HONOR THE TERRAIN: HOW TO PRACTICE LEAVE NO TRACE BIKEPACKING
October 4, 2022
From windswept plains to monumental mountain passes to lush forest singletrack, we love the places we ride. It’s why we believe in honoring the terrain by leaving it as good as we found it (or better).
We’d all rather ride through pristine natural landscapes than trails littered with trash and graffiti, but beautiful places don’t just happen — it takes effort from everyone. We all should strive to leave no trace wherever we ride. That means the people who use the trail after us shouldn’t be able to tell we were there, aside from faint tire tracks in the dirt.
Leaving no trace goes further than many of us may realize. Fortunately, there’s now a guide out there specifically for cyclists, thanks to our friends at Bikepacking Roots.
Bikepacking Roots is a nonprofit organization that “supports and advances bikepacking, the growth of a diverse bikepacking community, and access to and the conservation of the landscapes and public lands through which we ride.” They partnered with the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics to adapt the Leave No Trace (LNT) Seven Principles for bikepacking. LNT principles are well known in the outdoor world but don’t contain any cycling-specific guidance. With the growth of bikepacking, riders needed direction to minimize their impact on roads and trails.
The Seven Leave No Trace Bikepacking Principles focus on bikepacking and camping, but you should practice them on every ride:
1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Know before you go — ride bike-legal trails, be aware of seasonal closures, directional trails, and permits or fees for parks and parking. Bikes are never allowed on trails in Wilderness Areas (ridden, pushed, or carried).
- Know where you are, where you’re going, and if evacuation routes exist. Carry a downloaded GPS file, have maps saved for offline use, or carry paper maps (and have backup means of navigation in case of navigational failure). If riding solo, tell someone where you’re headed.
- Plan for the unplanned! Carry repair items, light, water treatment, first-aid, ample water capacity, shelter, and layers to keep you warm and dry in unanticipated conditions.
- Following wet weather or winter/spring, check with local trail organizations or bike shops for current trail conditions. Know what happens to the trail surface if rain occurs while you’re riding — some routes become impassable when wet or will be damaged by riding when wet.
- When planning a route, especially for newer bikepackers (regardless of cycling experience), plan to ride significantly less mileage than you would unloaded.
- If riding an e-bike, know what trails they are legal on — do not ride trails closed to e-bikes. If riding non-motorized trails, assume e-bikes are prohibited until you learn otherwise.
- Wear a helmet. It could save your life and reduce the need for search and rescue.
2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Durable surfaces for cycling include dry, established trails, authorized slickrock areas, dirt/gravel roads, pavement.
- Avoid riding off-trail unless local regulations allow.
- Keep singletrack single! When encountering water, ice, or mud, ride through it rather than around. Ride or walk obstacles rather than ride around them.
- The best camps are found, not made!
- Ride on dirt, not mud. Avoid wet trails — when your tires leave large divots or create deep ruts, it's too wet to ride.
- Especially on backcountry trails that receive minimal maintenance, prevent erosion by braking carefully — slow down before turns rather than in the middle of them, and do your best to avoid skidding.
- When leaving the trail for other users, breaks, or scenic viewpoints, walk your bike rather than riding it.
- Durable camping surfaces include established sites, bare dirt, dry vegetation, and rock. Avoid camping on live vegetation, and never camp on living (cryptobiotic) soil.
- Make your camp on existing sites to concentrate impacts. If none are available, try to minimize your camp's footprint.
- Camp at least 200 feet (70 big steps) from water sources like streams and lakes.
- Know the land ownership across the route you’re riding. Camp ONLY where it is permissible. Stealth camping in unauthorized locations or on private land creates negative impressions about bikepacking and can lead to reduced access.
3. Dispose of Waste Properly
- Pack it in, pack it out. Pack out all food waste, toilet paper, hygiene products, and wrappers.
- When restroom facilities are not available, deposit solid human waste in catholes 6-8 inches deep, dug at least 200 feet from water sources and trails. Pack out toilet paper. Cover and disguise your cat hole.
- Urinate 200 feet away from camp and water sources and out of sight of other trail users.
- Bag and pack out dog waste. Alternatively, move dog waste far away from trails and water sources, and bury it in a 6-8-inch hole.
- Leave the environment better than you find it and pick up trail trash.
4. Leave What You Find
- Observe but don’t touch cultural or historic structures and artifacts. Leave rocks, plants, and other natural objects as you find them.
- Wash your bike and gear between rides to avoid transporting non-native species.
- Do not build unauthorized trails or features. Work with land managers and trail advocacy organizations on trail stewardship and building.
- Be gentle on trails.
5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Campfires can cause long-lasting impacts on the environment. Use lightweight stoves, shelters, or candles as alternatives.
- If building a fire, use existing fire rings, keep fires small and burn wrist-sized or smaller dead and downed fuel.
- Attend fires until all wood is burned to ash. Ensure ashes are cool enough to touch before leaving them unattended.
- Know the status and level of current fire bans. Alcohol stoves are not permitted during fire bans. Some fire bans prohibit any type of open flame, including camp stoves.
6. Respect Wildlife
- Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow or approach them.
- Avoid disturbing livestock. Running cattle is illegal in many ranching areas.
- Never feed animals; it affects their health, alters natural behaviors, and exposes them to predators. Pack out all food waste and scraps!
- Control pets at all times or leave them at home.
- Avoid wildlife during sensitive times: mating/nesting season, winter, dusk, and dawn.
- In bear habitat, use caution and consider carrying bear spray. Avoid solo travel and make noise to prevent surprise encounters.
- Store food appropriately to prevent wildlife encounters. Bear canisters are highly recommended and far less prone to error than hanging bags.
- Be aware of your surroundings — stay alert, avoid using headphones, and keep your eyes on the trail
7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors
- Always ride in control and within your limits.
- Cyclists yield to hikers and horses. Default to stopping and dismounting for oncoming traffic.
- When passing, announce your presence with your voice or a bell and ask to pass. Share how many other cyclists are in your group or if you’re solo.
- Talk to equestrians and ask for their instructions. Speaking and making eye contact helps ease horses. Step to the downhill side to let them pass.
- Downhill cyclists yield to uphill cyclists. Descend safely and be cautious riding in areas with poor lines of sight.
- Contain your pets. If dogs are allowed off-leash, make sure they stay close and are well behaved.
- Ride in reasonably sized groups, and stay together to reduce noise and strung out passing for other users. Adjust your speed to keep dust down.
- Keep music to yourself and make sure you can hear your surroundings.
- Step off the trail for breaks, to fix mechanicals, or adjust layers so other travelers can pass easily.
- Be friendly! Greet people politely. Talk to other users and land managers about responsible bikepacking and be a good ambassador.
Want to go beyond Leave No Trace? Bikepacking Roots also has a guide to positive-impact bikepacking. This guide seeks not only to minimize our impact on the land but to improve the communities we pass through and build a positive reputation for bikepackers. Read the guide here.
We urge all riders to follow these guidelines to preserve the places we ride and love. Review the principles before every bikepacking outing to ensure our favorite rides never change.