Through the Eyes of the Eco Explorer - Leave no trace - on holiday and in everyday life

Tatrzańska dolina z drewnianymi szałasami pasterskimi
Interview with Jan Krzeptowski-Sabała, a Tatra mountain guide and educator

Is "leave no trace" hiking possible at all?

Jan Krzeptowski-Sabała: I think that leave no trace, the concept of minimising the human impact on the environment, especially when camping and hiking, is an unattainable ideal, just like zero waste. It's not about reaching that level right away and zeroing out our environmental impact; it's about trying to reduce it. If we reduce it by 30% or half, it's already a great success.

Where should we start?

It is impossible to reduce our impact on nature without being aware of certain things. Even if we have good intentions but lack knowledge, we will not behave appropriately.

So, let’s think, what do we need to know?

First, we need to realise that we affect the wildlife in several ways, directly, for example, by going off the trail and trampling plants, and from a much greater distance by noise, smell, moving at times of day or year when animals are more sensitive. It's not a readily visible influence; namely, we won't see that we have frightened an animal away because it may be at some distance from us. For me, it is just as essential, if not more important, as leaving litter on the trail

How do you reduce the less visible but important impact?

The fundamental rule is to stick to places designated for tourists. We have bike trails, hiking trails, lookout points. There is an extensive infrastructure that allows entering the area and seeing exciting sights. Besides, it increases safety because there are barriers, chains and various solutions, depending on the site. We need to be aware that the role of the infrastructure is also to concentrate tourist traffic so that these thousands of people don't wander each on their own path, trample the whole area, or frighten off all the animals there.

It's crucial for us to be concentrated in designated areas as we, in fact, use the same space as the animals. It doesn't matter whether we're in the Tatras, the Beskids or the Biebrza. The point is to leave some free space so that the animals can feed, migrate and hunt in peace. That will not happen if we are everywhere.


So, we never go off the trails?

The fact that we walk on the trail literally means that we walk on the trail - not in its vicinity.... It is a concrete, a metre or two-wide path, sometimes a wider path with some drainage and signage. And it's all protected by the vegetation around it. Our impact is to rip up the top layer in the forest or meadow and expose the soil. Then erosion starts, water, wind, and hard frost - various natural processes that destroy the area - work.

Turystka na tatrzańskim szczycie

Our comfort is not the most important thing...

People sometimes step aside to take a picture, they want to avoid the mud, they don't want to walk on stones, especially when they are tired at the end of the trip. Of course, one tourist is not a problem but there are more and more people; in peak season we have mass traffic in some places, so this small single impact must be multiplied by 1000 or even 10000. It is vital not to think about a behaviour only in your own context, but in the context of a large group of people.

What else should we pay attention to?

The next issue is our attitude to wild animals. We cannot treat them like zoo animals or pets because they function differently. They do not need our food; they are doing very well for themselves. We cause unfavourable changes by feeding them since the animals lose their natural fear of humans. Instead of looking for food in the forest, they go down to the vicinity of trails, close to buildings. The question is, are they still wild animals? Besides, it can endanger us; if we tame a fox, it may be less of a problem, but if we tame a bear...

It is best when animals have the least possible contact with humans when we only marginally interfere in their world.

It is also significant when taking pictures.

Yes, as we want to take portraits and it's impossible to view the animals safely without a telephoto lens, binoculars or a telescope. So, on the one hand, you don't have to help, but you also can't frighten the animals while observing. They are at home. We should also be aware that they live in a different annual and diurnal rhythm than we do. For them, the night is a time of high activity, and the day is to rest. If we camp in forbidden places, go on sunrise hikes, sunset hikes, night escapades, then 24 hours we are staying in the given area, so the question is when can animals use it?

Another issue?

Rubbish. It is a nationwide problem, not only for tourism and not only for protected areas, and we certainly still lack the ecological culture to try and reduce the amount of rubbish we produce on a larger scale. It is good to segregate, promote recycling. And really leave literally no trash behind.

People are sometimes surprised that there are no rubbish bins in the National Park.

I think a much bigger problem is that people ignore certain types of rubbish. They believe that some things they can leave behind because they don't cause any harm. It applies, for example, to food leftovers, cores, banana peels... People think that such waste will decompose quickly, and they deliberately drop them. However, it takes months or years to decompose, and what's more, the leftovers smell and attract wild animals. It is unconscious feeding. And also here, we have the problem of scale. One bite is not a tragedy, but if we have a place where tourists stop along a popular trail, a trash heap of leftovers is created all around.

Some animals have a perfect sense of smell and can feel it from hundreds of metres, a kilometre away, and once they get used to it, looking for rubbish becomes a habit. Animals "go for the easy way" and try to get food at the lowest possible energy cost. But this harms them. Very often, this is not the food they should be eating. It also causes them to lose their natural fear of humans.

We take all the stubs and natural waste with us.

The second thing is small solid debris rubbish, such as cigarette butts. They are harmful since they take a long time to decompose, and we find places along the trails where there are lots of them. There is nicotine in a cigarette butt, a natural insecticide, so if rain washes it away, especially in a place where there are many of them, it contaminates many litres of water or soil and kills microorganisms. Small solid debris can pose a considerable problem, so here the rule should be to leave literally nothing behind and try not to lose it because people do lose their litter.

Jeziora pośród skalistych gór

What else?

Another issue is fire - tourist cookers, bonfires, torches... It gives a nice atmosphere and, of course, if used safely it is not a threat, but if used recklessly it can pose a huge danger. In Poland, we have a problem with fire danger in many forest areas. The forest floor is drying out, mainly in pine and spruce forests. Fire can destroy large areas there if we do not take care of it. It is also a question of other people's safety.

Fire is associated with camping.

It is a similar question to trail walking. Campsites concentrate people and animals know we are there. They have their own paths that avoid such places. On the other hand, if we camp in a dispersed manner, the stress to the animals will certainly be much greater.

Try to choose a place where the ground is prepared for camping, and if in a forest, choose a place with is less vegetation. You can also sometimes replace the tent with a hammock, which greatly reduces the impact on the ground.

And with all our activities, hiking, camping, there is the question of the toilet.

The subject is overlooked...

It is best to use a toilet in a hostel or somewhere near a car park, the faeces is taken away from these places or cleaned and this greatly reduces our impact on the environment; however, it is not always possible.  

What if we are in an area without such infrastructure?

The knowledge is sorely lacking in Poland, even among people who spend much time in the forest. How to poop in the field?

Most often, people look for a place where they won't be seen, they poop and throw some leaves on it, and that's it. They leave toilet paper and wet wipes with it. The effect is that afterwards, it just smells, especially when it's warm. Then the water washes it all away and in this way a water source, a stream, a body of water become easily contaminated.

How should we behave?

The most important rule is to bury the poo. We don't need a shovel or a spade - although I do have a small one - we can find a stick or a stone in the woods. We dig out the litter and the mineral layer of the soil, poop in the hole, put toilet paper there, and cover everything up. Then our excrement comes into contact with the soil microcosm, and decomposition occurs quickly. The site should be a few dozen metres from the nearest water and a little away from hiking trails.

There are situations where there is no soil, such as in caves. Then there is no other choice but to carry our excrement out. Specialist toilet bags are used for this.

What else is worth mentioning?

The Leave No Trace rules also state that you must respect other users of the area. Above all, I don't make any noise, I don't leave any traces behind, and I don't change places I visit because others want to enjoy them too.

If someone does something wrong, let's pay attention because we'll never solve specific problems if we turn a blind eye. Only when people feel that specific negative behaviour is not acceptable will they change. Besides, many people do things unconsciously, simply because they don't know or understand the rules. It's worth explaining since the point is not to threaten people with fines but talk about the consequences of a given behaviour for the world around us.

It is imperative to be aware that these rules have been formulated for the benefit of nature and not to make life difficult for us.

Some things are not evident at first sight if you don't have any knowledge of nature. People sometimes wonder why we have so many strict rules in the Tatra Mountains, which are not valid in other parks - maybe because we have bears? There are some local peculiarities, and it is also essential to familiarise yourself with the local rules when going to a place; they are not universal.

Besides, there are various forms of nature protection, it does not have to be a protected area at all; after all, nature is everywhere, and specific rules apply everywhere, for example, those resulting from forest regulations.

Thus, we come to the important issue of walking the dogs in the forest.

As a society, we need to work on this, too. A dog is a human's best friend, but it is not a friend of the wildlife. It is a predator that has its instinct, it may not be able to hunt anymore sometimes, but it has the scent of a predator. Wild animals react to a dog as they do to other predatory species, and its presence means stress and flight for them. If you take your dog on a trip to a place where it is allowed, it should always be on the leash. Wild animals retreat from areas where dogs run and often suffer and die. It doesn't have to be that the dog bites the deer, but it causes the animal to be unable to rest or feed. And there are times when animals are exhausted, such as early spring. The dog is not because he lives in a warm house and has food.... He wants to play, and the deer may not survive this. Cases of predation also happen; even in the Tatra Mountains, we had such a situation. An unattended dog bit a marmot.

Schronisko tatrzańskie w Dolinie Pięciu Stawów Polskich

It is also about the safety of people...

Yes, let's think about other land users - they may be afraid, the dog may hurt them. Let's respect bans; if a dog is not allowed somewhere, let's not do it. Here is an example from the Tatra Mountains. Meeting a bear when you are with your dog is very dangerous because the bear feels much more threatened than when it encounters a human alone.

If someone is looking for justification for these rules, it is worth looking for it on the Internet. There is not always much in the Polish literature, but if you type the English phrase "dog impact wildlife", we receive hundreds of scientific articles from all over the world. It has been researched that in those areas where dogs are brought in loose, wildlife activity is much lower.

These rules may seem onerous at first, but over time they will become a habit.

In my opinion, you should think about such things daily, because in the mountains, in the forest, we spend a few, several, and the lucky ones even a dozen or so days. And the rest of the time we spend at home, at work, or travelling somewhere. It should not be the case that when we go to a national park, we suddenly become more ecological for a few days, but it should become an everyday habit. Then we can be of service not only to a particular place but to Mother Earth in general.

Hiking needs to be looked at more broadly since our impact is not direct when we are already there. We must get there somehow, and we must spend the night somewhere... Try to use public transport or at least go by car in several people. It is worth choosing accommodation that pays great attention to ecology, has an ecological heating source, and saves water. We support certain things with our choices.

Tatrzańskie szczyty o zachodzie słońca