Each year, we send our gap year students out to travel across the world. But before we do that, we need to establish the basics of respectful travel.
To to deliver our unique skills programs, we partner with the best teachers and institutions around the world. At the very start of our Global Skills Programs, the National Outdoor Leadership School is essential. NOLS courses are the perfect way to start a gap year, and to create the bonds of friendship and trust necessary to grow and live together in unfamiliar, sometimes harsh environments way outside your regular comfort zone.
But even more than that, NOLS teaches you how to relate to the natural world in the most respectful way possible. Their Leave No Trace principles are a set of guidelines that allow you to get close to nature and enjoy the things it has to teach without doing harm. They cover everything from pre-trip planning to interacting with other people on the trail.
There's clearly a parallel between each of these guidelines and those that we would prescribe for traveling internationally. Here are a few examples:
1. Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you'll visit.
Depending on where you are in the world, different laws and regulations will apply. If you're going to Bangkok, it could be pre-entry visa requirements. If you're in the backcountry of Wyoming, the special concern could be finding clean drinking water. Venice, maybe pickpocketing.
Knowing what you're facing before you get there can be a huge advantage, because it allows you to adapt while you still have time and other resources. You can pack your water filter, and your hidden money pouch. You can apply for that entry visa before you miss the deadline!
2. Visit in small groups. Split larger parties into groups of 4 - 6.
Each time you visit a place, you leave an imprint. Whether that's a physical footprint, or a complex socio-cultural impact, something happens. There is no one way interaction, where you might receive a piece of a culture and not leave a mark. And traveling in smaller groups is imperative for maintaining that balance.
We all know the groups of a hundred people walking through town, matching hats, ice cream. It's weird. Winterline always emphasizes small group sizes, whether that's learning with a partner, or wandering through an old European town. It leaves a smaller footprint, and it also creates a stronger sense of community within the group.
3. Pack it in, pack it out. Inspect your campsite and rest areas for trash or spilled foods. Pack out all trash, leftover food, and litter.
Whatever you bring into your campsite, you take with you. This fundamental relationship to trash, refuse, and waste, is how we approach our international travel experiences as well. At the end of every Winterline activity, you'll probably hear a Field Advisor say, "OK let's pick up any micro trash we see."
The aim isn't to be annoying. It's to recognize and acknowledge that we are all making an impact all the time. If twenty of us leave a plastic wrapper on the floor, the world will quickly become a landfill, and that's not what we want. We learn about marine biology because we love it. We learn about life in the slums of India because we know that humans are humans. Whether it's marine species or humanity, our trash affects each other. The way we treat the world is how we treat ourselves. This Leave No Trace principle highlights that very important fact.
4. Preserve the past, observe but do not touch cultural or historic structures and artifacts.
Everything that humanity has built is a part of our heritage. That's what it means to be a global citizen, to be a citizen of the world. To truly embrace this complexity is to be an inheritor of all of human history, the good and the bad, the terrible and the true.
Allowing history to be, and to coexist with the present is what allows us to transcend the limited perspectives of our own time, and thus learn. When we embrace history, observe it without damaging it, we avoid making the same mistakes of our forbears, whatever the color of their skin or the beliefs of their time.
5. Be courteous, yield to other users on the trail.
You'll never be alone forever. At some point you'll join others, even on the road less traveled. How you treat those people is not only a reflection on you as an individual, but all the things you represent to them. Whether that's your nationality, your eye color, your skin color, your fresh Nike kicks, the way you allow others to express themselves and pursue the things that matter to them in those brief moments of human interaction are not forgotten.
What gets established as culture doesn't happen in large fell swoops, mandated from on high, but in the minutiae of fleeting moments, kind gestures, bitter memories. The way we treat others inches our society towards behaving in that way.
How would you like to be treated? And to go beyond the Golden Rule -- which would have you do unto others as you would have them do unto you -- how would others wish to be treated? Because we're not all the same. That's why we travel in the first place!
6. Let nature's sounds prevail. Avoid loud voices and noises.
To soak up the world, it's best to listen. Whether that's on the trail or in the bustling streets of Mumbai, this Leave No Trace principle bears its own weight. The sound of the birds, of the singing of water taxis and tuktuks, of your peers laughing, these are the real joys of travel.
When you leave your home, don't leave this principle behind. No country should be proud of having a boisterous reputation. The ability to learn is founded on the ability to listen. See the world, but also listen.
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