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What Does Leave No Trace Mean?

Most of us have at least heard the phrase, and many of us live by it when in the outdoors. Especially regular campers and backpackers, so what does leave no trace mean?

Casual hikers and occasional campers though may not know exactly what “Leave No Trace” means or how they can practice it. That’s what we’re going to cover today.

Leave No Trace – what it means

Leave No Trace is a set of 7 principles and best practices to follow promoted by The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics that minimizes our impact on the outdoors.

Leave No Trace helps preserve our outdoor spaces such as state and national parks and should be followed by everyone at all times when visiting these natural areas.


The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics was founded in order to educate people about their impacts on the nature, primarily when visiting natural areas recreationally.

The purpose is simply to leave nature the way you found it, and Leave No Trace helps guide you on how to do this through the 7 principles and helpful tips and info.


The concept of leave no trace is much older and has been practiced for many years, but the idea of leaving no trace started gaining more traction in the late 80s and early 90s.

In the 1987 a no trace program was formed for wilderness and backcountry travel and exploration. The national park service then passed out a pamphlet titled “Leave No Trace Land Ethics” that promoted the newly budding program.

In 1993, several nature and wildlife related agencies convened in Washington D.C. to discuss the forming of an independent organization dedicated to educating people about the importance of leaving no trace.

Leave No Trace Inc, a non-profit organization, was officially founded in 1994. It reaches 15 million Americans each year as well as many other countries.

Learn more about the history of Leave No Trace here.

The 7 principles

The framework of Leave No Trace is really based upon the seven principles.  These principles can be practiced by anyone anywhere from your favorite national park to right in your own backyard.

1. Plan ahead and prepare

Whether it’s a casual day hike or a multi-day backpacking trip, planning and preparation are crucial. Obvious things like checking the weather and making sure you brought the right gear make all the difference in the world for a successful outing.

Proper planning:

  • Ensures safety
  • Prepares you for the other 6 principles
  • Gives you knowledge about the area

Poor planning:

  • Can result in sickness or injuries
  • Could lead to natural area damage
  • Makes it difficult to follow the other 6 principles

2. Travel and Camp on durable surfaces

This one basically means that you should hike where you’re supposed to and camp where you’re supposed to.

Hiking on the well-traveled and designated trails rather than taking shortcuts and trampling vegetation will cause minimal impact to the area, and the same goes for camping.

Camp in areas that are designated for camping, particularly where others have camped. Any disturbances to the area will likely cause minimal impact to the area and go unnoticed.

Durable surfaces just means surfaces that can take the traffic such as rock, sand, dirt, and gravel. Avoid living soil and vegetation when setting up camp or hiking when at all possible.

3. Dispose of waste properly

You may be familiar with the phrase “pack it in. pack it out”. This is a big part of Leave No Trace. Anything you bring that creates trash whether it be plastic, paper, glass, or organic matter, you must take with you when you leave.

This part is simple. Take you trash with you when you leave.

Another aspect of disposing of waste properly, that requires a little more education on the proper protocols, is disposing of human waste. Feces.

You can read more about this on the third principle of LNT, or other articles on the internet are very descriptive as well.

It basically states that you can’t just poop anywhere you want. In most cases you need to dig what’s called a cathole away from camp and about 70 paces away from any water sources. Dig it about 6-8 inches deep, poop in it, clean yourself properly, and cover it with natural materials to make it look like you were never there.

With the right kind of toilet paper you may bury it as well but sometimes you may have to pack that out. There are certain natural areas where you also have to pack out your feces, but you’ll know if the one you are visiting is one of those because you followed the first principle… right?

4. Leave what you find

Don’t take anything with you when you leave and don’t disturb the things you find.

Even though picking a flower seems innocent, if everyone did the same thing it could be detrimental to the population of that species of flower.

Some examples of things you shouldn’t do:

  • Carving your initials in trees
  • Stacking rocks (cairns)
  • Making multiple fire rings for a campsite
  • Picking flowers
  • Taking sticks, rocks, or wildlife with you
  • Tying hammock or tent straps to a tree

5. Minimize campfire impacts

By following some basic guidelines for making campfires you can easily minimize their impacts on the surrounding environment.

While campfires are almost a staple of camping, they can cause problems. Many people nowadays choose to use portable camping stoves over campfires as they are the best way to leave no trace when it comes to cooking your food.

Campfires are still fine but follow the rules set out by the area you are in and outdoor ethics in general.

  • Always use existing fire rings when possible
  • Use native wood only
  • Never take wood from living or downed trees
  • Collect small pieces of wood over a spread out area
  • Burn all wood to ash and cover the fire so it looks like you were never there
  • Pack out all campfire litter
  • Keep fires small and never leave unattended

6. Respect wildlife

You can respect the wildlife by not approaching, not feeding, and not disturbing them in any way shape or form. Wild animals may carry diseases, abandon their young if you touch them, or even attack if they feel threatened.

If you come across a sick or injured animal never try to take matters into your own hands, contact a game warden, park ranger, or wildlife professional immediately.

Give wildlife a wide berth and never make unnecessarily loud noises. If in bear country it’s best to make some noise on the trails or at campsites, a startled bear could attack.

Always properly dispose of your waste and pack out your trash as they can both be harmful to the wildlife.

Watch from a distance, break out the binoculars or zoom lens, but never approach and never disturb the wildlife of a natural area.

7. Be considerate of other visitors

Be considerate to and respect your fellow hikers, campers, and outdoor travelers. Don’t be overly loud, manage your children and don’t let them run around, keep your dogs on a leash, and just use common common courtesy.

If you’re hiking downhill it’s common to stand aside and let uphill hikers pass. If anyone is on a horse or pack mule everyone including hikers, trail runners, and bicyclers, should yield the right of way.

If you need to rest do so on a durable surface off the trail so others can easily pass.

How you can help

Leave No Trace is all about education and spreading the word to others about how to lessen our impact on the outdoors and leave things in their natural state.

You can help by educating others about the concept, but more importantly by practicing Leave No Trace and following the 7 principles religiously.

If you do that, then you are a part of the solution and are doing your part to preserve the natural areas on our planet.

Written by OutdoorMotives

At outdoormotives.com we talk about all types of outdoor activities. We answer common questions and recommend the best products to help you enjoy the outdoors as much as possible.


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