The 7 Principles of Leave No Trace You Need to Know
6 min read
“Take only memories, leave only footprints.” -Chief Seattle
Practicing the Leave No Trace principles are an important skill for everyone to learn. It is our duty to protect and preserve the natural environment if we choose to enjoy the beautiful outdoors.
The number of people traveling in the backcountry is increasing every year. Because of this, a greater impact is made on the plants and animals living in those environments. It can be easy to think that the impression you personally make is minimal. But keep in mind, small imprints on well-traveled areas can add up very quickly. If every backpacker and hiker took the time to learn these guidelines, we can work together as a community to minimize the consequences made on the environment. Doing it right will leave pristine wilderness areas for years to come.
Learn about the area you'll be traveling. Check weather conditions and plan for appropriate clothing and gear. Always be prepared for hazards and emergencies. Consider the current trail conditions and plan detailed routes.
Plan meals properly before the trip. Repackage all food to minimize waste. Plan ahead of time how you're going to store food at night to keep it away from animals in the area. Reduce the number of fires you have by bringing a small stove and cooking one pot meals. This will also reduce the effect on the environment.
Set appropriate goals. Consider the location you'll be hiking in, and avoid too many miles in difficult terrain. This can lead to unplanned campsites that can damage the plant life in the surrounding area. Make sure you are physically up for the climb.
Schedule trips to avoid times of high use.
Travel in smaller groups, when possible. If you have a large group, consider splitting up into smaller groups.
Remember to pack a map and compass. Use to eliminate the use of marking paint, rock cairns, or flagging.
2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
It’s very important that you’re aware of your surroundings and what you’re hiking on. Even your footsteps are going to leave a lasting impression on the environment. Travel on trails and hard packed surfaces. Never take off trail shortcuts or cut switchbacks. Travel in a single file line, even when it's wet and muddy.
Remember, good campsites are found, not made. Camping in established campsites is the best way to reduce the impact of your campsite. Avoid camping in areas undergoing restoration. Camp at least 200 ft away from water sources to allow animals an undisturbed path to the water.
Try not to walk or camp on living vegetation to the best of your ability. If it can't be avoided, minimize your impact by traveling on rocks or hearty vegetation, such as dry grasses. Do not trample on soft leaf plants and wetland areas, as these areas take a long time to recover. Always minimize your damage by sticking to durable surfaces, especially when traveling in an area with no established trails.
3. Dispose of waste properly.
Remember to always leave the area better than you found it. If you pack it in, you must pack it out. There’s no reason any waste should be left in the wilderness, except human waste (but even that needs to be disposed of properly).
Always pack out your trash, even if it's organic waste. Every piece of trash adds up fast, and can take much longer to decompose than one might think. If you see trash left out on the trail by others, do your part and pick it up. Organic wastes, such as apple cores and orange peels, take months, or even years, to decompose. Worse than that, organic waste can alter the foraging habits of wildlife in the area.
Avoid burning trash or food because they often won’t fully burn. Animals might dig up the remains and little bits of trash will stay in the area for years to come.
Clean your dishes at least 200 feet away from your campsite or any water sources. Strain out any remaining food particles and disperse the dirty water in a wide arc to spread it out.
For human waste, make sure to get far away from the trail and at least 200 feet away from any water sources or any campsites. When digging a cat hole, make sure it is at least 6-8 inches deep. When you are finished, make sure to cover and disguise the cat hole. Solid waste must be packed out of some locations, such as narrow river canyons. It is wise to research the specific rules for the area you plan to visit.
4. Leave what you find.
Take only pictures, leave only footprints. Although it can be tempting to leave a mark on an area or bring home a souvenir, resist the urge to do so. Whether it be rocks, plants, or artifacts, everything you find in the wilderness belongs there, and it is not yours to take home. Remember, you want it to appear you were never there.
5. Minimize campfire impacts.
Campfires can cause a lasting effect to the backcountry. Instead, consider using a stove for cooking and a lantern for light.
Check fire regulations and fire danger levels ahead of time. If you do want to have a campfire, make sure it is allowed in the area. If they are permitted, look at the soil and weather conditions, and how much dry wood is going to be available. If you are going to have a fire, there are several different Leave No Trace techniques that allow you to enjoy fires while minimizing the mark on the environment.
Use existing fire rings in established campsites whenever possible. Do not build a new fire ring if there isn't one already there. Instead, use a fire pan or mound fire.
Keep your fires small. Only collect firewood that’s already on the ground and that can easily be broken by hand. Stop adding fuel to the fire well before it’s time to go to bed so you give it time to burn out. Leave all standing trees and bushes alone, even if the limbs appear to be dead.
Burn all wood and coals to ash. When you’re done with your fire, scatter any unused wood back into the wilderness and put your fire out completely, then scatter the cool ashes.
6. Respect wildlife.
It’s best to enjoy wildlife at a distance. The wilderness is a great place to enjoy seeing animals we wouldn't normally get to see in our daily lives. However, remember that we are in their habitat. Be respectful by reducing the amount of interaction between humans and animals as much as possible.
Never feed wild animals. Animals fed by backpackers and hikers can become a nuisance. Additionally, they can become dependent on humans.
Keep your distance from wild animals. Don't get them stressed out by following them, approaching them, or trying to get a reaction out of them.
Don’t bring your pets into the wilderness unless you can control them and plan to keep them on a leash. Letting your dog chase wild animals through the woods is very disrupting and can be very stressful to wildlife.
7. Be considerate of other visitors.
Show respect. Treat fellow hikers with the same type of respect that you want to be treated.
Avoid making loud noises. If you want to listen to music, do not blast it on a speaker, plan to use earphones. Loud music can be disruptive to the wildlife as well as others on the trail. Do your best to not stand out or make a scene.
Be courteous and friendly to other travelers passing by. It never hurts to smile and say hello. That being said, try your best to give others their space and privacy as much as you can.
Let them pass. Step to the side to allow larger groups and hikers to pass by. Those traveling uphill have the right of way.
Do your research before using drones on the trail. There are quite a few places that do not allow drones, including the National Parks. If you are in a location that does allows drones, be mindful of the surrounding nature and courteous to the hikers around you.
Let's work together to help keep our land beautiful...
Now that you understand the 7 principles of Leave No Trace, you’ll be able to enjoy wilderness areas without leaving any lasting effects.
These principles are not just a list of rules; they are more of a personal commitment. If everyone were to follow this simple commitment, we would all get to enjoy our beautiful land and our wilderness areas for years to come.
As lovers of the outdoors, will you make a commitment right now to join us in respecting and preserving the trails we love to explore?
We are joining outdoor industry leaders REI, Patagonia, and The North Face in their partnership with The Conservation Alliance. The Conservation Alliance is doing many great things for the outdoors that we are very excited about, and know you will be, too!