Leave No Trace Basics

Leave No Trace Basics

Any amount of time spent in nature can have a surprising impact, altering plantlife, wildlife behavior, and environmental quality. Leave No Trace began as a 1987 Forest Service pamphlet, and has since grown into a worldwide movement designed to educate the public on how we can appreciate the outdoors while also doing our part to minimize our impact.

In the past nearly 40 years, Leave No Trace has evolved and been distilled into 7 key principles that you can follow to minimize your impact.

These 7 principles are worth internalizing by anyone who spends even a minimum of time outside.

Principle 1: Plan Ahead and Prepare

With proper planning, not only can you have a more enjoyable outdoor experience, but you can do so while minimizing your damage to natural and cultural resources. 

The Basics:

  • Familiarize yourself with any regulations and special concerns for the area you'll be visiting.
  • Schedule your trip to avoid peak traffic.
  • Venture out in small groups. Large parties can create unintentional damage to local vegetation and wild life.
  • Repackage food to minimize waste.
  • Use a map and compass or GPS to eliminate the need for rock cairns, flagging, or paint.

Principle 2: Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces

When traveling outdoors, we want to move through natural areas, while avoiding damage to sensitive foliage and waterways. Even something as simple as traveling off trail can have an impact.

The Basics:

  • Stick to durable surfaces, including established trails, campsites, rock, gravel, and dry grasses or snow.
  • Stick to the middle of the trail, walking single file.
  • Camp at least 200 feet away from lakes and streams to protect riparian areas.
  • Keep campsites small, and remember, the best campsites are found, not made.

Principle 3: Dispose of Waste Properly

From small wrappers to dishwater, the waste we create while enjoying the outdoors can have severe impacts if not handled properly. Consider the impacts of what you leave behind.

The Basics:

  • Pack it in, pack it out. Before leaving, inspect your campsite for trash or spilled food. Pack out all trash, everything from wrappers to orange peels. Burning trash is never recommended.
  • In areas with no restroom facilities, human waste should be buried at least 6-8 inches deep and 200 feet from water, campsites, and trails. Toilet paper should be buried as well or packed out. 
  • When bathing or washing dishes, carry water at least 200 feet away from streams or lakes and use only small amounts of biodegradable soap. Scatter strained dishwater.

Principle 4: Leave What You Find

The rocks and plants or even the artifacts you find in nature have a role to play in the local ecosystem. Leave items as you find them to both preserve the environment, and to preserve the sense of discovery for the next people who come along. 

The Basics:

  • Do not touch historic structures and artifacts.
  • Leave rocks, plants, and other natural objects.
  • Be careful to avoid introducing or transporting non-native species.
  • Do not build structures or dig trenches.

Principle 5: Minimize Campfire Impacts

Campfires are a quintessential part of the outdoor experience, yet they can also create a range of problems, from the degradation of natural areas to overgrazing for firewood, and of course, wildfires. Minimize your campfire impact with a few considerations.

The Basics:

  • Consider a lightweight stove and a candle lantern in place of a campfire. 
  • Avoid whenever possible creating new fire pits. Use established rings, pans, or mounds.
  • Keep fires small, limited to sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand.
  • Burn all wood and coals completely. Allow ashes to cool, then scatter them to minimize any trace of your fire.

Principle 6: Respect Wildlife

When out in nature, consider that you are in the home of many wild animals. Treat it with respect.

The Basics:

  • Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow or approach.
  • Never feed wildlife. Feeding alters their natural behaviors, can damage their health, and can expose them to predators. 
  • Never allow pets to wander out of control.
  • Avoid wildlife during sensitive times including mating, nesting, raising young, or during winter.

Principle 7: Be Respectful of Others

In addition to sensitivity towards the environment, sensitivity to the outdoor experience of others can increase everyone's enjoyment and appreciation of natural spaces.

The Basics:

  • Respect others and consider their enjoyment of the outdoors as highly as your own.
  • Yield to others on the trail.
  • Allow others to appreciate the sounds of nature by avoiding making loud noises. If you must listen to music, bring headphones and leave the bluetooth speakers at home. 
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