Leave No Trace: A do-no-harm debate over wilderness camping ethics

Schmidt_150826_canada _62711
Canoe camp on Hector Lake, Banff, Alberta. Photo by Aaron Black-Schmidt

Canadian photographer Mike Monaghan was on a monthlong solo canoe trip in northwestern Ontario’s remote Woodland Caribou Provincial Park when he captured an iconic image of the North Woods. In a self-portrait (pictured below), Monaghan sits on a granite lakeshore at twilight, leaning against his canoe in the glow of a campfire. His tent is set up in the background. That very evening, Monaghan says a lone woodland caribou (an Ontario endangered species) wandered through his campsite. The photograph captured the timeless freedom of exploring Canada’s boreal forest — at least for some.

“Campsite and fire should be at least 200 feet away from a water source,” commented @laura.berridge when the photo was posted on Canoe & Kayak’s Instagram feed. “By setting up a fire and a tent here it could have caused wildlife to leave the area forever. This photo displays very poor outdoor ethics…I would suggest becoming familiar with Leave No Trace practices.”

The commenter was correct—Leave No Trace, a non-profit environmental ethics advocacy group, states on its Canadian website, “Ideally, camps should be located 200 feet or more from existing water sources.” LNT’s seven principles are rooted in science, and meant to protect water quality, promote a wilderness experience for all human visitors in popular camping areas, and minimize disturbance to wildlife, among other objectives. However, all LNT recommendations are situation-dependent. “A photograph is a moment in time, stripped of its context,” says Paul Stonehouse, an associate professor of adventure education at Vermont’s Green Mountain College. “Without greater knowledge of the campsite location, it’s difficult to judge its appropriateness.”

The typical government-sanctioned canoe country campsite is less than 200 feet from the water’s edge. Paddlers are responsible for minimizing their environmental footprint. Photo: Conor Mihell

A significant variable is if the region is heavily used or in a relatively pristine state. “The campsite appeared to be used [by humans] maybe once or twice per year, tops,” recalls Monaghan. “There are no official campsites in Woodland Caribou Provincial Park, and it is sometimes a challenge to find suitable [well-established] places to camp. Often sites that I’ve noted from my research have turned out to be completely overgrown upon inspection.”

Monaghan contends that in Woodland Caribou Provincial Park, trampling 70 paces through an undisturbed forest would likely cause more harm than setting up on a durable shoreline rock. As such, Stonehouse acknowledge that Monaghan’s site may have been the “least worst option.”

“So much needs to be considered,” he says. “Can wildlife access water elsewhere? Will others be paddling by? How fragile is the plant life within the forest? Will the campfire leave a blackened rock? Will the kitchen-craft be spotless?”

Campsite on Lake Superior. Is  it reasonable for sea kayakers to carry their camping gear 70 paces inland? Photo: Conor Mihell

Leave No Trace champions good outdoor ethics and places the responsibility on the shoulders of the wilderness traveller, Stonehouse adds. “They are principles, not rules. At all times, we must do our best to apply them, even if imperfectly.”

For Stonehouse, the Instagram debate reveals a greater challenge in an age of social media. “By taking photographs with great aesthetic value, we kindle others’ drive for the remote and sublime,” he says. “Thus, we must ensure that the content of our media model the kind of practices we wish the masses to emulate.”

Leave No Trace principles include:

Plan ahead and prepare
Travel and camp on durable surfaces
Dispose of waste properly
Leave what you find
Minimize campfire impacts
Respect wildlife
Be considerate of other visitors

 Read more at CanoeKayak.com:
– A paddler’s guide to Northwestern Ontario’s Sunset Country

– Woodland Caribou Provincial Park: A photo essay

– Gear: Leave No Trace essentials

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!