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Leave No Trace Principles in the Beartooth Mountains

Before even THINKING about heading into the backcountry think to yourself, what’s the plan? Where are we heading? What are our contingency plans for weather and other circumstances?

Howdy, all! You’re used to coming to this site and seeing stories and images from around the world. But today I wanted to use my platform for education. On a recent four- day backpacking photoshoot for Visit Montana it became clear that even hardy outdoorsmen/women who take the 26+ mile trek can use a refresher on Leave No Trace principles.


Before even THINKING about heading into the backcountry think to yourself, what’s the plan? Where are we heading? What are our contingency plans for weather and other circumstances? I’ve hiked the Beaten Path before, but the others in my group had not and so we spent the day before going over the map with a fine-tooth comb. We also chose to lay all of our gear out the night before to make sure we had backups over everything from camp stoves, to fuel, to water filters. Personally, I love this backpacking checklist from REI to make sure I didn’t forget anything. I also carry a Garmin inReach, but ALWAYS have a paper map as relying on tech is never a smart idea.

Map prep at überbrew in Billings the night before our hike


With the age of “doing it for the gram” this is one that is unfortunately broken all too often.

-Camp on durable surfaces, 200 feet away from lakes and streams and look for sites that have already been heavily used for camping spots. But don’t always trust that because it was previously used, that it is a legal camping spot. On the Beaten Path we saw numerous sites where people were camped right on the lakes.

-Travel on worn surfaces and avoid off-trail travel wherever possible to minimize vegetation impact.


PACK IT IN, PACK IT OUT! All the trash you bring into the backcountry MUST come back with you. One of the biggest concerns I saw along the Beaten Path was improper human waste disposal. In some areas, such as when I climbed Grand Teton, you have to bring “wag bags” to bring your waste out. But in most areas you can dig a cat hole to dispose of your human waste.

  • Catholes need to be at least 6-8 inches deep, so always remember your trowel! No, covering it with a rock is not sufficient.
  • Catholes MUST be at least 200 feet from water sources, trails, and campsites to avoid contamination
  • PACK OUT YOUR TOILET PAPER. I saw so much toilet paper around campsites because people think it’s gross to carry. Well, TP takes 1-3 years to decompose and it’s even grosser to make everyone see your TP for years to come.
For your viewing pleasure, I did not include a photo of someone using a cathole.


Even in September, the Beartooths still had wildflowers, which is incredible. And as pretty as they are, picking them is not the answer. The rule is that if you find something pretty, well the odds are that the next visitor will as well, and therefore it should be left for all to enjoy. The same goes for finding archeologically significant artifacts, such as arrowheads, as tempting as they are to take.

This rule also applies to carving your name, initials, or Instagram handle (shudder), into rocks, trees, etc. Just don’t.

The last of the summer wildflowers are beginning to wilt away in the Beartooths


A campfire is an iconic part of the camping experience, but did you know that some sources point to almost 90% of wildfires being caused by humans?

  • Build campfires in already established fire rings
  • Fires should be 200 feet away from water sources.
  • Check before you leave to make sure fires are allowed where you’re heading and what the fire danger is.
  • Some areas don’t allow fires at all, the top of the Beaten Path has a no-fire area, and unfortunately there were numerous fire rings at one lake we camped at in a fire restricted area.
  • Keep fires small and use only sticks that can be broken by hand.
  • Burn all wood down to coals, then drown the fire with water. Use a stick to stir the coals with water and dirt until the coals are cold to the touch.


We are only visitors in these lands, but wildlife can be greatly impacted by our behavior in the backcountry.

  • Observe wildlife from a distance
  • NEVER feed wildlife, as feeding animals habituates them to humans and will only lead to their death.
  • Camping 200 feet from water sources allows animals to still have a path to get to the water for drinking.
  • Properly store/hang all food in approved bear containers or bear hangs. See image below for a proper bear hang that is at least ten feet tall and four feet away from the trunk of the tree.
Proper bear hang


In the end, we’re all escaping to nature for our own reasons, and by following these seven principles we can help to assure the wilderness stays WILD so generations to come can enjoy it. Many people come to nature to get away, and one of the biggest things I see disturbing this is people bringing speakers on the trail to play music. Don’t get me wrong, I love music as much as the next person. But I only play it if I know it won’t disturb others experiences with nature.

In the end, we all make mistakes, I know I’ve done things in the past because of a lack of knowledge. But if we all strive to be the best stewards of public lands then we can insure playing in these beautiful places for years to come. Our public lands are vastly underfunded, so let’s work to make the jobs of the rangers easier…instead of harder. To educate yourself even further, check out the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, https://lnt.org/. 

A huge thank you goes out to the Custer-Gallatin National Forest for helping me to secure a commercial use authorization to photograph in the AB Wilderness for this project for Visit Montana.

Until next time, happy adventuring!

Andy Austin

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