Recreating outdoors comes with a colossal responsibility. Anytime you set foot outdoors, everything you do, everywhere you step, has the power to impact nature either positively or negatively.
To ensure that our precious natural spaces are around for as long as possible, to keep our lands safe and thriving for wildlife, and to preserve fragile habitats and plant species, we need to reduce our impact outdoors. To do this, we must follow Leave No Trace.
Leave No Trace, a nonprofit organization, introduced seven principles to minimize impact practices for anyone visiting the outdoors. Whether you are day hiking, backcountry or front-country camping, backpacking, thru-hiking, or simply spending the afternoon in your local city park, it’s important to do your part in reducing the detrimental, heavy impact we’ve been witnessing in recent years.
From the remote wilderness to your backyard, adhering to these seven Leave No Trace principles is crucial to the survival of our delicate outdoor spaces.
So what are the seven Leave No Trace principles, and how can we practice them when hiking and camping? In this guide, I will explain each of the seven Leave No Trace principles in detail, and share how you can implement them into every single one of your hiking and camping adventures.
How to Practice the Leave No Trace Principles When Hiking and Camping
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LNT Principle 1: Plan Ahead and Prepare
Planning your trip ahead of time and being prepared for your adventure will ensure your safety and the environment’s safety simultaneously.
Failure to plan or consider things like terrain, individual or group skill level, fire bans, current road closures, restrictions, or weather could create unsafe conditions for you and/or the landscape.
Not educating yourself on local regulations could result in constructing a fire in a fire-ban region, causing the forest to be negatively impacted by potential wildfire risk and dwindling resources.
If you didn’t check the weather or current conditions ahead of time, you could put yourself at risk for hypothermia or heat stroke with improper clothing.
If you aren’t prepared for the tough terrain or you have overestimated your skill level, you could be forced to camp somewhere unsafe or illegal.
Overall, lack of preparation often results in damage to fragile landscapes, frequent indecision, unintentional personal harm, food and water shortage, or an overall miserable experience. On the other hand, full preparation often results in healthy landscapes, safe decisions, and happy hikers.
Do yourself and the environment a favor: plan ahead and prepare for each of your outdoor adventures!
How to Practice “Plan Ahead and Prepare” When Hiking and Camping
1. Identify and record the goals and expectations of your trip.
Know what you want to do and how you want to execute it. This includes how long you want to be outdoors and what you want to be doing each day.
2. Identify skills and abilities.
Identify the skills and abilities of all who are going on the trip. Plan a trip to match those skills and abilities.
3. Heavily research the area you are going to.
Understand the terrain, trails, and distances. Utilize maps, blogs, and books. Call local ranger stations for specific, up-to-date information before your trip.
4. Create a packing list.
Make sure your packing list is appropriate for the conditions and duration of your trip. Bring all the clothes and equipment you will need to keep you safe and comfortable.
5. Consider the weather.
Research the weather and prepare for those conditions but understand that conditions can change. Prepare for rain and even snow, if you’re in high elevations.
6. Consider the terrain in which you will be hiking and camping.
Make sure that it is suitable for you and your group and that everyone is aware of how far they will have to travel and how difficult it may be.
7. Read current regulations, restrictions, and boundaries.
Ensure that your route doesn’t involve venturing off-trail, into private property, or into unsafe territory.
8. Anticipate how much food you will need to consume over the duration of your trip.
Food waste not only “leaves a trace,” but it could create unnecessary weight in your pack. If food or food packaging is left behind, it could cause unwanted attention from critters or leave behind foul smells.
9. Anticipate how much water you will need to drink over the duration of your trip.
If water sources are unavailable on the trail, you will need to pack enough for the entire trip. If there are water sources on the trail, you can bring less water but make sure to carry a filter.
10. Do your research ahead of time to see if you need any permits or reservations.
If you are traveling with a large group, be sure that there are no size restrictions.
11. Educate everyone on Leave No Trace.
Before you head out, be sure that everyone is educated on Leave No Trace and is prepared to practice it outdoors.
LNT Principle 2: Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
When hiking, your goal should always be to travel through natural areas without damaging the land or waterways. Poor impact on these fragile lands or bodies of water could result in erosion and contamination.
When you’re camping and setting up a tent in the backcountry, your goal should always be to make as little of an impact as possible. If you don’t, you could potentially do some serious damage to the fragile landscape.
How to Practice “Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces” When Hiking and Camping
1. Stay on the trails.
Though even constructed trails have an impact on land, they are necessary for us hikers who enjoy wandering through natural spaces. To avoid tarnishing fragile landscapes, stick to the designated trails. If you need to take a break, try your best to remain on the trail while letting other hikers pass. If you need to step off-trail to let a hiker pass, try to do so on durable surfaces.
2. Wander off-trail only when necessary.
Off-trail hiking refers to any time you need to hike off a designated trail. Reasons for such activity would be for things like bathroom search and campsite setup or if you’re in the midst of designated wilderness or unmaintained backcountry areas and you’re traveling on remote terrain with uncut paths. If you need to wander off trail for one of these reasons, there are some things you should understand about the fragility of the land, which I’ll discuss in the next section.
3. Understand surface durability.
If you stick to the trail, it is relatively easy to avoid harming any fragile surfaces. If you need to travel off-trail for any reason, it’s important for backcountry campers and hikers to understand the concept of surface durability.
Here is how each type of surface reacts to hiker traffic:
- Rock, sand, and gravel. These surfaces can tolerate heavy hiker traffic. It is generally safe to hike and camp on these surfaces. Take note that lichens that grow on rocks are vulnerable to repeated trampling.
- Ice and snow. Ice and snow are temporary so they can tolerate heavy hiker traffic as long as there is a good depth between the snow/ice surface and the vegetation beneath.
- Vegetation. There are many different types of vegetation, each with varying degrees of toleration. Avoid trampling on these surfaces if you can. If hiking in a group, spread out so that you don’t trample the same piece of vegetation over and over again. Repeated off-trail travel on vegetation can cause a path to form, giving the illusion to future hikers that this might be a cut trail, further damaging the surface.
- Living soil. Living soil is extremely vulnerable to hiker traffic. Avoid crushing these surfaces if you can. If you are hiking in a group and have no choice but to walk on the soil, hike in a single-file line to disturb the least amount of living soil possible.
- Desert puddles and mudholes. Since water is scarce in the desert, these puddles are often the only source of hydration for many animals. They are also home to many living organisms. Don’t walk into any desert puddles for any reason.
→ READ NEXT: How to Set Up a Tent in Every Terrain ⛺️
4. Camp at least 200 feet from any water source or trail.
Stay out of sight of other campers, too! Be respectful of privacy and maintain a healthy distance.
5. Give yourself plenty of time and energy to select a campsite.
You don’t want to be in the dark or out of energy, scrounging around for a campsite. This will most likely lead to you setting up your tent in a hurry with no regard for the landscape.
→ READ NEXT: Night Hiking Tips 🔦
6. Try to choose a site that is already established.
Even in the backcountry, there are often signs of previous use. If there are no established sites available, set up camp on a durable surface like bedrock, gravel, or sand.
7. Leave the campsite better than you found it.
Cover up scuffed areas by spreading pine needles over the space, brushing out footprints, and raking out matted grass.
8. Wear soft shoes around camp.
Shoeprints, especially from heavy boots, can harm fragile landscapes.
9. Always follow the local area’s rules for camping.
You can find this out by stopping by a ranger station or hopping online.
LNT Principle 3: Dispose of Waste Properly
Humans create a lot of waste. This becomes extra dangerous in the outdoors because many people think it’s acceptable to leave their garbage behind on trails and at campsites. This causes not only an unclean environment but can sabotage plants and animals or attract unwanted attention from wildlife.
Even if unintentional, unawareness and accidents cause just as much harm as belligerent disregard for the rules, which is why education on these topics is critical.
Always pack out your trash. As the saying goes, “Pack it in, pack it out.”
How to Practice “Dispose of Waste Properly” When Hiking and Camping
1. Dig a cathole that is 6-8 inches deep to bury human waste.
If you skip this step, animals can dig it up and create a mess in the area. You don’t want other people to stumble upon this type of wreckage.
2. Follow all guidelines on human waste burial.
Make sure you are at least 200 feet from waterways, trails, and campsites. Also, check the local park’s guidelines on human waste. Some protected places don’t allow poop to be buried at all so therefore, you would be forced to pack it out.
3. ALWAYS pack out your toilet paper.
No matter where you’re at, it is NEVER okay to leave your toilet paper outside, even if it’s inside a hole.
4. Dump dirty dishwater at least 200 feet from water sources.
Strain the food scraps and pack those out.
5. Bathe 200 feet from water sources.
If you are going to wash your hair or body with soap, make sure you are at least 200 feet from water sources because soap, even if biodegradable, can mar the waterways. There is nothing wrong with rinsing off in a lake, stream, or river after a long, hard hike as long as you don’t use any soap. That’s why many backpackers prefer to use body wipes and skip the suds altogether.
6. Be careful with the use of lotions, sunscreens, and bug sprays near waterways.
Some of those could be detrimental to the health of waterways.
7. Use the Eco-Spray Technique for spitting toothpaste.
Toothpaste doesn’t need to be packed out or buried; instead, Leave No Trace has a fun technique to use when brushing your teeth outdoors. Learn about it in my outdoor hygiene guide here. 🧼
8. Pack out ALL forms of waste.
This includes trash, feminine hygiene products, and food scraps. Even organic litter like orange peels and pistachio shells should never be left behind.
Here are a few tips to ensure you don’t leave any trash behind:
- Pack a trash bag in your backpack so that it’s easy for you to pitch your garbage after usage. You can also use the bag to pick up other people’s trash that you may find along the trails and at the campsites.
- Before you abandon your campsite, double-check that you haven’t left anything behind.
- Plan your meals and snacks so that you bring the least amount of waste possible. This also helps reduce the weight you carry in your backpack.
→ READ NEXT: Outdoor Hygiene Tips for Hikers and Campers 🧼
LNT Principle 4: Leave What You Find
While it may seem harmless to pluck a flower, scratch a name into a tree, or collect a handful of rocks, think about what that action could do to the landscape if everyone who ventured into the area participated. If every hiker, every amateur geologist, and every explorer snatched a souvenir, if each of them carved his name into a tree, we’d be left with bare landscapes and vandalized forests.
The wildlife often uses rocks and trees to build their homes or nurture their young; they rely on plants for nutrition. Don’t be the person who rips away an animal’s home.
Imagine someone coming into your home and taking one thing. It might not be a big deal until each of your guests starts to do it and all of a sudden you have no furniture, no clothes, and no food.
Nature is the wildlife’s home. Leave nature as you found it.
How to Practice “Leave What You Find” When Hiking and Camping
1. Minimize campsite alterations.
Try not to alter the natural space too much for your campsite setup. If you need to move logs, twigs, or other debris to pitch your tent, replace them before leaving. This is part of the “leave the space better than you found it” mantra.
2. Don’t damage trees and plants.
Never carve names into trees or hammer nails in the bark to hang things. It’s usually okay to tie a hammock to a tree or strap tent guylines around the bark but check with a local ranger first. If you’re collecting wood for a campfire, only pluck dead and downed wood. Also, watch where you’re stepping. Don’t trample on fragile surfaces.
3. Leave natural objects and artifacts.
Don’t pluck any souvenirs. Leave all natural objects and artifacts where you found them. In many national parks, it is actually illegal to remove natural objects.
→ READ NEXT: Trail Etiquette 101 ⚠️
LNT Principle 5: Minimize Campfire Impacts
Building a fire is one of the most relaxing parts of camping. We all anticipate sitting around a fire ring and watching the flames engulf the wood while wrapping our hands around a mug of something warm.
But before you build a fire, make sure you know the local area’s rules and are following them. Never build a fire in areas that are prone to wildfires or have a firewood shortage. Always follow local rules before assembling a ring, gathering firewood, and lighting a match.
How to Practice “Minimize Campfire Impacts” When Hiking and Camping
1. Know when not to have a fire.
Choose not to have a fire if you’re camping in the desert, in a fire danger zone, or in an area with insufficient wood.
2. Build a fire within an existing fire ring if possible.
If there isn’t one, build your own so that the fire is contained and doesn’t spread.
3. Allow the wood to burn completely to ash.
Don’t skip this step! Never abandon burning wood or hot coals. Let the wood burn completely to ash and then douse it in water until the coals are cool to the touch. If the coals are still hot, they’re too hot to leave.
4. Never leave a fire unattended.
Don’t go to sleep or leave the site with the campfire still burning. This action could cause a rampant wildfire.
5. Don’t build a fire next to rock outcrops.
Smoke could cause permanent charring.
6. Know when to opt for gas stoves.
If camping in a desert, at a high elevation, in an area with insufficient wood, or in a fire-ban region, opt for gas stoves instead of campfires.
7. Collect only dead and downed wood.
Never cut down or snap a branch from a live tree. Always use dead and downed wood that’s surrounding your campsite.
8. Scatter unused wood before leaving.
This action keeps the area looking as natural as possible.
9. Don’t burn trash in campfires.
Pack out all of your trash.
→ READ NEXT: Campfire Safety Tips 🔥
LNT Principle 6: Respect Wildlife
Since we are in the wildlife’s home whenever we’re in nature, camping, hiking, and backpacking, it’s important to always respect the wildlife.
These creatures are roaming, sleeping, and eating in their natural habitat, and as long as we do our part to not disturb or provoke them and to properly store our food, we can avoid the most dangerous wildlife encounters.
How to Practice “Respect Wildlife” When Hiking and Camping
1. Keep your distance.
Always observe wildlife from a distance; stay at least 50-100 yards away, but always follow park guidelines. Never approach them or attempt to feed them. Most of the time the animals are content keeping to themselves and minding their own business, so if you disrupt them, they might become aggressive and potentially charge at you.
2. Camp 200 feet from water and trails.
This is not only vital to protect the natural water sources but this action allows the wildlife to have free roam of the paths and full access to the waterways while you’re sleeping without disturbing you. If you camp in the middle of their path or block the water access, the animal could become combative simply because you’re in the way.
3. Properly store your food.
Read my bear safety guide to find out how to set up camp safely in bear country. 🐻
LNT Principle 7: Be Considerate of Others
A lot of people escape into nature to distance themselves from civilization and slip into the realm of silence and solitude. They might want to connect with nature, experience something spiritual, or simply disconnect from distractions.
Since you’re not always going to be the only one in the area, it’s imperative to keep the environment natural and enjoyable for others.
How to Practice “Be Considerate of Others” When Hiking and Camping
1. Don’t make a lot of noise.
Keep your voice level low, avoid singing unless you are in bear country, and opt for earbuds instead of blaring music.
2. Keep your dog controlled and on a leash.
3. Downhill hikers yield to uphill hikers.
4. Groups should hike in a single-file line.
Groups who don’t hike in a single-file line will choke the path and obstruct hikers from passing.
5. Allow faster hikers to pass by stepping to the side of the trail.
Stay to the right of the trail, just as you do on the road, to allow faster hikers to pass. Avoid trampling off-trail, especially on fragile landscapes, if possible.
6. Offer a friendly greeting to any hikers you pass.
If you see someone struggling on a difficult uphill section of a trail, offer a smile, a wave, or a greeting to motivate them. If you pass a dog, ask to pet it. You never know whose day you could positively affect or what friends you could make on the trails!
Organizations such as Leave No Trace exist to keep our natural spaces thriving, our animals populating, and our plants flourishing.
These rules, tips, and guidelines aren’t put in place to hinder our experience or spoil our time. The landscapes, the plants, the animals, and the people are all the primary focuses of this organization.
If we all do our part to plan, avoid trampling on fragile surfaces, dispose of trash, resist plucking souvenirs, minimize our campfire impact, and respect the wildlife and other hikers and campers, the natural spaces will thrive and continue to be a place of refuge for humans and wildlife alike for generations to come. Isn’t that what we all want?