Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace

It’s extremely important, now more than ever, that we all take personal responsibility for the future of our planet and its wilderness. So as we spend time outside in the natural world, it’s essential that we do our part – our conscious effort and our actions can make a huge difference on plants, animals, other people, and the entire ecosystem. When taking part in recreational outdoor activities, always follow the principles of Leave No Trace. This phrase is often posted on trails and preached about by park rangers, but what does it really mean? It’s more than just pick up after yourself – most people don’t realize that there’s actually seven principles according to the Center for Outdoor Ethics.  In fact, 9 out of 10 people are uninformed about their impacts and the goal is to change that.

While we don’t intend to harm out natural surroundings, it tends to happen, especially in heavily visited areas. It’s more than just trash: habituated wildlife, trail erosion, invasive species, polluted water, and other issues become a problem when humans visit too often and tread too heavily. Simply put, the seven principles of Leave No Trace are the best practices we should follow to help protect our natural spaces while spending time outdoors. While these principles were originally intended for backcountry hikers and campers, they can be applied to the “frontcountry” as well in your local parks and even your backyard.

The Seven Principles Explained

Plan Ahead and Prepare

  • Research the regulations and any special concerns (e.g., fire bans) about the area you plan to visit. Land managers, maps, park rangers, and other forms of literature are great sources of information.
  • Identify the goals of your trip and take into consideration you and your group’s skills and abilities.
  • Try to visit during lower trafficked times of year/season and visit in smaller groups if possible. If travelling with a larger group, break it up into smaller groups.
  • Choose the proper equipment for the weather, terrain, regulations, group size, and anticipated food consumption you’ll encounter.
  • Bring the right gear so you are prepared for emergencies, extreme weather, and other hazards.

Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

  • Travel on trails if possible. Concentrating foot and stock traffic on trails reduces multiple routes that scar the landscape. This includes not cutting switchbacks.
  • If you must travel off-trail (such as to search for bathroom privacy or explorations near the campsite), there are two things to take into consideration:
  • Surface Durability: observe the type of natural surface you are going to walk across and try to traverse more durable surfaces such as rocks, sand, and gravel, as well as ice/snow. If traveling across vegetation, select areas that are more sparse or more durable like grasses and dry areas (wet areas tend to quickly show the effects of trampling). In the desert, be extremely careful not to trample on living soil (aka cryptobiotic crust or crypto living soil) or in any water. Water is a scarce source so its best not to disturb it. Living soil looks like a blackish and irregular raised crust upon the sand – these are tiny communities of organisms and they help retain moisture and provide a protective layer against erosion. 
  • Frequency of travel (or group size): spread out to avoid creating paths that encourage others to follow. However, there is an exception to this – in case of widespread living soil that is unavoidable, follow in one another’s footsteps so the smallest possible amount of crust is affected.
  • Camp on Durable Surfaces. When deciding where to camp, consider the level and type of use in the area, the likelihood of wildlife disturbance, fragility of vegetation and soil, and your impact on those factors. 
  • In areas that have already experienced high traffic, concentrate your site and cooking area in places that are already impacted areas. 
  • Always camp 200 feet (70 adult steps) from any water source to allow access routes for wildlife.
  • When camping in areas that are undisturbed and/or remote, spread out tents and avoid repetitive traffic routes. Try to camp on durable surfaces and always check local regulations. These areas should only be used by people who are committed to and highly skilled in the Leave No Trace policies.

Dispose of Waste Properly

  • Human Waste. The disposal of human waste is an essential part of minimizing our negative impacts on the land around us. Most of the time, burying feces is the appropriate method of disposal, but this varies depending on location. Some areas do require you to pack out feces (there are EPA-approved pack-out systems made just for this) such as high alpine environments and narrow river canyons. Here are some of the methods of disposing of waste:
  • Cat holes are the most widely accepted method. These should be located at least 200 feet from water, trails, and camp, and should be in an inconspicuous site where other people are unlikely to camp or walk. Dig a hole 6-8 inches deep and 4-6 inches in diameter, then cover and disguise with natural materials when finished. 
  • Latrines are not as recommended as cat holes, but can be useful when camping with young children or when staying in one camp for longer than a few nights. Choose an area that speeds up decomposition such as a sunny and warmer area and soil that’s high in organic matter (darker soil). Ask your land manager about latrine-building techniques.
  • Toilet paper should be used sparingly and should be plain, white, non-perfumed brands. Either thoroughly bury it in a cat hole or pack it out in plastic bags. You can also use natural toilet paper such as rocks, vegetation, and snow.
  • Tampons and period products should always be packed out.
  • Urine has minimal direct effect on vegetation and soil, but urinating on pine needles, rocks, and gravel is less likely to attract wildlife. 
  • Waste Water. To wash yourself and dishes, carry water at least 200 feet from water and your camp. Strain dirty dishwater and scatter is broadly. Pack out anything in the strainer. 
  • Soaps and Lotions. Even biodegradable soap can have a negative impact on the environment, so try to minimize its use. Carry water 200 feet from streams and lake so the soil can act as a filter. Before you go swimming, keep in mind that sunscreen, lotion, insect repellant, and body oils can contaminate vital water sources.
  • Other. Inspect your campsite and rest areas before leaving. Pack out all trash and garbage. “Pack it in, Pack it out!”

Leave What You Find

  • Take only pictures and memories, leave only footprints. And really, the less footprints we leave, the better. Always leave rocks, plants, artifacts and other objects behind so other people and animals can enjoy them.
  • Minimize site alterations and leave areas the way you found them. Do not dig trenches or construct lean-tos. Fire rings should be left in place to prevent the rings being rebuilt with other rocks, which makes a larger impact.
  • Avoid damaging trees and live plants. Carving initials into trees is unacceptable. Picking a few flowers may seem like nothing, but if every person that visited that place took “just a few”, there would be no flowers left and that would significantly impact that area.
  • Leave behind natural objects (such as rocks, petrified wood, antlers, etc.) so that others may experience them and have that sense of discovery. Do not take or disturb any cultural artifacts, as this is illegal under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act.

Minimize Campfire Impacts

  • While campfires can be viewed as an essential part of any camping trip, they also create a large impact and increase the demand for firewood; stoves should be used whenever possible.
  • If you decide to build a fire, always buy wood locally to prevent the spread of invasive species or gather wood away from camp and scatter the ash remains over a large area away from camp.

Respect Wildlife

  • Never approach wildlife or disturb them just for a “better look”. Always observe from a distance so the animals are not scared or forced to flee. 
  • Sick and wounded animals can harbor disease so never touch or attempt to help. Contact a game warden instead.
  • Keep wildlife wild by securing your food properly and not feeding them. Animals that learn to associate humans with food often become a danger and therefore have to be euthanized.
  • Camping at least 200 feet away from water sources gives animals enough buffer space they need to feel secure when coming in for hydration.

Be Considerate of Other Visitors

  • Help others enjoy the outdoor experience by being courteous – control your pets, avoid excessive noise, and try not to damage your surroundings. 
  • Avoiding trips on holidays and busy weekends will help maximize your feeling of privacy.
  • If you enjoy listening to music, consider using ear buds. Take into consideration that some people relax while camping and hiking by being tech free and truly enjoying nature and its sounds. 
  • Downhill hikers should step aside to allow uphill traffic to pass. 
  • Keep dogs on a leash and pick up after them. Do not allow them to roam camp and disturb others.

**The seven Leave No Trace principles are copyrighted property of the Center for Outdoor Ethics. Visit them at lnt.org.




About the Author

Derek Vitiello

My goal with my writing and Know Nothing Nomads as a whole is to share my passions of hiking, camping, and a love of the outdoors with our readers. Making the difficult and uncertain feel more approachable to people that might not know enough to feel comfortable taking their first steps into the wilderness is a driving factor for me. When I’m not writing you can find me on a trail, in a forest, or next to a river with hiking shoes on my feet and a fly rod somewhere close by.

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