Imagine hiking five miles into a wooded wilderness and finding a beautiful stream. Imagine sitting and listening to the sound of the stream rushing over the rocks, the breeze blowing through the trees, the birds singing, and the sense of peace and solitude you would feel.

Now imagine the same setting but with empty water bottles, candy bar wrappers, plastic baggies, and clumps of toilet paper scattered across the landscape.
Litter effects our perception and our appreciation of wild places. It can take away from an otherwise beautiful experience and negatively influence our opinion of and our regard for a place. Would you plan a return trip or encourage others to visit a remote campsite you had visited and found covered in garbage?
Abandoned crab pots on a beach in Alaska
macro trash
Lake litter picked up in the Boundary Waters, MN
Trash collected in Mt. Hood, OR
Litter also endangers wildlife in a variety of ways. An animal may ingest plastic from a food wrapper, become entangled in fishing line, or get stuck in a can or bottle leading to injury or death. Litter that contains scraps of food can draw wildlife to areas where people camp and habituate them to search for food in these areas. This behavior increases the chance of a negative human-wildlife interaction that often end with severe consequences for wildlife.  
Where does all this litter come from?

People may litter intentionally for a variety of reasons including misinformation (these apple cores are natural/biodegradable), laziness (it’s too much trouble to dispose of trash properly), and entitlement (somebody else will throw it away for me). In the backcountry there are additional reasons people may be more inclined to toss their garbage rather than pack it out including the added weight of the trash, unpleasant odors, the distance to the nearest trash receptacle, and a lack of a feeling of ownership or pride in our public lands.

Litter may also be unintentional. Unintentional littering in the backcountry typically involves containers and other trash that falls out of a backpack/pocket or that is created when wildlife get into food/trash and disburse it. In high use areas even unintentional littering can lead to the buildup of significant amounts of trash over time.

Cleaning up a beach on Admiralty Island, AK
Collecting trash around a lake – Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, ID

What you can do to help prevent litter on our public lands:
  • Follow Leave No Trace©practices. Wilderness Volunteers promotes Leave No Trace ethics and is a proud supporter and non-profit partner of the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics.
o   Plan Ahead and Prepare
o   Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
o   Dispose of Waste Properly
o   Leave What You Find
o   Minimize Campfire Impacts
o   Respect Wildlife
o   Be Considerate of Other Visitors
  • Educate others about littering and proper waste disposal. Increased awareness about litter and its harmful effects is critical component of changing littering behavior.
  • Plan adequately for bad weather and other contingencies.  Effective planning will reduce the chance that Leave No Trace practices will end up being sacrificed for safety.
  • Buy food products for camping with the least amount of packaging possible. Less packaging means less to carry and less to pack back out.  
  • Dispose of all waste properly.
o   Apple cores, banana peels, fruit pits, pistachio shells, sunflower seed hulls, etc. aren’t native to most environments and should packed out and disposed of with other trash.
o   Toilet paper is not “natural” or easily biodegradable and should also be packed out. Buried toilet paper can be easily dug up by wildlife and in some areas make take years to degrade. Burning toilet paper incorrectly can damage nearby flora and in the wrong conditions could start a forest fire.
  • Pick up litter that you find and pack it out when possible. Removing litter that someone left before you not only cleans up the area, it reduces the chance that somebody else will litter in the same area again.
  • Keep a resealable bag with you to store your personal trash. Having a handy place to put your trash makes proper disposal easy and a resealable bag helps keep odors contained.  
  • Make sure to secure trash at night and when away from camp. The method of securing your trash will often depend on the area (bear boxes, hanging, etc.) but securing your trash will prevent wildlife from getting into it.
  • Secure your food appropriately. Again methods may vary depending on the area but never leave food unsecured and unattended even for short amounts of time.
  • Double check your campsite for loose articles and micro-trash before departing. Even if you are careful small items such as tent stakes, socks or small bits of food wrappers are often unintentionally left behind.   
WV trash clean up in Mt. Hood, OR

Wilderness Volunteers follows Leave No Trace practices (c) Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics: