November 14, 2022

Leave No Trace Seven Principles

Leave No Trace Seven Principles

If you spend any time outdoors, it’s likely you’ve heard people throw around the words “Leave No Trace” from time to time. If you’re new to the outdoors, you might not quite know what this means.

Leave No Trace is a list of best practices all of us should follow to protect our planet. When we don’t all follow these rules, natural spaces suffer from litter, invasive species, erosion, polluted water sources and more, even unintentionally.

Make sure you understand these principles before your next trip outdoors.

In the 1960s and 1970s, more reliable cars and improvements to our Interstate Highway System resulted in a huge increase in the number of people visiting our national parks. We also had a lot of people returning from Vietnam who wanted time away from large crowds of people. That increase in visitors to our parks resulted in an increase in forest fires, the amount of trash left behind, and other problems.

So Smokey the Bear reminded everyone to prevent forest fires, Woodsy the Owl was hatched in 1970, and then Iron Eyes Cody implored us to Keep America Beautiful:

The US Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Boy Scouts, the Sierra Club, and a bunch of other agencies and organizations wanted a consistent message to try to help protect our great outdoors, so they developed the "Leave No Trace" principles.

When Leave No Trace is mentioned on social media, it’s not uncommon to see hostility from some people who apparently have some misconceptions about what LNT actually means, or maybe they’re just opposed to change.  They enjoyed throwing empty beer cans in the river when they were teenagers, and they don’t intend to stop now…

First and foremost, LNT is not a series of laws. The principles are just aspirations. Nobody expects perfection, we just all hope for some improvement. 

Here’s a CliffsNotes version of LNT, and then we’ll follow up with the real deal:

Plan ahead and prepare: Don’t get lost and die in the woods.
Travel and camp on durable surfaces: Don’t destroy hiking trails or choose bad campsites.
Dispose of waste properly: Don’t poop in the middle of a hiking trail.
Leave what you find: If it’s not yours, don’t take it.
Minimize campfire impacts: Don’t burn the woods down.
Respect wildlife: Bears do not like to take selfies. They really don’t…
Be considerate of other visitors: Don’t be a jerk.

Simple! Right? Now, for the more formal version of LNT.

The Leave No Trace Seven Principles

1. Plan Ahead and Prepare

Research is your best friend before you go out, especially somewhere new. When you’re unprepared, you’re more likely to run into problems. 

Planning ahead and researching your destination offers you the knowledge you need concerning:

  • Regulations and unique concerns for the area you’re visiting
  • Extreme weather, hazards and emergencies
  • Times of high use, so you can avoid them
  • Minimizing waste


2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

Whether you’re out for a short hike, or planning on camping overnight somewhere, it’s best to stay on well-maintained trails and designated campsites, rather than veering off the path. No matter where you are, it is important to follow these best practices.

In popular areas:

  • Use existing trails and campsites.
  • Set up camp at least 200 feet away from lakes and streams.
  • Keep campsites small, and focus on areas with no vegetation.
  • Walk single-file in the middle of your trail, even if it is wet or muddy.


In pristine areas:

  • Disperse use to prevent creating new campsites and trails
  • Avoid places where impacts are just beginning.


3. Dispose of Waste Properly

  • Pack it in, pack it out. This applies to everything from litter to human waste to rinse water for dishes.
  • Inspect your campsite and rest areas for any trash, spilled foods, leftover food and litter, and pack out any waste. It is important to always leave a place cleaner than you found it. 
  • Deposit any solid human waste in catholes dug 6 to 8 inches deep, and at least 200 feet from water, trails and your campground. Cover and disguise the cathole when finished (Note: some highly impacted areas require human waste to be packed out too. Check on this before your outing so you are prepared).
  • Pack out toilet paper and any hygiene products.
  • To wash yourself or your dishes, carry your water at least 200 feet away from any streams or lakes, and only use small amounts of biodegradable soap. Scatter strained dishwater once you’re done.


4. Minimize Campfire Impacts

  • If not properly built or maintained, campfires can be one of the most destructive camping rituals. Better, safer choices include a lightweight stove for cooking and a candle lantern for light. If you do build a fire, keep these tips in mind
  • Where fires are allowed, use established fire rings, fire pans or mound fires.
  • Keep fires small, using only sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand.
  • Don’t bring firewood from home—this could introduce new pests and diseases to the area. Purchase wood from a local source, or gather it responsibly where it’s allowed.
  • Burn all wood and coals to ash, put campfires out completely and scatter cool ashes.


5. Leave What You Find

The old saying “take only pictures, leave only footprints” is more important now than ever.

  • Preserve the past—examine, but do not touch cultural or historic structures and artifacts.
  • Leave rocks, plants and other natural objects where you find them.
  • Avoid introducing or transporting non-native species between locations. Clean your boot soles, kayak hulls and bike tires between trips.
  • Do not build structures, furniture or dig trenches.


6. Respect Wildlife

  • Observe any wildlife from a distance. Do not follow, approach or chase them.
  • Never feed animals—feeding the wildlife damages their health, alters natural behaviors and exposes them to predators and other dangers.
  • Protect wildlife and your food (and yourself) by storing rations and trash securely.
  • Control your pets at all times. If your pets are difficult to reign in, it may be better to leave them at home.
  • Avoid wildlife during mating and nesting season, while they’re raising their young or during winter


7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

It is important to be respectful of everyone and everything while you’re in the outdoors.

  • Respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience.
  • Yield to others on the trail.
  • Step to the downhill side of the trail when you encounter pack stock like horses or mules.
  • Take breaks and camp away from trails and other visitors.
  • Avoid loud noises and sounds.
  • Keep your pet in control.

Heading for the outdoors is a great way to spend time with family and friends. Even more important? Making sure you follow best practices to keep yourself safe, while also protecting our planet. 

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