Trail

How to Leave No Trace on Your Trail Runs

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. 

We worked with the nonprofit Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics to create this primer for how to be a responsible trail runner, both in a time of a global pandemic, and when the world gets back to normal.

During COVID-19

Two women with face coverings running through the woods
Photo: Getty Images

1. Choose Wide, Uncrowded Trails

One of the core pieces of advice from the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics 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 6 feet of distance from other trail users. That often means sticking to wide dirt paths or dirt roads. And be flexible: If you get to the trailhead and it’s packed with cars, you should probably seek out a different place—now’s not the time to be hell-bent on running your favorite singletrack.

2. Step Off Wisely

Since social distancing is paramount right now, the Center prioritizes protecting the people around you first, even if that means stepping off the trail. Leave No Trace has long advised traveling on durable surfaces when traveling off-trail (see #9 and #10). 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. 

3. Follow the Rules

If there are restrictions in your area advising staying home or avoiding all unnecessary travel, driving to a trailhead probably doesn’t fit the bill. Look for alternatives in your own neighborhood. You might be surprised by how much nature-based running you can find if you search for it. 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.

4. Wear Masks

In places where masks are a requirement, be sure you’re prepared to comply. Even if it’s not strictly required, many trail runners are donning masks out of consideration for other travelers. Or try a Buff (you can pretend you’re running Marathon des Sables and trying to keep out Sahara Desert sand). Keep in mind the mask isn’t just for your protection; it’s also for the people around you.

5. Careful Out There

Reconsider epic backcountry 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.

6. Be Social Media–Conscious

If you find a quiet trail running location, think twice about broadcasting it. You might not want to popularize it, because it’s better for everyone if trail runners are spread far and wide. It’s perfectly OK to share your running fun, but consider encouraging others to take the Leave No Trace steps you’ve taken.

7. Control Your Pet

There is no conclusive evidence to suggest that dogs can spread COVID-19 germs, but even if they can’t, keeping pets on-leash and under control can minimize the need for humans to get too close to each other. Keeping your pet safely distanced from other trail users might also help subdue others’ anxieties.

8. Poop Preparation

With many facilities at trailheads currently unmaintained, that restroom you usually use at the trailhead might not have any toilet paper. For that reason, it’s a good idea to have a spare roll in your car, as well as other supplies (chiefly a trowel and some hand sanitizer) to pull off an emergency pit stop. That same bathroom might also have a padlock on the door. (See point #9.)

Beyond COVID-19 Concerns

Two men running along a trail with a sunny canyon in the background
Photo: Brian Erickson / Unsplash

9. Know How to Poop in the Woods

The Center recommends, first and foremost, to take advantage of restroom facilities before starting your trail outing. But if they’re closed, or if nature calls while you’re out on a trail run, here’s what to do: Move 200 feet (70 big strides) off the trail and away from any water source, like rivers or lakes. Find a pointy rock or large stick and dig a 6-inch cathole. Do your thing, bury it all—including toilet paper, if you used it instead of a leaf or a flat rock—and try to make the area look like it did before you did your business. Alternatively, run with a commercially available product, such as a Cleanwaste GO Anywhere Toilet Kit and carry out the waste for proper disposal. 

10. How to Pee in the Woods 

Peeing is simple. Simply step off the trail (200 feet/70 adult strides is best) and do your thing. Ideally, your target is something durable, like rocks or sand. Take extra care when running among sensitive flora in high-altitude alpine environments. And make sure you can identify poison ivy, oak, and sumac enough to not wipe with it. Be sure to bury or pack out any paper products.

11. 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 center is better than turning a 2-foot-wide trail into a 4-foot-wide trail. Embrace the mud and have some fun with it. Keep in mind that if you head out on a trail that’s frozen or snow-covered, it might turn to mud on your way back. Try to run early or late when temps keep trails snow- or ice-covered, but if you encounter mud at any point, run right through it on-trail.

12. 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 travelers. 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’s 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.

13. Respect Wildlife

Avoid temptation to share your energy bar with the chipmunks, and don’t chuck apple cores or orange peels from your car at the trailhead, or anywhere into the wilderness. 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 behavior 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.

14. 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 trailheads 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.