Interest in the great outdoors has been growing steadily over the years. During the 2020 pandemic, 7.1 million more Americans participated in outdoor activities than in 2019. With this new introduction to wild places, people have continued to flock to parks, greenways, and other places to get away from it all. National Park Service sites received 312 million recreation visits in 2022 alone. With all this love for nature in the air, knowing the seven principles of Leave No Trace continues to grow in importance.

Not familiar with the Leave No Trace principles? No need to feel shame. We all start somewhere and learn from someone. If you’re new to traveling in the wilderness, welcome! This article will walk you through everything you need to know about reducing the impact you have on wild spaces. If you’re a seasoned hiker, it’ll offer a refresher on how to up your personal Leave No Trace game.

We’ll cover:

  • History of Leave No Trace Principles
  • Who Should Use Leave No Trace Principles
  • Where to Use Leave No Trace Principles
  • Details on Each of the 7 Principles of Leave No Trace

History Lesson on Leave No Trace Principles

Before we dive into the details of Leave No Trace principles, it can be helpful to know how they got started. In 1987, the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management collaborated on a pamphlet called “Leave No Trace Land Ethics” to more publicly promote care, responsibility, and stewardship for the outdoors.

This movement continued to grow in the early 1990s as the National Outdoor Leadership School was asked to develop minimum impact education on non-motorized recreational activities. In 1993, land management agencies, outdoor nonprofits, and other outdoor industry groups and individuals gathered at the Outdoor Recreation Summit in Washington, D.C. to formalize these efforts. As a result, in 1994, Leave No Trace, Inc. was incorporated as an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit to spread awareness of and educate people on how to best take care of our shared outdoor spaces.

Today, the nonprofit reaches more than 15 million people in the U.S. and dozens of countries each year with training, research, conservation initiatives, and more. It partners with corporations, individuals, public land agencies, foundations, and others to further spread its messages on responsible public land stewardship—including its digestible seven principles.

Who Should Use Leave No Trace Principles?

Leave No Trace principles are for everyone! If you spend time outdoors, you can benefit from knowing how to incorporate these principles into your activities. 

They’re great for rock climbers, mountaineers, backpackers, hikers, kayakers, and surfers. They’re equally as great for people who like to take casual strolls through urban parks, work in their local community garden, or host a cookout at a nearby picnic spot.

If you enjoy any bit of nature, from amateur birding to drinking a beer by the lake, you should use Leave No Trace principles!

Where Should You Use Leave No Trace Principles?

Leave No Trace principles were originally developed to help backcountry travelers reduce their impacts on special, undeveloped wilderness environments. 

However, over time, they’ve adapted to consider the wide variety of ways people recreate outside. This means that they’re written to also apply to “frontcountry” travels now, such as car camping and treks to the dog park.

Bottomline: If you’re outside, use Leave No Trace!

Take These 7 Principles of Leave No Trace Into the Backcountry

Ok, so what are the Leave No Trace principles? We’re so glad you asked! The seven principles of Leave No Trace cover the basics of how you can be a better steward of the outdoors.

You can use this quick reference list each time you head outside to remember the easy ways you can help preserve our environment for all to enjoy for generations to come.

1. Plan ahead and prepare.

Poor preparation can lead to problems. Problems can lead to bummer wilderness trips for travelers and damage to natural and cultural resources. When you’re in a bind, you’re more likely to degrade available backcountry resources in an attempt to fix the situation. Avoid this with proper trip planning. 

You can help yourself and others stay safe and minimize your impact through trip planning tasks such as:

  • Preparing for inclement weather
  • Knowing the regulations for the wilderness you’re visiting
  • Visiting during off-season when there are fewer travelers using the resources already
  • Learning how to use a map and compass 
  • Packaging food in ways that minimize waste

2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces.

Heavy use of outdoor spaces can damage fragile habitats, lead to erosion, and leave areas less pristine for future travelers. Most parks provide designated trails and campsites to help concentrate the impact of outdoor activities in areas better suited to handle it. Other durable surfaces include rock, gravel, sand, dry grasses, and snow.

Riparian areas are particularly delicate. You can help protect these by camping at least 200 feet from lakes and streams. 

And, as they say, “Good campsites are found, not made.” Avoid trampling tall grasses, breaking branches, or otherwise altering sites to create areas to camp.

Leave No Trace offers additional tips for popular areas and pristine areas:

  • Popular: Concentrate use on existing trails and campsites. Walk single file in the middle of the trail, even when wet or muddy. Keep campsites small. Focus activity in areas where vegetation is absent.
  • Pristine: Disperse use to prevent the creation of campsites and trails. Avoid places where impacts are just beginning.

3. Dispose of waste properly.

The crux of this third Leave No Trace principle is the old adage: “Pack it in, pack it out.”

Each time you leave the outdoors, whether it’s a backcountry campsite, RV hookup, park bench, or any other number of recreation spots, inspect your site for trash, leftover food scraps, and other things that don't belong there. Double check campsites, food preparation areas, and rest areas for waste that you need to pack out to dispose of properly.

To wash yourself or any dishes, bring water 200 feet away from creeks, lakes, or other water sources, and use minimal amounts of biodegradable soap. Scatter your strained dishwater and any other gray water.

If restrooms, pit toilets, or porta-potties are available, you should use them. If not, deposit solid human waste in a hole that is six to eight inches deep and at least 200 feet away from water sources, campsites, and trails. Once you complete your business, cover and disguise the cathole and pack out toilet paper and other hygiene products. You can lessen your waste by using a handy tool like the GVP Poop Kit.

4. Leave what you find.

Take as many photographs as you’d like in the wilderness, but leave everything else where you found it. This means not taking that rock, shell, pretty flower, or any other natural objects you see along the way. 

It also means not building structures like cairns or furniture, digging trenches, or otherwise moving things to different places.

It means observing and enjoying cultural and historic structures and artifacts, but not touching them, as this can impact the longevity of their preservation.

Finally, it means taking steps to avoid introducing or transporting invasive species between natural areas. Clean your hiking boots, bike tires, and other gear in between each trip in case seeds or other critters are trying to hitch a ride.

5. Minimize campfire impacts.

Campfires are beloved by many—the smell, the warmth, the s’mores! However, unfortunately, they also carry heavy consequences for wilderness areas. They can start wildfires, scar areas with soot, and damage surrounding resources as more and more campers look for wood to burn.

If you don’t absolutely need to start a fire, the best way to follow Leave No Trace is to not start one. Instead, use a lightweight camp stove to make dinner and enjoy the glow of the stars.

If fires are permitted where you’re staying, use established fire rings, fire pans, or mound fires, and keep your fire small. Use only downed and dead wood from the ground that you can break up by hand, or locally bought wood from an approved retailer to avoid introducing pests to new areas. Burn all of your wood and coals down to ash. Ensure your fire is put out completely using water, not dirt.

6. Respect wildlife.

It’s always exciting to see wildlife when you’re exploring the great outdoors. However, certain activities can habituate animals to humans, alter their behaviors, and, ultimately, lead them to dangers, including death or relocation.

To be respectful of wildlife while adventuring in the outdoors:

  • Observe animals from a safe distance. Do not follow or approach them.
  • Never feed animals you see in the outdoors.
  • Store your food and trash securely so animals can’t access it.
  • Control your pets or leave them at home.
  • Avoid wildlife during sensitive times, such as mating and nesting season or when they are raising their young.

7. Be considerate of other visitors.

Having good outdoor ethics not only protects valuable natural habitats and cultural resources, it also lets everyone enjoy their own experience in nature without unwanted disturbances. 

When you’re adventuring outside, remember to be mindful of others. Just because you like to listen to music while you hike, for example, doesn’t mean everyone around you does too—or even likes the same tunes! 

Here are a few steps from the Leave No Trace seventh principle to help you be courteous to others’ experiences in the outdoors:

  • Avoid loud voices and noises so everyone can enjoy the sounds of nature.
  • Take your breaks and camp away from trails and other visitors.
  • Step to the downhill side of the trail when encountering pack animals like horses, mules, or llamas.
  • Yield to other users on the trail when space is narrow for passing.
  • Be respectful to other visitors you meet.

Remember to Leave No Trace When Enjoying the Great Outdoors

Whether you’re new to outdoor recreation or a seasoned pro, we can all take steps to improve how we care for our environment and the others with whom we share it. Keep the seven principles of Leave No Trace fresh on your mind before any outdoor excursion to be mindful of your impact.

Hungry for more backpacking gear and planning knowledge? Check out some of our other articles on the Light Feet blog:

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March 01, 2023 — Korrin Bishop