Why I’m Passionate About Leave No Trace: My Experience as an Adventure Photographer and Former Public Lands Worker

Last Updated: April 7, 2024 | Published On: January 25, 2021

A less-commonly known fact about me is that before I dove into the world of adventure elopement photography, I studied Recreation Management and spent two summers working on America’s public lands. These experiences have dramatically shaped the way I recreate in the outdoors and where I started to learn about Leave No Trace, otherwise known as “LNT”. 

What Working on Public Lands Taught Me About Leave No Trace

My first pivotal experiences with conservation and the outdoors all began In 2014 when I hopped on a train that ran from Chicago to Whitefish, Montana. This is where I’d spend the summer working for the Montana Conservation Corps (MCC) in Glacier National Park, Montana. At the time, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I only knew that I was out to discover what was beyond the cornfields of the Midwest. I was on a quest to see lots and lots of mountains. 

Growing up, I had camped every summer with my family, but I’d hardly say we were “roughing it”. We brought on those trips queen-sized air mattresses, quilts, and made sure to always choose a campsite close to the bathrooms equipped with showers. 

When I found myself lying down on my thin, backpacking mattress pad for the first night of many in Glacier National Park, I knew I was in for something far different than I had ever experienced. The first days in Montana were spent going over bear safety, proper tool usage, how to pack a backpack efficiently, and all kinds of things I’d never heard of growing up. 

After those introductory days, it was time to get to work. We were going to help the park’s road crew clear the Going to the Sun Road for its upcoming reopening. Those grueling shifts were spent hauling snow and mud off the side of a cliff while standing in ankle-deep water as it poured rain and sleet. I remember being miserable for a moment, then totally at awe as the clouds would open up and reveal misty towering peaks. I couldn’t believe places like it existed. 

As our crew continued on to more projects such as cleaning up trash, removing invasive plants, and even counting mountain goats from remote trails, I fell in love with the land more each day. 

Before leaving Chicago
Working hard in Montana

I found that life outside was simple. Every day, all I needed to worry about was camp chores, eating, where I would be working, and what amazing vista was just around the corner.  I don’t mean to say it wasn’t hard. There were days all I could dream about was a shower. Or how I wished I wouldn’t find a spider infestation in my tent. Or I wished that I wouldn’t be so sore and tired. But there was peace in all of it. 

That summer, I gained an appreciation that can’t be quenched for wild outdoor spaces. I saw how much work went into preserving these incredible places, and I knew I wanted to continue to be a part of that work. 

Counting mountain goats in Glacier National Park
My friend, Ruby, hauling a “straw waddle” uphill. We used these to help repair the mountainside that had been eroded by 4 x 4s.

In the summer of 2016, I went to Colorado to work for the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps (RMYC). I was looking for a job that fulfilled me like Glacier had. Colorado didn’t disappoint and I got to travel throughout the northwest region working on trails managed by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Through it all, I fell deeper in love with nature and becoming a good steward of the land. I still remember the night I got to see the milky way for the first time; something that is becoming increasingly challenging to do with growing light pollution. 

In between these jobs, I also went to university where I involved myself in a degree and programs where I could help others get outside and learn how to recreate responsibly. This, coupled with my experience working on public lands, prepared me to jump into the world of adventure elopements with a unique perspective on what it means to get married in the outdoors. Today, I’m here to share with you a little bit more about that and what it means to be a “Leave No Trace Aware” photographer.

What Is Leave No Trace (LNT)? 

Leave No Trace is a set of seven principles relating to outdoor ethics. These Leave No Trace guidelines help everyone venturing outdoors to recreate in a way that will preserve the landscape for generations to come. 

What Are the 7 Leave No Trace Principles? 

The 7 Principles of Leave No Trace are listed below. You can find a more in-depth guide of each directly on the LNT website.

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly
  4. Leave What You Find
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
  6. Respect Wildlife
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors 

Why Does Leave No Trace Matter So Much? 

In early 2019, I wrote a policy analysis on Leave No Trace, digging into the research behind why Leave No Trace matters more than ever. While working on this three-month project, I emailed Ben Lawhon, the Leave No Trace Education Director. He gave this statement, which I think sums up the importance of LNT perfectly.

“The biggest single challenge is that we’re always making more people but we’re not making more lands. There are more and more of us trying to enjoy a finite resource. Recreational use of public lands is off the charts and is continuing to grow year over year. Couple that with the fact that we know that 9 out of 10 people recreating on public lands are uninformed or underinformed about Leave no Trace, and you have a situation where people simply don’t yet know how to minimize their impacts.”

Leave No Trace works, but only if each of us does our job to live it and help others understand it. 

hooray for awesome, rocky, durable surfaces like this one!

Why I love the Leave No Trace Principles

Ok, so there’s a whole lotta reasons to love the Leave No Trace Principles, but the biggest thing I want to point out is that there are only seven of them, and most of them seem like common sense once you’re familiar with LNT! 

Beyond that though, I love Leave No Trace because it not only helps me help others have a better outdoor experience but also positively impacts my day-to-day recreation when people choose to adhere to LNT. When Leave No Trace is practiced, we are ensured that we can keep going back to the places we love again and again. 

The “How to Leave No Trace for Wedding & Elopement Photographers” Course

In mid-2020, I successfully completed the “How to Leave No Trace for Wedding & Elopement Photographers” Course. This course, designed by Ben Lawhon of the LNT Center for Outdoor Ethics, and photographers Maddie Mae, Annie Graham, and the Foxes go over each of the seven LNT principles from a photography standpoint. This course gave me the tools to integrate what I love about sustainable recreation into my business, so I can better serve each of you! 

In my experience, working with couples in the outdoors is so much more than just taking pretty photos- it’s about creating an experience that you’ll remember forever in some of the best places on earth. Those places deserve to be protected so not only can you go back and visit them on your 5, 10, or even 25th wedding anniversary, but so that other people can also enjoy their magic. 

For anyone who regularly works in the photography industry and recreates outdoors, the course is a must. You can find it here (and all proceeds go towards the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics!). 

How Leave No Trace Impacts Your Adventure Elopement or Session

Since Scott and I work almost exclusively outdoors with adventurous couples like you, Leave No Trace Impacts just about every facet of our business. 

For example, for Principle #1, “Plan Ahead and Prepare”, we make sure that we’ve thoroughly researched any locations that will be a part of your elopement day. Some things we consider to “Plan ahead and prepare” include:

  • Does the location require any special permits? 
  • What season is the best and safest to visit? 
  • What time of day will be least crowded? 
  • Packing the right gear such as good footwear and layers
  • Is there any delicate plant life or wildlife we need to be mindful of? 

When it comes to traveling and camping on durable surfaces, LNT principle #2, we want to be sure the trail is in good shape and we can stick to it. Or concerns like, are there enough spots at the location we’re visiting to not only get great shots but also be able to stick to durable surfaces such as rocks or hardy grasses? (hardy grasses are common in the Alps where cows graze) 

Disposing of waste properly is another big part of implementing Leave No Trace at your elopement or session. Whatever we carry in, we make sure to pack out. A common misconception is that apple or banana peels are ok to leave behind because they’ll eventually decompose. Think if everyone left their food waste though? It negatively impacts everyone’s chance at enjoying a pristine environment. For weddings, any remains of a floral arrangement should be carried out, leaving no petals behind. Corks from sparkling beverages shouldn’t get lost. Items such as smoke-bombs are disruptive and also can cause problems. 

Principle #7, “Be Considerate of Other Visitors” encompasses all the principles, in the sense that each of the previous six contributes to everyone having a great experience outside. Additionally, there are some other measures to consider. Many people consider getting outside as an escape or a way to get some peace. Be respectful of noise levels and avoid playing loud music on the trail or at camp. Even if it’s your wedding day, remember other people are also spending quality time outside and deserve respect. When we are shooting and exploring, sometimes we may have to wait to get a certain viewpoint or only have a spot for a few moments before giving someone else a turn. 

One big way you can make your Leave No Trace Wedding better is by choosing to avoid highly-trafficked areas, or making sure to visit during quieter times of the day or the off-season. As your Leave No Trace Aware photographers, we will help guide you through that process so you can make the most of your elopement experience. We also work hard to find unique, quiet spots that have all the amazing qualities of some more popular areas, but without the crowds. In 2020, Scott and I hiked nearly 1,000 miles each, exploring many beautiful corners of the Alps. It’s just what we do and a huge part of the Made in the Mountains Experience. 

Scott and I tried out a trail we hadn’t heard of before and we shocked when this was the scene we landed upon. When prepping for your elopement, we make sure to avoid locations like this.

Leave No Trace and Photography Permits

If you’re getting married in the US, be sure to obtain any necessary wedding permits needed for your event. Many public lands have restrictions on where you can get married or have a photo shoot. They also only offer a certain amount of permits per year and per location, meaning you should plan ahead (locations in Europe can have restrictions too, but we won’t cover those here).

If you are a photographer, please make sure you’re obtaining photography or commercial permits when working with clients, or even on styled shoots that often require them. I wish I could say that the permitting system is easy and is the same across the board, no matter where you live, but unfortunately, even among National Parks it widely varies. Get in touch with the commercial permit office and find out exactly what permits you need to get and any restrictions relevant to what you’re wanting to shoot. Many parks consider any images that may be used to promote a business online or social media as “commercial work” and will require a permit, even if it isn’t a paying client.

Although permit fees can seem expensive at times, realize that this money is spent on resources needed to keep the park running. Most National Parks are grossly underfunded, and it’s reasonable to ask that anyone monetizing from them should pay a relatively small fee. Just driving in and out of the park with your couples or using the bathrooms uses park amenities that need regular maintenance. Obtaining proper permits also means that you and your clients may have a wedding spot to yourself, rather than sharing when someone shows up unannounced.

Wedding and photography permits play a direct role in Leave No Trace and have the power to make everyone’s experience better. 

Leave No Trace, Geotagging, and Photo Sharing

Geotagging locations when sharing photos is a sticky topic that has no easy answers. The Leave No Trace official policy on geotagging was updated in September 2020 to let people know that LNT is not inherently anti-geotagging

Leave No Trace recommends when sharing geotagged images, adding helpful information about LNT and being sure the photos you’re sharing depict LNT activities is key. Even what platform you share an image on can make a difference in how the photo is interpreted. Sharing is not automatically bad and may inspire others to get outside. 

From our personal experience, we are still hesitant to share specific location information, especially on social media channels like Instagram. We’ve found platforms such as Instagram are there to serve people generally looking for quickly digestible information as they scroll, and long captions about LNT often go unread. For these reasons, if we feel comfortable sharing a location, we’re more likely to do so on a platform like our blog, where people are more inclined to read all of the information presented. We also ask clients not to share specific locations online for similar reasons. 

There is a lot of debate about geotagging and if choosing not to do so may bar some people from getting outside. I’d like to add a few personal thoughts on that since it’s a legitimate concern (these are not the official policy of LNT, so please do not interpret them as such). 

I wholeheartedly believe that people from every walk of life should have a chance to learn the tools needed to not only recreate but to do so responsibly. I personally don’t think social media geotags are the most effective way of encouraging responsible recreation and more often than not do more harm than good. Having worked in trail construction and restoration, I’ve seen first-hand the damage done as trails have had to close when a space wasn’t equipped to handle a sudden influx of people. When that trail closes, no one can enjoy it. It may have to be closed for only a summer, sometimes it takes years to recover though. The fact is, even when everyone is following Leave No Trace to the best of their ability, not everywhere is able to handle a high-capacity of visitors. When people geotag, some sensitive places may be overwhelmed in a matter of weeks. All it takes is one viral geotag.

Some other food for thought:  Geotagging generally opens up more locations to social media influencers and rich, privileged communities who can afford to travel more than anyone else. Unfortunately, at some locations, people now have to “line-up” to get their shot. I’ve seen spots I’ve worked and lived in drastically change due to geotagging (in a bad way)…and those visitors who now flock are rarely from underprivileged communities. Instead, some areas get so “insta-famous” the cost of traveling to those places skyrockets, campgrounds get pricier, more infrastructure is needed to handle permits, etc., which may actually make it HARDER for disadvantaged people to access these locations. Geotagging is a bit of a catch-22 in that respect. It may help more people get out, but in turn, make the barrier to entry even higher for those who need it most. 

So, in short, be aware of how Leave No Trace may impact your images and what you choose to share about a location. 

On this hike, Scott and I saw only 3 people the entire trail.

Why It’s Everyone’s Job to Leave No Trace

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve made mistakes when it comes to Leave No Trace. Sometimes big mistakes. Like you, I’m constantly learning. I’m grateful to be a part of a community of people that are also committed to being “Leave No Trace Photographers”. We can’t do it alone though. It’s everyone’s job to Leave No Trace. 

Leave No Trace impacts everyone recreating outside. From photographers like me to everyday adventurers like you, or the family that’s visiting their local park. We all have a role to play in taking care of our public lands. Throughout the world, some places have been “loved to death” due to their high-visitation and have had to close to visitors, which is tragic. Despite this, we can take comfort in knowing that it’s preventable. No one is required to go build a trail or organize a rally to make a difference. What our special places need is committed individuals willing to follow Leave No Trace and also politely educate others. Doing so ensures these places can be cherished for generations to come. 

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