Created by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, the Seven Principles are a guideline for minimizing our impact on nature when we’re hiking, camping, or just exploring. It goes beyond the simple mantra of “take only pictures, leave only footprints.” The act of leaving no trace extends to proper preparation for your trip, avoiding damage to trails and campgrounds and respecting wildlife and fellow visitors.
What are the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace?
- Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Those of us who enjoy spending our time in the outdoors have all probably had an experience where we have encountered trash, vandalism or other human marks on nature. Particularly in popular areas, it can be difficult to find spaces that haven’t been changed over time by improper use. Litter is one of the biggest problems, but there are also other issues such as damage to animal habitats, impacts from camping, and overcrowding.
Preservation is easier than restoration. Cleaning up after the damage has been done can be labor-heavy and difficult. Some damage may take years to completely repair. Fortunately, there are steps that everyone can take to preserve nature. It doesn’t take much extra effort to follow Leave No Trace’s Seven Principles, and minimize your impact.
Below, I’ll explain the Seven Principles in detail, so that you can incorporate them into your time in the outdoors.
1 – Plan Ahead and Prepare
Whenever possible, avoid heavily traveled areas during periods of high visitation. Expect more visitors over holidays and weekends, and do your research on the most popular spots. If you can go to busy places like national parks outside of holiday periods, do so.
Some places may have special rules, such as requiring permits or restricting use to certain times of day. Environmentally sensitive areas may have stricter rules in place to preserve the area. Learn about where you’re planning to go and know your responsibilities.
Check the weather before heading out on a trip. Don’t get caught unprepared. Bring the right clothing and equipment for the type of weather you will be experiencing. Always have an emergency backup plan and a first aid kid when heading out into the backcountry.
2 – Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
Don’t be a trailblazer. Heading off-trail can be dangerous and may put you out of reach of rescuers if anything were to go wrong. It also tramples vegetation and causes erosion. Respect areas that are closed or under restoration and give plants a chance. If you see a new trail that has been created by others walking around a muddy patch or an eroded spot, don’t follow in their footsteps.
Never alter the land to create a campsite. Set up your tent on solid ground, 200 feet away from any riparian habitat or water sources. Stay away from sensitive habitats such as meadows or anywhere else that would be damaged by a campsite.
Confining use to designated areas reduces the damage caused by recreation. Any restoration or maintenance efforts can then be concentrated into these areas and be more efficient as a result.
3 – Dispose of Waste Properly
Always pack out your trash. Come prepared with several trash bags and never leave any waste behind. If you packed it in, bring it back out with you. Garbage has the potential to completely change a landscape. It also presents hazards to wildlife that may mistake it for food or nesting material.
If you see trash laying around, pick it up. This is where your several trash bags will come in handy. By cleaning up after others, we can make a lasting positive impact. Leave it better than you found it whenever you can.
Human waste should be buried in holes at least 6 inches deep and 200 feet away from any water sources. If you’re going to be out in the backcountry without access to toilets, bring a trowel and be prepared to dig. Pack out your toilet paper or any other hygiene products.
4 – Leave What You Find
If everyone were to take home a piece of nature as a souvenir, eventually there wouldn’t be any left to take. Leave behind anything that you find for others (including wildlife) to enjoy. You might find the coolest rock you’ve ever seen out in the mountains, but that rock belongs out in nature. Take a picture and leave it behind.
Don’t disturb any historical items that you come across and respect anything with cultural significance. Never collect from historical sites. Be aware that old structures may be more fragile than they look. It may be best to observe from a distance.
5 – Minimize Campfire Impacts
Out of any part of your trip, your campfire has the potential for the most damage. Mismanaged campfires are one of the most common reasons for wildfires. Always use an established fire pit or ring. Otherwise, confine cooking to a small camp stove.
Even if your campfire is in a designated fire pit, always make sure it is dead out when you’re done. Drown it in water before you head on your way. If the coals are still hot, the fire isn’t out. Never leave a fire unattended.
Some places will require you to get a campfire permit. This is particularly common in drought-prone areas. If fire danger is high, restrictions may be in place and you might not be able to use a flame at all. Check before you go, and if fires are restricted, always respect the rules.
Pay attention to conditions before you light your fire. Lack of consideration during fire season can cause catastrophic wildfires. Strong winds can pick up sparks and start fires that will quickly get out of control. If it’s dry and windy, reconsider having a fire.
When collecting firewood, first make sure that you are not in an area where collecting is prohibited. This is generally the case in national parks, and may be in other places as well. Collect only fallen branches, and don’t cut down anything that is still standing.
6 – Respect Wildlife
Remember that we’re sharing some of our favorite outdoor spaces with the animals who call it home. Keep your distance from any wildlife that you see, and don’t disturb them. Take any photos you want from a distance. Approaching wildlife puts not only you, but also potentially the animal in danger.
Don’t feed animals, and keep your food out of their reach. Human food is unhealthy for wildlife, and animals that grow accustomed to being fed eventually lose their instinct to hunt or forage for natural food. Overfed and unhealthy animals can attract dangerous predators to places that they may not normally go.
If you’re going to be traveling through bear country, always secure food and other scented items in a bear can or a bear-proof locker. If you’re picking up a backcountry permit, many wilderness permit offices will rent a bear can to you if you do not have one.
7 – Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Most of us are out in nature to get a little solitude, so be considerate of any other hikers or campers you come across. Set up your camp at a distance whenever possible. When space is cramped, still ensure that your tent isn’t set up directly next to your neighbor’s tent. Respect other camper’s personal space.
Don’t be the person that’s blasting music at full volume out of their Bluetooth speaker on the trail or in a campground. Keep voices low, especially after dark when other campers may be trying to sleep. Respect campground quiet hours.
When on the trail, yield to horses and other hikers. Generally, uphill hikers have the right of way. Try to make sure that when passing, others are aware of your presence. A quick “on your left” or a “hi” will suffice.
A Personal Note…
While in the midst of writing this article, I took a day trip to western Nevada with a goal of exploring the middle of nowhere and seeing as few people as possible. I had planned to take photos of pristine, untouched wilderness for this article. I was surprised to find that even off of remote dirt roads, where the closest town was miles away and had a population of 17, I was still able to find traces of human impact.
In a dried-up riverbed, I found hundreds of old cans, bottles and tins. I’m unsure whether this was trash that was dumped here, or if it ended up in the river and flowed downstream. Either way, this place that seems like it was rarely touched by humans was still filled with trash.
Many of these cans appeared to be at least a few decades old. This is just an example of the impact that garbage has on nature. While the labels have biodegraded, and the metal has rusted, the cans are still there years later.
When you throw something away, it doesn’t just disappear. It sits on our planet for a very long time. This is why it’s so important to make sure that we practice proper waste management and respect our outdoor spaces. People can make a lasting impact on nature – that impact can either be positive or negative.
Preserving nature is important for the sake of the land, the animals that live there, and the people who want to enjoy it. From national parks to places in our backyard, we should all follow the Leave No Trace principles. By taking ownership of our impact, we can preserve nature for generations to come.