Activity Plan 1 for Travel and Camp On Durable Surfaces

Exploring Travel Concepts

This activity will take about 75 minutes.

What Your Group Will Learn

After participating in this activity plan, which is designed to help participants learn about backcountry travel, participants will be able to

  • Describe the value of trails in backcountry travel.
  • Apply Leave No Trace ideas to travel decisions in the backcountry and near home.
  • Create and travel through imaginary backcountry landscape. The participants will take two trips. First they will imagine their backcountry landscape is a popular, well-used area with a developed trail. On the second trip, they will imagine the area is rarely used. How will group members choose to travel to their destination in each situation? The backcountry landscape will provide a focal point for questions and discussion.

Materials and Preparation


  • A large (approximately 18″ x 24″), shallow box or container with an open top. An outdoor sandbox or similar area will also work well.
  • If a box is used, collect enough sand, dirt, or similar material to fill the box to a depth of about 1 inch.
  • Small paper cutouts or other objects to simulate natural features such as animals and vegetation (trees, shrubs, grasses, etc.).
  • Small stones and flat rocks to simulate boulders and rocky surfaces.


  • Read this entire activity plan and the Background on the Principles of Leave No Trace thoroughly.
  • Prepare a backcountry landscape prior to your group’s arrival by creating a flat, featureless layer of slightly damp sand or soil in the bottom of your box.
  • Have group members make small cutouts or bring toy objects from home to simulate natural features. Preparing these items prior to your meeting will contribute to success.

Alternative setting: A sandlot playground can serve as a “life-sized” backcountry if preferred. Prepare the sand with a rake or other tool to create your featureless landscape. The trick is to make the area smooth enough so that participants can see the effects of their travel. Swing sets and other playground equipment can serve as “rocks” and other natural features.

Grabbing Your Group’s Attention (15 minutes)

Your group is going to build an imaginary backcountry setting. The backcountry landscape created will stimulate participants’ curiosity and interest; they will actually see their “footsteps” on the landscape. Presenting this activity in a fun and interesting way is crucial to its success.

Have everyone gather around the prepared box of sand or soil. Using the cutouts, pebbles, rocks, and other objects, have the participants create a backcountry world into which they will enter on an imaginary hiking trip. Your backcountry world should include a “stream” or “river,” “trees,” a “meadow,” and at least one “flat, rocky area.” Designate a point at one end of the box as the “starting point” and a point at the other end of the box as the “final destination.”

Steps for Teaching the Activity (45 minutes)

Scenario 1: On-Trail

1. Have participants decide as a group where to locate a narrow “hiking trail” leading from the starting point to the final destination. Tell them they must include a short section of zigzags (switchbacks). Have one person use two fingers to draw the trail in the sand.

2. Present the following scenario: Imagine the group is planning a trip through its backcountry landscape. The trail and destination are visited yearly by many hikers and campers. The goal of the group is to leave as little trace as possible while traveling from the starting point to the final destination. Each participant should indicate the route he or she would take by letting the “fingers do the walking” in the moist sand. Instruct the group to identify one spot for a break along the way. Let each person indicate a path before discussion.

A close review of the Background on the Principles of Leave No Trace is needed to effectively lead discussion. Ask participants the following questions.

Why did you choose the route you did? Most people will choose to stay on the trail. The discussion should focus on choosing a route that will protect the land and help prevent new trails from beginning.

Why do land managers build hiking trails for backcountry visitors? Constructed trails concentrate hiker activity and help prevent informal trails—which increase the impact on vegetation and may cause soil erosion—from forming.

Where should the group stop for breaks? Taking breaks off-trail can help preserve solitude for others; however, always take breaks on durable surfaces. Move to gravel or flat rocks if such surfaces can be found without disturbing soil or vegetation and preferably out of sight off the trail to allow others to pass without impacting their experience.

How noisy were participants during their hike? A little chatter is a part of hiking and can reduce the risk of bear encounters in bear country. However, screaming, radios, singing, and other loud noises upset the outdoor experience of all visitors and may disturb wildlife.

Summarize these key points:

  • Use existing trails.
  • Avoid taking shortcuts.
  • Walk single file. Avoid widening trails.

Scenario 2: Off-Trail

1.  Use a wide paintbrush or your hand to erase the trail from your back- country landscape.

2. Present your group with a new scenario: Imagine the group is planning a trip through a new area rarely visited by hikers and campers—it has no trail leading to the destination. The group’s goal is to reach the destination while leaving as little evidence of its passing as possible. How should group members travel to their destination? Again, each participant should indicate a route by letting his or her “fingers do the walking” in the moist sand. Let each participant indicate a path before discussion.

A close review of the Background on the Principles of Leave No Trace is needed to effectively lead discussion.

Why did you choose the route that you did? Traveling off-trail will present group members with difficult decisions. It is important to help people develop critical thinking skills by weighing the effects of alternative off-trail choices. Should they spread out or walk in the same path?

Would your choice differ if this were a desert environment? Forested environment? Generally, spreading out will be the best choice, but this may be inappropriate in some desert environments. Avoid sensitive riparian areas. Refer to the Background on the Principles of Leave No Trace for details.

Where should the group stop for breaks? Find durable surfaces such as large rocks, sand, or gravel when stopping for breaks.

Summarize key points with participants.

  • Avoid hiking off-trail in highly sensitive areas, especially with large groups. Consider changing your travel plans.
  • If hiking off-trail, spread out and travel on durable surfaces to avoid making new paths that destroy vegetation and lead to erosion. Take special precautions in desert areas where cryptobiotic crust is easily damaged. See the Background on the Principles of Leave No Trace.
  • If hiking off-trail, don’t mark your path with trail markers that may encourage others to follow. The likelihood of permanent damage increases as more people trample the same area.

Wrapping Up the Activity (15 minutes)

Your campers have explored travel methods that help preserve the naturalness of the outdoors for wildlife and visitors. How well have they learned to walk softly on the land? Ask them:

  • What role does pretrip planning play in choosing the best route for an outdoor excursion?
  • How might planning a route before starting a trip help protect the land?

Imagine that each person travels at random, some walking along the banks of the stream (fragile area), some traveling through the trees, and some taking shortcuts up steep banks (erosion). How might this random method of route selection affect each scenario?

Small groups reduce the likelihood that an unsightly web of new footprints will be created. Ask participants the following:

  • How large a group might be appropriate for a trailed backcountry? For a trailless backcountry?
  • If your camping group is larger than the group size you have suggested here, how might you solve this problem?
  • Can they recall examples of travel damage they have seen in the backcountry?
  • Have group members seen damage from poor travel habits near their homes or in parks?
  • What are the city’s equivalents to trails?

Ask each person to describe one backcountry travel idea he or she will promise to use when traveling the outdoors—or even in the city.

Congratulations on conducting a well-prepared meeting for your group!