Snowshoeing Education 109: Leave No Trace When Snowshoeing

Over the past half century, there has been a significant increase of visitors to our wilderness areas and public lands. According to the National Park Service, area visitors increased from 33 million in 1950 to over 287 million in 2000. Likewise, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service showed a substantial increase in the number of people using designated wilderness areas over nearly four decades; with roughly 4 million in 1964, 7 million in 1974, 15 million in 1984, 21 million in 1994, and nearly 30 million in 2000.

Recent trends in winter recreation show that there are more and more winter sport enthusiasts playing in the snow. Downhill skiers and snowboarders have taken to the mountains while multitudes of snowshoers and cross-country skiers are trekking on trails in snow regions across our country. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, snowshoeing alone showed an increase from 1.7 million people in 1998, to 5.1 million in 2000.  Those numbers continue to climb each year.  According to some predictions, there could be more than 10 million active snowshoers today. 

Because of the increase of human visitors to our backcountry areas in recent times, there has been a resulting increase in deterioration to our trails, shorelines and campsites. Therefore, minimizing impact has become an essential need in order to preserve our lands.

In the past, environmentalists such as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Sigurd Olson have expressed appreciation of our wildlands and identified a need for protection and preservation. Sigurd Olson pointed out love of the land as a necessary component to preservation by saying “Without love of the land, conservation lacks meaning or purpose. For only in a deep and inherent feeling for the land can there be dedication in preserving it.”

But more recently, in the late 1980’s, there was a cry for change. Outdoor recreation enthusiasts and environmentalists realized there needs to be a plan to help protect and preserve our public lands. And in 1994, Leave No Trace was incorporated to form public and private partnerships to support education programs and to develop and implement greatly needed training and outreach programs that teach outdoor ethics. With a 35 year heritage and acceptance within federal, state and local land management agencies, the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics program is the recognized standard for minimum impact recreation.

In addition to numerous individual members, there are over 300 diverse partners from federal government and regional land management agencies, non-profit organizations, grass-roots conservation groups, outdoor industries and retailers who have joined to support the Leave No Trace effort. All are instrumental in sending messages reaching 20 million recreation enthusiasts annually throughout all fifty states. The United States Snowshoe Association is also proud to be a Leave No Trace partner. And recently Snowshoe Magazine has become a media partner of Leave No Trace.

Seven principles of Leave No Trace have been developed. There are no laws that warrant arrest if you do not follow these principles. They are not rules or regulations, but rather they are guidelines and a call for establishing a healthy value by asking wilderness visitors to respect the land.

There are many suggestions for recreation enthusiasts to consider while in the outdoors. Keep in mind that since snowshoers travel on snow, unlike our fellow three-season hikers who traverse on bare ground, interpretation of the principles may vary some for winter traveling. The following are suggestions as to how the snowshoe hiker can help to promote Leave No Trace principles while snowshoeing this winter.

The mission of Leave No Trace is “to promote and inspire responsible outdoor recreation through education, research and partnerships.” The Leave No Trace program is focused specifically on human-powered (non-motorized) recreation.


1. Plan Ahead and Prepare:

Planning and preparing can save your life and it can help protect our environment. When an unprepared camper is uncomfortable, unhappy, unsafe, and cold, they will be the first to let down their guard relative to all the other principles in order to be comfortable, happy, safe and warm.

Plan ahead by researching where you are going. Plan out your route and be familiar with the distance and difficulty of the trail. Learn all about how to prevent hypothermia and frostbite and pack all the essential survival gear you need for your winter hikes. In Tom Brown’s Field Guide Wilderness Survival, the author recommends taking a few essential items such as a pocketknife, waterproof matches, candle, cordage or rope, compass, sunglasses, first aid kit, food and emergency shelter. Rick Curtis, author of Backpacker’s Field Manual recommends these items and more to include map, flashlight, extra clothing, fire starter, sunscreen, water, and water purification system. Follow the Boy Scout motto: Be prepared.

2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces:

Resilient surfaces for travel include such areas as rock, gravel, dry grasses, packed trails and snow. Since snow is the primary ingredient used for snowshoeing, that makes winter travel the least intrusive of the four seasons. Staying on trail prevents possible damage to dormant plant life and will even prevent disruption to snow burrowing animals like mice. I enjoy breaking trail on occasion by heading off through deep snow in uncharted areas. But when off trail, I always travel where there is ample snow and I avoid going through areas where vegetation is visible. So I meander around branches on young trees, shrubs and bushes to avoid damaging dormant plant life.

In spring I avoid snowshoeing in areas where snow is melting and appears thin. Underlying vegetation could pack down into mud thus making new growth nearly impossible. A little caution in spring time can go a long way.

3. Dispose of waste properly:

The most effective way to get rid of any kind of waste in winter travel is by packing it out, such as left over food and packaging. When it comes to human waste, you will find it unrealistic to dig the traditional 6 to 8 inch deep “cat hole” in frozen ground. There are some instances where melted snow and exposed ground at the base of pine or spruce tree may be manageable for digging. However, you may run into root problems.

If you must leave waste, do so at least 200 feet off trail and away from any water source that would be present in spring so that when all melts it won’t be too intrusive. I recommend taking along poop tubes or use a doggie style plastic bag to pack it out. Always pack out your toilet paper in winter. Urine is relatively harmless, so feel free to sign your name in the snow well away from water sources and trails.

4. Leave what you find:

You may not find much while snowshoeing since most everything is covered with snow. However, when you find artifacts, animal bones or antlers above the snow surface, please leave it for others to enjoy. Leave decaying logs alone too since various animals use them for food and shelter during extreme cold months.

5. Minimize campfire impacts:

A fire can be a valuable source of heat for comfort and for cooking. In some cases it may become necessary for survival such as providing needed warmth and signaling if lost. The biggest problem with a campfire in snow season is the lack of available dry firewood. People tend to break off bottom branches of barren trees or peel bark from live birch trees. This is not good stewardship of our wilderness. For your fire, look for dry dead wood underneath downed snow cov
ered trees or under debris. As an alternative, consider using a gas or propane stove for cooking and providing heat rather than destroying vegetation.

If you do plan to build a fire, keep it small. A preferred method is to carry in a small aluminum pan, like a mini-charcoal grill pan or baking pan. Take along some sand or inorganic soil in a plastic bag. Dig through snow down to the ground and set rocks in a circle to create a base. Put the pan on top of the rocks to prevent ground scarring. You can create a pan fire by filling the bottom with sand and building a small fire on it.

6. Respect wildlife:

Respecting wildlife is critical to animals in winter. Animals need every bit of their energy to survive in the cold, especially considering the lack of food available to them and the potential of freezing in subzero temperatures. If you get too close to an animal and create a disturbance, it can expend great amounts of energy trying to escape from you. Always observe wildlife from a distance. If they notice you, back away or leave. Don’t cause them undue stress. Watch for signs of dens or nesting sites by looking for tracks and scat, and keep clear of their living space.

Feeding animals with human food is not good either. It disrupts their natural diet and makes them dependent on human food offerings. Feeding animals can also result in them becoming pests to other human travelers.

7. Be considerate of other visitors:

I have a friend who informed me he was thinking of taking up snowshoeing and planned to hike on a nearby cross-country ski trail. I responded by saying “Ah, that’s not a good idea.” I also cross-country ski and know that skiers do not appreciate snowshoe tracks through their trails. Unless a ski park has designated both skiers and snowshoers a right of way on the same trail, snowshoers should be considerate of skiers and not travel on groomed ski trails. And in the event it is a shared trail, snowshoers should travel to the side of the trail so as not to disturb the middle ski path.

Do all of our efforts at being good wilderness stewards pay off as we snowshoe on trails and practice the seven Leave No Trace principles? For you snowshoers, the real test will come in spring when the snow melts and our three-season visitors find no trace that you were ever there. You will then know that you had a part in minimizing snowshoeing impact on our environment.

To learn more about Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics go online to

About the author

Jim Joque

Jim Joque

Jim Joque is a Midwest writer on snowshoeing, backpacking and canoeing. He retired from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point as director of disability services and adjunct adventure education instructor, having taught snowshoeing, camping, backpacking, adventure leadership and Leave No Trace.