"But the love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need — if only we had the eyes to see. Original sin, the true original sin, is the blind destruction for the sake of greed of this natural paradise which lies all around us — if only we were worthy of it." — Edward Abbey
There are pieces of the American cultural legacy of which I am ashamed, and pieces of which I will always be fiercely proud. The legacy of the national parks, of Gifford Pinchot and John Muir, and the conservation of the wilderness, is one of the latter. However, we humans exist in an ever-increasingly delicate balance with the natural world, especially those parts that withstand the footprints of countless people year after year.
As a thru-hiker, you are responsible for maintaining this legacy — the continued existence of these trails depend on the respect of the people who enjoy them. And they're fragile — just look at what happened when the government shut down in early 2019 and kept national parks open but unsupervised. While some individuals took it upon themselves to haul away trash and clean overflowing bathrooms, others took the opportunity to do go off-roading and do donuts in the desert, throwing trash on the ground.
Below are the Leave No Trace Seven Principles — take the time to learn about them, which will give you guidelines on how experience the wilderness in a sustainable way and help preserve it for future generations.
Know the regulations for where you're going. Avoid peak season, and be prepared for the worst-case scenario that could happen. Explore in smaller groups, and use a map or compass to find your way instead of disturbing nature.
Don't go off-trail — use established paths and campsites where you can, and don't camp closer than 200 feet from water. Disturb as little as possible when making a campsite.
Pack it in, pack it out. Don't leave any waste behind. Dispose of human waste in a cathole at least 6 inches deep and 200 feet from water, camp, and trails, and disguise the hole. Wash yourself and your dishes at least 200 feet from streams or lakes using biodegradable soap.
Don't remove rocks, plants, or historic objects or structures from where they are. Don't build structures or build trenches, and make sure you do not introduce non-native species.
Use a lightweight stove for cooking, and only build a campfire where permitted, using established fire rings, fire pans, or mound fires. Keep them as small as possible, and only use sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand. Burn all wood and coals to ash, put out campfires completely, then scatter cool ashes.
Observe wildlife from a healthy distance — do not approach wild animals, and never feed them. Wildlife can quickly grow dependent on human food, which alters their natural behavior and increases the risk of attack, and that animals will have to be euthanized. Store your food and trash securely. Keep your pets under control, and avoid wildlife at sensitive times (like mating season, or when they raise their young).
Be courteous, and yield to other users on the trail. Step to the downhill side of the trail when encountering pack stock. Don't create noise pollution — don't yell or make loud noises.