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Leave No Trace Principles for Exploring the Outdoors Sustainably

The Leave No Trace principles will help you hike and camp safely and sustainably this summer. Here's everything you need to know.

Written by
Ben Korn

As the weather warms up across the country, you might be making plans for a summer camping trip. If trends continue, you won't be alone: Despite pandemic-related restrictions and closures, visits to National Parks have only been on the rise. Last year, many parks—including Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Zion, Arches, and Glacier—saw a record-breaking number of visitors.

Unfortunately, with all of these visitors, the natural environment in the parks is at an increased risk from littering and erosion. And, many adventure-seeking city dwellers are finding themselves in dangerous situations and needing to be rescued by (often all-volunteer) search rescue crews. That's where the Leave No Trace principles come in.

If you're planning on getting outside for a camping trip this summer, here are a few tips that will help lessen your environmental impact, protect existing natural resources, and keep you safe.

What Is 'Leave No Trace'—and Why Is It Important?

Essential to any sustainable and safe trip to the Great Outdoors is an understanding of the Leave No Trace principles.

Endorsed by the National Park Service, Leave No Trace is a series of principles created by environmental advocates, outdoor industry experts, and land managers to equip park visitors with the knowledge and skills needed to preserve our natural world for further generations.

The principles were designed for backcountry trips—aka multi-day excursions deep into the remote (and often untouched) wilderness. But as the guiding principles have become recognized for their intuitiveness and effectiveness, their application has expanded to any trip to the outdoors. That means visits to your local park, quick day hikes, or multi-day or week expeditions. 

Keep these Leave No Trace principles in mind the next time you go on an outdoor adventure.

7 'Leave No Trace' Principles to Know About

1. Plan Ahead and Prepare

Before hopping in the car and getting to the trailhead, it's important to do a little bit of research on the area you're going to. Will you be hiking in sneakers or boots? What are the skill levels of the people who will be joining you? What are the trail conditions going to be like? What's the weather forecasted to be?

Much of this information can be found out beforehand through the park's website, local guide websites, or—if you're going to a National Park—through their newly-released app. Park rangers at visitor centers are also invaluable resources, chock-full of useful information and permits (when needed), and an important stop before any trip. (Just be sure to check and see if the visitor center will be open when you're there.) 

Of course, even the most well-crafted plans can go awry. But having exposure to relevant park information before getting on the trail will help equip you to make better decisions if the situation requires.

2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

When we hike, our footsteps inevitably will damage vegetation, leaving behind exposed soil that's prone to erosion.

Most parks will have designated trails, and visitors should make every effort to stay on these trails. It's often tempting—especially when the trails are muddy—to make a quick trip off the trail to avoid the hazard. But it's always better to have muddy shoes and a well-traveled and planned trail than multiple haphazardly created pathways.

Occasionally—especially if you've decided to hike deep into the backcountry—there won't be marked trails or campsites. In these situations, take routes and select sites that are on the most durable surfaces, like rock, gravel, sand, ice, and snow. 

3. Dispose of Waste Properly

It's inevitable that when spending time outside, your group will produce waste. For most trash, stick to the tenet “pack it in, pack it out.”

Whatever trash your group creates—a few granola bar wrappers from the trail, or packaging from full meals—should be put into a bag and taken to be thrown out in a trash can, often at the trailhead. The smallest pieces of trash (like gum wrappers, for instance) are the most likely to be overlooked and left behind. Give your campsite a quick glance over before you leave.

As for human waste, always take advantage of built latrines or pit toilets, if available. If not, become familiar with the ‘cathole’—a 6 to 8-inch deep hole, at least 200 feet from the nearest water source, trail, or campsite. When you're finished, place the dirt back on top and cover it with sticks and leaves. 

4. Leave What You Find

It might be self-explanatory, but don’t take rocks, pinecones, artifacts, or whatever else you might find during your outdoor adventure.

Here's an example of why: Every year, visitors take pieces of petrified wood from Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. And every year, people send the stolen wood back to the park, often with apology letters attached.

Because the wood had been moved from its original place, the park service has to place the wood in a "conscience pile" in an unknown location. Save your conscience and the environment and leave what you find.

5. Minimize Campfire Impacts

There's nothing better than sitting by a fire with a s’more in hand and the stars overhead. But fires come with their own set of factors. Lots of parks have regulations on campfires, either limiting them to certain areas or seasons or banning them outright. Check before you go.

In parks where campfires are allowed, it's important to think about how to lessen their impact. If there's already a fire ring present, choose to use that. If you have to build your own, scatter the rocks and ash after you leave. And always avoid building fires where wood is scarce, like in meadows or high elevations.

6. Respect Wildlife

We're only temporary visitors to animals' homes. Because of that, give them plenty of space and try to avoid sudden movements when possible. Keep the noises to a minimum, too: When you're playing loud music or even talking loudly, it can be stressful to the animals around you.

Food and water is a biggie, too. Never feed wild animals, whether that's trying to do so by hand or leaving food out for them. This could hurt you and the animal. It's also courteous to give wildlife access to water sources, like rivers, ponds, and lakes. If you're camping, that means keeping your campsite at least 200 feet away from a water source so animals still have access.

7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

With visiting parks increasing in popularity, it's very likely you'll run into other visitors. The general rule of thumb is when on a narrow trail on a hill, hikers going down the mountain will step off to allow uphill hikers to pass.

Extra space will be needed. Any groups with pack animals—like horses or mules—get the right of way as to not unnecessarily force the animal off the trail.

Our parks encompass some of the most amazing natural wonders in the world, and following these Leave No Trace principles can give you the tools to experience the outdoors safely and sustainably.