Leave No Trace: 9 Principles for Bikepackers

These seven (+2) ethical principles for bikepackers aren’t rules; they’re a sound combination of common sense, backcountry wisdom, and guidelines to help preserve where we ride and build a sustainable community. Learn about the seven original principles, two amended tenets, and watch our new Leave No Trace video here…

Editor’s Note: This post was originally written in 2015 in response to an Oregon bikepacking event that was canceled after poor behavior by many of its participants (see footnote at the bottom of the post). In February of 2021, we republished it with a new video summary of the seven Leave No Trace Principles, as well as two additional principles we’ve added from a bikepacking perspective.

Bikepacking is all about finding adventure by using a bicycle to escape into a wild or foreign place via tracks less traveled. And with that comes the responsibility of having as little impact on the landscape and the surrounding communities as possible. For those unfamiliar with the original Leave No Trace Seven Principles, here’s an unofficial and abbreviated bikepacker’s version with some cycling-specific translations. Readers who are already well versed in the LNT principles may also benefit from a refresher. Find our new video summary below the seven principles, followed by two more guiding principles that we created to bolster our stance. These aren’t rules; they’re a sound combination of common sense and widespread backcountry wisdom.

1. Plan and prepare before your trip.

Know as much as you can about the area(s) you’ll be visiting. Are there specific environmental impact concerns that determine where you should camp? Private property issues? To lessen the impact, is there a less crowded time of week/month/year when you could take your trip? Plan with the weather; a bike on a muddy trail can destroy its surface. Try to minimize this by avoiding heavy rains whenever possible. Plan your meals and pre-packaged food in a manner that reduces waste.

Resources

Leave No Trace Bikepacking

2. Travel and camp on intended and appropriate surfaces.

Use established trails and campsites to lessen your footprint on natural areas. Ride single file and stay within the worn line on singletrack—keep singletrack single. Keep campsites small. If you must camp out of bounds, make sure it’s on a surface without vegetation and make sure it can withstand the temporary impact; do your research on environmental impact zones, especially on National Forest land. If you are in the desert, gain an understanding of the particular ecosystem and keep an eye out for Cryptobiotic soil.

Respect trails. Though this should be standard LNT common sense, it needs clarification and punctuation. Trails are here for multiple user groups now and in future generations. We need to respect that fact. That means stay on trails; don’t go off-trail to avoid obstacles. Walk technical features if you can’t ride them; don’t go around them. Do not ride muddy and wet trails. This causes erosion, ruts, and other problems. Ride through puddles and not around them. Don’t drag your brakes. And don’t purposefully skid, no matter how cool it might look. This erodes trails prematurely and angers trail managers and other user groups.

3. Dispose of and remove waste… properly.

We’ve all heard “pack it in, and pack it out,” and we’ve all likely done so improperly at some point in time. That means every last 5-hour Energy bottle, Gu tube, and corner of granola bar wrappers. There’s a reason bikepacking is also referred to as self-supported—there’s no clean up crew.

Proper disposal of human waste is a crucial piece of backcountry knowledge. It must be packed out from some places, such as environmentally sensitive zones, or narrow river canyons. But in most locations 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. Use toilet paper (or “natural” TP) sparingly and dispose of it properly—in some cases it can be buried in a cat hole (use biodegradable, non-perfumed paper), and in others it should be placed in plastic bags and packed out (such as desert environments). Carry an aluminum or titanium shovel. Cover it up and make the ground look as it did before you were there. If necessary, use only biodegradable soap, and keep it well away from streams or rivers.

4. Leave it as you found it, or better.

This is common sense: preserve the past. Whether we’re on private or public property, it should look untouched when we leave it. It may seem as if the impact from one person isn’t much, but keep in mind that 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.

Even better, consider starting a local cleanup initiative in wildlands nearest and dearest to you, like our friends at Pack Out Pisgah. Take part in or donate to your local trail building association. Spread the word to newcomers.

solo wood burning stove

5. Minimize campfires.

Whenever possible, use a lightweight stove for cooking and a lantern or headlamp for light. When you do have a campfire, use an established fire ring and keep it modest. Use small sticks you can gather on the ground. NEVER cut down trees for firewood. Put fires out completely before leaving the site.

We also strongly advise against gathering wood for campfires in desert environments. There is very little wood in the desert and using it greatly impacts habitats for the creatures that call these places home. Although your particular small fire might not have a significant impact, consider the countless others before and after you.

6. Respect animals and plants.

Look but don’t touch, taunt, or feed. Store food and trash in a bear hang when applicable. Don’t tread on vegetation. Respect migration, nesting, and rearing times. If an area or trail is seasonally off-limits, don’t try to make yourself the exception to the rule. Part of this includes cleaning your campsite before you leave, ensuring no food scraps are left behind. Animals that find food at campsites will usually return looking for more.

7. Be considerate of others.

In most places, cyclists are required to yield to all other trail users. Be courteous to those who let you pass. If you unexpectedly encounter private property that requires passage, ask for permission, or don’t pass at all. Be helpful and friendly to other trail users. When mountain biking on singletrack trails, yield to uphill riders. Ride in control and respectful of those around you sharing the trail. Especially when horses are present, use extra caution, go slowly, and ask riders if it’s okay to pass. And, most importantly, be a good steward of the environment. 


You can learn more about each of these principles as they pertain to general backcountry use at the Leave No Trace website, and if you’re interested, you can further your knowledge through one of LNT’s courses. Additionally, be sure to watch our new video below that goes into more in depth with specific examples and ideas:

8. KNOW THE LAND

This could conceivably be an addendum to the first LNT principle, or even the first principle itself, for that matter. We think it absolutely deserves its own space. In short, take the time to learn about the history of the land on which you’re traveling. In particular, familiarize yourself with its indegenous history and the traditional stewards of the land. We recently added land acknowledgements to our entire archive of North American bikepacking routes. This was a tremendous amount of work, but in doing so, we’ve realized that this layer of knowledge adds depth to any place, a profound perspective of a place’s importance, the naming of geographic entities, the interconnectedness of natural and cultural history, and other important aspects about a place that we should all 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.

Resources

bikepacking Cuba, trans-cuba

9. REPRESENT THE COMMUNITY

Last but not least, we must all be aware that we are always a representatives of our community. Although it may seem like the opposite of leaving no trace, all of us should be mindful of leaving a positive impression on those whose paths we cross, as well as other members of our community. Don’t judge, but embrace 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. We’ve all seen the sub-groups that form around different cycling disciplines and other outdoor activities. We’ve all seen 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. This may seem somewhat nebulous, but this ideal 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 opportunity to form an inclusive language and perception of this activity we all love so much.

Footnote: Origin Story

Considering the the tone of this post, you may be wondering what spurred it in the first place? Back in June of 2015, the Oregon Outback, an annual and extremely popular multi-day group ride, was permanently cancelled after its second year. The ride’s founder, Donnie Kolb, decided it was time to lay the Outback to rest after 2015’s (literal) shitshow. Among other disrespectful, distasteful, and generally unacceptable happenings, an unknown participant decided it was okay to leave his or her unburied excrement along with a pile of toilet paper on the private property of someone who was generous enough to host campers specifically for the event. As a consequence, the small town of Silver Lake has passed an ordinance that bans camping. Unfortunately, when shit happens as a result of one bad actor, the cycling (and bikepacking) community at large is held responsible.

Prior to hearing about this, I would have assumed that 99.99% of folks in the bikepacking community possess a satisfactory level of backcountry integrity; I thought the Leave No Trace ethos was commonplace. But perhaps people new to outdoor sports need some guidance? Maybe younger riders coming into the sport aren’t acquainted with LNT? Maybe a race pace pushes disrespectful riders to do stupid things? I’m not accusing any particular group; who knows what breeds this kind of behavior. I’d like to assume it’s ignorance, not willful disregard.

This was originally a bit of a rant, but in all seriousness, if anyone has any suggestions or inclusions to add, please get in touch. I think most of us are probably guilty of bending one of these guidelines at some point, but as the popularity of bikepacking grows, priority should be given to the sustainability of the sport. We have a chance and a responsibility to send a message that bikepacking fosters environmental stewardship and has a positive impact on landscapes and the people living within them. As with other outdoor sports that involve the use of public and private lands, importance should be placed in preserving and enabling access, which means maintaining integrity.

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