Leave No Trace 7 Principles

Before you head into the great outdoors, embrace the practices highlighted below

The 7 Principles of Leave No Trace provide an easily understood framework of how to properly behave and act while in nature. Whether you’re hiking, camping, kayaking, wildlife viewing, photographing, or anything else, the 7 Principles apply to pretty much all outdoor recreation.

Every individual principle tackles a specific subject, offering in-depth information to limit the impact of your activity.

I personally live by these Principles and I encourage everyone who visits state parks, national parks, county and regional parks, national forests, national wildlife refuges, or other protected areas to adhere to them. They greatly help to ensure that wild (and less wild) landscapes will be there for the enjoyment of future generations, too.

Observing wildlife at Bosque National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Plan ahead and prepare

Adequate trip planning and preparation helps backcountry travelers accomplish trip goals safely and enjoyably while simultaneously minimizing damage to the land. Poor planning often results in unhappy hikers and campers and damage to natural and cultural resources.

Rangers often tell stories of campers they have encountered who because of poor planning and unexpected conditions degrade backcountry resources and put themselves at risk.

The basics:

  • Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you’ll visit
  • Prepare for extreme weather, hazards, and emergencies
  • Schedule your trip to avoid times of high use
  • Visit in small groups; split larger parties into smaller groups

More information about planning and preparation

Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces

The goal of traveling outdoors is to move through natural areas while avoiding damage to the land or waterways. Understanding how travel causes impacts is necessary to accomplish this goal.

Travel damage occurs when surface vegetation or communities of organisms are trampled beyond recovery. The resulting barren area leads to soil erosion and the development of undesirable trails.

The basics:

  • Durable surfaces include established trails, campsites, rock, gravel, and dry grasses or snow
  • Protect riparian areas by camping at least 200 feet from lakes and streams
  • Good campsites are found, not made; altering a site is not necessary
  • Concentrate use on existing trails and campsites

More information about traveling and camping on durable surfaces

Keeping a clean campsite while camping at Padre Island National Seashore, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Dispose of waste properly

The waste humans create while enjoying outdoor spaces can have severe impacts if not disposed of properly. It is crucial to anticipate the types of waste you will need to dispose of and know the proper techniques for disposing of each type of waste in the area you are visiting. Leave No Trace encourages outdoor enthusiasts to consider the impacts they leave behind which will undoubtedly affect other people, water, and wildlife.

Proper disposal of human waste is important to avoid pollution of water sources, avoid the negative implications of someone else finding it, minimize the possibility of spreading disease, and maximize the rate of decomposition.

For other waste, pack it in, pack it out is a familiar mantra to seasoned wildland visitors. Any user of recreation lands has a responsibility to clean up before he or she leaves. Inspect your campsite and rest areas for trash or spilled food. Pack out all trash and garbage.

The basics:

  • Pack it in, pack it out. Inspect your campsite and rest areas for trash or spilled food. Pack out all trash, leftover food, and litter. Burning trash is never recommended.
  • Deposit solid human waste in catholes dug 6-8 inches deep at least 200 feet from water, camp, and trails. Cover and disguise the cathole when finished.
  • Bury toilet paper deep in a cathole or pack the toilet paper out along with hygiene products.
  • To wash yourself or your dishes, carry water 200 feet away from streams or lakes and use small amounts of biodegradable soap. Scatter dishwater.

More information about proper waste disposal

Leave petrified wood for others to enjoy (Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Leave what you find

Leave areas as you find them. Do not dig trenches for tents or construct lean-tos, tables, chairs, or other rudimentary improvements. If you clear an area of surface rocks, twigs, or pine cones replace these items before leaving.

Avoid hammering nails into trees for hanging things, hacking at them with hatchets and saws, or tying tent guy lines to trunks—thus girdling the tree. Carving initials into trees is unacceptable.

Natural objects of beauty or interest such as antlers, petrified wood, or colored rocks add to the mood of the backcountry and should be left so others can experience a sense of discovery. In national parks and many other protected places, it is illegal to remove natural objects.

The basics:

  • Preserve the past: Observe cultural or historic structures and artifacts but do not touch them
  • Leave rocks, plants, and other natural objects as you find them
  • Avoid introducing or transporting non-native species
  • Do not build structures, furniture, or dig trenches

More information about leaving objects and living things as you find them

Use firepits carefully © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Minimize campfire impacts

Fires vs. Stoves: The use of campfires, once a necessity for cooking and warmth is steeped in history and tradition. Some people would not think of camping without a campfire. Campfire building is also an important skill for every camper.

Yet, the natural appearance of many areas has been degraded by the overuse of fires and an increasing demand for firewood. The development of lightweight efficient camp stoves has encouraged a shift away from the traditional fire for cooking.

Stoves have become essential equipment for minimum-impact camping. They are fast, and flexible and eliminate firewood availability as a concern in campsite selection. Stoves operate in almost any weather condition—and they Leave No Trace.

The basics:

  • Campfires can cause lasting impacts on the environment; use a lightweight stove for cooking and enjoy a candle lantern for light
  • Use established fire rings, pans, or mound fires where fires are permitted
  • Keep fires small. Use only sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand
  • Burn all wood and coals to ash, put out campfires completely, and then scatter cool ashes

More information about minimizing campfire impacts

Observe wildlife from a distance (pronghorns at Custer State Park, South Dakota) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Respect wildlife

Learn about wildlife through quiet observation. Do not disturb wildlife or plants just for a better look. Observe wildlife from a distance so they are not scared or forced to flee.

Large groups often cause more damage to the environment and can disturb wildlife so keep your group small. If you have a larger group, divide it into smaller groups if possible to minimize your impacts.

Quick movements and loud noises are stressful to animals. Travel quietly and do not pursue, feed, or force animals to flee. (One exception is in black bear or grizzly bear country where it is good to make a little noise so as not to startle the bears.) Do not touch, get close to, feed, or pick up wild animals.

The basics:

  • Observe wildlife from a distance; do not follow or approach them
  • Never feed animals; feeding wildlife damages their health, alters natural behaviors, and exposes them to predators and other dangers
  • Control pets at all times or leave them at home
  • Avoid wildlife during sensitive times: mating, nesting, raising young, or winter

More information about respecting wildlife

Yield to others on the trail (Catalina State Park (Arizona) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Be considerate of other visitors

One of the most important components of outdoor ethics is to maintain courtesy toward others. It helps everyone enjoy their outdoor experience. Excessive noise, uncontrolled pets, and damaged surroundings detract from the natural appeal of the outdoors. Being considerate of others ensures everyone can enjoy nature no matter how they interact with it.

The basics:

  • Respect others and protect the quality of their experience
  • Be courteous; yield to other users on the trail
  • Greet riders and ask which side of the trail to move to when encountering pack stock
  • Take breaks and camp away from trails and others
  • Let nature’s sounds prevail; avoid loud voices and noises

More information about sharing nature with other visitors

Worth Pondering…

Please leave only your footprints.