The 7 Principles of Leave No Trace

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There are few things more relaxing and peaceful than a walk through the forest or a night under the stars. And with all the new technology constantly being made and put into outdoor gear, the wilderness is no longer just a place for people in great shape who don’t mind some extreme discomfort.

Because so many folks like to escape to the countryside, taking measures to preserve the landscape is becoming more and more important. To get you pointed in the right direction, the Leave No Trace 7 principles are a great place to start, if you want to figure out what you can do to lessen your impact on the environment.

Leave No Trace 7 Principles Overview

  • Leave What You Find
  • Plan Ahead and Prepare.
  • Respect Wildlife.
  • Dispose of Waste Properly.
  • Be Careful with Fire.
  • Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces.
  • Be Considerate of Others. 

Disclaimer: For the purpose of brevity, I will mostly be referring to Leave No Trace by its abbreviation “LNT” throughout the course of this article.

The History of LNT

Though the idea of being good stewards of the land isn’t new, Leave No Trace is a relatively fresh concept, with its birth taking place between the 1960s and 1970s. During these two decades, outdoor equipment became more widely available, and the technology was significantly improved upon. Gas stoves were developed, in addition to synthetic tents and sleeping pads, making the outdoors more accessible to a wider variety of folks.

With the new influx of so many visitors, National Park officials began teaching about the importance of having a minimal effect on the land. And in 1987, “Leave No Trace Land Ethics” was officially coined.

Why is LNT Important?

pine trees next to each other in a forest at sunset

LNT principles are crucial for outdoorsman to follow, in order to preserve the natural beauty of the land around us. You probably even learned leave no trace principles in the cub scouts, if this was an activity you took part in. However, many folks tend to overlook certain steps (not properly disposing of waste, starting fires in unsafe areas, etc.) either because it takes too much efforts, or they think it won’t have a very big impact.

But what happens when everyone starts to behave this way?

For example, in 2019, 41.76 million people went camping in the US. Now, imagine if every one of them started a campfire outside of a designated fire ring, didn’t dig a hole to bury their bathroom business, and took items from the land around them. Would the wilderness look different after a couple of years?

Absolutely.

At the very least, there would be substantially more wildfires each year, and more bacteria spreading into water sources from human waste. Sure, it might be a pain to dig a hole every time you need to go number 2, and you won’t always be able to have a cozy campfire at night, but the long term benefits make it worth a little discomfort.

Backcountry LNT

Typically, when you hear people referring to the 7 principles of LNT, they’re talking about the backcountry. However, there are also 7 principles of LNT for the frontcountry as well. Many of the points are quite similar, but I feel it’s important to make a distinction between the two of them.

For now, we’ll cover the backcountry principles, and then briefly discuss frontcountry later in the article.

1. Leave What You Find

leave no trace sign in florida rainforest

Most people like to escape into the wild to take in all of the natural beauty. And by definition, natural beauty is…well…natural.

The principle of “leave what you find” is essentially asking you to keep things as you found it – no trench digging, no hammering nails into trees, no cutting live branches, and so on. When making camp, try to leave your surroundings as unchanged as possible, so that the next people who pass through will barely be able to notice you were there at all.

Naturally, you can still feel free to move rocks that will dig into your back during the night, and perhaps build your own fire ring if it’s permitted. However, anything more extreme than this should be avoided for the sake of keeping the landscape as untamed and untouched as you can.

2. Plan Ahead and Prepare

person writing with a pen in a notebook on a checklist

Poorly prepared people tend to make bad decisions when faced with extreme circumstances, and that’s especially true when it comes to camping. If you didn’t pack for the nighttime chill, you may take measures that damage your surroundings in an attempt to warm up (such as starting a fire that’s too big, without a proper way to put it out, and possibly made of fuel that should have remained untouched).

Being prepared for whatever comes you way is the best course of action anyway, whether or not you’re actually concerned about your environmental impact. To make sure you have everything you need, do some prior research about the weather forecast, climate, and terrain to make sure you’re ready for whatever may come. In terms of gear, take a look at our comprehensive camping checklist for a visual way to ensure you’re properly equipped. You can find that here:

If you believe you’ll be travelling through a less popular location where trails might not be well marked, bring proper navigational gear as well. A good map and compass are timeless companions that show you the way to go without marking up your surroundings with paint, rock cairns, and flags.

3. Respect Wildlife

young deer standing next to green grass

When possible, try to avoid directly confronting any wildlife. If you want to take pictures, make use of the zoom lens on your camera instead of inching your way closer to the creatures. They’ll appreciate the consideration, and so will you if the animal happens to be something dangerous, like a bear.

Never feed the wildlife either, as this can potentially harm them, and disrupt their natural behavior. Along those lines, store your food properly when you aren’t using it, so that they can’t get into it when you’re not looking. Though most commonly used as a way to keep bears away from your campsite, hanging your food at a safe height or locking it in a bear box is useful for keeping foxes, rodents, and other animals away as well.

Pets also have a way of antagonizing the local wildlife. If you plan on bringing your dog, make sure you keep a tight rein on them; otherwise, it’s probably not a bad idea to just leave them back home.

4. Dispose of Waste Properly

piles of garbage stacked up

Waste can refer to either trash or human excrement. Both are unpleasant to deal with, and both can negatively impact the environment if they aren’t properly taken care of.

Trash is pretty straightforward – if you pack it in, pack it back out again. Littering is a great way to destroy the natural ecosystem, damage plant life, pollute water sources, and create hazards for wildlife. If you plan on creating a lot of trash during a time when you won’t have access to refuse bins, shove a trash bag into your backpack that you can fill up later. It won’t be fun to bring it back out with you again, but it’s a lot better than leaving it in the middle of nowhere.

Some people like to burn their trash, but I strongly discourage this behavior. Many of the items that you burn will release toxic fumes in the process, which is bad news for you and everything else around you. Not to mention, plastics don’t burn. Instead, they melt down into a disgusting clump that will end up contaminating anything it touches, potentially killing a few animals that try to eat it.

Human waste (fecal matter in particular) also needs to be properly managed. Doing your business in any random place can allow bacteria to find its way into the local water source, harming the aquatic life and anything that might drink from there. But aside from that, there’s also the risk that the next group of campers coming through will accidentally step in it, or make camp on or around it. Which, frankly, is pretty disgusting.

When nature calls, dig a hole 6-8 inches deep and at least 200 feet away from any water source or campsite. When you’re done, cover it back up again, and make sure you bring a container that will allow you to pack out your toilet paper as well. Always do a bit of research on local regulations before you head out, because there are some campsites that require you to pack out your waste too (such as locations along the river in the Grand Canyon).

5. Be Careful with Fire

burning wood on fire close up shot

Who could imagine spending a night outside without the warmth and light of a crackling campfire after the sun goes down? They’re a timeless classic, and go hand in hand with some of our favorite campsite activities, like telling stories and making s’mores.

Unfortunately, though, campfires are one of the most destructive rituals out there. Roughly 90% of all wildfires are caused by humans, whether from intentional acts of arson, equipment malfunction, or… unattended campfires.

To help reduce the damage created by campfires each year, consider using a camp stove for cooking instead. If you absolutely need to make a fire, use established fire rings or fire pans, and be sure to keep it small. You should only be using sticks that can fit in your hand and be broken easily, and have a means for putting it out quickly if it starts to get out of hand.

For more tips, check out our guide on building the perfect campfire:

6. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

a dirt and gravel trail going through tall pine trees

The main premise of this point is to make as little impact on the environment as possible. If you walk and make camp on established trails and campsites, you’re less likely to damage some of the more pristine areas around you. If there aren’t really any trails or campsites available, make use of well compacted ground, rock, and areas relatively free of vegetation.

When it comes to lakes and streams, keep the 200 foot rule in mind. This is always the minimum distance you should keep between your campsite and the water source, to help prevent the spread of bacteria and other contaminants. Try to keep your campsites small, and do your best to avoid damaging any of the wildlife in the process of setting up. Dry grass, gravel, rock, and snow make ideal places to pitch your tent while having minimal impact on the land.

7. Be Considerate of Others

a group of people surrounding a campfire at nighttime

We all know the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Being considerate of others is less about minimizing the impact you’re having on the land, and more about allowing everyone to enjoy the wilderness equally.

Sure, you might like blasting your tunes out of your wireless speaker, but what about your camping neighbors who were looking forward to hearing the crickets chirp and the wind rustle through the leaves? Instead of using a speaker, pop in some ear buds to listen to music, or turn it off and enjoy the sounds of nature yourself.

Respect the space of other trail users. When you encounter other outdoor enthusiasts, make sure you give them enough space to pass by comfortably. Take breaks and make camp away from well populated trails and other visitors – they didn’t decide to go nature watching just to catch a glimpse of you making dinner for the evening!

Frontcountry LNT

man wearing black walking down a paved trail in the wild

As mentioned above, there’s a separate list of principles when talking about LNT in the frontcountry. The points are very similar to what we just covered, though, so I won’t get into too much detail with them.

  1. Know before you go: Don’t forget food, water, and sufficient clothing for where you’re going. Check your map often so you don’t get lost, and keep track of daylight. Do some research prior to arrival, so you have a sense of what to expect in order to stay safe and have a fun time!

  2. Stick to trails and camp overnight right: Stick to designated trails to protect plant life – once you’ve stepped on a flower or tree, it may not come back again. Respect private property, and camp in established campgrounds. Avoid digging trenches and building structures for your campsite, as these things can cause serious damage to the land. 

  3. Stash your trash and pick up waste: Bring a trash bag for your garbage, so you can pack out whatever you pack in. Use bathrooms and outhouses when available, otherwise dig a hole away from water sources and other well populated areas to bury your poop.

  4. Leave it as you find it: Treat wildlife with respect. Don’t go hacking, carving, sawing, or peeling anything unnecessarily, as these actions can kill the plants and ruin the sights for others. Leave natural and historical figures alone to keep them pristine for the next people who pass by.

  5. Be careful with fire: Make a fire only when necessary, and even then, only build one in an established fire ring or pit. Keep it small and manageable, and always have a way to put it out quickly if you need to. For cooking purposes, use a camp stove.

  6. Keep wildlife wild: Human food isn’t healthy for animals, and feeding them creates bad habits. Leave them alone, store your food properly, and only take photos from a distance so you don’t startle or antagonize them.

  7. Share our trails and manage your pet: Make sure to have fun, but don’t do anything at the expense of other’s enjoyment. Yield to others on the trail, keep a tight rein on your pets, and let the sounds of nature prevail over the noise created by your talking or music playing.

Final Thoughts

woman standing on a grassy peak surrounded by green mountains

Nature is more accessible than ever before, allowing millions of people to visit some of the most beautiful places on Earth each year. But with the increased number of visitors, maintaining the “natural” part of nature can quickly become a monumental undertaking.

The Leave No Trace principles were designed to keep our favorite landmarks looking the way they did a hundred years ago. If we don’t all do our part to preserve and maintain what we have, it’s possible that it will be a shadow of its former glory later in our lifetimes. At the very least, our kids won’t be able to appreciate it in the same way that we are able to right now. Do your part by following LNT procedure, and help keep our natural resources looking untamed.


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Spencer Yeomans

Spencer Yeomans

A lover of the outdoors, and especially the mountains, Spencer has always enjoyed pushing people to step outside their comfort zones. His mission is to help others get out of their homes to have fun and stay active in nature.

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