What Are the Leave No Trace Principles?

Steve Russell - February 12, 2023

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Of all the frameworks outlining ways for humans to decrease their environmental impact, Leave No Trace has one of the most influential. Take time to understand their seven principles for taking care of the planet, so when having your next outdoor event or visit to a national park, you leave as little of a mark as possible.

What is Leave No Trace?

Leave No Trace details ethics about how to conserve the outdoors. Though technology advanced, humans retained their desire to coexist with nature. However, new habits and behaviors bled into the environment, damaging its path.

The Leave No Trace program has been around for over 30 years to circumvent the erosion of nature from increased traffic and lack of education about how to treat the environment.

The Seven Principles

1. Plan Ahead and Prepare

All outdoor travelers should prepare not just for their comfort, but the environment will benefit from the consideration. When hikers, campers and trekkers have adequate resources on their person, they will not need to strip or negatively manipulate the environment of their resources. 

Plus, when travelers prepare according to their trip’s objective, they can bask more in the surrounding nature. Here are some significant considerations for adequate trip planning:

  • Pack only what you need to keep waste minimal
  • Consider the climate and terrain conditions
  • Become familiar with the trails and don’t divert from them
  • Know the park’s regulations and who to contact in case of emergency

2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

Trails were made so humans could traverse the outdoors by leaving as little of a mark as possible in remaining natural habitats. To avoid causing worse damage to habitats — land and water — know routes and camping spots ahead of time. It’s also essential to treat the land properly if you must go off-trail. 

Though you may need to veer off the beaten path to use the bathroom or find camp, understand what surfaces are more durable to repeated human contact, like sand and rock. Disturb as few species as possible when setting up camp.

3. Dispose of Waste Properly

Most know how much their waste affects flora and fauna. This concerns waste from humans camping, such as food wrappers and bottles, to correct disposal of human waste, especially for backcountry travelers. Human waste should be disposed of in proper catholes and not too close to waterways. Other garbage should be recycled or disposed of in adequate receptacles. 

Consider other less thought-of wastes like liquids and sprays, such as soaps and bug sprays. This waste could pollute soil and water, therefore affecting other life. Ensure these items are safe for the areas you’re entering.

4. Leave What You Find

A beautiful stone or flower may seem like a lovely parting gift to bring home to remember your trip fondly. However, this does not align with the Leave No Trace principles. Everyone should look to alter the environment minimally or not at all. Hold yourself and guests accountable not to:

  • Engrave on or deface trees or rocks
  • Pick too many flowers or leaves to take home — though some are edible, ensure not to pick too many where the plants cannot regrow
  • Leave items behind after packing up a campsite

5. Minimize Campfire Impacts

Traditional fires are quintessential to the camping vision. However, they may not be the most sustainable option now that more advanced camp stoves are available. Fires may be adequate for particular environments, but if campers are in high altitudes or areas where wood cannot regrow fast enough to meet visitor demand, it shouldn’t be a consideration. 

Different kinds of fires have other impacts, such as mound and pan fires. The key to leaving no trace is knowing how to properly build a fire not to sap the environment or put it at risk and, upon leaving, leaving no evidence of ash or char on stones or surrounding nature.

6. Respect Wildlife

All of the previous principles directly affect wildlife, and it is so vital it needs a separate principle too. Before entering a natural area, research the wildlife living there to ensure both your own and the animals’ safety. 

Whether you are an animal lover or not, approaching or feeding wildlife isn’t advised. Otherwise, biodiversity may suffer unnecessary stress or put you in danger if they see you as a threat to their territory. If you discover a sick or wounded animal, do not interact — see if you can find a park ranger or warden to inform them.

7. Be Considerate of Others

Wildlife deserves respect as well as other animal and human hikers and campers. Keep pet companions on leashes and noise to a reasonable level to allow others to get the rest they need. If you’re cycling or on horseback, give proper attention to pedestrians — and pedestrians should provide plenty of path clearance for cyclers and equestrians.

Though everyone should try not to mess with nature as much as possible, it is humans’ pleasure to enjoy it, and nobody should feel hindered from doing so.

Do The Principles Work?

To accurately analyze if the principles work, it’s critical to understand the issues it is trying to solve first:

  • Trashed natural areas
  • Polluted water
  • Lack of inclusivity in the outdoors
  • Wildlife at risk
  • Damaged trails
  • Destructive fires
  • Crowded parks

Despite these discussions, Leave No Trace has created awareness among backpackers and nature travelers to more greatly respect their environment. The organization has an extensive bibliography of research, noting how it has affected everything from reducing coral reef flattening to more responsible rock climbing.

Environmentalists and conservationists over the years have discussed and criticized the Leave No Trace ideology, stating everything from being too purist and ignoring complex human-environment interactions to ignoring the political action carers of the environment should take beyond these principles.

Leave No Trace for Global Impact

Aside from academic debate, the Leave No Trace principles remain a relevant fixture for park rangers and nature enthusiasts alike. They spread productive messages about respecting and interacting with nature responsibly while providing springboards for continued discussions on how to improve.

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About the author

Steve Russell

Steve is the Managing Editor of Environment.co and regularly contributes articles related to wildlife, biodiversity, and recycling. His passions include wildlife photography and bird watching.