Leave No Trace principles: 7 rules everyone must know

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We only live once, but our planet doesn’t. And we want it to leave in good shape for those who come after us.

If you have something in common with camping, the Leave No Trace might ring a bell for you. Essentially, it works as a common guide on how to behave in the wild in a nature-friendly way. 

The Leave No Trace principles set a tone for our outdoor adventures that don’t impact natural spaces but vice versa – save and nourish them for future generations. 

Now, let’s get our outdoor ethics polished. 

What is Leave No Trace?

Leave No Trace is a non-profit organization that developed a handy playbook of ethics and best practices to reduce human-caused impact while outdoors. The main goal of the Leave No Trace center is to preserve nature’s integrity and build respect for our natural places. 

The seven Leave No Trace principles work as a core for responsible decisions while we’re off to the wilderness.

Why should we care about Leave No Trace?

Most of us do not intend to harm our natural surroundings. But that might come unintentionally, simply by missing out on some behaviors due to a lack of knowledge.

Our actions leave a mark on the environment – and not always in a good way. The idea behind the Leave No Trace principles is to encourage sustainable and minimum-impact practices that don’t disturb or damage natural habitats.

Applying them minimizes our ecological footprint, preserves fragile ecosystems, and reduces human-caused problems in the wild – such as erosion, water pollution, and wildlife disturbance. All of this has a positive knock-on effect on our own camping trips.

Who should follow the Leave No Trace principles?

The leave no trace principles are relevant to everyone – whether you’re a hiker, camper, climber, hunter, paddler, snowshoer, or any other type of outdoor enthusiast. 

Initially, they were designed to guide overnight campers in remote backcountry areas. But the leave no trace principles are equally applicable to frontcountry users.

By “backcountry,” we refer to backpackers and others who spend the night in more distant, dispersed regions. Whereas city and state parks are often called the “frontcountry.” Frontcountry users include those day trippers like dog walkers, picnickers, runners, and car campers. 

So, what are the seven principles of Leave No Trace?

All of the principles covered by Leave No Trace are more or less common sense. Each relies on specific techniques to minimize the impact, depending on what you do, where you go, and how many people are with you. 

We’ll look into these seven principles on a fundamental level to clarify the whole idea. If you’re up to exploring all the nitty gritty details behind these principles, head to the Leave No Trace website

leave no trace principles
Leave No Trace Principles

1. Plan ahead and prepare

The first Leave No Trace principle is all about being prepared for your trip – both mentally and physically. Before you leave, get to know the regulations and special concerns for the area you’ll be visiting. For example, some places might have a fire ban in action. Others might be closed whatsoever to protect wildlife. 

It’s also essential to know your limitations and those of your group. Consider the fitness levels, experience, and ages of everyone involved. Then, choose an appropriate itinerary and schedule. Leave plenty of time for rest and relaxation. Don’t forget to repackage your food to minimize waste.

Some things to consider before your trip:

  • Weather conditions and forecast (be prepared for extreme weather, anyway)
  • Your route and destination
  • Your group size
  • Your skills and experience level
  • Leave No Trace policies in the area
  • Peak times – you might wish to schedule your trip for non-peak periods

Preparing ahead will help you avoid impulsive decisions that could have a negative impact on the environment.

2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces

This principle mainly concerns choosing the right campsite and selecting a route that would minimize your impact on the surroundings.

When you travel or camp, try to do so on surfaces your presence won’t damage. Durable surfaces are those that can withstand repeated use without showing signs of wear and tear:

  • Established trails and campsites
  • Rocks
  • Sand
  • Gravel
  • Dry grasses

Avoid sensitive areas altogether, such as: 

  • Meadows
  • Streams
  • Lakeshores
  • Wetlands

Some things to keep in mind when you travel and camp on durable surfaces:

  • Avoid shortcutting trails
  • Stay on existing trails
  • Camp in designated campsites
  • Use a backcountry stove for cooking
  • Camp at least 200 feet from lakes and streams
  • Keep your campsite small 

3. Dispose of waste properly

This one is rather self-explanatory – deal with your waste in the right way. That includes everything from human waste to rubbish and grey water. The area you’ve been at should look untouched when you’re off home. 

Here’s what you need to do:

  • Pack out all rubbish, including food scraps, leftover food, orange peels, toilet paper, etc.
  • Use a portable toilet or deposit solid human waste in a cathole (6 to 8 inches deep, at least 200 feet from water, campsites, and trails) for human waste. Avoid catholes in desert landscapes, as their breakdown time is much longer due to the lack of biologics in the soil.
  • Use a grey water bag to dispose of dishwater
  • Avoid washing yourself or your dishes in natural water sources

4. Leave what you find

The whole Leave No Trace philosophy stresses leaving the natural environment as you found it or even in a better state. That means:

  • Not taking anything with you that doesn’t belong there
  • Not transporting non-native species
  • Not damaging or altering the area in any way. Cutting tree branches is a NO.
  • Leaving rocks, flowers, and other natural objects as you found them
  • Not bringing any natural “souvenirs” home
  • Not touching cultural and historical artifacts

Simply put – take only pictures and leave only footprints. 

5. Minimize campfire impacts

This Leave No Trace principle is about minimizing your campfire’s impact. That includes everything from choosing the right spot to build your fire (and if there isn’t – just using a stove) to putting it out properly when you’re finished.

Some things to keep in mind to minimize campfire impacts:

  • Use a backpacking stove instead of a campfire where possible
  • Assess your skills. If you’re not sure how to build and maintain fires, don’t.
  • Choose a spot for your campfire that is already disturbed
  • Build your fire away from vegetation
  • Keep your fire under the watch
  • Gather firewood from a broad area and use only scraps from dead or downed trees 
  • Put your fire out completely before you leave

6. Respect wildlife

Feel like at home, but don’t forget you’re a guest. It’s a residence for thousands of animals, so do your best not to disturb or harm them and give them space to live their lives.

Here are some hints on how the respect for wildlife looks like:

  • Don’t approach or touch animals. Observe wildlife from distance
  • Don’t feed animals. Feeding wildlife damages their health, alters natural behaviors, and puts them at risk in the eyes of predators.
  • Don’t leave food out that might attract animals
  • Don’t build dams or dig trenches in waterways
  • Don’t disturb nests or dens
  • If you’re off with your furry friend, be sure it doesn’t bother or chase animals

7. Be considerate of other visitors

No matter how remote you’re off to, keep in mind you’re not the only human there. Big chances are you’re heading to the wild for peace, refreshment, and connection to nature. Others are seeking it, too. 

This principle is all about respecting other people’s space, privacy, and keeping noise to a minimum. Some things to consider:

  • Don’t camp or travel too close to other people
  • Let nature’s sounds prevail – keep your noise close to a minimum (remember, not everyone loves your music)
  • Don’t disturb cultural or historic structures
  • Don’t leave gates open or block trails
  • Be polite – say hi to people you meet on the trail 
  • Respect hiking etiquette and allow people to pass when you should 
  • Keep your pets under control

Bottom line

And that’s about it. Not a lot of work knowing how much good applying these principles brings, right? 

Again, remember that the Leave No Trace philosophy is all about common sense. View these principles not as explicit rules but rather as guidelines for making the right decisions to preserve the wild when camping. Nature will thank us!

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