A Beginner’s Guide to the Leave No Trace Principles

When we head outside, it’s important to keep in mind that our actions have a significant impact on the environment and landscape we love.

Despite our best intentions, we often affect the environment in a negative way, just by traveling through it or spending time in the backcountry.

Although it’s impossible to fully eliminate our impact on the landscape, there are some principles that we can follow to guide us toward best environmental practices.

These seven principles, known as Leave No Trace, can seem complex and difficult at first, so we’ll break them down and discuss them here:

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1. Plan ahead and be prepared

This one might seem like a no-brainer to seasoned outdoor enthusiasts, but it’s really a reminder to carefully consider your plans before you head out.

This includes having a thorough understanding of where you’re going and any special considerations that you might need to take into account for that area, which might include fire risks, severe weather, and rough terrain.

While different conditions require different gear, in general, you should pack food, water, warm clothing, waterproof jacket, a first aid kit, and navigation tools (e.g. map, compass, handheld GPS).

Leaving detailed information of your trip with someone you trust is also important, in the event of an emergency.

Ultimately, a rescue, even if necessary and warranted, can have a substantial impact on the landscape. Planning ahead and being prepared can help prevent you from having to unnecessarily impact the environment.

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2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces

Some landscapes, such as alpine zones and deserts, are particularly sensitive to human impact and can take centuries to recover from a single human footprint.

Regardless of how we travel – be it by foot, bike, horseback, or kayak – we must try to stick to durable surfaces, like worn paths, rock, or snow, whenever possible to reduce this impact.

When we camp, we should also choose durable surfaces, like already impacted sites, whenever possible to reduce our impact on pristine environments.

3. Dispose of waste properly

Leave No Trace promotes a ‘pack it in, pack it out’ ethic, whereby we carry out all waste we produce.

This includes everything from our leftover dinner (yes, even food!) to the plastic packaging on our energy bars.

We can save ourselves the trouble in the backcountry when planning our trip by reducing excess packaging on our food before we head out the door.

When it comes to human waste, it needs to be disposed of properly.

Although guidelines vary from location to location (and you should always follow local laws and regulations), the general rule of thumb is that solid human waste must be buried in a ‘cathole’ (i.e. hole in the ground) at least 15 cm (6 inches) deep that is also 60 m (200 ft) from any water source.

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4. Leave what you find

Bush walking gear

Although it might be tempting to collect rocks, flowers, antlers, or human artifacts while you camp, doing so can be detrimental to the environment.

Especially when it comes to antlers – which provide essential calcium to woodland creatures – and flowers – which often are a food source for animals – leaving them behind is best for the ecosystem’s overall health.

Plus, if one person picks all the wildflowers, they won’t be there for everyone else to enjoy.

Human artifacts (i.e. anything over 25 years old), too, should be left where they are.

If you think something is of great importance, contact your local authorities and they can direct you from there.

The one exception to this rule is human garbage – if you see it, pick it up and pack it out!

5. Minimize campfire impacts

For many people, campfires are the thing they look forward to most on a camping trip.

Unfortunately, campfires have a huge impact on the environment if not done properly and can cause devastating wildfires if not managed well.

Cooking has less of an impact on the environment if you use a stove, but if local regulations allow campfires, take the proper precautions to minimise your impact.

Collect only small pieces of dead and downed wood, keep the fire small, and be sure to put it out completely with water before you go to bed.

Dismantle any fire rings you might create and bury the ashes in a cathole.

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6. Respect wildlife

Although we all hope to encounter plenty of wildlife in the woods, we must do so in a way that is unobtrusive to them.

Take the time to learn about local wildlife and their behavior.

Do not approach or feed wildlife and be sure to store your food properly to prevent critters from getting in. Report any animal attacks or habituated wildlife to authorities.

​7. Be considerate of other visitors

It might be tempting to play music out loud from your phone as you hike or to be extra loud around the campfire at night, but others around you might want a calm wilderness experience.

Cleaning up after yourself and leaving a tidy campsite is also a must.

Whether you’re a first-time camper or a seasoned mountaineer, we must all work to minimise our impact on the landscape. Taking the Leave No Trace principles into account on all your trips can make a huge difference.

Photo of author

Gaby Pilson - Professional Mountain Guide

A professional mountain guide and experienced outdoor educator, Gaby enjoys travelling and exploring the world’s most remote locales. As a writer and editor, Gaby has written for a variety of climbing and travel blogs, news sites, and climbing magazines. She is currently finishing a master’s degree in outdoor education but in her free time, Gaby loves a strong cup of coffee and searching for the next great adventure. Learn more about what she does at www.gabypilson.com.