The 7 Leave No Trace Principles ALL Adventurers Need to Follow
In the past couple of years, more and more people have been heading out to explore the Great Outdoors. While it is awesome that a greater number of people are heading outside to explore and admire this planet’s natural beauty, that rise in people has also led to an increase in environmental problems — including, most noticeably, higher levels of environmental degradation.
That is why it is more important than ever for people to focus on being respectable outdoor stewards. This means you try to decrease your impact at every possible point of being outside — from how you spend your time along the trail, to where you set your tent up at night. Luckily, there are some really clear ways to lower your impact. Enter the 7 Leave No Trace Principles.
These seven principles clearly outline some of the most important things you can do to decrease your impact on our amazing natural environment. From some obvious ones (like don’t litter) to some tips that you may not have even considered before (like where the best place to pee is). Below we outline each of the 7 Leave No Trace Principles and also give you clear examples of how you can follow them yourself once you are out adventuring.
➳ While we hope this guide covers everything you need to know, if you are looking for more resources, we highly recommend checking out the USA National Park website for even more information on following the Leave No Trace Principles.
THE 7 LEAVE NO TRACE PRINCIPLES & HOW TO FOLLOW THEM
1 | Plan Ahead and Prepare
By putting in a bit of time and effort before heading out on the trail, you will likely not only enjoy your adventure more, but you will also help minimize damage to the land you are exploring. Trip planning is just as important as the actual trip — especially if the trip or adventure is a bit more hardcore (like a long full-day hike or backpacking trip).
Some of the main things to consider during the trip planning stage are: what is the overall goal and expectation of the adventure (is it to thru-hike a popular trail? Backpack to a remote lake?), what does the area look like and what could be some possible problems (i.e. very little freshwater, a steep, rocky pass to climb), what kind of gear will be needed in order to be prepared for the trip so you can do it safely and not leave any lasting damage to the environment, and finally (and this might be the most important) you need to figure out if the adventure is actually within your skillset and ability level. Knowing your boundaries and your comfort level is a very important step in the entire trip planning process. You don’t want to be out in nature, completely overwhelmed and in a tricky situation. This is when accidents occur and when you are more likely to damage the area you are in.
Besides those questions above, a few other important things to do and look at before hitting the trails are to always check the weather beforehand, including the morning of; to review regulations and restrictions in the area (especially regulations on group size and fire restrictions), take one last inventory of the food you are planning to bring with you on the trail (it is smart to bring the exact amount of food needed and to stick to uncomplicated, plastic-free food), and make sure you are packing enough water or looking to see if there is ample fresh water along your hike (then you just need to pack a water filter).
By doing a bit of trip planning before hitting the trails, you are setting yourself up for a more successful (and FUN) experience out in nature. Plus, you are more likely to explore the landscape in a safer, more respectable way if you are completely prepared. Below is a good example of what not to do.
| A group doesn’t check to see if fire restrictions or bans are in place and instead they just plan on cooking over a campfire. Once they get to the spot and see there are restrictions in place, they disregard them and collect wood nearby to make a fire. This can not only lead to starting a wildfire (which is obviously veeeery bad) but it also adds to the compounding effect of heavy recreation use that leads to environmental degradation.
While the rest of the 7 Leave No Trace Principles cover things that will actually occur while out adventuring, the first principle should definitely not be overlooked. Therefore always remember to do some form of trip planning — for yourself, your peace of mind and the environment.
2 | Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
The whole goal of traveling and exploring the outdoors is to move through natural areas while avoiding any damage to the land or waterways. Damage from travel often occurs when the surface vegetation and other organisms get trampled beyond recovery. The resulting barren area then leads to soil erosion and the development of undesirable trails (like those pesky social trails that seem to crop up everywhere).
While you could argue any trail — even one established by land management personnel — is a form of damage to the environment, for the most part, those established trails are a very necessary response to the fact that people will travel along that area no matter what. Concentrating people onto one set trail then leads to less landscape degradation overall. This is why it is super important to always stick to those established trails when out hiking, biking, or backpacking.
Bushwhacking, going off trail and creating new trails, all cause problems to the landscape. It is always better to have ONE trail than many different (often poorly created) trails. Even if you think a small shortcut won’t cause much harm, by doing it yourself you often leave traces that then other people see and think they can also do. This compounding effect then leads to environmental degradation, soil erosion and just a plethora of some not-so-pretty trails.
If you do have to travel off trail for some reason — commonly to reach a more remote area, if you are exploring a place that doesn’t have established trails, or if you are looking for a private spot to use the bathroom — then you should pay attention to the land you are walking on. Hiking along durable surfaces is key here. So if you can, focus on only walking on ground that can tolerate repeated trampling (like rocks, sand and gravel).
This idea of being out on durable surfaces is also really important when you are looking to set up camp. If you are backpacking in the backcountry or anywhere there isn’t already established campsites, then make sure to double-check that the area you are pitching your tent is able to tolerate the weight and use. A good rule of thumb for this is to pitch your tent in a spot that already looks like it has been used before (this is true for backpacking and also when looking for a spot to park and vanlife for the night). You will likely be able to tell if a spot has been camped on before by the fire ring, a cleared flat spot, and an overall look of human use.
Some landscapes you should NOT hike or camp on are vegetation (especially fragile vegetation like you will find in meadows or in the high alpine), and living soil — especially cryptobiotic crust, which is commonly found in the desert (also try to avoid walking in watering holes and puddles in the desert, for water is a very important and precious resource for animals that live there).
OTHER IMPORTANT THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN SETTING UP YOUR TENT
| Avoid camping near popular trails or bodies of water; in fact, try to camp at least 200 feet from any type of water source (this is best for wildlife).
| Try to camp in a spot that has already been used (in some cases there will even be camping signs or markers). If a spot has already been used a lot, one more night likely won’t cause much harm.
| If you are camping in a more remote/unpopular area, try to move your site every night so you don’t cause long-term harm, and also try to spread out your tents and gear.
| Set up your camp kitchen (if you need one) at least 200 feet from any type of water source. Also, try to place your kitchen equipment and other heavy gear (like backpacks) on solid surfaces like rocks.
| When you pack up and leave camp, ALWAYS do a double check to make sure you have not left any gear or trash behind (pack everything out with you). Furthermore, put in the extra effort to hide any signs that you actually camped there (cover scuffed areas, wipe away footprints, etc.).
The key takeaway with the second Leave No Trace Principle is to try sticking to established trails whenever you can, and if you do have to go off trail, try to avoid fragile ecosystems and plant life. Similarly, when camping in the backcountry, try to pick a site that has already been used a lot.
3 | Dispose of Waste Properly
The third Leave No Trace Principle can be divided into two different parts: the disposal of human waste and the disposal of trash.
It might not be the sexiest topic out there, but it is one worth talking about: how do you properly dispose of human waste while out in nature. Well, to start, you need to figure out what is the right method for the landscape.
Most of the time, digging a “cat hole” and burying your waste is the best way to go. A cat hole should always be between 6 and 8 inches deep and 4 to 6 inches wide. Once used, a cat hole should be adequately covered with the original dirt you dug up as well as native materials like sticks and rocks.
The only time this is not the safest form of disposal is near bodies of water (you should always try to be at least 200 feet away), or if you are in a fragile, high alpine environment.
In the instances where you shouldn’t just dig a cat hole, you will need to bring the proper pack-out system (a common set-up for hiking and backpacking is something known as a wag bag). You can find these pack-out systems at many outdoor gear shops (or just Google how to make your own).
Toilet paper and other sanitary items (including female items) should also always be disposed of properly. More often than not (and really the best practice overall) is to pack out all toilet paper and sanitary items. When heading out on the trail, bring a designated plastic bag for all TP and other bathroom items. We know it is gross, but the environment, the wildlife, and other adventurers will thank you.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: obviously solid human waste is the most common issue here, but what about urine? Well, interestingly enough, the best practice when it comes to peeing outside is to actually try to pee either on rocks and gravel or pine needles. Urine often attracts animals looking for salts, so by peeing on a more solid surface you are helping keep plants and fragile environments in better condition.
For every other type of waste — including most commonly trash — you must always PACK IT OUT! Do not, we repeat, do not leave any trash behind.
We cannot tell you how many times we have come across trash while out adventuring. Even in places that aren’t exactly “popular” you can still often find some form of trash (often plastic food wrappers). Remember it is your responsibility to leave a place better than you found it, so always double-check that you have picked up any traces of you being there (even those small pieces of plastic that don’t seem like that big of a deal). If we all do our part, we can leave the landscape better than we found it.
Some helpful ways to reduce your waste while out adventuring are: planning meals ahead of time and avoiding anything that requires a lot of excess plastic, carrying a specific plastic bag in your backpack for those small bits of trash (including food wrappers), and making sure you don’t leave any scraps of food after eating or cooking (this is a surefire way to attract wildlife).
Finally, an often overlooked form of waste that needs to be disposed of properly is wastewater. This is the water that is left behind after doing dishes or washing your hands or body. When you are dealing with wastewater, it is super important to dispose of it at least 200 feet from a natural water source (never wash dishes or your body directly in a body of water). Likewise, try to use environmentally safe soaps when out in the backcountry (though even then, use them 200+ feet away from water).
A good rule of thumb here is to try to avoid getting any pollutants (like soap or wastewater) into a natural body of water. Always do your cleaning at least 200 feet away from a natural water source and try to do it in a way that won’t lead to the pollutants running into the water.
4 | Leave What You Find
The fourth Leave No Trace Principle is pretty simple: don’t take away, alter or impact the landscape you are exploring. This means you don’t mess with the landscape by digging holes for tents, constructing structures out of natural materials, or taking a piece of nature home with you (no matter how pretty that wildflower is).
Likewise, don’t leave a lasting impact on the environment even after you have left. This means no carving of initials into trees or onto rocks, no hammering of nails into trees, no tying of rope around a trunk, and no cutting down of branches for seats or fires.
And of course, do NOT ever take cultural objects out of their natural landscape (aka NO looting) Likewise, don’t be that a**hole who destroys an archeological or natural site. We promise, no one thinks it’s cool.
5 | Minimize Campfire Impacts
While some people would not think of camping without a campfire, it is hard to argue that these days the natural appearance of many areas has been degraded by the overuse of fires and an increasing demand for firewood. Not to mention the higher instances of bigger and more dangerous wildfires across the world.
When you start to look at the harm that campfires can cause it is no surprise that there has been a big push towards using camping stoves instead of campfires. Plus, in today's world, you can easily find a camp stove that fits your needs — from lightweight, super-efficient ones for backpacking (like this one), to large, multi-burner stoves for car camping in established campgrounds (like this guy).
If you are not sure about what option to choose, consider these key points about whether you should or shouldn’t make a campfire when out adventuring:
| What is the potential danger that the fire could cause if it suddenly got out of hand? Would you know what to do and how to handle a rogue campfire?
| What is the level of fire danger for the time of year and the location you have selected to explore? During the summer, many popular places (including the mountains of Colorado, California and Washington) have very strict fire bans in place. Do your research and follow ALL restrictions and regulations.
| If there aren’t any restrictions in place, is there still enough wood available that it won’t be noticeable if you build a fire? This mainly means that there is enough wood laying around that you don’t need to cut down branches or pull up dead trees for a fire.
| Finally, are there enough members in your group that have the skills to build a fire that won’t leave evidence and/or obvious signs of a fire? This includes replacing all soil that you may have moved when starting your fire, dispersing unused wood, and making sure you pack out ALL litter (including tinfoil and food wrappers).
If you do decide to build a campfire, remember to always attentively watch it (never leave a fire unattended), keep all wood and other fuel sources far away from burning fire, and when you are done with the fire make sure it is extinguished completely (don’t just put a bit of water on it and call it good).
When in doubt, really consider whether you are prepared to make and handle a campfire. It doesn’t take much for a campfire to go from a way to cook your food to a blazing fire that is ripping through the forest. If you are in the backcountry and you aren’t sure, it is better to come prepared with a proper camp stove. This is not only safer, but it is also a lot easier.
You can find our recommended camping stoves below.
| Coleman 3-In-1 HyperFlame Stove: this rather bulky stove is perfect for nights at established or easy-to-reach campsites (or if you are van lifing). We have been using a Coleman stove for years and have had no issues. | CHECK IT OUT FOR YOURSELF
| Eureka SPRK Camp Stove: this one-burner camp stove is more compact that the Coleman one above (and also about half the price). It can easily be stored in your vehicle and brought out for all kinds of cooking needs. | CHECK IT OUT FOR YOURSELF
| Jetboil Flash Stove: we have been using Jetboils for all of our backpacking and backcountry adventures for years. This super simple stove packs down tightly, is really fast at boiling water and cooking food, and can also be used as a vessel to eat or drink from (a real win). | CHECK IT OUT FOR YOURSELF
6 | Respect Wildlife
Keep wildlife wild. That is the key thing to remember here. Even if an animal looks “tame” or safe, it very likely isn’t. Also, and even more importantly, do not disturb wildlife by getting too close or by being really loud. This commonly stresses them out and forces them to flee. In some cases, this can even hinder the animal’s ability to survive in a difficult environment.
Even if you think an animal is safe to touch or if it seems to be sick or injured (or if it is a baby that may have been abandoned), it is always better to leave it alone and notify a warden or ranger.
When out in nature, remember to be considerate of wildlife by not getting too close or being too loud (unless you are in bear country where it is smarter to be loud enough so you don’t startle a bear), remember to give animals enough space when they are moving around or heading towards the water, and finally, dispose of your human waste and trash properly so you don’t attract wildlife and get them into some dangerous situations.
7 | Be Considerate of Other Visitors
The final Leave No Trace Principle to be aware of is how you are interacting with other people while out on the trail. While it is super important to be considerate of wildlife, it is also important to be aware of how you are interacting with other hikers, bikers, or adventurers.
Some of the best examples of ways to be a considerate fellow adventurer are: don’t listen to music out loud (people want to usually listen to birds and nature, not some crappy pop song), keep your voices down when talking to your group, and keep your pet on a leash or under strict control (some people are afraid of dogs no matter how sweet they are).
Other ways to be aware and considerate of your fellow outdoorsman and women is to follow common trail etiquette. This includes giving people heading uphill the right of way on the trail, giving enough space to people riding or walking with stock animals (like horses), providing enough space on a trail for others to pass you while you are taking a break, keeping your voices down while looking at wildlife or while at camp, picking up your trash and waste (including dog pool and dog poop bags), and not going off trail to damage property.
💬 INSIDER TIP: if you are someone who likes to head out into nature for the solitude, then consider hiking or adventuring during less popular times. This often includes going during weekdays or starting your hike early in the morning.
Following these 7 Leave No Trace Principles is a surefire way to be a more responsible and respectful outdoor steward. All seven of these principles are relatively easy to follow — especially once you know what they are and understand the key takeaways of each one.
Hopefully, this guide on the Leave No Trace Principles helps you understand the importance of your actions on the environment and also how to be the best adventurer possible. If you have any questions about the principles — or just questions about exploring the Great Outdoors in general — then please leave us a comment or question below or reach out to us at www.backroadpackers.com.