Leave No Trace

The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics protects the outdoors by teaching and inspiring people to enjoy it responsibly by delivering cutting-edge education and research to millions of people every year.

The seven principles of Leave No Trace provide an easily understood framework of minimum impact practices for anyone visiting the outdoors. Although Leave No Trace has its roots in backcountry settings, the principles have been adapted so that they can be applied anywhere — from remote wilderness areas, to local parks and even in your own backyard. They also apply to almost every recreational activity. Each principle covers a specific topic and provides detailed information for minimizing impacts. They are well established and widely known, but they are not static.

Learn more from the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics

Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics


7 Principles

#1: Plan Ahead and Prepare

Adequate trip planning and preparation helps any traveler accomplish trip goals safely and enjoyably, while simultaneously minimizing damage to the land. Poor planning often results in miserable campers and damage to natural and cultural resources.

Why Is Trip Planning Important?

  • It helps ensure the safety of groups and individuals.
  • It prepares you to Leave No Trace and minimizes resource damage.
  • It contributes to accomplishing trip goals safely and enjoyably.
  • It increases self-confidence and opportunities for learning more about nature

Things to Consider When Planning a Trip

  • Identify the skill and ability of your group.
  • Gain knowledge of the area you plan to visit from land managers, maps, and literature.
  • Choose equipment and clothing for comfort, safety, and Leave No Trace qualities.
  • Plan trip activities to match your goals, skills, and abilities.

Other Elements to Consider

  • Weather
  • Terrain
  • Regulations/restrictions
  • Private land boundaries
  • Average hiking speed of group and anticipated food consumption
  • Group size (does it meet regulations, trip purpose and Leave No Trace criteria?)


#2: Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces

The goal of travel in the outdoors is to move through natural areas while avoiding damage to the land or waterways.  Travel damage occurs when surface vegetation or communities of organisms are trampled beyond recovery. The resulting barren area leads to soil erosion and the development of undesirable trails. 

Travel on Trails

  • Land management agencies construct trails to provide identifiable routes that concentrate foot and stock traffic. 
  • Concentrating travel on trails reduces the likelihood that multiple routes will develop and scar the landscape. It is better to have one well-designed route than many poorly chosen paths.  Try to stay within the width of the trail and not shortcut trail switchbacks.

Travel Off-trail

All travel that does not utilize a designed trail such as travel to remote areas, searches for bathroom privacy, and explorations near and around campsites is defined as off-trail. Two primary factors increase how off-trail travel affects the land: durability of surfaces and vegetation, and frequency of travel (or group size).

  • Durability refers to the ability of surfaces or vegetation to withstand wear or remain in a stable condition.
  • Frequency of use and large group size increase the likelihood that a large area will be trampled, or that a small area will be trampled multiple times.

Camp on Durable Surfaces
Selecting an appropriate campsite is perhaps the most important aspect of low-impact backcountry use. It requires the greatest degree of judgment and information, and often involves making trade-offs between minimizing ecological and social impacts. A decision about where to camp should be based on information about the level and type of use in the area, the fragility of vegetation and soil, the likelihood of wildlife disturbance, an assessment of previous impacts, and your party’s potential to cause or avoid impact.

Choosing a Campsite in High-use Areas
Avoid camping close to water and trails, and select a site which is not easily visible to others. Camping 200 feet (70 adult steps) away from the water’s edge is recommended because it allows access routes for wildlife. Be sure to obey regulations related to campsite selection. Allow enough time and energy at the end of the day to select an appropriate site.  When leaving camp, make sure that it is clean and appealing for other campers who follow.


#3: Dispose of (Human) Waste Properly

The Center encourages outdoor enthusiasts to consider the impacts that they leave behind, which will undoubtedly affect other people, water and wildlife.

Human Waste

  • Proper disposal of human waste is important to avoid pollution of water sources, avoid the negative implications of someone else finding it, minimize the possibility of spreading disease and maximize the rate of decomposition. In most locations, burying human feces in the correct manner is the most effective method to meet these criteria. Solid human waste must be packed out from some places, such as narrow river canyons. Land management agencies can advise you of specific rules for the area you plan to visit.
  • There are several EPA-approved, commercially produced pack-out systems available that are easy to use and sanitary for backpacking/hiking use.  As more and more people enjoy parks and protected areas every year, packing out human waste is likely to become a more common practice to ensure long-term sustainability of our shared lands. In some environments, particularly in fragile alpine settings, land managers may require that all solid human waste must be packed out.
  • Learn how to bury your waste by digging a cat hole.

#3: Dispose of (Other) Waste Properly

Other Forms of Waste

  • “Pack it in, Pack it out” is a familiar mantra to seasoned wildland visitors. Any user of recreation lands has a responsibility to clean up before he or she leaves. Inspect your campsite and rest areas for trash or spilled foods. Pack out all trash and garbage.
  • Plan meals to avoid generating messy, smelly garbage. It is critical to wildlife that we pack out kitchen waste, such as bacon grease and leftovers. Don’t count on a fire to dispose of it. Garbage that is half-burned or buried will still attract animals and make a site unattractive to other visitors.
  • Carry plastic bags to haul your trash (and maybe someone else’s). Before moving on from a camp or resting place, search the area for micro-trash such as bits of food and trash, including organic litter like orange peels or pistachio shells.

Wastewater

  • To wash yourself or your dishes, carry water 200 feet away from streams or lakes. Scatter strained dishwater. Hand sanitizers that don’t require rinsing allow you to wash your hands without worrying about wastewater disposal.
  • For dishwashing, use a clean pot or other container to collect water, and take it to a wash site at least 200 feet away from water sources. This lessens trampling of lakeshores, riverbanks and springs, and helps keep soap and other pollutants out of the water. Use hot water, elbow grease, and soap if absolutely necessary. Strain dirty dishwater with a fine mesh strainer before scattering it broadly. Do this well away from camp, especially if bears are a concern. Pack out the contents of the strainer in a plastic bag along with any uneaten leftovers.

Soaps and Lotions

  • Soap, even when it’s biodegradable, can affect the water quality of lakes and streams, so minimize its use. Always wash yourself well away from shorelines (200 feet), and rinse with water carried in a pot or jug. This allows the soil to act as a filter. Where fresh water is scarce, think twice before swimming in creeks or potholes. Lotion, sunscreen, insect repellent and body oils can contaminate these vital water sources.


#4: Leave What You Find

Allow others a sense of discovery by leaving rocks, plants, archaeological artifacts and other objects of interest as you find them.

Minimize Site Alterations
Leave areas as you found them. Do not dig trenches for tents or construct lean-tos, tables, chairs or other rudimentary improvements. If you clear an area of surface rocks, twigs or pine cones replace these items before leaving. Consider the idea that good campsites are found and not made.

In many locations, properly located and legally constructed facilities, such as a single fire ring, should be left in place. Dismantling them will cause additional impact because they will be rebuilt with new rocks and thus impact a new area.

Avoid Damaging Live Trees and Plants
Avoid hammering nails into trees for hanging things, hacking at them with hatchets and saws, or tying tent guy lines to trunks—thus girdling the tree. Carving initials into trees is unacceptable. The cutting of boughs for use as sleeping pads creates minimal benefit and maximum impact. 

Picking a few flowers does not seem like it would have any great impact and, if only a few flowers were picked, it wouldn’t. But, if every visitor thought “I’ll just take a few,” a much more significant impact might result. Take a picture or sketch the flower instead of picking it. 

Leave Natural Objects and Cultural Artifacts
Natural objects of beauty or interest such as antlers, petrified wood or colored rocks add to the mood of the backcountry and should be left so others can experience a sense of discovery. In national parks and many other protected places, it is illegal to remove natural objects.

The same ethic is applicable to cultural artifacts found on public lands. Cultural artifacts are protected by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. It is illegal to remove or disturb archeological sites, historic sites or artifacts such as pot shards, arrowheads, structures and even antique bottles found on public lands.


#5: Minimize Campfire Impacts

Fires vs. Stoves: The use of campfires, once a necessity for cooking and warmth, is steeped in history and tradition. Some people would not think of camping without a campfire. Campfire building is also an important skill for every camper. Yet, the natural appearance of many areas has been degraded by the overuse of fires and an increasing demand for firewood. The development of lightweight efficient camp stoves has encouraged a shift away from the traditional fire for cooking. Stoves have become essential equipment for minimum-impact camping. They are fast, flexible and eliminate firewood availability as a concern in campsite selection. Stoves operate in almost any weather condition—and they Leave No Trace.

Should You Build a Fire?

  • The most important consideration when deciding to use a fire is the potential damage to the backcountry.
  • What is the fire danger for the time of year and the location you have selected?
  • Are there administrative restrictions from the agency that manages the area?
  • Is there sufficient wood so its removal will not be noticeable?
  • Do group members possess the skills to build a campfire that will Leave No Trace?

Existing Fire Rings
The best place to build a fire is within an existing fire ring in a well-placed campsite. Keep the fire small and burning only for the time you are using it. Allow wood to burn completely to ash. Put out fires with water, not dirt. Dirt may not completely extinguish the fire. Avoid building fires next to rock outcrops where the black scars will remain for many years.

Firewood and Cleanup

  • Standing trees, dead or alive, are home to birds and insects, so leave them intact. Fallen trees also provide bird and animal shelter, increase water holding capacity of the soil, and recycle nutrients back into the environment through decomposition.
  • Stripping branches from standing or fallen trees detracts from an area’s natural appearance.
  • Avoid cutting or breaking branches from standing or downed trees. Dead and down wood burns easily, is easy to collect and leaves less impact.
  • Use small pieces of wood, no larger than the diameter of an adult wrist, that can be broken with your hands.
  • Don’t bring firewood from home. Either buy it from a local source or gather it responsibly where allowed.
  • Burn all wood to white ash, grind small coals to ash between your gloved hands, thoroughly soak with water, and scatter the remains over a large area away from camp. Ashes may have to be packed out in river corridors.
  • Replace soil where you found it when cleaning up a mound or pan fire.
  • Scatter unused wood to keep the area as natural looking as possible.
  • Pack out any campfire litter. Plastic items and foil-lined wrappers should never be burned in a camp fire.

Safety

  • Never leave a fire unattended.
  • Keep wood and other fuel sources away from fire.
  • Thoroughly extinguish all fires.


#6: Respect Wildlife

Learn about wildlife through quiet observation. Do not disturb wildlife or plants just for a “better look.” Observe wildlife from a distance so they are not scared or forced to flee. Large groups often cause more damage to the environment and can disturb wildlife so keep your group small. If you have a larger group, divide into smaller groups if possible to minimize your impacts.

Quick movements and loud noises are stressful to animals. Travel quietly and do not pursue, feed or force animals to flee. (One exception is in bear country where it is good to make a little noise so as not to startle the bears.) In hot or cold weather, disturbance can affect an animal’s ability to withstand the rigorous environment. Do not touch, get close to, feed or pick up wild animals. It is stressful to the animal, and it is possible that the animal may harbor rabies or other diseases.

Sick or wounded animals can bite, peck or scratch and send you to the hospital. Young animals removed or touched by well-meaning people may cause the animals parents to abandon them. If you find sick animals or animals in trouble you should notify a game warden.

Considerate campers observe wildlife from afar, give animals a wide berth, store food securely and keep garbage and food scraps away from animals. Remember that you are a visitor to their home.

Allow animals free access to water sources by giving them the buffer space they need to feel secure. Ideally, camps should be located 200 feet or more from existing water sources. This will minimize disturbance to wildlife and ensure that animals have access to their precious drinking water. By avoiding water holes at night, you will be less likely to frighten animals because desert dwellers are usually most active after dark. With limited water in arid lands, desert travelers must strive to reduce their impact on the animals struggling for survival.


#7: Be Considerate of Other Visitors

One of the most important components of outdoor ethics is to maintain courtesy toward other visitors. It helps everyone enjoy their outdoor experience. Many people come to the outdoors to listen to nature. Excessive noise, uncontrolled pets and damaged surroundings take away from the natural appeal of the outdoors.

Technology continues to shape the outdoor experience. Personal preferences range from high-tech outdoor travelers, who might want to listen to music and collect images on their devices, to an anti-tech perspective that favors a minimal use of gadgets. Different strokes for different folks, but be sure to thoroughly consider how your experience is affecting the way someone else enjoys the outdoors. For example, earbuds may be a less obtrusive way to enjoy music than external speakers.

The general assumption on a narrow trail is that hikers headed downhill will step aside to allow an uphill foot traveler to easily pass. In many places, there’s an expectation that hikers will yield to equestrians, and that bicyclists will yield to both hikers and equestrians on trails. Stay in control when mountain biking. Before passing others, politely announce your presence and proceed with caution.

Bright clothing and equipment, such as tents, that can be seen for long distances are discouraged. Especially in open natural areas, colors such as day-glow yellow may contribute to a crowded feeling; consider earth-toned colors (ie. browns and greens) to lessen visual impacts. Keep pets under control at all times. Some areas prohibit dogs or require them to be on a leash at all times.