left behind. New troops arrived and probably camped on top of a layer of garbage.

Come May, the “archaeological debris” melted and showed itself; it was a real mess! Of course, since then, we’ve run the weekend events with camp staff who know Leave No Trace principles and expect campers to leave nothing behind.LNT Winter 2

The principles of Leave No Trace might seem unimportant until you consider the combined effects of campers like in the example listed above. One campfire in the snow may seem to have little significance, but dozens of such instances leave real messes come spring (just try to find a place to put down a new tent when every campsite is filled with ashes from winter fires.) Leaving no trace is everyone’s responsibility all year long.

The objective, of course, is to help our youth to take on the challenges of leaving no trace as they travel and camp. Here are a few tips from the Fieldbook:

1. Plan Ahead and Prepare

Learn about the area where you are going; try to know what to expect. Check weather reports before setting out, and prepare for the worst possible conditions. Proper trip planning and preparation helps hikers and campers accomplish trip goals safely and enjoyably while minimizing damage to natural and cultural resources. Campers who plan ahead can avoid unexpected situations and minimize their impact. Schedule winter treks to avoid times of high use and obtain permits or permission to use the area if you are not on Scout property.

Proper planning ensures:

  • Low-risk adventures because campers obtained information concerning geography and weather and prepared accordingly
  • Properly located campsites because campers allotted enough time to reach their destination
  • Appropriate campfires and minimal trash because of careful meal planning and food repackaging and proper equipment
  • Comfortable and fun camping and hiking experiences because the outing matches the skill level of the participants

2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

Deep snow is the best surface for low winter impact. Choose campsites on snow, rock or mineral soil well away from avalanche paths, cornices and steep snow slopes. If there is no snow, walk in the middle of muddy trails to avoid damaging trail side plants, and take care not to trample tundra vegetation, if present.

3. Dispose of Waste Properly

Wag bag
US Forest Service Pack It Out Poster

Pack It In, Pack It Out; this simple statement reminds backcountry visitors to take their trash home with them. Inspect your campsite for trash, and pack out all trash, leftover food, and litter. Carry it all back out.

Proper human waste disposal helps prevent the spread of disease and exposure to others. In summer, 6″ to 8″ catholes deep in humus (200 feet from water, trails, and campsites) are often the easiest and most practical way to dispose of feces. However, in frozen ground, snow cover, and frigid conditions, pack-it-out kits, like the one to the left, might be your best solution. Be sure you know the land management guidelines in your camping area for disposing of human waste. Follow those guidelines.

You also need to know how to dispose of water waste to prevent contamination of natural water sources.

After straining food particles, properly dispose of dishwater by dispersing at least 200 feet (about 80 to 100 strides for a youth) from springs, streams, and lakes. Use biodegradable soap 200 feet or more from any water source.

4. Leave What You Find

Even when snow covers the landscape, allow others a sense of discovery, and preserve the past. Leave rocks, plants, animals, archaeological artifacts, and other objects as you find them. Leave whatever you find that others might enjoy it. Remember, it may even be illegal to touch or remove artifacts.

5. Minimize Campfire Impacts

WinterCampKitchenSome people would never consider camping without a campfire. But, in winter, lightweight stoves are an easy alternative.

Lightweight camp stoves make low-impact camping possible by encouraging a shift away from fires. Stoves are fast, eliminate the need for firewood, and make cleanup after meals easier. However, if you will be melting snow for water, you will need to plan for extra fuel.

FieldbookIf you build a fire, the most important consideration is the potential for resource damage. Gather wood only if doing so will not have a lasting impact on the appearance or health of the environment. Use dead and downed wood that can be broken easily by hand. If the ground is bare, use an existing campfire ring. When possible, burn all wood to ash and remove all unburned trash and food from the fire ring. If there is snow, use a fire pan to contain a blaze and prevent it from extinguishing itself with snow melt.

For more on “Using Stove and Campfires” turn to p. 77 in the Field­book.

6. Respect Wildlife

Winter can be a vulnerable time for animals. Low temperatures, scarcity of food, and great danger from predators can place a great deal of stress on them. Observe wildlife from a distance so you don’t add to their stress level.

Quick movements and loud noises are stressful to animals. Considerate campers practice these safety methods:

  • Observe wildlife from afar to avoid disturbing them.
  • Give animals a wide berth, especially during breeding, nesting, and birthing seasons.
  • Store food securely and keep garbage and food scraps away from animals, so they will not acquire bad habits. Never feed wildlife. Help keep wildlife wild.

You are too close if an animal alters its normal activities.

7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

Share winter trails with other users. Don’t hike or snowshoe on cross-country ski tracks. It ruins their set for their return trip. While traveling on skis, yield to downhill traffic and those catching up to you from behind. Be observant as you approach blind corners, when you stop to rest, and as you move off busy trails.

Thoughtful campers respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience.

  • Travel and camp in small groups (no more than the group size prescribed by land managers).
  • Let nature’s sounds prevail. Keep the noise down and leave radios, tape players, and pets at home.
  • Select campsites away from other groups to help preserve their solitude.
  • Always travel and camp quietly to avoid disturbing other visitors.
  • Respect private property and leave gates (open or closed) as found.

Be considerate of other campers and respect their privacy.

Personally, when it comes to getting prepared for winter camping, I’ve turned to the Fieldbook. Since I was a young Scout, it has been my go-to resource to learn how to make myself comfortable in all kinds of outdoor situations. I have used the Fieldbook to write a half dozen other articles about winter camping.

Here are those posts about cold weather camping that you may enjoy reading:

Darryl Alder
Darryl is a retired career Scouter with more than 30 years of service. These days he is a Scouting Ambassador and serves on the Council Membership and Marketing Committee. However, his pride in Scouting is his volunteer service as an Associate Advisor, Varsity Scout Coach, Scoutmaster, Cubmaster, Chartered Organization Representative, and Commissioner.

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