Open main menu

Leave No Trace

by Alicia MacLeay
May 16, 2006

When in the backcountry, you already know to “pack it in, pack it out” and you swear you never leave behind anything but footprints. You camp in designated campsites. Dig a hole when nature calls. And you’ve never built a fire ring. Surely you’re already practicing Leave No Trace, the principles of outdoor ethics promoted by practically every outdoor group.

But do you really know the basic tenets of Leave No Trace? (Quick, name all seven principles.) And, perhaps even more important, do you understand why they should be followed? Could you explain, politely, to the guy in the tent site next to yours (or to yourself) why Fido shouldn’t be allowed to run free through the trees and streams?

Even the most environmentally sensitive among us can use an occasional reminder of how to reduce our impact in the backcountry. Because no matter how well intentioned, you’re bound to leave some impact, if only footprints.

The Leave No Trace Principles of outdoor ethics

These principles were developed and are taught by the Leave No Trace organization. For more information on the principles and on LNT, visit

1. Plan Ahead and Prepare

  • Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you’ll visit.

  • Prepare for extreme weather, hazards, and emergencies.

  • Schedule your trip to avoid times of high use.

  • Visit in small groups. Split larger parties into groups of 4-6.

  • Repackage food to minimize waste.

  • Use a map and compass to eliminate the use of marking paint, rock cairns, or flagging.

The Bottom Line: Ignorance is no excuse. If you’re going into the backcountry, it’s your responsibility to know where you can camp, the maximum group size allowed, and any other restrictions. Not only is trip planning necessary for safety and success, it also keeps you from being forced into making bad decisions. If you’ve properly planned to reach your designated campsite before nightfall you won’t find yourself desperately searching in the dark for any old place to pitch your tent and thus damaging an area’s natural resources.

2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

  • Durable surfaces include established trails and campsites, rock, gravel, dry grasses, or snow.

  • Protect riparian areas by camping at least 200 feet from lakes and streams.

  • Good campsites are found, not made. Altering a site is not necessary.

  • In popular areas:

    • Concentrate use on existing trails and campsites.

    • Walk single file in the middle of the trail, even when wet or muddy.

    • Keep campsites small. Focus activity in areas where vegetation is absent.

  • In pristine areas:

    • Disperse use to prevent the creation of campsites and trails.

    • Avoid places where impacts are just beginning.

The Bottom Line: When there’s a trail, stick to it. Yes, sometimes trails get wet and muddy, but are you really afraid of getting your boots a little dirty? Walking around a muddy trail just tramples down more vegetation, spreading out the trail and its erosion.

When going off-trail (such as to the bathroom or moseying around camp), disperse and vary your route. Don’t follow one another and inadvertently form another trail. Whenever possible travel on durable surfaces like rocks, sand, and gravel or, when safe, snow. Avoid walking on vegetation, especially on alpine summits. In desert areas completely avoid Cryptobiotic crust, which can be destroyed by one stray footprint, and desert puddles and mud holes, which animals rely on for scarce water.

Campsite selection can have the biggest influence on your backcountry impact. Choose an appropriate site based on local regulations (poor planning is no excuse for choosing a fragile spot) and minimizing impact. Avoid camping near water or trails and, when possible, choose a site that already has been highly impacted, such as established campsites or those with no vegetative cover. That way your further impact won’t be noticeable.

Camping in a pristine area? This requires a true commitment to and experience with LNT practices and is likely to involve spreading out tent sites, moving camp daily, and naturalizing the site when breaking camp.

3. Dispose of Waste Properly

  • Pack it in, pack it out. Inspect your campsite and rest areas for trash or spilled foods. Pack out all trash, leftover food, and litter.

  • Deposit solid human waste in catholes dug 6 to 8 inches deep at least 200 feet from water, camp, and trails. Cover and disguise the cathole when finished.

  • Pack out toilet paper and hygiene products.

  • To wash yourself or your dishes, carry water 200 feet away from streams or lakes and use small amounts of biodegradable soap. Scatter strained dishwater.

The Bottom Line: Protect water quality and the backcountry experience of others by properly disposing of your human waste. In most locations this means burying feces in a cathole and urinating on rocks, pine needles, or gravel. However, in narrow river canyons and other locations, it may be necessary to pee in the river and pack out solid waste. Again, know the regulations for the area you’re visiting.

If you must use toilet paper, use it sparingly and then pack it out. Yes, that may seem a tad gross, but finding used toilet paper in the woods is worse. Also, carry out all feminine hygiene products. Don’t bury them (they don’t readily decompose and animals may dig them up) and don’t try to burn them (it takes a lot of heat to burn them completely).

4. Leave What You Find

  • Preserve the past: examine, but do not touch, cultural or historic structures and artifacts.

  • Leave rocks, plants, and other natural objects as you find them.

  • Avoid introducing or transporting non-native species.

  • Do not build structures, furniture, or dig trenches.

The Bottom Line: Leave natural areas just as you found them. “But, I’m just going to take one flower, what can it hurt?” you think. Well, imagine if everyone took “just one.” Let others experience the same beauty of nature. Take a picture if you like, write about it in your journal, but then leave behind the flowers, antlers, pretty colored rock, or feather you saw.

You also should know that in some areas, like national parks, it’s illegal to remove any natural objects; on public land it’s illegal to disturb or remove archeological sites, historic sites, or cultural artifacts, like potsherds, arrowheads, and antique bottles.

5. Minimize Campfire Impacts

  • Campfires can cause lasting impacts to the backcountry. Use a lightweight stove for cooking and enjoy a candle lantern for light.

  • Where fires are permitted, use established fire rings, fire pans, or mound fires.

  • Keep fires small. Only use sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand.

  • Burn all wood and coals to ash, put out campfires completely, then scatter cool ashes.

The Bottom Line: Use a stove for minimum-impact camping. There are many excellent backpacking stoves on the market that are lightweight and efficient. The removal of firewood destroys not only the natural appearance of an area, but also shelter for small animals like birds.

6. Respect Wildlife

  • Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow or approach them.

  • Never feed animals. Feeding wildlife damages their health, alters natural behaviors, and exposes them to predators and other dangers.

  • Protect wildlife and your food by storing rations and trash securely.

  • Control pets at all times, or leave them at home.

  • Avoid wildlife during sensitive times: mating, nesting, raising young, or winter.

The Bottom Line: Be sure to properly store your food (and garbage, food scraps, cooking gear, and scented items like soap and toothpaste) away from animals. This usually means hanging a food bag at least 12 feet off the ground and five feet from tree trunks, or in bear country using a bear-resistant food canister or designated food-hanging pole in camp.

With the exception of making yourself heard when traveling through bear country, keep loud noises to a minimum so you don’t startle animals and force them to flee their young or scare them away from water sources. And even though they may present a very tempting photo op, don’t approach animals just to get a better look.

Note: If you will be traveling in bear country, make sure you follow the recommended safe camping and food storage practices for the area you’ll visit.

7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

  • Respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience.

  • Be courteous. Yield to other users on the trail.

  • Step to the downhill side of the trail when encountering pack stock.

  • Take breaks and camp away from trails and other visitors.

  • Let nature's sounds prevail. Avoid loud voices and noises.

The Bottom Line: Be considerate. Keep the noise level down on the trail and in camp so you don’t disturb others. Don’t travel in large groups, call out to others down the trail, or test your echo on top of a ridge.

Want to lessen your visual impact? You can increase feelings of solitude, for yourself and others, by choosing tents, clothing, and other equipment with natural, earth-toned colors, like browns and greens.

As for Fido, some areas prohibit pets or require them to be on a leash at all times. Pets running free can disturb or scare wildlife and other hikers, despite your assurances that, “he’s just really friendly.” And remember, dog feces get the same treatment as human feces. Pick them up and dispose of them properly.

Ultimately it comes down to this. With common courtesy—for others and the backcountry environment—we all can enjoy and protect the outdoor experience.

For More Information

If you’ve already got these basic principles of Leave No Trace down, congratulations. You can learn how to reduce your backcountry impact even further by visiting the Leave No Trace web site ( for further information and tips on each principle.

Or, how about leaving a negative trace? Bring along an extra trash bag and pick up some of the trash you find on your next outing. It only takes a few minutes and the effect is worth it—for you, the outdoors, and the next person on the trail.