If you’ve ever been hiking or camping, you may have seen signs or other guidance to clean up after yourself, stay on designated trails and campgrounds, and otherwise “Leave No Trace.”
Leave No Trace is an organization and philosophy that promotes sustainable use of the natural world. The overarching principles are reflected by the name; the goal is to leave as small of an impact during your visit as possible.
Read on to learn about what Leave No Trace means and why it’s important.
What is Leave No Trace?
Leave No Trace is all about minimizing your impact when visiting the outdoors. Whether you’re camping, hiking, or even in your own backyard, following the Leave No Trace guideposts means keeping nature clean and protected.
Seven Principles of Leave No Trace
- Plan ahead and prepare – The right preparation can make a huge difference in your ability to minimize impact. Plan your trip so that you know how to take care of the space, have the proper supplies, and can visit when crowds are less likely.
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces – Using the appropriate campsites and hiking trails, or otherwise utilizing durable land for backcountry camping can make a world of difference when it comes to protecting the land.
- Dispose of waste properly – Perhaps the most widely understood Leave No Trace principle, disposing of waste properly means making sure your trash, food waste, and even bathroom waste don’t contaminate the land. Instead, take your trash and food scraps with you, and take proper care to dispose of human (and pet) waste.
- Leave what you find – Leaving what you find is what it sounds like; don’t take rocks, plants, or other natural items with you. However, it also means not altering the landscape by digging holes, carving trees, and picking flowers.
- Minimize campfire impacts – Campfire safety is extremely important for avoiding wildfires and protecting the space around campsites. Make sure to follow fire safety regulations, keep fires contained, and burn the right wood.
- Respect wildlife – Respecting wildlife is as intuitive as it sounds. Leave animals alone, taking care not to feed them, approach them, or cause other stress.
- Be considerate of others – In addition to respecting the land and animals around you, these principles all come down to being considerate of others. Respecting the environment means leaving it for others to enjoy, just like you!
Benefits of Leave No Trace Camping
1. Keep Nature Free of Trash
We’ve all seen it. Whether garbage is stuck in a tree, in a bush, on a hiking trail, or anywhere else it shouldn’t be, we know it’s wrong. At best, it’s an eyesore, an interruption in the natural landscape. But often, it’s even worse than that.
For one, litter can hurt and even kill wildlife. Animals can easily mistake trash for food, accidentally ingesting it. Not only is garbage difficult for animals to digest, but it can also cause them to choke. And if they don’t eat the trash, they can get stuck, whether it’s in a plastic bag, six-pack rings from soda cans, takeout packaging, or more.
Waste also causes pollution as it decomposes and breaks down. Chemicals in things like plastic and cigarette butts release toxins into our soil, water, and air.
Leave No Trace camping encourages campers and hikers to clean up after themselves, disposing of waste properly to minimize these effects.
2. Keep Water Clean
Similarly, Leave No Trace camping helps keep the water clean.
Many different human activities can adversely affect water sources, including oceans, lakes, and rivers. Whether you’re disposing of trash, bathing, going to the bathroom, or washing your dishes, Leave No Trace principles strive to protect these bodies of water.
For example, similar to garbage decomposing and releasing toxins into the air, these toxins can also end up in the water. Additionally, when plastics break down, they often break off into minuscule microplastics. These microplastics often run into water sources, where they’re ingested by fish and other marine life. Eventually, many of these microplastics come back to humans, when we eat things like fish.
Human waste can contaminate water sources, too. This is why Leave No Trace camping includes things like going to the bathroom at least 200 feet away from bodies of water and burying feces if toilets are not available.
Take a look at our Guide to Camping Toilets to learn more about best practices for going to the bathroom outdoors.
3. Avoid Trail and Land Damage
Enough about the things people may leave behind; what about actions that don’t leave anything? Believe it or not, even if you think your use of the great outdoors is harmless, you may be leaving an impact.
Hiking and camping mean using land, and even though it’s generally temporary, the effects may not be. Hiking outside of designated trails, camping on non-durable surfaces, and doing these activities on top of vegetation can scar and damage the land.
This can become an especially large problem when parks and other natural areas become overcrowded. After all, if there’s not enough room on a hiking trail, it’s easy to see why someone wouldn’t think twice about just going around the people in front of them, even if it means stepping off the trail.
This is why Leave No Trace emphasizes the importance of planning ahead. If you can avoid crowds by going to popular destinations in the off-season, on weekdays, or outside of holidays, it’s easier to prevent overcrowding.
And when in doubt, use designated trails and campsites to avoid any unintentional harm. It may just mean the natural land lasts longer for everyone to enjoy!
4. Minimize the Risk and Impact of Fires
Another principle of Leave No Trace is minimizing the impact of campfires. Campfires often seem like an essential part of camping, and there are many ways to enjoy them safely. But sometimes, it’s just not the time or place.
Generally, best practices for campfires include keeping them relatively small, keeping them contained, and ensuring the environment is right for them. For example, if you’re in a particularly dry area or desert, fires pose a high risk to the environment, because they can easily and unintentionally spread.
Additionally, if you are building a fire, Leave No Trace means using the right wood. Standing and fallen trees, for example, can both be home to different wildlife, so it’s best to leave those alone. Instead, collect dead and broken wood nearby. Additionally, avoid bringing your own wood from home, as doing so can introduce new insects to an environment where they don’t belong.
Overall, Leave No Trace protects the environment from several potential consequences and risks that campfires pose.
5. Allow Wildlife to Be Wildlife
Leave No Trace has major implications for wildlife. As mentioned above, leaving trash and other waste can negatively impact the animals around you. But that’s not the only way human activity can cause them harm.
In general, many interactions you may have with animals may have unintended consequences. How often have you seen signs on hiking trails, at parks, or even at outdoor restaurants that say you should not feed the birds?
This is because feeding wildlife can make animals overly dependent on human food, damage their health by feeding them things they shouldn’t eat, and even cause them to let their guard down, exposing them to potentially dangerous situations.
And even if you don’t mean to feed the animals, improper food storage can make it easy enough for them to find. Visit our post on How to Store Food While Camping for important storage instructions and tips.
Other interactions with animals can be harmful, too. For example, approaching animals in the wild often causes undue stress, sparking their “fight or flight” instinct. Whether the animals run away, or worse, prepare to fight, unintended unsafe situations may occur.
6. Leave Nature for Others to Enjoy
Last but not least, following the principles of Leave No Trace means leaving nature for you and others to be able to enjoy in the future. Whether you’re protecting the land, water, plants, or animals, minimizing your impact means the natural world will be around for many years to come.
Leave No Trace: Leaving Nature As You Found It
As you can see, Leave No Trace is an important and sustainable way to enjoy the outdoors. Whether you’re hiking, camping, or otherwise spending time in nature, minimizing your impact has innumerable benefits.
Looking for more camping tips? Visit our Camping page for guides and recommendations for all types of camping!