Originally published in 2015, “Leave No Trace for Bikepackers” is a living set of ethical guidelines designed to help our community grow responsibly and sustainably by providing the proper information and resources to preserve where we ride, lessen our footprint on the landscape, and interact with the land and each other in a positively impactful way…
Editor’s Note: This post was originally shared in 2015, improved in 2021, and refreshed in March 2022 with a new design, additional content, more resources, and actionable information.
Bikepacking is all about finding adventure by using a bicycle to escape into hard-to-reach places via tracks less traveled. And with that comes the responsibility of having as little impact on the land and the surrounding communities as possible. As route creators and curators, it’s our job to convey these responsibilities in an in-depth and easy-to-understand manner. If you’re unfamiliar with the original Leave No Trace guidelines, you can find them here. Taking them a step further, we were compelled to create a bikepacking-specific version with some additional resources, things to consider, actionable items, and philosophy related to cycling and travel by bicycle. Readers who are already well versed in the Leave No Trace (LNT) principles may also benefit from several new ideas and a refresher on the classic tenets.
We developed the “Ride. Camp. Respect.” emblem to articulate and represent our vision for bikepacking-specific LNT principles. This, of course, is a variation of our 10-year-old “Ride. Camp. Repeat.” tagline that longtime readers might recall, but we think it also perfectly summarizes the ideals and tenets outlined here. We hope it galvanizes the essence of this living and breathing document: that we all should respect the land we travel on, its history and original stewards, the communities we pass through, the animals and plants we encounter along the way, and each other.
Following the seven LNT principles for bikepackers below, find our video summary and two additional principles that we created to provide a better suite of guidelines we can all use in our daily rides and on bikepacking trips near and far. These aren’t rules; they’re a sound combination of common sense, widespread backcountry wisdom, and ways we can interact with the land and those we come in contact with to make our community stronger.
Plan & Prepare.
While planning and preparation may seem like a no-brainer, there are a few granular factors that are important to consider. Proper planning with these details in mind will result in a smoother trip and will help you follow the rest of the principles more effectively. Adequately preparing means doing your own research beyond the route guides and learning about the places you’ll be riding. Even if your route is close to home, take the opportunity to familiarize yourself with local regulations, restrictions, and the terrain you’ll be traveling through. Every route is unique and requires different considerations. Here’s a list of items to think about before heading out.
Understand Land Designations (and What They Mean)
Gain an understanding of the land designations on which you’ll be bikepacking. Is there private property that requires special permissions? Where is dispersed/wild camping permitted/forbidden along the route? Land designations and their meanings differ from place to place. Here are a few resources we put together to help you get started:
Determine the Best Time to Ride
We specify the best time of year to ride a particular route in most route guides. However, there’s more to it than that. To reduce impact, is there a less crowded time of week, month, or year when you could take your trip? This is particularly important in areas that see a lot of use, such as national parks and other popular park destinations. Some trails and areas are also closed during season animal migration periods. When traveling abroad, consider traditional times such as festival seasons and annual holidays when places may be closed or overly impacted.
Ride With the Weather
Bikes can destroy trails when they’re muddy. Do your part to minimize this by avoiding riding after heavy rains whenever possible. Research rainy seasons and monsoon events if you’re traveling to an unfamiliar locale. Additionally, reduce risk by understanding potential weather events such as flooding, record hot and cold temperatures, storms, and other naturally occurring dangers.
Think Through Food and Water
Plan your meals and pre-packaged food in a manner that reduces waste. Think through ways of avoiding the purchase of plastic bottles. Avoid putting stresses on local residents when procuring water by researching where water supply is available and carrying a sufficient volume. Find some insight in these resources:
Know Your Gear
Many of us know the last-minute scramble to gather gear and equipment before heading out the door on a trip, but we can’t overstress the importance of bringing the proper equipment and making sure it works properly. Double and triple check your equipment. Create a spreadsheet (here’s a template). Do a shakedown ride to make sure everything fits and is in working order. Here are a handful of resources to get you started:
Know the Land.
Take the time to learn about the history of the land through which you’re traveling. In particular, familiarize yourself with its Indigenous history and the traditional stewards of the land. We added land acknowledgments to our entire archive of North American bikepacking routes, and we believe this layer of knowledge adds depth to any place. It also offers a profound perspective of a place’s importance, the naming of geographic entities, the interconnectedness of natural and cultural history, and other crucial aspects about a place that we should all aim to recognize and respect as we travel through it.
The Importance of Land Acknowledgement
by Justin Darbyshire (Wandering Path Consulting)
When we utilize land for recreation it is important for us to understand that we are either reinforcing or dismantling colonial narratives. The lands upon which we travel were occupied long before the establishment of European colonies. Landscapes that we consider to be untouched wilderness were home to the Indigenous Peoples of this continent since time immemorial – and are still an integral part of their cultural identity.
Each of us must take our own steps towards education, acknowledgement and engagement with decolonization. Through this understanding we can begin to heal the impacts of colonization and work towards meaningful reconciliation between indigenous and settler peoples. This process begins by knowing on whose land it is we live, work and engage in our passionate enjoyment of the outdoors. Further, it is paramount that we act accordingly in our use of the land – treating it with reverence not only in consideration of our environmental impact but also in respect to the people to whom it holds a deeper meaning.
Travel & Camp Gently.
Everyone should aim to travel in a way that avoids damaging the land, leaving obvious scars, making any lasting impact on the terrain, or threatening future access. Venturing off-trail or traveling through sensitive landscapes can have a major impact on flora and fauna. Sometimes, the simple act of cutting a corner or wild camping can cause lasting damage.
Though this should be standard LNT common sense, it deserves clarification and punctuation. Trails are here for multiple user groups, now and in future generations. Always stay on established trails and follow all signage ad trail rules. Not all trails allow bikes, and some may require you to dismount on certain sections. Don’t test your luck and create conflict or ruin it for future users. Remain in control and at a reasonably slow speed when riding around other trail users. Use a bell to warn folks you’re approaching. While it might not seem like it, how you choose to ride your bike can threaten relationships with other user groups, or worse, revoke access.
Respect Trail (and Trail Builders) Ride Responsibly
Most trail damage isn’t caused by one person. Rather, it’s a result of the cumulative impacts of dragging a rear brake or riding in the mud. And as these actions are followed by others, they’re quick to add up, deteriorate trails, and can mean the difference between healthy trails and damaged ones that require repair. This also means planning ahead when traveling in sensitive areas, and potentially postponing or rerouting after heavy rainfall, as mentioned in the first principle above. Avoid riding wet or muddy trails. This causes erosion, ruts, and other problems that will require repairs to reverse. Don’t purposefully skid without reason, no matter how cool you think it might look. This erodes trails prematurely and angers trail managers and other user groups.
Ride on Appropriate Surfaces (and Don’t go Off-trail)
Don’t ride off the trail or road to avoid obstacles, puddles, or challenging lines, even if it means getting your feet wet or having to walk features. Don’t cut corners and try and stay in the middle of the trail. Lastly, ride single file and stay within the worn line on singletrack—keep singletrack single.
Camping responsibly comes down to planning ahead and having an understanding of the terrain you’ll be spending time in. Every ecosystem is sensitive in different ways, so it’s essential to devote time to understanding the land you’ll be riding through and camping on. When available, use established campsites instead of wild camping to lessen your footprint on natural areas. If you must camp out of bounds, make sure it’s on a surface devoid of sensitive vegetation. The base of a pine forest with pine straw, rock slabs, or fields used for cattle grazing are good examples of resilient surfaces.
Before heading out, do your research on environmental impact zones, especially on national forest land. If you’re in the desert, gain an understanding of the particular ecosystem and keep an eye out for cryptobiotic soil. When packing up camp in the morning, double-check to make sure there’s nothing left behind. Your site should look exactly how you found it or better. This ensures every visitor can have the same experience.
Consider Waste & Dispose of it Properly.
There’s nothing worse than rolling down a trail and seeing discarded wrappers and garbage on the ground. Not only is litter a major eyesore, but it can also become a choking hazard for animals and eventually end up in the soil and freshwater sources. Most of our waste takes years to decompose, even in ideal conditions, so think twice before tossing a small wrapper or hiding toilet paper.
Pack it in, Pack it Out
We’ve all heard “pack it in, pack it out,” and all of us have likely done so improperly at some point. Be mindful about keeping track of every last 5-hour Energy bottle, Gu tube, and granola bar wrapper corner. There’s a reason bikepacking is referred to as self-supported: there’s no clean-up crew. We recommend using an empty zip-lock, dry bag, or repurposed dehydrated meal bag to gather up garbage along the way and after meals. Additionally, do your part by picking up trailside litter instead of passing it by.
Know How to Deal With Human Waste
Understanding the proper disposal of human waste is a crucial piece of backcountry knowledge. For example, it can be buried in some places, but it must be packed out in others. The reasons some zones have (or should have) this regulation are pretty cut and dry. Many places are being overused, such as popular campsites and national parks, and can’t support the amount of human waste being introduced. There are other areas where human waste has the potential of spreading disease to wildlife or contaminating water, like in a river canyon. Lastly, some places simply don’t have the soil or bacteria necessary to promote decomposition.
In places where you can bury your poop, use biodegradable, non-perfurmed toilet paper sparingly and dispose of it properly. In some cases, it can be buried in a cathole, a 6-8 inch deep hole in dark organic soil, at least 200 feet from water or trails, and in others (such as desert environments) it should be placed in plastic bags and packed out. If you’re not sure, carry it out. Also, bring an aluminum or titanium trowel to dig a proper hole, cover it up, and make the ground look as it did before you were there.
Keeping yourself clean while riding, especially on longer tours, requires some additional planning and foresight. Biodegradable soap is always your best bet for washing dishes and cleaning yourself, but remember to keep it well away from lakes and rivers.
One easy way to minimize the waste you have to carry out is reducing the amount of waste you bring in. In our Low-waste Bikepacking series, we’ve outlined some meals and packaging techniques to help you do just that. Additionally, think through ways to avoid purchasing packaged products and plastic bottles. Find some insight in these resources:
Leave it as You Found It, Or Better.
This is common sense: preserve the past and conserve the natural state of the landscape. Whether you’re on private or public property, it should look untouched when you leave it. It may seem as if the impact from one person isn’t much, but keep in mind that dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people may follow. We should all strive to leave the situation better than when we found it—positive impact—by inspiring others.
Look But Don’t Touch
Leave things in the natural state they were in before your arrival so others can enjoy and admire them. This includes rocks, plants, and any archaeological artifacts you encounter along the way.
Start a Local Cleanup Initiative
Even better, consider starting a local cleanup initiative in the wildlands nearest and dearest to you, like our friends at Pack Out Pisgah
Get Involved With Your Local Trails
Another impactful way to contribute to your local trails is by getting involved with your town or region’s cycling association. These volunteer-led groups are often in charge of trail maintenance, development, and advocacy projects. While monetary contributions like association memberships and donations are important, there are many other ways to show your support. For example, show up to trail days, attend group rides, and spread the word to newcomers.
While comforting and nice to sit around at camp, campfires are rarely necessary. Open fires can lead to overuse and have the potential to cause serious damage if not controlled. In addition, gathering firewood from the forest can cause long-term damage to the ecosystem. This is especially true in places that see repeated campers or that have fragile ecosystems. If you must have a fire, we suggest only doing so when there is a designated fire ring and an abundance of firewood available. It’s never a good idea to cut down trees for firewood. Instead, gather small stickers and deadfall to burn. Remember to put fires out completely to the point that there’s no smoke or hot spots before leaving the site. Whenever possible, use a lightweight stove for cooking and a lantern or headlamp for light.
Form a Camp Circle
After setting up tents, one of the first things we do when we make camp is to find a good spot for cooking. This communal circle on the ground is a fun campfire replacement where everyone can set up their stoves, have a cocktail, and share a meal.
Bring a Backcountry Candle
Candles make excellent ambience setters. Bring a few small tea candles to place in your campsite. Or, as Miles did in this tutorial
, you can make your own from several common household waste items. Of course, be sure to pack these out, and be mindful of any melted wax or other residue.
Carry a Solar Lantern
Solar lanterns are another great fire replacement and are a good way of shedding a little light on your campsite. Here’s one
we’ve used over the years.
Respect Animals & Plants.
While riding in nature, it’s important to remember that you’re traveling through someone else’s home. We are visitors, and the land we travel through is home to many other animals and plants that were there long before us. The more conscious we are of this, the more we can lessen our impact on their habitats, routines, and overall well-being. It’s equally important to understand how to deal with animal encounters, and how to properly store food and be safe when camping in these places.
Don’t Feed Animals (or Leave Scraps Behind)
Animals that find food at campsites will usually return looking for more. Keeping food and scraps away from animals is crucial to keeping you and the wildlife around you safe. It’s a good idea to research local land management rules and regulations before heading out, such as whether or not a bear canister is required. Many places have already felt the impact of human-animal interaction, and there are consequences, such as bears learning that humans mean food in many popular US national parks.
Hang Your Food and Waste
One of the most popular ways to keep food, garbage, and other scented products away from wildlife is the “PCT Bear Hang.” All you’ll need is 100 feet of cord, a sturdy drybag, a carabiner, and a stick. It’s a good idea to practice ahead of time to make sure you’re comfortable with the technique. LNT.org has an excellent how-to video that you can watch here
Understand Bear Safety
While the PCT Bear Hang method mentioned above is a good place to start, gaining a broader understanding of bear safety is crucial for backcountry travel in areas where grizzlies, black bears, and brown bears might be encountered.
Make Some Noise!
While your high-engagement hub might be annoying for those riding with you, bikes don’t actually generate that much noise and are difficult for animals to track. Making noise can help warn animals of your presence, giving them a chance to get off the trail and reducing the likelihood of a surprise encounter after coming around a corner. Hootin’ and hollerin’ while bikepacking, especially in densely forested areas or on trails with blind corners, is one the best ways to keep wildlife safe. Another option is to carry a bear bell, or a bell like the Timber Bell
Know the Area’s Dangerous Animals and Plants
It’s important to gain an understanding of the dangerous animals and plants you might encounter in a given area, as well as ways to mitigate the risks or treat bites and stings. Consider venomous snakes, biting insects, poisonous plants, and infectious diseases.
Be Considerate of Others.
While bikepacking is becoming more popular, there are still many trail users who aren’t familiar with what we’re doing. This is an opportunity for bikepackers to set an example as a responsible, friendly, courteous, and sustainable community, thus opening up options for access and encouraging a positive experience for everyone we meet along the way.
Yield to Other Folks on the Trail
In most places, cyclists are required to yield to all other trail users. When mountain biking on singletrack trails, yield to uphill riders. Ride in control and be respectful of those sharing the trail around you. Use extra caution when horses are present, go slowly, and ask equestrians if it’s okay to pass. Always say hello and be gracious to those who let you pass.
Be a Good Steward
Give bikepackers a good name by being a steward everywhere you ride. This means taking the time to stop and chat with other trail users, being friendly, obeying trail signage, and not traveling on private property without prior permission. If the opportunity arises, take the time to assist any trail user who needs help. We’re usually well-stocked with spare tubes, tools, and snacks—the simple act of checking in on someone could make a huge difference.
Be Culturally Sensitive
Familiarize yourself with local customs when traveling away from your home culture. Doing so will offer a more immersive experience and is an easy way of showing respect. For example, clothing that passes without a second glance in one place may cause outright offense in others, making a massive difference to how you’re perceived and received.
Represent the Community.
Last but not least, keep in mind that we’re always representatives of our community. Although it may seem like the opposite of leaving no trace, all of us should strive to leave a positive impression on those whose paths we cross, as well as other members of our community.
These ideas may seem somewhat nebulous, but we think this principle codifies all the tenets listed here. And, given that bikepacking is relatively new compared to many other outdoor pursuits—meaning, there are always a lot of new people coming into the community—we have the unique opportunity to form an inclusive language and perception of this activity we all love so much.
Be Nice and Say Hello
This is obvious, but a smile, wave, or simple hello goes a long way in the outdoors. Make it a habit. Stopping to talk to curious folks can be quite rewarding, too.
Embrace Different Styles
Bikepacking has a fairly open-ended interpretation, which is one thing we love about it. There are a variety of outlooks, styles, bikes, bags, and most importantly, types of people. Don’t shun those in our community who don’t look like you or do things in a different manner. Instead, ask questions and try to embrace the ideals of others, even if they differ from your own.
Go Beyond the Clique
We’ve all seen the sub-groups that form around different cycling disciplines and other outdoor activities. We’ve all encountered groups that are hard to approach. And we’re all familiar with how aggressively differing opinions can be presented on the internet. We have a chance to rise above this and paint bikepacking in a positive, inclusive, respectful, and sustainable light.
Be a part of an event, or start your own. Or how about a local overnighter club?
Bikepacking isn’t just about racing. There are different types of events popping up all over, including simple local overnighter group rides
. There are also some events with the mission of spreading the joy and including all types of people. Here are a couple that have impressed us recently:
Understand & Minimize Risk.
When planning a trip and while out riding, it’s important to factor in the chance of something bad happening. Traveling by bike—and riding a bike off-road—put you in a vulnerable position and a realm of uncertainty. Associated risks include the obvious, such as an injury from falling or being struck by a car, but there are also less obvious risks, such as those due to acts of nature or the bad intentions of others. Injuries and other such devastating outcomes can put a strain on local resources, and the reputation of our user group, potentially having a negative impact on communities and future access.
As part of preparation and planning for a trip, and perhaps a precursor to the first principle, it’s vital to understand all the risks associated with how we’re traveling, where we’re visiting, and the terrain on which we’re camping and riding. It’s equally as important to minimize those risks as best as possible, and most importantly, continue to assess and make decisions along the way.
Research Travel Advisories
The US State Department—as well as those in many other countries—regularly publishes and updates travel warnings and advisories. Do your homework to find out if there are particular concerns in the place you’ll be visiting.
Talk to Locals
The best way to gather safety and security information regarding the route ahead is to ask locals. It’s a good habit to get in and a great way of starting conversations.
Anticipate the Weather
Although it’s impossible to predict, it’s important to gain an understanding of potential weather events that may occur around the region you’re visiting. Flooding, record hot and cold temps, storms, the extreme ends of mountain weather, and other such natural occurring dangers can mark the worst potential scenario in an area, and one that can often be properly prepared for in advance.
Practice Road Safety
While most bikepacking routes are largely on unpaved surfaces, some roadways are often necessary to connect them. With roads there come cars, and with them one of the most significant risks. Fortunately, there are easy ways to minimize that risk, including wearing brightly color clothing, using lights, and carefully planning for when to avoid such roads.
Watch Normalization of Deviance
We recommend checking out backcountry skier Cody Townsend’s presentation on the Normalization of Deviance, a theory for measuring risk, and how he uses it to gauge backcountry safety and decision making. While this presentation is focused on avalanche safety, there’s a lot of relevant insight here. Watch it here
Submit Route Alerts
Pay it forward by participating in route-building and updates. We have more than 350 bikepacking routes
published on this site, many of which are updated regularly based on user feedback. If you ride a route and encounter dangers or threats, use the Route Alert form to submit such information.
Know Your Limits
While there are many unforeseen dangers inherent to backcountry travel and cycling, the biggest risks are ourselves. Knowing our personal limits is key to having a successful trip. Bikepacking route guides are merely a starting point, and they’re usually written from the perspective of a single rider whose abilities likely differ from your own. Everyone is unique, so knowing your own potential when it comes to daily distance, elevation, and stamina is critical. If you are new to bikepacking and don’t yet know this, ask questions, go on shakedown local overnight rides, and try to get an understanding of these things before setting out on a more adventurous trip.
You can learn more about the original seven principles as they pertain to general backcountry use at the Leave No Trace website. If you’re interested, you can further your knowledge through one of LNT’s courses. Additionally, be sure to watch our video below that goes into greater depth with specific examples and ideas:
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