Backpacker that leaves no trace on mountain trail

How To Leave No Trace Outdoors

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With more people heading outdoors for recreational activities, it is important that everyone understand their impact on the environment and know how to protect the outdoor spaces we love. The Leave No Trace Seven Principles will help you learn how to leave no trace outdoors.

Why Is Leave No Trace Important?

Practicing leave no trace principles is important because the actions of millions of people outdoors are impacting environmental spaces, and often impacting them in very negative ways.

It is so easy when you go on your outdoor adventures to only think of yourself and the impact that you will make. When in fact, your actions are just added to those of others. Your actions do matter and are in your control, but also think beyond yourself.

One piece of trash, one person washing dishes in a creek, and one person making an unwise decision may not be the end of the world, but it is not only one person utilizing the trails, camping, and wilderness areas. No matter how remote it seems that you are, others have gone before you and will come after you.

Land and creek beds are eroding from overuse, trash and toilet paper are littering trails, and lakes, rivers, and streams are contaminated even in remote, backcountry, wilderness areas.

It is important to practice the principles of leave no trace if we want to preserve these beautiful places for our use and generations to come.

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The 7 Principles of Leave No Trace

We have the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics to thank for the seven principles that have been the driving force for outdoor ethics education and awareness.

The LNT website is jam packed with educational info, videos, and course and training opportunities.

Let’s take a look at the The Seven Leave No Trace Principles that can lay a foundation for your outdoor adventures, enabling you to leave a minimal impact.

1. Plan Ahead and Prepare

Planning ahead and being prepared for your outdoor adventure can mean the difference in a safe, enjoyable trip that minimizes your impact and one that wrecks havoc on outdoor spaces and resources and leads to safety issues and injuries.

Trip Planning Tips and Considerations

  • Research your destination. Check rules and regulations for the area.
  • Is there any known terrain or weather challenges associated with the area?
  • Consider your skill level and that of any participants. Inexperienced backpackers tackling tough hikes without the proper gear is a common cause for search and rescue.
  • Find out about water sources. Do you need to take your own water supply?
  • Is there a group size limit? Know before you go. Large groups can leave a big impact on the trails and campsites.
  • Are campfires allowed? Consider skipping the campfire and using a stove to lessen the impact.
outdoor adventure sugn up

2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

Traveling and camping in natural areas needs to be done with care to lessen your impact. Have you ever hiked a trail that was root and rock ridden from overuse? Heavily used trails will often erode, presenting damage and trip hazards.

Trails themselves are a form of impact to the land but are necessary for direction and routes and preventing wide spread damage to the area.

It is important to remain on the trail and not create “shortcuts”. I was surprised on a trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to see several extra trails made by people creating shortcuts on a series of switchbacks.

Vehicle and road travel is another consideration in forests and other natural environments. Stay on designated roads and consider turning around if the road is in poor condition.

Before we go any further – what is considered a durable surface for camping and travel?

Rock, sand, and gravel are highly durable and are good surfaces to travel and camp on. Ice and snow usually show temporary effects, just be sure it is safe to travel on them. Vegetation will easily show use – think forests and meadows. Try to remain on the trail. Living soils, cryptobiotic crusts, are found in deserts and are very fragile.

It is best to use designated or established campsites when available in the wilderness or backcountry. Always camp 200 feet from water’s edge to prevent contamination and allow wildlife to access water. If an established site is not available, look for an area that already lacks vegetation.

3. Dispose of Waste Properly

Remember, anything you pack in, needs to be packed out. This includes trash and food scraps. It may seem silly to pack out organic matter like fruit peels, but they take considerable time to decompose and attract wildlife.

Dispose of your trash in appropriate trash receptacles. If trash receptacles or dumpsters are full, don’t pile your trash outside of it. Please take it with you and find another suitable trash recepltacle to throw it away in.

And now the fun part! Human waste must be disposed of properly too. That usually means digging a cat hole 6 – 8 inches deep, at least 200 feet from water. After doing your business, cover the hole back up and try to disguise it with natural materials. Toilet paper needs to be buried or packed out.

Some desert areas, especially those that see heavy use, require the use of “wag bags as it takes longer for waste to decompose in arid soils and may be difficult to dig cat holes. It is usually recommended to pack out toilet paper too.

Always dispose of your wastewater from bathing or dish washing properly. Carry your wastewater 200 feet from water sources and scatter it to dispose of it. Strain dishwater first and pack out those food particles. Limit the use of soap, even biodegradable ones, as they can effect water conditions and soil too.

4. Leave What You Find

It would be so easy to pick some pretty wildflowers, stash some cool rocks in your pack, or collect an artifact you came upon. This is an example of needing to think beyond yourself. What if everybody on that popular trail picked the flowers or took one thing?

If you see something you love, take a picture. File the memory away, knowing someone else can experience the wonder of discovering beauty outdoors.

Leaving what you find is also more than just not taking the items you come across on your adventures. Leave the area in its most natural state like you found it. Don’t create outdoor shelters and structures, make more fire rings, or damage trees.

5. Minimize Campfire Impacts

For many people, some of their favorite camping memories are around the campfire. I get it – I love a campfire too! But please consider your location and the impact the campfire may have.

  • Find out if campfires as allowed in the wilderness you may be going to.
  • Sometimes campfire restrictions exist in developed campgrounds if the risk of wildfire is high.
  • Always use an established fire ring if available.
  • Find dead, down trees for firewood.
  • Never leave a campfire unattended.
  • Put out your fire with water after allowing it to burn to white ash.
  • Scatter any unused firewood before leaving – remember leave the area in its most natural state to preserve the wilderness experience.

Consider using a backpacking stove for meal prep, even if campfires are allowed.

6. Respect Wildlife

A visit to many National Parks will usually involve a traffic jam of tourists trying to catch a glimpse of the wildlife. Whether you are on the roads or in the backcountry, observe wildlife from a distance.

  • Don’t approach wildlife. That closer look or photo is not worth the risk of injury to yourself or disturbance to the animal.
  • Don’t feed wildlife. Secure your food and don’t leave food scraps behind.
  • Camp 200 feet from water sources to allow animals the access they need.
  • Don’t use soap in lakes or streams. It can injure animals and aquatic life. The same goes for human waste disposal.

You are a visitor to their home. Help keep wildlife wild.

7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

Show common courtesy to fellow adventurers. Many people escape to the outdoors for peace and relaxation. Here are some tips for outdoor manners.

  • Don’t be loud.
  • If you want to listen to music, use earbuds. Just keep the volume low enough that you can hear animals and others around you.
  • Yield to others on the trail. Yield to other hikers going uphill. Hikers yield to equestrians, and bicyclists yields to hikers and equestrians.
  • Control your dog and pick up your dog’s feces from trails.
  • Don’t “hog” the photo ops. Allow others the opportunity to view and take photos too.

Leave No Trace Outdoor Ethics for Kids

I believe teaching Leave No Trace ethics to children is important. If they grow up knowing how to venture outside responsibly, they will be more likely to carry that stewardship into adulthood.

The Leave No Trace Center has made education of our children easy! The Leave No Trace for Every Kid program is full of fun activities and courses for several age groups from elementary to teens.

Final Thoughts on Leave No Trace Outdoor Ethics

I think we need to approach the seven principles with a sense of responsibility and opportunity instead of just a requirement to follow a list of guidelines and rules. These Leave No Trace principles are a starting point of outdoor ethics education. I’m sure you’ll encounter situations when obvious answers aren’t always there. Just please use these principles to help make responsible decisions on your outdoor adventures!

If Bigfoot can do it, we can too!


Related Hiking Post: Hiking Risks and the Mistakes Hikers Make

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