The 7 Leave No Trace Principles

The 7 Leave No Trace Principles that All Explorers Should Follow

A bedrock value of protecting public lands? Preserving them for the enjoyment of others, now and in the future. Sometimes that means an act of Congress designating a new national park. But it also means minimizing our own impact when we use public lands to hike, camp, climb, ride, run, fish, ski, and more. To that end, the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics (link: has established guidelines. The idea, of course, is that we can collectively do much to preserve public lands as they are if we all take these principles to heart. 

Do: Understand the Seven Principles

The concept of Leave No Trace (LNT) has been distilled into seven pillars. Rather than give detailed advice for every situation, the goal is for recreationists to understand these principles and apply them to varying conditions. The pillars are: plan ahead and prepare; travel and camp on durable surfaces; dispose of waste properly; leave what you find; minimize campfire impacts; respect wildlife; be considerate of other visitors. Here’s what they mean. 

Don’t: Think You Can Wing It

Trip planning sets you up for success. Gather knowledge of the area you plan to visit by researching maps, land manager websites, and trip reports. Identify your group’s goals and expectations, and check in with the skills and experience of all the participants. Does the activity make sense for the group, considering the terrain, weather, and gear needs? Unprepared campers often damage the environment by scrambling to make a camp late at night, or resorting to fires in no-fire zones, or wandering off-trail.

Do: Stay On Trail and In Campsites

It’s impossible to literally leave no trace, so the goal here is to avoid spreading impact more than necessary. Trails and campsites concentrate foot traffic and eliminate the spread of multiple worn paths and campsites in fragile areas. Stay on-trail if a trail exists and make camp in existing campsites when possible.

Don’t: Camp Near Waterways

Count at least 70 steps (200 feet) away from a lake, pond, river, or creek before setting up your camp. This leaves access routes for animals and reduces the likelihood of accidental water pollution (trash or food getting swept into the water). 

Do: Camp on Durable Surfaces

Choosing an appropriate campsite is one of the most important aspects of low-impact camping. You don’t want to crush vegetation or enlarge an already-impacted area, so in general, be on the lookout for well-used sites on dirt, rock, and sand. If existing campsites don’t exist, look for sites with similarly durable surfaces. 

Don’t: Soap up on the Shore

Even when soap is biodegradable, it can affect the water quality of streams and lakes. Using a pot or a jug, wash yourself 200 feet away from a shoreline. Where freshwater is scarce, refrain from swimming, as sunscreen, body oils, insect repellent, and lotions can contaminate the water source. 

Do: Wash Your Dishes

Carry water 200 feet away from lakes or streams to wash your dishes. This helps keep soap and other pollutants out of the water and lessens the trampling that can occur on lakeshores, riverbanks, and around springs. Use a fine mesh strainer to strain dirty dish water, then scatter the waste water broadly and pack out the contents of the strainer (in a plastic bag, along with any uneaten leftovers).

Don’t: Leave Any Waste Behind

“Pack it in, pack it out,” as the saying goes. Before you leave a campsite or lunch spot on the trail, inspect the area for trash or spilled foods—make sure you take everything with you. Litter is not only ugly, it can be harmful to wildlife. 

Do: Take Care of Your Poop (and Feminine Products)

Human waste can pollute water sources, spread disease to wildlife, and is obviously unpleasant for fellow hikers to come across. In most outdoor locations, all you have to do is bury your poop at least six inches in the ground and 200 feet away from water sources. Select an inconspicuous place to dig your “cat hole” and look for a site with deep organic soil. In highly sensitive or popular areas (a river canyon or alpine routes), you might have to carry your poop out with you. Always pack out your toilet paper. This goes for feminine products as well. 

Don’t: Pee on Vegetation

Urine has little effect on soil, but it can attract salt-hungry animals that will dig up soil and defoliate plants as they seek the salts. Pee on rocks, dirt, pine needles, and the like when possible. 

Do: Leave What You Find

While it might be tempting to rearrange nature to make your best campsite, don’t dig trenches, construct lean-tos, or otherwise alter the landscape. If you need to clear an area of twigs, pine cones, or surface stones, replace these items before leaving. Don’t pocket items of natural beauty—antlers, rocks, petrified wood, feathers, and more should stay for all to enjoy. In national parks and other protected areas, it’s illegal to remove natural objects and cultural artifacts. 

Don’t: Leave Your Fire Unattended

That goes for stoves, too. Fires (and the demand for firewood) have degraded the natural appearance of many camp areas over time. When considering whether or not to build a fire, consider the potential damage to the backcountry. If firewood is abundant, the best place to build a fire is within an existing fire ring. Harvest wood from a wide area away from camp, and avoid cutting or breaking branches from standing or downed trees (these are often home to insects and birds). Never leave a fire unattended, always ensure it’s extinguished completely (cool to the touch), and if you don’t need the fire, stick with a camp stove.

Do: Respect Wildlife

Embrace quiet observation. Quick movement and loud noises stress animals out. Don’t touch, feed, pick up, or get close to wild animals. Allow animals unencumbered access to water sources by camping away from the shore of creeks, rivers, and lakes. Wash and dispose of your human waste responsibly to avoid polluting animals’ waterways and food systems. 

Don’t: Be Rude 

Everyone wants to enjoy the outdoors, just like you. Be courteous of your fellow humans. Excessive noise, uncontrolled pets, and damage to natural resources can kill the mood and distract from why we’re out there in the first place. Avoid holidays and weekends if you’re looking for more solitude, and if you are around others, consider how your experience might affect the way someone else is enjoying the outdoors. There’s a right time and place for extra amenities like music, high-tech photography, and pets. A little consideration can go a long ways toward making the outdoors a welcoming, enjoyable place for all.