Leave no trace

“I’d shoot them,” said the 17-year-old girl, as we walked atop High Street mountain. The Lakeland fell was once a thoroughfare for Roman legions, trying to avoid valley ambush by marauding English.

“Shooting?” queried her brother, who was perhaps three years older. They were walking as a pair. “Too kind. I would pull out their fingernails, very slowly, and listen to the screams.”

This corner of a chocolate wrapper may be small to you, but it is huge to a mountain. I was leading them both and demonstrating something of the area. The trigger for their conversation had been a tiny portion of chocolate wrapper lying beside a boulder. The wrapper was purple, shiny, and carried a household name.

“Litter,” the 15-year-old continued. “There is no need for it. You carry out what you carry in. Didn’t someone say you should leave nothing but footprints?”

“A famous Native American called Chief Seattle, in the mid-nineteenth century,” I said. “But I think he was wrong. In truth, you should leave no trace at all.” The pair drew nearer. I could see I had them hooked.

In what seems another life, I was a soldier and would spend lengthy periods in areas that had no idea I was there. My job was to look for others and report back what they were doing, where they fed, slept, chatted, and relaxed. I had to be invisible and could leave no sign of being there. Had I left some chocolate wrapper, as we had found on High Street mountain, that would have been my lot.

Soldiers leave no trace as otherwise they are done for (courtesy eyecon). I would move slowly, stop regularly, look, listen and smell. I carried a lengthy stick, which I would use for covering my tracks, repositioning leaves I had disturbed, or stones I had unintentionally squashed into the ground. The stick was also good for identifying enemy tripwires. I would wrap material around my boots to make me silent and render my footprint unrecognisable. I would disturb nothing above knee-height, as up to that level any sign could have been created by an animal. Anything higher and a human was the likely culprit. I would eat cold food, never cook anything, and sleep on a rocky surface to leave no sign on the ground. Many whom I followed were not so obsessive. Their lack of focus was their undoing.

A piece of chocolate wrapper on a Lakeland fell was no real challenge. I saw the scuff marks of human trousers on the nearby boulder and two footprints, Vibram-soled, in the mud.

Orange peel takes 6 months to disappear. “He stopped to have a break,” I said. Brother and sister nodded silently. “He had a vacuum flask, too,” I continued, pointing to the circular depression in a patch of grass. “Let’s see where this trail leads.”

Tracking is like following a length of string. At one end I had a chocolate wrapper. At the other would be the culprit. My job was to connect the two.

We set off, moving slowly, sometimes crouching, as tracks look different from low down.

We found the culprit quickly, as he left a barndoor trail. Footprints, a can ring-pull, a walking pole ferrule, a match, cigarette butt, and several pieces of tissue. By the time I found him, and he was barely 500 metres away, I had gathered sufficient litter to fill a tuck box. 

Found in Lakeland - plastic can take a thousand years to decompose. He was sitting on the ground, back to us, leaning against a rock and studying his mobile. He was so focussed on his task he did not hear us approaching. I signalled to brother and sister, they should be quiet. Both nodded, both looked mischievous. 

“Hello!” I yelled, only feet from the man’s left ear.  He jumped, whirled towards us, and looked instantly guilty. I guessed he was aged about 25 years.

“Are these yours?” I asked, proffering the litter I had collected, including the first piece of chocolate wrapper we had found. For a moment the culprit was going to deny it but saw I had spotted the chocolate bar on the ground beside him. There was a corner missing from its wrapper, perfectly matching the piece in my hand.

“Dough head,” said the sister, vehemence in her tone, and disobeying my instruction to remain silent.

“Buffoon,” her brother added. His tone was hatred.

A doggy poo bag outside Ambleside - who do they think will clear it up? The culprit knew he had been caught. 

“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to.” He reached out, took the litter from me, and stuffed it into his rucksack.

“Never again?” I asked.

“Never again,” he replied.

I am unsure if I believed him.

We moved on, leaving the culprit behind us. I could only hope he felt real shame. Lakeland litter is a massive problem. Many say it is not created by the number of visitors, but a certain new breed that sees trash as someone else’s responsibility.

Put simply, that is not the way it is.

If you wish to leave no trace

Please read this updated version of the countryside code, even if you think you know it already.

There are seven principles to Leave No Trace, as follows:

  1. Plan and prepare
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  3. Dispose of waste properly
  4. Leave what you find
  5. Minimise campfire impacts
  6. Respect wildlife
  7. Be considerate of other visitors

For more detail, please look at: https://lnt.org/why/7-principles/

How to be invisible (nearly)

Take pride in leaving zero evidence of your presence. See it as a challenge and, for children, make it a game. Here are some tricks:

  • Camouflage – both body and movement.
  • Move in bad weather and low light.
  • Restore vegetation and brush out tracks.
  • Walk on hard or stony ground.
  • Use foot coverings.
  • Confuse the start point by walking in different directions before setting out properly.
  • If you must use a path, be sure it is well-used.
  • Vary how you place the foot.
  • Walk backwards on occasion. If you do this, be sure not to turn your foot outwards and do make the toe indentation deeper than the heel.
  • Do not even think litter, however small. Remove everything, including poo.
  • Make abrupt changes of direction.
  • Occasionally walk along a stream, although you leave sign when emerging from it.

Where to buy mountain rubbish bags

I make sure to take a plastic bin liner with me when I go walking. For specialist bags, little attention is given to litter in many mountaineering shops, so try some of these: 

Sea to Summit Trash Dry Bag

Jack Wolfskin Re Wasty

Biodegradable Dog Poop bag: Do it for your dog and do it for yourself.

More information

How long does it take garbage to decompose?

Littering statistics

How litter harms our wildlife

Looking into litter in the Lake District

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Richard Villar

Travel writer, doctor & international mountain leader

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