The 7 Principles of Leave No Trace Explained

With increasing human activity in the outdoors, problems such as trail erosion, trash accumulation, and wildlife disturbances (just to name a few) have become more and more prevalent in our most treasured national parks and forests.

As the number of people visiting wild areas continues to grow, minimal-impact policies aimed at preserving the outdoors have become more important than ever.

Even the most well-intentioned outdoor enthusiast might be causing more harm to the environment than they are aware of, which is why education about responsible outdoor recreations is critical if we are to preserve the places we love most.

One of the most popular and widely accepted set of low-impact policies is called the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace (LNT).

The LNT principles were developed by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, a non-profit established in 1993 to train and educate the public about how to protect the natural world.

Today, Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics conducts research, service projects, and educational programs centered around the goal of minimizing human impact on the environment.

I highly recommend that you check out the official Leave No Trace website, which is a fantastic resource for LNT principles. There you can learn more about LNT, including their research and initiatives, as well as more ways you can protect and enjoy the outdoors responsibly.

Note that the LNT practices are not technically “rules,” though violating some could result in hefty fines in certain areas (e.g. altering artifacts).

These practices are more a framework that helps people make responsible, impact minimizing decisions when visiting the outdoors.

I consider them to be a set of ethical practices that should part of our obligation as human beings to leave the world better than we found it.

The 7 Principles of Leave No Trace are as follows:

7 Principles of LNT

1. Plan Ahead and Prepare

When you plan ahead, you are far more likely to be prepared to have a safe, enjoyable trip.

Planning ahead will also help you reduce the impact you will have on the environment because you will be more prepared to follow every other LNT principle on this list.

Those who plan ahead are more likely to have a safe, enjoyable trip, and less likely to run into trouble. Photo credit: Perfect Stacks on Unsplash

It is important to be aware that different land management agencies (e.g. Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service Service, National Park Service, etc.) have different rules and regulations, and these regulations can vary by region for the same land management agency.

These regulations have been created to protect both you and the environment, and it is very important that you understand a particular region’s regulation in advance in order to comply with them properly.

For example many national parks require that you to store your food (when camping) in bear proof canisters/containers, but most national forests - as far as I know - don’t require bear canisters.

Also, some national parks (e.g. Grand Teton NP) that require bear canisters/containers allow you to use any type of IGBC (Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee) certified bear canister, but other parks (e.g. Yosemite NP) a stricter, and require you to only use hard sided plastic IGBC certified canisters like this one and not soft sided IGBC certified containers like the Ursack.

Proper food storage in the wilderness is extremely important, and if you show up for a backpacking trip without a bear canister in a place that requires one, you might be out of luck and have to cancel your trip.

This is just one of many ways a region might be regulated and why it is so important to do your research before you start your trip.

Other regulations to check on include, but are not limited to:

  • special permits for camping and other activities
  • Whether or not pets are allowed - many national parks (e.g. Rocky Mountain NP) don’t allow pets on trails
  • firearm regulations
  • behavior around wildlife
  • hunting regulations
  • road and trails closures
  • drone flying restrictions
  • alcohol and other controlled substance regulations
  • commercial use permits

Regulations can also change without notice, so it is your responsibility to stay on top of them until the day your trip starts.

To find out the regulations in the area you plan on visiting, a simple Google search should point you in the right direction.

Often times, if you can’t find what you are looking for, the park or region’s website should have an office number where you can speak to a ranger who can answer all of your questions.

2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

This principle means that you should always stick to an established trail and camp in campsites that already exist.

Durable surfaces are those that can withstand human activity, like foot traffic or campfires, and remain in stable condition.

The most durable surfaces you should always try to stick to include:

  • rock
  • sand
  • gravel
  • thick snow or ice that is deep enough to not disturb underlying vegetation

Don’t Hike Off Trail Whenever Possible

Hiking off trail, even just to cut across switchbacks, causes erosion and can seriously damage to vegetation.

This hurts both the wildlife who survive of off this vegetation and the natural beauty of the wilderness that we all seek to enjoy.

When you are hiking in certain biomes, like the high alpine tundra and the desert, hiking off trail can be especially damaging, as the flora and cryptobiotic crust can take decades to recover once trampled.

If you need to walk off-trail, like when using the bathroom or taking a rest, try to only step on durable surfaces mentioned previously.

If you have to step on vegetation when you need to walk off trail, try to step on durable vegetation like dry grasses.

If you are hiking with others, try to spread out so that vegetation doesn’t take repeated trampling.

In High-Use Areas Select Campsites on Durable Surfaces that have Already Been Used

Proper campsite selection is a very important part of LNT intended to reduce human impact on the backcountry.

In areas that are popular, you will likely see backcountry campsites that have been used many times.

Always camp on durable surfaces to avoid harming vegetation. Photo credit: Christopher Jolly on Unsplash

These campsites aren’t official”campsites that have been created been designated by land managers, but you will often identify them from clues like thinned, repeatedly trampled grasses, footprints, and/or primitive fire pits.

Camping in these already used “campsites” will confine your impact to already disturbed areas, which prevents the areas impacted by human activity from growing.

In Remote, Undisturbed Areas Select Dispersed Campsites where You See No Previous Impact

Like always, in remote areas you want to stick to durable surfaces, but in these areas, you want to avoid camping in spots that you see the beginning signs of human impact.

Here you want to disperse campsites so that they are spread apart from one another. It is also a best practice to move your camp every night to avoid heavily impacting a single location.

Another important key to LNT campsite selection is to camp at least 200 feet - about 70 adult steps - from any water source like a lake or river. This reduces water pollution and gives animals room to access their water supply.

4. Leave What You Find

You might have heard the saying, “Take only pictures, leave only footprints.”

This principle discourages people from taking home rocks, plants, archeological artifacts, or any other natural “souvenir” that you might find while out in nature.

It also discourages people from altering the environment in any way. This could include:

  • changing or building cairns or other structures like trenches or structures
  • moving objects like rocks and branches without putting them back where you found them
  • damaging trees or other natural objects by carving into them or with graffiti
  • picking flowers
When you leave the environment exactly how you found it, it gives other people the opportunity to enjoy the environment the same way you did.

A great example of why this LNP principle is so important is from a place near and dear to my heart, Petrified Forest National Park.

While working at Petrified Forest in 2012 as a paleontology intern, I learned that the park has a problem with visitors pocketing pieces of petrified (i.e. fossilized) wood.

If you have been to this national park, you will know that petrified wood is everywhere. In some parts of the park, you can’t even walk off of the road without stepping on a piece.

Petrified logs at Petrified Forest National Park

Seeing fossils is exciting and one of the major things that draws people to the park.

Obviously, taking a fossil home as a free souvenir from the park is very appealing to many people, and many people do take these small fossils home with them.

It might not seem like a big deal to take home what is basically a small rock, but think about it.

For a park that sees about 650,000 visitors a year, what would happen if every visitor took pocketed a piece of petrified wood?

After a while, future visitors won’t be able to experience what makes Petrified Forest so special.

Not only is it illegal, but stealing fossils also negatively interferes with scientific research done at the park.

And if you are not convinced, for visitors who don’t practice this principle of LNT at this park may go home cursed. Yep, that’s right, cursed!

5. Minimize Campfire Impacts

As much as we love them, unfortunately, campfires create an ugly hole in the ground at best, or a wildfire at worst.

The best way to cook in the backcountry is to use a camp stove because this method has the smallest impact on the environment.

These days, camp stoves are extremely lightweight and efficient. A great example of this is the Jetboil cooking system, which is by far my favorite way to cook when camping.

A Jetboil cooking system is an ideal way to cook in the backcountry. Photo credit: Kyle Peyton on Unsplash

You should always be prepared to cook with a camp stove and never rely on using a fire.

However, there are certain circumstances where it is okay to light a campfire in a way that minimizes your impact adheres to LNT guidelines:

  • When there is NO fire ban by the agency that manages the land you are camping on. Always check the latest fire regulations in the area you plan on camping.
  • You are in an area with lots of fire wood - so much that nobody would notice if it is removed. Make sure you gather wood around a large area than from a single spot.
  • There is already a fire ring. Always use preexisting fire rings rather than creating another.
Always use preexisting fire rings rather than building new ones. Photo credit: Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Other, less impactful alternatives to fire rings are mound fires and fire pans. You can learn how to build a mound fire here and learn how to use a fire pan here.

If you do decide to build a fire, here are some important guidelines you should follow:

  • Keep your fire small and easily controllable.
  • Use small, dead sticks that you can easily break by hand.
  • Burn everything in your fire to ash and use water to extinguish it completely.

Remember, your fire will truly abide by LNT principles if the next person to come across your campsite sees no evidence of a fire (or a campsite, for that matter).

6. Respect Wildlife

When you see an animal while in a park, forest, or other outdoor setting, remember that you are in their home, not the other way around.

I can’t tell you how many times I have seen people get too close to animals like elk, moose, and bison in order to get that perfect Instagram photo.

While these creatures may seem docile while they are grazing, they can actually be quite aggressive and seriously injure you if you provoke them by getting too close.

Always assume that any type of wildlife, big or small, can harm you if you get close, so keep your distance as much as possible and use telephoto (i.e. zoom) lenses for your photography.

I captured this image of a large male elk (bull) from a safe distance.

Also, it is important to understand that when you feed wildlife, you can alter their behavior and damage their health in ways that can lead to their death.

One example of this is in bear country. When bears consume human food, they learn to associate food with humans. Bears, especially Black Bears, are typically shy and avoid humans, but this association causes them to become aggressive, sometimes leading to bear attacks.

Sadly, when a bear attacks a human, it usually has to be euthanized. This is why it is so important to use bear canisters and hang bear bags.

Even innocently feeding a cute chipmunk who wants your granola bar can make it overweight and dependent on human food.

To summarize, here are the guidelines you should follow if you do encounter wildlife:

  • never get too close to wildlife
  • never feed wildlife
  • don’t make loud noises or quick movements, as this can scare wildlife

7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

This LNP principle is an important part of outdoor etiquette, which I discuss further in my hiking etiquette guide here.

It is extremely important that you are mindful of how your behavior in the outdoors might affect another person’s experience.

Garden of the Gods is one of the most crowded outdoor attractions in Colorado. Respecting other visitors and following LNT is critical. Photo credit Lexie Barnhorn on Unsplash

This principle should be self explanatory, but here are some guidelines for this LNT principle that will help you and those around you enjoy their time in the outdoors:

  • be polite and kind to other hikers
  • know who has the right of way (e.g. hikers hiking uphill have the right of way)
  • keep noise and technology to minimum (e.g. don’t play music through your phone or stereo when you are around other people)
  • know how to hike in a group
  • follow all LNT principles

3. Dispose of Waste Properly

I personally believe that this is one of the most important principles of LNT that I also discuss in my trail etiquette guide.

Whatever you pack in, you MUST pack out.

It takes a plastic bottle at least 450 years to degrade completely. Photo credit: Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

This includes all trash and any scrap of trash, including food scraps (even apple cores, banana peels, and granola bar crumbs) and toilet paper.

Read that again: PACK OUT TOILET PAPER.

If you do your business in the wilderness, my recommendation is to bring a roll of doggie waste/poop bags with you.

I always have a whole roll of them on me because they are very compact and light. You can toss your used toilet paper in one of these bags, tie it up, and pack it out to the trailhead where you can throw it away in a trash can - just as if you were cleaning up after your dog.

They even make biodegradable doggie waste bags, which are an even more environmentally friendly option.

Know How to Deal with Human Waste

If you have to poop in the backcountry, the good news is that most places don’t require you to pack it out - at least for now.

Here’s the correct way to poop in the woods while still adhering to LNT:

  • Find a spot that is 200 feet away (70 large steps) from a water source, campsite, or trail.
  • Dig a small hole that is 6-8 inches deep. Pro tip: bring a small backpacking trowel with you, like this one, to make it easier to dig your hole.
  • Bury your waste in the hole and use the dirt you used to dig the hole to cover it back up. Try to make it look like you were never there.
  • Use your doggie backs (mentioned above) or zip lock bags to pack out your toilet paper - never bury your toilet paper.

Know How to Wash Dishes

If you need to wash dishes while camping, make sure you know how to wash them properly so that you are not leaving soap and wastewater (gray water) in the environment.