How to Leave No Trace on Your Trail Runs

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Here’s how to be the best environmental steward possible when running during a global pandemic and after.

These are uncertain times, with rules, regulations, and the state of the world changing every day. Trail running can help us connect with nature, so we feel somewhat like our usual, off-road running selves—but we need to take extra care of ourselves, other trail users, and our environment during this challenging period.


During Covid-19

  1. Choose wide, un-crowded trails.

One of the core pieces of advice is to plan ahead and do your homework before you even leave the door for a run. The goal is to find places where there are minimal crowds so you can maintain at least the recommended 2 metres distance from other trail users. That often means sticking to wide dirt paths or dirt roads. And be flexible: If you get to the trail head and it’s packed with people you should probably seek out a different place—now’s not the time to be hell-bent on running your favourite trail.

  1. Step off wisely.

Since social distancing is paramount right now, prioritise protecting the people around you first, even if that means stepping off the trail. Leave No Trace has long advised travelling on durable surfaces when travelling off-trail. So, when you are stepping off-trail for social distancing or other reasons, seek out resilient features such as rocks, sand, and dry grasses. Avoid trampling sensitive vegetation, like flowers, and other live plants.

  1. Follow the rules.

Follow the restrictions in place in your area. Look for alternatives in your own area. You might be surprised by how much nature-based running you can find if you seek it out. Keep your eyes peeled for dirt and grass. Even in urban areas, off-road surfaces exist. And when you can’t find an actual trail, running around a grassy field at a local park can provide a necessary dose of nature.

  1. Wear masks.

In places where masks are a requirement be sure you are prepared to comply. Even if it is not strictly required, many trail runners are donning masks out of consideration for other outdoor users. Keep in mind the mask is not just for your protection; it’s also for the people around you.

  1. Careful out there.

Reconsider remote countryside trail adventures. In today’s climate, getting yourself into a situation where a rescue is needed elevates risk for everyone. What would normally be a relatively simple extraction of someone with a broken ankle is now a potentially high-risk scenario for rescuers who are going to have to break social distancing for a removal.

  1. Be social media-conscious.

If you find a quiet trail running location, think twice about broadcasting it. You might now want to popularise it, because it’s better for everyone if trail runners are spread far and wide. It’s perfectly okay to share your running fun but consider encouraging others to take the Leave No Trace steps you’ve taken.

  1. Control your pet.

There is no conclusive evidence to suggest that dogs can spread Covid-19 germs, but even if they cannot, keeping pets on-lead and under control can minimise the need for humans to get too close to each other. Keeping your pet a safe distance from other trail users might also help subdue others’ anxieties.


Beyond Covid-19 Concerns

  1. Stay off trails when they’re muddy.

The most environmentally conscious thing to do when trails are muddy is to run gravel paths, or even roads, instead. But if you find yourself on a muddy trail, run down the middle of the trail instead of stepping off to the sides. Concentrating trail damage down the centre is better than turning a 60cm-wide trail into a 120cm-wide trail. Embrace the mud and have some fun with it.

  1. Be Considerate.

There are general right-of-way guidelines that point to equestrians having right of way over mountain bikers, and mountain bikers having right of way over foot travellers. Know the guidelines, but also be considerate of other outdoor visitors and use common sense (and empathy) to figure out who gets the right of way, circumstantially. For instance, it is a lot easier for a downhill runner to give way to uphill runner. Also, remember that a friendly greeting and a kind look go a long way in avoiding conflicts.

  1. Respect wildlife and farm animals.

Avoid temptation to share your energy bar with wildlife and farm animals, and don’t chuck apple cores or orange peels from your car, or anywhere into the countryside. Peels and cores take a lot longer to compost in nature than you think, and no human food is safe for wildlife. When animals encounter human food, it changes their behaviour and puts them (and you) in danger. Another way to respect wildlife? Make sure you’re not leaving gel wrappers—or anything—on the trail. If you bring something into the woods make sure it comes back out when you return.

  1. Plog.

To take leaving no trace on the trail to another level, if you see someone else’s trash on your run you can stash it in a pocket, a waist belt or in your pack, and carry it out. There’s even a movement called “plogging” (it started in Scandinavian countries) that combines trail running and collecting trash, with runners emerging at trail heads with full bags of doing-the-environment-good. We can all do our part, even just a little bit, to make the world a better place.