Leave No Trace Principle

Before the pandemic, there were around 331 million people who visited national parks around the United States. There are more who are hiking, trekking, and camping around the world. This can take a significant toll on Mother Nature.

Nature is already suffering from litter, erosion, contaminated water sources, and damage to the wildlife due to the number of people visiting them. Outdoor lovers must learn how to enjoy nature safely and with as little effect as possible so that these wonderful places may be enjoyed again by others and future generations.

The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace provide an easily understood framework of low-impact activities for anybody enjoying the outdoors. Although the principles of Leave No Trace have their origins in the backcountry, they have been modified such that they may be used anywhere – from isolated wilderness regions to local parks.

They are also applicable to nearly every leisure activity. Each Principle focuses on a certain issue and gives extensive information to help you minimize your effect on nature.

1. Plan Ahead and Prepare

Taking the time to plan out a trip in advance and prepare for it effectively helps backcountry visitors enjoy their trips while also reducing the harm to the area. A lack of preparation can lead to unhappy campers and the destruction of natural and cultural treasures.

While hiking or camping, rangers often recount the cases of people they’ve encountered who, due to shoddy planning and the unforeseen, destroy the backcountry’s resources and put themselves in danger.

Why is it Important To Plan for a Trip?

Planning involves significant research, from important facts about the destination to the required gears and supplies. Safety is the first consideration when planning for a trip. You need to consider how you and the group can enjoy hiking without putting yourselves in danger.

Obviously, the Leave No Trace Principle is a great guide to ensuring safety during the trip. It helps adventurers push themselves to the limit while minimizing damage to both hikers and the environment. This also helps you gain self-confidence and find opportunities for learning about the outdoors.

Key Elements of Planning a Trip

  • Identify the abilities and skills of each trip participant.
  • Determine and write down your goals and expectations for the trip.
  • Decide on activities that will meet these goals and match the skills of the participants.
  • Research and collect information about the destination, such as maps, guides, and other literature.
  • Choose and purchase gear, equipment, and clothing that prioritizes safety and comfort as well as follows the Leave No Trace principles.
  • Go back to your plan, evaluate if your goals were met, and adjust them for your next trip.

Other elements of planning include:

  • Terrain information such as trails and campsites
  • Location of water sources like streams or lakes
  • Possible weather and climate
  • Laws, regulations, and restrictions
  • Land boundaries, especially if there are any private properties in the area
  • Expected food consumption
  • Average hiking pace of the group
  • Size of the group

black hiking backpack near white Fujifilm instax mini camera near black leather boots, red half-zip jacket, gray pocket watch on white map

2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

The next principle of Leave No Trace is travel and camp on durable surfaces. In order to achieve this aim, it is important to understand how hiking and other outdoor activities affect the environment. Vegetation and creatures that live on the surface of the ground are trampled to the point of irreparable harm. Remember that you should minimize site alterations.

Traveling On and Off Trails

So that human and animal traffic may be concentrated on existing trails, land management organizations build easily recognized pathways. Constructed paths have an influence on the earth, yet they are an essential reaction to the reality that humans use natural regions for mobility.

It is less likely that many pathways would arise and devastate the countryside by concentrating travel on paths. Better to have one well-designed pathway than a multitude of ill-chosen ones. The usage of trails wherever feasible is highly encouraged.

When taking a rest on the path, hikers should give other trekkers room. Traveling off-trail during rest periods should be done in accordance with the principles of off-trail travel. If you are hiking as a group, you should take breaks and communicate with each other. While hiking, refrain from yelling to communicate. Sounds that can be heard from afar should be avoided in natural environments for obvious reasons.

Off-trail travel includes all travel that does not follow a designated path, such as travel to distant locations, bathroom privacy searches, and explorations around campgrounds. The durability of surfaces and vegetation and the frequency of traffic are the two main variables that affect the impact of off-trail travel.

  • The durability of surfaces – refers to the ability of surfaces or vegetation to withstand abuse from traffic or to keep its stability.
  • Frequency – refers to the number of times a group passes through an area.

All backcountry trekkers should be familiar with the concept of durability. When it comes to backcountry travel, the natural surfaces mentioned below behave differently:

  • Living soil – Tiny colonies of microorganisms make up the living soil, which appears as a blackish and irregularly formed crust on the sand. This crust helps retain moisture during arid conditions and acts as a protective barrier, preventing erosion. This delicate soil may be destroyed by a single step. In most cases, traveling through the living earth should only be done when there is no other option. Use boulders or other sturdy surfaces to venture off the established path.
  • Mud holes and desert puddles – Water is a vital and limited resource for all living organisms in the desert. Be careful not to step in the desert or in any other area where there are puddles or mud holes. Also, potholes are a haven for a variety of desert critters.
  • Rock, gravel, and sand – These are highly durable and hardy surfaces even with high traffic. However, ensure that you are not stepping on lichens that grow on rocks.
  • Vegetation – When traveling off-trail, hikers should spread out to not create a route for others to follow. Ensure that you don’t go off-trail wherever feasible, particularly on steep slopes where the effect of traffic is magnified.
  • Snow and ice – These are great temporary trails depending on the layer of snow or ice. Ensure that no vegetation is damaged beneath the snow surfaces.

Camping on Durable Surfaces

One of the essential aspects of low-impact wilderness use is choosing a suitable campsite. As a result, it needs the highest level of judgment and knowledge and typically entails determining trade-offs between reducing environmental effects.

Here are a few tips in choosing in camping on durable surfaces:

  1. If possible, avoid camping near water or pathways, and choose a spot that is not clearly visible to others.
  2. Choose a camp that is at least 200 feet away from a water source or wildlife route.
  3. Use areas that show the previous impact and avoid enlarging it to limit damage to the wildlife.
  4. When camping in undisturbed remote areas, it is best to spread out the tents to minimize traffic to any specific area.
  5. Minimize any damaging activities, especially when setting up campfires or cooking food.
  6. Avoid repetitive traffic, especially around water sources and wildlife routes.

3. Dispose Waste Properly

As suggested by the name, there should be minimal impact to the land after using it. As such, hikers should dispose of waste properly. This is not only important to preserve the wilderness but considerate of other visitors as well.

Disposal of Human Waste

Removal and disposal of human waste are crucial to keeping waterways clean, avoid someone else discovering it, reduce the risk of transmitting illness, and expedite decomposition.

The most effective way to meet these conditions is to bury human excrement. In certain areas, such as narrow river valleys, solid human waste must be hauled out correctly. To help you plan, a land management agency can provide particular guidelines that are relevant to the region you intend to visit.

Most common ways to dispose of human waste:

  • Cat holes – Cat holes are the most commonly used form of disposal, especially of human waste. It should be located at least 200 feet (70 adult paces) away from water, footpaths, and camping areas. Choose a quiet location where you won’t be bothered by other hikers or campers. Prepare the hole by digging a six- to eight-inch deep and four- to six-inch wide hole with a small garden trowel. It’s important to conceal the cat hole after you’re done with your business. You should spread out the cat hole locations while camping for more than one night or with a large party.
  • Latrines – Select a latrine location based on the same criteria that you would use to identify a cat hole. Due to the fact that this larger quantity of excrement would disintegrate extremely slowly, the location is of utmost significance. After each use, put in a scoop of dirt to accelerate decomposition and reduce smells. Inquire with your land manager about latrine-building methods.

Disposal of Other Wastes

A good rule of thumb in order to ensure that you are following the Leave No Trace principle is to bring out whatever you brought in. All wastes must be packed out properly and should be brought back with you for proper disposal.

However, there are special considerations for other types of wastes:

  • Toilet paper – Toilet paper should be used sparingly, and only simple, white, unscented types should be used. A cat hole or plastic bag should be used to dispose of it. Leaving no trace in a desert setting is done best by wrapping toilet paper in plastic bags and carrying it out as garbage. Do not burn toilet paper regardless of your location.
  • Tampons – Placing tampons in plastic bags and taking them with you is the best way to properly dispose of them. Animals may dig them up, so do not bury them as well. Just like toilet papers, avoid burning them as they may cause dangerous fires.
  • Food waste – If you planned properly, you should have minimal food waste after your trip. Make sure to clean up any food scraps and pack out any leftover food, whether they are biodegradable or not. This prevents any animals from digging them up.

4. Leave What You Find

By leaving rocks, plants, ancient relics, and other interesting items along your path, you’re allowing others to partake in their own sense of exploration. Don’t make a mess; leave everything as you found it.

Clear out any man-made facilities on high-impact campsites such as makeshift tables, chairs, and fire rings. If you think about it, the best campsites are found, not created.

Properly situated and legally constructed structures, such as a single fire ring, should be left in place even if they are located in a different site. Since they will be replaced with fresh rocks, dismantling them will have an impact on an entirely new location.

Remember to always respect nature and follow these tips:

  1. Avoid damaging trees by hanging things, hacking them with saws, or tying guy lines to the trunks. Do not vandalize trees by carving into them.
  2. Avoid picking flowers and other plants. Occasionally, you can take advantage of fruits and edible vegetation, but ensure that you are not depleting the food source of animals and small critters.
  3. Leave natural objects of beauty such as petrified wood, colored rocks, or antlers as they can add a sense of discovery to other hikers. In many national parks, it is illegal to take such items home as souvenirs. Take photos instead.
  4. Do not touch or disturb cultural artifacts, especially in protected areas. It is illegal to alter or take home structures, pot shards, arrowheads, or antique bottles.

5. Minimize Campfire Impacts

Campfires are natural parts of outdoor adventures that many build out of tradition more than need. Unfortunately, generations of campfires have significant impacts on various natural sites. The overuse of firewood also degrades these places.

Innovative and lightweight camp stoves have given campers the confidence to forgo traditional cooking fires. Stoves are vital camping equipment since they have minimal influence on the environment. They are quick, adaptable, and eliminate the hassle of acquiring firewood as a consideration in choosing campsites. In nearly every weather situation, stoves work, and they leave no trace.

If you do not have any camping stoves with you, there are a few alternatives:

  • Existing fire rings – These are usually located in a well-placed campsite and away from anything combustible. Keep the fire small and manageable.
  • Mound fire – For low-impact campsites, your next alternative is a mound fire. It insulates the ground from the fire heat preventing any damages to vegetation. Make sure that you use soil, sand, or gravel. It can also be built on exposed rocks, organic litter, or cleared-out areas.
  • Fire pans – Fire pans made of metal oil drain pans and outdoor barbeque grills may both be used as efficient and affordable fire prevention devices. Three-inch-high sides are the minimum requirement for a cooking pan. It should be placed on a platform of rock or have mineral soil layered over it to prevent the earth from burning.

Always prioritize safety when setting up campfires or dealing with any type of fire outdoors. Here are a few things to remember:

  • Set up fires away from combustible materials such as dry grasses and other fuel sources.
  • Do not leave campfires and stoves unattended.
  • Burn all wood down to ashes and do not leave embers unattended.
  • Only use approved fuel for camp stoves.
  • Follow all safety protocols and instructions, especially in using camp stoves.
  • Extinguish fire using water to ensure no ember remains. Always inspect your campsite before leaving.

camping under black sky

6. Respect Wildlife

Always remember that you are a visitor when hiking in the wilds. Respect wildlife as you would respect other people’s homes. As such, make sure to minimize impact and avoid disturbing the local flora and fauna.

Observe wildlife from a safe distance. Animals are often wary or scared of humans, so keep your distance. If you are at a large party, try to break up into small groups to reduce impact.

Loud noises and quick movements can stress out animals, especially small critters. Disturbing them can affect their ability to find food or rest. Avoid touching animals for your own safety as well as theirs. Never feed wild critters as well.

If you see any injured wild animals, inform the game warden or any local authorities. Do not try to handle them yourselves. They are already scared, so they are more susceptible to attacking anyone who goes near them. This is especially true for young animals. Their cries may attract their mothers that can attack you.

Be extra careful around water sources. If you need to camp nearby, you should be about 200 feet from water sources such as lakes and streams. This ensures that you are not disturbing any wildlife and that they have access to drinking water.

Disposal of waste and washing should be done 200 feet away, too. If you really have to, use small amounts of biodegradable soap or detergent. Lakes and rivers are home to animals and plants that are sensitive to chemicals, so do not dump anything in them.

7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

Just as you respect wildlife, you should lend the same respect to other adventurers. Everyone just wants to enjoy the wilderness in different ways, so always maintain a respectful distance from other campers.

If uncertain, follow your instincts when it comes to interacting with others. You can also remember the following tips:

  1. Minimize the noise when communicating with your fellow hikers. Do not bring any speakers or any other devices that produce loud sounds or music.
  2. Make sure that you have full control of your pets or kids. Pick up any pet poop as they are not part of the wild and may disturb the local fauna.
  3. The use of technology in the wilderness varies from one person to another. Some people love high-tech gear, while other visitors like the basics. Keep your tech with your group and minimize impact within the campsite.
  4. When on a narrow trail, the rule of thumb is to first allow those hiking uphill to go through first. Those headed downhill should step aside without damaging the surrounding vegetation.
  5. Groups with pack animals have the right-of-the-way. Safely step aside and provide enough space for the animals and the group to pass through.
  6. When camping in the wild, ensure privacy between other camps unless both groups agree to camp near each other. Other visitors may prefer their privacy.


The Leave No Trace Principle is a necessary mindset to bring to the outdoors. Just like your gear and supplies, the right attitude is important when going on adventures. These principles help ensure your safety, the preservation of the natural world, and the enjoyment of all adventurers.