Might not be a real question for The Great Outdoors.SE, but definitely a real question in our lives, at least mine.

I understand, agree and believe in Leave No Trace philosophy. But, when we take countless memories and pride in climbing mountains, what can we give back?

Example, Tree plantation.

Since I am referring to a global scope, I do understand that legalities and procedures won't be the same. People can possibly suggest what is doable and legal in their places, I'll see if they are legal and doable in my country (India).

  • 5
    I've been planting trees since I was about 5 years old, we plant trees as a fundraiser in Canada for boy scouts. Google: Scoutrees. I've planted thousands of trees in my lifetime.
    – ShemSeger
    Dec 21, 2015 at 16:11
  • 10
    Remove traces from other people, trash for example
    – orique
    Dec 21, 2015 at 16:11
  • Planted trees are traces. Dec 1, 2016 at 11:21

6 Answers 6


I think this is a really complicated question because everything we do and don't do has consequences. What is a preferred outcome or consequence to our actions is deeply personal and not really relevant to the mountains. The mountains will survive and thrive regardless of what we do, almost certainly in a different form than we saw it since nothing is static in a natural world. The poem Hamatreya captures this sentiment well. Here is an excerpt:

“Here is the land,
Shaggy with wood,
With its old valley,
Mound and flood.
But the heritors?—
Fled like the flood's foam.
The lawyer and the laws,
And the kingdom,
Clean swept herefrom.

“They called me theirs,
Who so controlled me;
Yet every one
Wished to stay, and is gone,
How am I theirs,
If they cannot hold me,
But I hold them?”

What people often try to do is defend the earth from the ravages of humans that are transient in nature. This is nicely highlighted in an interview by This American Life called The Hiker and the Cowman Should be Friends.

But here, in the Escalante, in these canyons, I think the grazing doesn't hurt anything. A canyon bottom, like the gulch, they trail cows through there. And I've seen people, campers, in there. And they see these cows go through, and pound up the ground, and crap everywhere. And then the campers scream about the cows, say how horrible they are. The campers go back to the city. And a month later, I go back down to the same canyon, and you can't tell there was ever a cow in it. It's grown up with grass and clover.

In the piece they describe a story about a person who would go hiking in an area and see the "destruction" of nature by grazing cattle. The "destruction" the outsiders saw was generally transitory. Grant Johnson used to fight the ranchers but over time he realized the ranchers weren't an evil bunch trying to destroy the land but very much in tune and part of the land. I'm not trying to say that all ranchers are saints and all activists are fighting non-issues. The truth is clearly more muddled. I'm just trying to say that sometimes things aren't as clear cut as either side presents.

I think this is one of the factors that leads to conflicts like the ones between hunters and anti-hunting activists. Both groups want to see large healthy herds. The anti-hunting activists don't want hunters killing the animals. The hunters think culling the herd is better than overpopulation resulting in starving out animals during the winter. When both groups work together then it is a win-win-win. When they attack each other as diametrically opposed enemies resources are lost that could have helped effect the outcome both groups want.

So if you want to give back to the mountains I think it is important to note that what you're doing is trying to change a landscape to something you think is better, or maintain a landscape's status quo because you feel this is how the landscape should be. As you can see these are very personal decisions and it is unfortunately easier to dismiss your "opposition" as bad/evil/{insert negative adjective}. However I think it is often best to work with people who seem to be opposed to you because they might see an angle you don't.

Once you've made your decisions you have three broad categories of actions you can take: change your behavior, influence others, and directly perform works. Since these are a bit abstract I'll give some concrete examples

You are concerned about global warming's affect on glaciers and snowpacks.

  • Change your behavior
    • Reduce your carbon footprint
  • Influence others
    • Raise awareness in your community
    • Vote for politicians that prioritize global warming
    • Donate to lobbying groups that want to fight global warming
    • Fund research into global warming
  • Directly perform works
    • Plant trees on property you own
    • Get permission to plant trees on property you don't own

Of course there are more things you could do in each category. Here is another example.

You notice lots of trash in your favorite areas.

  • Change your behavior
    • Don't leave trash
    • Pack out any used toilet paper instead of burying it
    • Adopt the best practices of organizations like Leave No Trace.
  • Influence others
    • Raise awareness in your community with speaking events with photos of the trash
    • Purchase advertising space to raise awareness for this problem
    • Donate to organizations that clean up trash in this area, or would be willing to clean up trash in this area
    • Get the local authority over the land to install and service trash cans in the area
    • Get permission to place signage reminding people not to litter
    • Talk to people on the trail about the trash problem
  • Directly perform works
    • Pack out trash you find
    • Place signage you have permission to place against littering

You want to combat the erosion that occurs on your favorite trails.

  • Change your behavior
    • If you walk the trail less then there will be less erosion.
    • Don't walk on the trail when you're likely to cause increased erosion (walking on the trail during the rainy season)
  • Influence others
    • Raise awareness in your community with speaking events with photos of the erosion
    • Donate to organizations that maintain the trails
    • Get the local authority over the land to improve the trail or allow you to improve the trail
    • Talk to people on the trail about the importance of staying on the trail
  • Directly perform works
    • Improve the trail with permission

As you can see you can adapt any change you want to see in the outdoors to this three pronged approach. Always be mindful of how your efforts affect the system as a whole.

  • 3
    +1 There is food for thought in the philosophy part of your answer! In the long run, coal mining via mountain-top removal in the Appalachians will be unnoticeable because the Appalachians will be eroded to nothing. In the even longer run, the earth will be consumed by the sun. In the even longer run, cosmologists don't agree on what will happen to our universe. Meanwhile, we'll agree not to litter.
    – ab2
    Nov 22, 2016 at 21:09
  • 3
    @ab2 :) I agree, and I do make my bed in the morning even though I'm going to mess it up every night. I think we both agree balance needs to be found and threat of rapture or the heat death of the universe shouldn't prevent us from destroying just to destroy. I think you understood the core of my answer was to not worry about the little stuff, decide if/what you want to change/maintain, and a general framework to make a difference.
    – Erik
    Nov 22, 2016 at 21:18

The best thing we can give back is protection against destructive or disruptive actions of our fellow humans (but that is not always realistic).

Lobby in your local, regional, national, supernational legislations for the highest level of protection possible for your mountains. Make sure they will not be subject to mining, logging, large-scale infrastructural projects. Get them protected as a strict¹ wilderness.

(Note: this answer is not an endorsement for or against vastly extended strict wilderness protection or for or against mining. It is currently not realistic (politically, economically, technically) to strictly protect everything on Earth that anybody may find worth protecting. Sustainability must also take into account short- and long-term human interests. This answer merely points out what any individual can do if he or she wishes to protect the mountains that he or she loves. Of course there are other interests. It is up to the political process to balance those interests and come up with a solution.)

¹With some areas still permitting some leave-no-trace mountaineering, it would be sad if we couldn't enter any mountain ever anymore.

  • 1
    Not always the case, the highest level protection in the UK doesn't mean mining or logging would not occur. Logging is used to bring UK forests back to the correct percentage of 'ancient' woodland which then keeps their protected status, by logging the younger trees they maintain the status of ancient woodland - in some areas it occurs on a large scale. Logging is also used to prevent spread of disease, such as ash dieback. Though this isn't really on mountains, as ours are pretty bare.
    – Aravona
    Dec 21, 2015 at 12:29
  • 1
    @DavidRicherby This is for areas that may even have the 'highest level of protection' the government will offer, in which case they will do no more regardless of how much people petition, it's unfortunate. My point was to say that not all logging is for detrimental reasons nor are all areas of 'highest level protection' in the UK free from logging or mining.
    – Aravona
    Dec 21, 2015 at 13:18
  • 3
    A lot of the UK ecosystem is very man-made, even the ones that on the surface are "natural". Animals grazing, Coppicing, logging, etc have all reshaped the environment and stopping doing them actually causes things to change.
    – Tim B
    Dec 21, 2015 at 13:23
  • 1
    @Aravona My point is that, if enough people make enough noise, the government will change the law to afford higher levels protection than are currently available. Obviously, that's harder to achieve than implementing existing levels of protection in new areas. Remember that, originally, there were no national parks: governments created them because the people wanted it. Dec 21, 2015 at 13:32
  • 1
    @DavidRicherby a lot of UK land was actually donated by private landowners into various Trusts, of which we have many, all with their own views and ideals on protection - the government in the UK is currently planning to destroy half our country, including ancient woodlands, for a train and is ignoring, to the highest court we have, the plea of the people. Any landowner who owns over a certain acreage of land will suffer compulsory purchase. Trust me, I have added my voice against this for the past 8 years, but the consensus is it's going ahead. More than happy to talk in chat more about this!
    – Aravona
    Dec 21, 2015 at 13:37

Unless you're Yvon Chouinard, you're unlikely to achieve very much on your own.

So the best thing is to support those organizations whose primary aim is to protect the mountain environment. In the UK, that could be the John Muir Trust, Fix the Fells, Snowdonia Society, for example. In the US, The Sierra Club is one choice, although there are others.

Find a local organization whose aims tie in with yours, and join. Volunteer, evangelize, or simply donate money.

  • @ab2 Feel free to edit :) - I only have passing knowledge of the US situation!
    – Roddy
    Dec 21, 2015 at 20:46
  • 1
    We (i.e., the users) could get into a discussion about which organization is more effective, if we start listing US or world organizations. I think that would be counterproductive. So I have done only a modest edit.
    – ab2
    Dec 21, 2015 at 20:56
  • Thanks. I just wanted to include some relevant examples!
    – Roddy
    Dec 21, 2015 at 20:58

One way to give back is to be actively involved in reclamation projects. Growing up I was actively involved in scouting, and every year we participated in a fund raising program known as Trees for Canada, now known as Scoutrees. We would plant thousands of new trees in a day in clear cuts where timber had been recently harvested, or on spoil piles in the mines (where they pile the mountains back up after sifting the coal out).

There are people who make money planting trees for reclamation companies–mines and forestry companies are required to reclaim sites, so they employ people to do so–but they get paid per tree, so they plant as fast as they can to reach a daily quota. I was told by the environmental specialist on the last scoutrees fundraiser I participated in that they love when the scouts plant, because the trees they plant have a higher survival rate.

Volunteer driven reclamation projects are more successful because the people are driven by service and put more care into the work. So in my opinion, the best way to give back to the mountains, is to volunteer with groups who do reclamation work, or donate to such groups, you can donate directly to Scoutrees for example.

Another good organization to donate to would be the Nature Conservancy. They own a tonne of land around the world, including some land surrounding Glacier/Wateron National Park where I live. Donations help them purchase and maintain more land that they protect and grant various levels of access to.

  • so good to find fellow scouts here :)
    – Akabelle
    Nov 24, 2016 at 12:42
  • You should consider that by planting trees in clearcutted areas you help to make it possible for these companies to continue their unsustainable practices, instead of switching to sustainable modes of forestry which don't require any replantings.
    – chicken
    Nov 25, 2016 at 11:20
  • 1
    @Leo What about the timber industry is unsustainable? Trees are a RENEWABLE resource, I've watched the forest around my hometown grow back twice now. The only reason the industry is expanding is because of increased demand for resources due to globalization and population increases. I tend to view parts of the forest as farmers fields now, but the crop takes 30 years to get ripe enough for harvest. Clearcuts are the easiest and most cost effective form of logging, and trees can grow back surprisingly fast.
    – ShemSeger
    Nov 25, 2016 at 16:21

Once you learned to appreciate the Mountain, the best way to give back (in my opinion) is to teach others how to behave in nature. This would spread the knowledge you gathered through the years, deepen the Leave No Trace mentality, help people bond with nature, and one day - why not? - maybe make them ask the same question you have now. So they would also give back something one day, and the chain goes on this way.

You might do this by volunteering in NGOs that deal with education. Find your local Scout troop :) or any other organization that deals with youth: giving them skills in a young age, opportunities for bonding and memories, or even a community where they can "belong". And all this in nature: they can learn to respect not only their fellow humans, but also the Mountain.

If you are not the type to get along with children (although some youth organizations - Scouts again, for example - tend to have all age groups, from 7 to 25+ years old), you can still consider volunteering for adult workshops, hold presentations in an afternoon school. Or donating to local NGOs who do such things.


Limit your carbon footprint

Limiting your carbon footprint is just one of the many ways you can try to protect nature from the impact of man. It is an important one though.

  • For the love of God, stop flying everywhere. Take the train or boat or bike. Heck, even a car. Or spend a vacation in a nearby place. This sounds banal, but flying is the single largest factor in a persons carbon footprint.

  • Do you really need the newest fanciest XYZ product? Will its predecessor not also still do the job? (If that one broke, why not spend a little more on something durable and sustainable next time?)

  • Stop producing waste whenever possible in your daily life. Use refills/recharges/multiple use products instead of throwaways.

  • Buy/build/produce sustainably.

This might turn into an argument about climate change. Maybe it should.

  • 1
    @ab2: For some reason there are some societies/countries which seem to be a lot less aware of how bad flying actually is in terms of emissions.
    – fgysin
    Nov 23, 2016 at 14:36

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