The honors program at my school offered a weekend-long backpacking trip in which we could learn the principles of Leave No Trace camping and become certified LNT trainers.
I showed up an hour and a half early to buy tickets because I wanted to be certain I would get a spot. I was ready for an opportunity to get back to nature and become acquainted with my new local environment. Also, I had never been on a backpacking trip or legitimate camping trip— all of the camping I have ever done was in campers, and the only times I’ve slept in a tent were at sleepovers and festivals.
So, this past weekend, with eight other honors students, three student trainers, and two adult supervisors, we left all technology behind except cameras and plunged into the beautiful natural world of New York (yes, for those of you who don’t know, there is more to New York State than New York City).
The college loaned us tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and a backpack. My eyes popped when I saw how big the backpack was. It was larger than my upper body, and as I was packing it I became concerned about how heavy it was. But, once I put it on and fastened all the proper straps, I was impressed with how manageable the weight was, but I still knew that the trip would be no walk in the park.
On Friday we loaded up a trailer with all of our equipment and two vans with all of us and took a forty-five minute drive out to the area we would be hiking and camping in. It was getting dark, so we quickly unloaded and made our way into the woodlands. We didn’t have to walk far before we came to our first campsite of the weekend, and we unloaded and set up. The real walking portion of the trip would come tomorrow.
That night we learned our first few LNT principles and skills. There are seven LNT principles, and we were introduced to Dispose of Waste Properly, Minimize Campfire Impacts, and Camp on Durable Surfaces. The students had been broken up into groups beforehand to learn about certain principles, and we taught them to each other throughout the trip. However, the trainers talked to us about the basics of that first night, and the student groups would go more in depth with them later.
As we set up camp, our trainers explained to us the different types of acceptable surfaces to camp on— well-established campsites, stone, gravel, snow, and dry grasses. Our campsite was a well-established area, and using it minimalized our impact on the environment as compared to creating a new one in an area with lots of vegetation and animal activity.
We were informed that going to the bathroom was no simple process. Our trainers gave each of us a brown bag with plastic baggies in them, and every time we used toilet paper, we had to seal the dirty sheets up in the plastic baggies and carry them in the brown bag. We would dispose of them when we left the woodlands. For any bathroom trip, we had to walk at least 200 feet away from our campsite and any sources of water. Then, if we had to go #2, we had to bring a trowel with us and dig a hole eight inches deep, and then bury our waste when we were finished and re-scatter the leaves and forest debris so it looked like nothing had happened there. Our trainers informed us that we were lucky— the soil in our area allowed for waste to decompose easily. If we were traveling in a different area of the United States, such as the Grand Canyons, we would be required to carry our poop with us as well!
After dinner that night— chicken alfredo, sans the chicken for me— we also learned how tedious cleaning dishes was. We went down to the pond with our dirty dishes, some soap, a cup, and a strainer. We had to use the cup to transfer water from the pond into the dishes, rather than just dipping them directly in the pond. We applied soap and used our spoons and forks to scrape food bits off the sides and swished it all around. Then, walking away from the pond, we used the strainer to dump the water out of the dishes so that none of the food bits would end up on the ground for animals to find. We also had to keep moving as we did this to scatter the dirty water as far as we could. One of trainers, Alex, noted that dilution was one of the greatest methods to use against pollution. Once the water was dumped, we added the food scraps to our trash bag that would be carried out of the forest with us.
That night, I also learned how to hang our food bag in a tree, which we had to do since we were technically in bear country (although bears haven’t been spotted here in years).
We sat around the fire that night playing two truths and a lie and eating s’mores, and our trainers took the opportunity to touch on the principle Minimize Campfire Impacts. We kept our fire small and did not burn any sticks that we couldn’t snap easily with our hands, and save for the s’mores, we didn’t cook dinner on it— we used camping stoves instead. The fire was contained in a fire pit that was already at the campsite when we arrived. We could not go to bed until the fire had burned down completely.
That night in the tent, I lay awake for a few hours listening to a couple of howls calling back and forth to each other and the wind rustling the trees. Even though the ground under my back was a little bumpy and uncomfortable, I found that I was utterly content and at peace. I was bundled up in warm clothes, and between the thick sleeping bag and an extra blanket I brought, I managed to stay warm through most of the night. I’m not sure how long I was asleep for when I was woken up— along with everyone else in camp— by a chorus of nearby coyotes. At first I thought the unfamiliar sound was a group of drunken humans whooping and hollering, but I quickly realized that the barks and yips and howls and screeches were too wild to be human. I held my breath as I listened, and I couldn’t help but think how beautiful it sounded. This was only the second time in my life I had ever heard coyotes (the first was the night at the high school we pulled our senior prank; it scared all of us pranksters senseless). Finally, the noises died away and the forest was quiet once more.
“That was so cool,” I whispered to my tent mates.
“Yeah,” they agreed.
The next morning, we packed everything and broke down our tents, and then had a breakfast of oatmeal, coffee, and hot cocoa. The first two student groups gave their principle lessons: Leave What You Find and Plan Ahead and Prepare.
The Leave What You Find group had each of us run around and pick up something we’d like to take home with us. We brought back colorful leaves, stones, pinecones, flowers, and other interesting objects. The students explained to everyone that taking items can disturb an environment, and if we drop them into a new environment, we might disturb that new environment and mistakenly transplant an invasive species of plant or animal. Alex reminded us not to take any chipmunks or squirrels home for pets. Then, we ceremoniously dropped our found items.
Plan Ahead and Prepare performed a funny skit of two people who went camping on a whim. The weather did not cooperate, and the rain drenched them and everything they brought. Then, they realized they forgot to bring something to cook their food with, and had nothing to make a fire with. They hadn’t packed any food that didn’t need to be cooked. After the skit, they told us about all the things we need to consider when preparing for a trip.
After we went down to the pond and filled our canteens, using a pump, purifying droplets, and purifying tablets to make it safe to drink, we were on our way.
The pond. This is where we took our water from.
Pictures from the day's hike:
This is where we stopped for lunch: peanut butter and jelly tortilla wraps!
A fellow student showed me this plant. The leaves are edible and taste like garlic, and make for great seasoning.
After we ate lunch, another student group elaborated on Dispose of Waste Properly, and they took us into the woods and showed us an ideal place to do business. It was a funny lesson!
We did our best to avoid cow pies. I still managed to step in one.
Our trainers took this opportunity to act out a skit on the Respect Wildlife principle. Sam pretended to be a cow, Alex harassed him, and Sarah pulled Alex away and explained the importance of observing animals from a safe distance. We continued on our way, using our newfound Respect Wildlife education to walk around a cow and her calf who were standing on the trail. We didn’t stop again until we reached camp at around four o’clock; we traveled about four miles that day.
Some wildlife I saw that day:
Beavers were here!
This is my favorite picture from the whole trip.
A colorful mushroom
Some kind of insect
We had lot of free time before dinner; I took pictures, lounged around in the sun with Sarah, knocked down some homework, and took a catnap.
Before dinner, there were more lessons. My partner, Cailin, and I presented about Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces. We discussed good surfaces to camp on and what made them good, how to minimize vegetation-trampling, bad places to camp on, the importance of staying on the trail and using established campsites, and cleaning up the site before leaving. We asked the other students to explain why they had chosen the spots they did for their tents, and we pointed out sites in our area that would be bad to camp on, such as deeper into the forest and along the banks of the pond.
Another student elaborated on Minimize Campfire Impacts, and he had us play a game of duck-duck-goose to demonstrate it. Our trainers performed a skit about Be Considerate of Other Visitors, in which they entered the campsite and harassed one of the adult supervisors who was in the midst of setting up his spot. They explained that we would not always have a campsite to ourselves and how we needed to be quiet and un-intrusive. They also explained how cleaning up campsites was respectful to the next visitors. This was mentioned after we found rusty nails and glass on the ground of our present campsite.
Dinner that night was spicy bean and cheesy rice burritos. We joked that we had added the rice to the cheese, not the other way around— it was delicious, even if my tongue was burning afterward. I volunteered with a couple other students to wash the dishes, and later I helped Alex make the bear hang.
That night before bed, a bunch of us went out along the banks of the pond to stargaze. It was a beautiful, clear night and I saw two shooting stars. We talked about nature, our families, our college, the universe, and love. We all agreed that we felt happy and at peace out here, and that we should definitely plan another backpacking trip together. Personally, I can’t wait to go again. I’ve been thinking about eventually going out to the Appalachian Trail— I don’t think I’d ever be able to hike the whole thing, though. Sam says that takes six months to do at a pace that’s much more intense than the one we used on our trip.
I wrote a page and a half of my short-story-in-progress, and then went to bed. It was a little warmer that second night than the first.
The next morning we packed up and had more oatmeal for breakfast. A hunter passed near our camp with his enthusiastic young hunting dog, and I was reminded of how much I missed my dogs at home. He was the first of two hunters we would see that day.
Before we left, our trainers congratulated us on learning all of the principles and quizzed us on them. Once the trip was over, we would soon receive our official LNT trainer certification.
We took our last hike through the beautiful autumn woodlands and emerged two hours later in the parking lot where the vans and trailer were waiting for us, and all I could think about was how I wanted to stay for the rest of the week.
Pictures from the day:
The canopy over our campsite
Path to the trail
Another field, this one cow-less but with a beautiful view
Crossing a dirt road
We made it!
This trip was just what I needed; it was both challenging and relaxing, and it was wonderful not worrying about emails or texts or tweets. It was just me and a bunch of fellow students enjoying some time in nature and learning new skills. The weight I carried on my back made me wonder about how much I really needed: it’s a lot different feeling the weight of all your possessions than having it scattered around a house. Also, being hyper-conscious of my interactions with my surroundings gave me a lot of time to think about our individual impacts on the world and inspired a lot of respect for my environment. One of my favorite things was the sense of community: we each shared responsibilities, became each other’s teachers and students, and we enjoyed all of our meals together. I normally hate doing dishes, but on the trip it didn’t feel like a chore; it was a necessary part of the day, as were most of our activities. Everything we did had a purpose.
So, if you know any good places to go on a backpacking trip, let me know! Please feel free to share your own camping experiences in the comments!
To learn more about Leave No Trace, go to http://lnt.org/.
To learn more about Leave No Trace, go to http://lnt.org/.