The 7 Principles of Leave No Trace
1.) Plan Ahead and Prepare
The very first principle is first for a reason: Plan and prepare. You know the saying: If you fail to plan you plan to fail. So true.
Plan by charting your route, checking the weather, researching water sources and campfire restrictions, calculating how many nights (or hours) you’ll be out and how much food you’ll need. Likewise, plan how you’ll cook, where you’ll sleep (or just take a rest if we’re talking day hikes), what you’ll do with your trash (uhh…pack it out, obviously), and how you’ll navigate.
Once you have a detailed plan, prepare for your excursion by packing the right clothes, an appropriate amount of food and water, a first aid kit, and any tools unique to the destination or terrain. If you’re just planning a picnic in the park, that could mean making sure to pack a blanket, silverware, and a trash bag. For a day hike, that probably means the 10 essentials. For backpacking, it likely means carrying the right amount of water and water purification tabs and enough layers to be comfortable in changing weather.
Because a well-planned trip means a safe and enjoyable trip for everybody and one that leaves no trace that you were ever there to begin with.
2.) Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
This is the second principle of Leave No Trace. Because your big ol’ feet trample everything and mess it all up. So stay on designated trails–and no cutting switchbacks! And when you camp, set up in designated campsites.
Hiking in the wilderness or a field where there are no designated trails or campsites? Pitch your tent on durable surfaces like dirt, gravel or a big ol’ boulder if you can. And walk in a way that tramples the least amount of delicate underfoot foliage–that means no single file lines if you’re hiking in a group of two or more (you’ll start to wear a path where there shouldn’t be one).
Why? Well, if the ground beneath you happens to be living soil (also known as cryptobiotic crust, found mostly in the western states), you could destroy a delicate living ecosystem. Even if it’s just flowers and grass, you could trample it so that it never grows back, decimating the landscape for the other living creatures that depend on it.
So watch your feet and remember that the whole idea is to leave no trace that you were ever there to begin with.
3.) Dispose of Waste Properly
You heard me: pack it in, pack it out. All of it.
That obviously means trash like food wrappers (including fruit and vegetable skins, peels, etc., because no, it doesn’t just decompose overnight), but also your own dang excrement.
Granted, you don’t *always* have to pack out your own poo, but you must if you’re backpacking or hiking in a rocky river canyon or an area where you can’t feasibly dig a cat hole (like where earth is too hard to dig or in an area composed of all boulders and rocks). So bring a thick, opaque bag or two with you when in these areas and poo in those (put TP in there, too, please).
If you’re in the woods or places with dig-able earth, then you can deposit your waste (and TP) in a hole 6-8 inches deep. Just make sure to cover it up thoroughly before you walk away. And ensure that you dig that hole at least 200 feet from running water and campsites, ’cause not only is that gross for everyone else, it could contaminate the drinking water.
As for TP, don’t even think about leaving it in the bushes or at the base of a tree, even if you only went #1 and didn’t have to dig a hole. Nothing mucks up the beauty of nature more than little white squares littering the side of the trail or campsite.
And in case you were wondering, yes, this goes for your pet’s waste, too. So don’t forget your ultralight spade. AND your poo bag.
4.) Leave What you Find
We’ve all done it: found a cool fossil, rock, flower, maybe even an old railroad spike or some such, and taken it home with us. But when hiking, make a point to leave it where you found it.
Sure, it’s probably pretty cool, and there may even be a million of those fossils/rocks/flowers/railroad spikes, but if you take one, and the next person takes one, and the next person…well there won’t be any left for others to enjoy, now will there? Yeah, you didn’t think of that, did you?
Plus, native wildlife may need that stuff for food or nests, so you could be depriving them of sustenance or accessible housing (and you don’t wanna be that jerk, do you?).
So instead of taking it, pick it up, examine it, take a photo, make a sketch, do whatever, but then set it back down and walk away. I said walk away! And let somebody else experience the same joy of discovery that you did.
5.) Minimize Campfire Impacts
The next of the principles of Leave No Trace is a big one.
Smokey the Bear says, “Only you can prevent wildfires.” But responsible fire building is about so much more than not burning down the forest; it’s about minimizing impact, too. So when you build a fire in the outdoors, do it so it leaves no trace. For starters, obey park rules. As in, if a ranger or park sign says you’re not allowed to have a campfire, then you don’t have a campfire. Easy as.
If you are permitted to burn stuff, keep it in the fire pit if there is one, keep it small and contained, and if you’ll be collecting wood instead of buying it at a park store (like when backpacking), make sure you’re only collecting dead and downed wood.
As for the actual fire, build it on a durable surface so you won’t damage the ground beneath the coals (check out the cool fire-building instructional video we shot), and don’t ever leave it unattended. If you go to bed or leave camp for the day, douse that bad boy so thoroughly you can stick your hand on the soggy coals. Seriously.
6.) Respect Wildlife
How would you like it if you were in your natural habitat, just trying to work and enjoy your coffee in Starbucks, and some goofy tourists kept inching closer to you as they tried to snap a selfie? I bet you wouldn’t care for it much, would you? You might even get angry enough to charge at them, head down, legs pumping.
Well, that’s how animals feel when people invade their space just so they can get a better look or take that envy-inducing selfie for Instagram. So stay back and give animals their space so you don’t send them fleeing to the woods or sprinting toward you in rage and fury while they’re just trying to eat their breakfast.
Stay 25 yards away from animals like deer, moose and bison and 100 yards from bears, mountain lions, and wolves. Or you might get trampled. Even if you don’t, you could be acclimatizing them to people, which is just as dangerous for them.
And don’t feed animals, either. Any of them. No, not even the cute little chipmunks or birds eyeing your blanket during a picnic. People food can kill animals, and even if it doesn’t right away, getting them used to relying on free handouts is no bueno. Plus it teaches them bad manners and they go and annoy everybody else in the vicinity.
That goes for accidental feedings, too. The kind where you don’t properly store your food in your car or a bear box when camping or hang your food high in a tree when backpacking and animals pilfer your supplies. That’s a bummer for everyone involved. Cause now raccoons or bears know the campground is a place they can get a free meal and you’re now missing 4 sandwiches.
7.) Be Considerate of Others
The final one of the principles of Leave No Trace is about people.
And it goes for you and everyone sharing the trail or the park or the swimming hole with you. Being considerate of other hikers is easy to do. Turn off your music, turn down your voice (unless in grizzly country, then wear your little lungs out), and offer the right of way to other hikers.
Start by leaving your Bluetooth speaker at home. If you must have music, use earbuds. Then, if conversing with other hikers, use your inside voices, even when outside. Some people are out here to observe wildlife or find a moment of peace, so don’t be the one to ruin it for them. Finally, offer to yield the path to anyone hiking faster than you, coming from the opposite direction or going uphill–it’s just polite.
And don’t be afraid to say hello or offer advice for where to spot a rare flower or colorful lizard when you cross paths with others. Outdoor lovers like a good chat as much as anybody.
Think you can manage these 7 principles of Leave No Trace? Remember that they’re guidelines, not rules (for you rebels who hate rules) and following them create a more beautiful, welcoming environment for not only fellow outdoor enthusiasts but the plants and animals who call the great outdoors home, too. Nobody’s perfect, but the point of the principles is to help us all do our best so we can enjoy public lands together.