Leave No Trace Principles

Leave No Trace
Ryan the authorResearch by Duncan
Updated: August 11, 2019

If you have ever gone on any hikes in state or national parks, you have likely seen or heard “Leave No Trace”. That phrase is seemingly simple enough - leave no trace while you are here in the park or on the trail. Essentially, clean up after yourself. There is much more to this seemingly simple phrase, however. There are actually seven key principles to adhere to that can help you best leave no trace.

Who Do These Principles Apply To?

Leave no trace was originally meant for backcountry hikers and backpackers. Backcountry typically refers to more remote places that need to be hiked to. Many times, backcountry folk will stay out in the wilderness overnight.

However, these rules should be used by everyone to help preserve nature and our parks! Places that can be more easily accessed like the city or state parks are sometimes called “frontcountry”. These visitors normally just are visiting the park for the day and can include backpackers and picnickers.

The Seven No Trace Principles

These are the core seven principles in the “Leave No Trace” mentality. These rules are important not only for your own safety but also help you minimize your impact keeping the land healthy for many years to come.

1) Plan Ahead and Prepare

Leave No Trace Princples

The last thing any camper or hiker wants is to run into problems on the trail. Small problems can become big ones quickly, and help can sometimes be several miles away. It is critical to plan ahead on even the most routine outings so that fatigue, fear, or confusion force you to make poor decisions.

First and foremost, make sure you know the regulations of the area. This can change a lot by season. For example, if you are in the western part of the United States, there are seasons in the summer where you cannot have a fire for fear of losing control of it because of the dry weather.

Make sure you check the weather of the time frame you will be outside and bring the appropriate tools to help you adapt. Storms, extreme temperatures, and extreme humidity can bring down even the most experienced outdoorsman.

It is also smart to schedule trips around periods of high use. Call into the park office or the nearest town to ask when most people come by. Not only will avoiding crowds help you more connect with nature, but it will also put less strain on the land being hiked and camped on.

Be conscious of the group size you will be bringing along with you. Large groups should be split into smaller ones so that they will not disturb wildlife.

Lastly, try to rely heavily on a map and compass so that there are fewer marks or paint on rocks and flagging.

2) Travel and Camp on Durable Ground

No Trace Principles

As you continue your outdoor adventure, be sure that you are using more durable types of ground. Try and find predefined trails, campsites, rock, gravel, dry grass, or snow. These types of terrain tend to stand up to punishment and will be able to handle your hiking and camping.

Do your best to use predefined trails and campsites. These have been laid out for a reason, and usually lead to the best views and spots anyway. Going off the beaten path (if there is one) just leads to danger and can hurt the land you are using.

When you do stop to eat or to camp for the night, keep your sites small and try to find a clearing where there will not be an impact on plant or animal life. Also, make sure to be at least 200 feet from lakes or streams. The ground is more likely to erode from high traffic closer to the water, as well as you run the risk of any runaway litter getting into the body of water and becoming lost.

3) Dispose of Waste Properly

Leave No Trace - Dispose of Wasete

This waste is everything from plastic wrappers to human waste. It is imperative that we are careful with waste because it builds up very quickly and has a major impact on the land.

If you pack it in, pack it out. Anything you bring with you on your adventure must also leave with you. Plastic wrappers, tools, and clothing all need to leave with the person they came with, no matter how broken or destroyed they become.

Eventually, nature will call and you will have to do your business out in the wild. All waste needs to be deposited in holes dug 6-8 inches deep, and at least 200 feet from water, campsites, or trails and be sure to cover up the hole once you are finished. There are even some areas, like the Grand Canyon, that requires human waste to be carried out as well. Check the regulations of your area to adhere to all rules!

4) Leave What You Find

No Trace Principles

We have all heard the old saying “take only pictures, leave only footprints”, this holds true with this next leave no trace principle.

Leave the past be, do not touch, mark, or take cultural and historical artifacts. It may seem like a cool thing to bring back to your family and friends, but it should be left for future visitors who want to see the site. If you like what you see, come back again later, these places aren’t moving anywhere.

Rocks, plants, and animals belong where you find them. Do not take these things out of their natural habitat. It is not harmless even if it appears that way.

Do not build structures, furniture, or trenches. These upset local fauna and can have a larger impact than you realize. Leaving nature how you found it is the best way to respect the area and leave it just as beautiful for the next time you come.

5) Minimize Campfire Impacts

No Trace Principles

Campfires are a time-honored tradition of camping. They are practical for cooking and keeping warm, and also promote group bonding after a long day. If careful precautions are not taken, however, they can be quite dangerous and destructive. For cooking, consider bringing a lighter weight camping stove and a candle or lantern for light.

If you decide to light a fire, double check local regulations to ensure they are permitted in the area and during that time of year. If fires are permitted, only build fires in fire rings, fire pans, or build mound fires. Keep fires small, only using sticks that can be broken by hand. Anything that requires a hatchet, axe, or saw could lead to a much larger fire than anticipated. Once you are done, let fires burn out completely to ash and then scatter the cool ashes.

If you have camped at all in the last 15 or so years, you have noticed the awareness being raised about the importance of leaving firewood at home, and buying it where you burn it. This is a critical rule for preserving our forests. Pests travel in firewood and it is a major reason the Emerald Ash tree population is rapidly decreasing. Do not bring your own wood! Buy it where you burn it!

6) Respect Wildlife

No Trace Principles

Leave wildlife alone. An encounter with wildlife can be dangerous for you, the animal, or both. It will be a much more enjoyable experience for everyone if you keep your distance and take a few pictures. Make sure to bring some binoculars for the best viewing experience.

Never, ever feed animals. It can severely damage their health, alter their natural behaviors, and even expose them to predators. Animals are capable of finding their own food, they have for millions of years, and will continue to for a million more.

If you bring your pet, control them at all times. Do not let them hunt, kill, or disrupt the natural wildlife. As much as your labrador loves being outside, it is not a part of the ecosystem and should not be allowed to run around without supervision. If you are unsure you can control it, maybe it would be best to leave the dog at home.

7) Be Considerate of Other Visitors

No Trace Principles

The golden rule of “treat others how you want to be treated” is a great way to sum up what this Leave No Trace Principle stands for. Be courteous, letting others pass you on the trail, and take breaks away from trails and other visitors.

One thing that many forget (my family included) is that one of the best parts of being outdoors is getting away from all of the hustle of life. Let the sounds of nature prevail. Try your best to avoid loud music, voices, and noises so that wildlife is not scared off and you do not disturb other visitors.

Why It’s Important

The Leave No Trace Principles are critically important for the longevity of the beautiful sites that we love to visit every year. I adhere to these rules whenever I am camping so that every year when I come back, I can expect the same great experience. Unfortunately, many of our national parks are covered in garbage and litter due to negligent people. This only is effective if we all work together! So make sure your friends and family do their best to Leave No Trace!

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