“Take only pictures, leave only footprints, kill only time.” These are the golden rules of Leave No Trace.
We’re living in a utopia of outdoor exploration. 330 million people visited our national parks in 2016, an all-time record. The popularity of our public lands is fantastic for both awareness and support but it comes at a price—that foot traffic takes a physical toll on the land and its ecosystem. That’s why we have Leave No Trace, a set of principles to help minimize our impact on public lands.
Full disclosure: There was a time when I had zero clue about Leave No Trace. I thought it was okay to toss orange peels because “they decomposed,” or use the bathroom near a stream because “animals do the same thing,” or clear out land for a new campsite because “it was a cool spot.” Experienced campers just cringed their way through those examples, but no one is born knowing the rules. You have to learn them somewhere just like me. Eventually.
So if you’re a veteran brushing up on the details or a new hiker learning these rules for the first time, this is everything you need to know about Leave No Trace.
What is Leave No Trace?
Leave No Trace is a non-profit organization dedicated to outdoor ethics. Its mission is to protect the outdoors by teaching and inspiring people to enjoy it responsibly. You can find events and partners in your state to get involved but the group would be thrilled if, at the very least, everyone who hiked and camped simply knew the rules.
Leave No Trace lists the rules into seven principles, but it essentially boils down to four categories: campsites, fires, sanitation, and food & wildlife. Know these basics and you’re already on the way to becoming a champion of trail ethics.
The basic rule of camping is that your site should look the same (or better) when you leave as it did when you arrived. Good campsites are found, not made.
- Use designated or existing campsites.
- Travel on durable, established trails to and from your site.
- Minimize site alterations—don’t dig trenches, nail into trees, or build structures that aren’t easily broken down.
- Camp at least 200 feet from a fresh water source.
- Don’t take souvenirs for your wilderness workspace. Leave nature in nature.
There is nothing better than a warm campfire on a cool night, but bad practices lead to erosion or possibly wildfires. In fact, people are responsible for most wildfires in the U.S., but they can all be avoided with good fire management.
- Call the ranger to ask about fire bans before camping.
- If your site has no fire ring, consider skipping a campfire completely.
- Use only dead and downed wood for fuel.
- Keep campfires small and confined.
- Before bed or leaving camp, douse the fire with water until the coals are cool to the touch.
- If you built the fire ring, break it down and spread out the remaining contents.
Food & Wildlife
Every campsite has food, but every wilderness also has animals. The key here is to keep the two separated for both the animal’s health and the camper’s safety.
- Store all food and scented items (such as deodorant or trash) in a hanging bear bag, canister, or designated box.
- Pack out any peels, apple cores, or leftover food. Animals could eat these, develop a liking for human food, and go looking for more.
- Don’t eat or store food inside your tent to prevent wildlife sniffing around your camp at night.
- Don’t feed or approach animals in the wild.
- Pack it in, pack it out. If you brought it with you, take it when you leave!
- Don’t wash dishes in streams or lakes. Use biodegradable soap and dispose of dishwater at least 200 feet from the water source.
- Dig a small hole 6-8 inches deep and 200 feet away from trails, campsites, and water sources to dispose human waste.
One More Thing
It’s the same on the trail as it is in life—don’t be a dick. Use headphones when listening to music, respect others’ space, and just try to be an overall good and polite person outdoors. You’ll find that hikers and campers are some of the nicest people on earth, but there’s always that one guy. Don’t let it be you.
These are basic principles to Leave No Trace, but there is much more for those who are interested. Visit lnt.org/learn for more.
Be an Example for Others
Everything I learned about outdoor ethics was from someone else with more experience on the trail. Yes, you can read these rules here or find them in a Google search, but the best way to promote Leave No Trace principles is to simply live them out in the wilderness.
How do you practice Leave No Trace in the wild? Share in the comments below.