Just because the ground is covered doesn’t mean you can throw Leave No Trace out the window. Mountain ecosystems work overtime to survive in harsh winter weather. Keep your outdoor space pristine this winter with some Leave No Trace know-how.

Hiking - Winter - Meg Atteberry
Bring a GPS to stay on track while hiking or skinning in winter. Photo Credit: Meg Atteberry.

Travel Lightly and Check Your Coordinates Often

Winter conditions typically lead to off-trail travel. The trail often becomes a series of wandering footprints, or you are in the backcountry trying to reach a high point to ski or ride down. Whatever the case may be, you’ll want a GPS to stay on track.

If you do find yourself off-route, intentionally or not, steer clear of stepping on young trees and vegetation. Trees, especially saplings, are vulnerable to disruption during the winter months. Plan your route carefully when traveling off-trail around young vegetation. Avoid snow pillows, where vulnerable bushes and saplings may hide underneath the snowy landscape.

When You Gotta Go, You Gotta Go

We are all human, and that means we all use the bathroom from time to time. Just like the summer, always use the bathroom 200 feet (or 70 adult steps) from sources of water and trails. Be aware that in the winter, streams and waterlines are often covered in snow, so consult your GPS prior to a potty break. Similarly, pack out any toilet paper and waste in a Ziplock bag. If it grosses you out, duct tape the baggy so you don’t have to see it.

In winter, it is also important to pack out human waste, especially in sensitive, high-alpine environments. Use a specially designed bag, such as a Wag Bag, to store your waste. These bags are designed to break down waste with powder and gel in order to prevent a smelly situation. In non-sensitive areas, bury your waste deep in the snowpack or in a cathole in the ground. These rules also apply for any four-legged companions.

Fire it Up

Fires provide much-needed warmth while out in winter. Keep fires environmentally friendly and only burn downed wood. Never cut live trees. This not only harms the ecosystem, but it produces an extremely smoky fire, which isn’t pleasant to sit around. Keep fires small in order to avoid damaging the environment, but warm enough to provide heat. Keep in mind, the size of the fire doesn’t matter as much as the build-up of a healthy coal bed to keep warm. For culinary activities, cook using a stove instead of over a fire.

Fires should be made from found dead wood, not wood that has been introduced from elsewhere. Wood purchased in town and burned in the wilderness can introduce disease and bugs into the environment. In the winter, everything struggles to survive. Vegetation is more susceptible to invaders and disease, so firewood that was not sourced locally can spread disease. When you’re ready to put out the fire, cover it in snow and then spread cold ashes evenly if you aren’t using a pre-existing fire ring.

Pitch a Perfect Camp

If you do opt for an overnight jaunt in a winter wonderland, be sure to minimize your impact on the environment. First, select a campsite that is safe. Don’t pitch your tent in avalanche terrain, unstable snow, or near dead trees. Unless it is absolutely necessary, avoid camping on tundra or exposed high-alpine terrain. Life in these environments grows slowly, and a tent can damage decades of growth.

Step off the trail when you make camp. Like summer, you want to keep your camp 200 feet from water sources. However, you’ll want to consult your GPS to make sure you aren’t accidentally pitching your tent on or near a frozen lake. Not only is this dangerous, but it impacts the delicate shore line environment. If you prefer the refuge of a snow shelter, be sure to dismantle any structures prior to leaving your site.

Be a steward this winter season and follow Leave No Trace principles. With a few tweaks to the summer best practices, you’ll be able to enjoy Colorado’s winter wilderness in a low-impact way.

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