The Leave No Trace Principles, Explained

The seven Leave No Trace Principles are more than just a handy list for recreating responsibly in the outdoors, they’re required reading for anyone spending time outside. But at face value the list is rather vague and the principles can be applied differently depending on the area you’re visiting. So I’m going to dive into some of the semantics while highlighting the basics.

The Seven Leave No Trace Principles 

  • 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 Others

1. Plan Ahead and Prepare

  • 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.
  • Repackage food to minimize waste.
  • Use a map or navigation app to eliminate the use of rock cairns, flagging, or marking paint.

If you did not properly plan and prepare for your trip, you are more likely to violate Leave No Trace principles. For instance, if you’re backpacking or camping in an area with a fire ban, you will need to pack a stove and fuel for cooking food. Know the rules and regulations for your area before you start your trip.

2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

  • 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.

In popular areas

  • 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.

In undisturbed areas

  • Disperse use to prevent the creation of campsites and trails.
  • Avoid places where impacts are just beginning.

This is my personal favorite LNT principle. Traveling and camping on durable surfaces is an easy way to protect the environment from significant damage. Finding a campsite is way more fun than making one, anyway. While hiking, avoid trampling vegetation or “busting the crust” in desert environments. 

3. Dispose of Waste Properly

  • 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 to 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 strained dishwater.

This may seem like the most obvious of the Leave No Trace principles; just don’t litter. But in reality this is likely the most variable principle, as disposing of waste “properly” depends on where you are. 

Biodegradable Litter

A banana peel sits on a trail.
This banana peel (and sticker) was littered in the Painted Desert of Arizona.

Ashley Thess

You’ve surely seen orange peels or pistachio shells littering a trail. Or maybe you’ve watched a friend innocently chuck an apple core out of a car window. Unfortunately, biodegradable litter is still litter. In ideal conditions (not forgotten on the side of a trail), it takes months for fruit peels to decompose. Pistachio shells can take years. And while this organic trash lingers, it attracts bugs and animals to populated areas. 

If you leave food waste near a campsite, it can attract bears who may be relocated or killed. If you toss it out a car window, deer will hang out near the highway increasing the possibility of causing a car accident or being hit. Pack it in, pack it out.


In most places it’s best practice to scatter your strained dish water into the soil at least 200 feet away from a natural water source. You strain the water to remove food particles that could attract animals and you scatter the water to avoid concentrating food-scented water in one location for the same reason. 

If you’re running a river, the protocol might be to dispose of strained dish water directly into the current (depending on the river, likely large flowing rivers where it will quickly wash away instead of attracting animals to the banks). This is a rare occasion and it is never recommended to wash your dishes in a body of water.

Biodegradable soap needs soil to actually biodegrade, so washing dishes in a body of water doesn’t allow for the soap to degrade. In the same vein, it’s not suggested that you bathe in a body of water with soap, even if it is biodegradable because it will not degrade in the water. But it can disrupt plant and animal life.

Washing dishes in a body of water can also introduce yucky floaties into an otherwise pristine alpine lake. There’s also the possibility of scaring off animal life that depends on that water source. This is another reason to camp at least 200 feet away from a body of water.

Human Waste

A scenic groover location on the Snake River.
A scenic groover (portable toilet) location on the Snake River.

Ashley Thess

Everyone’s favorite topic, human waste disposal, also varies by region. While the rule of thumb is to bury your waste at least 6-inches deep, rivers and deserts may require you to pack it out. Running a river means you’re likely camping in designated areas well within 200 feet of the water. Even if you are able to walk 200 feet away from the water, you are likely still below the water-line and within the floodplain of that river, meaning the possibility for contamination is still there. 

In the desert, the soil is not conducive to biodegrading. Your waste may simply petrify in the dry heat. If a WAG (waste alleviating gel) bag is required in your area, make sure you find out well before nature calls.

4. Leave What You Find

  • 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.

Natural Objects

I’m sure you’ve heard of the bad ju-ju or cursed travelers who take rocks, sticks, pinecones, or other objects from a National Park. As a general rule recreators should leave the landscape as they found it, especially in heavily trafficked outdoor spaces like National Parks. If everyone picked a flower to press in their diary, there might be none left for animals to eat, bees to pollinate, or visitors to enjoy.

In more remote areas, like BLM or Forest Service land, unless posted otherwise, visitors are allowed to take up to 25 pounds of rocks, fossils, or semi-precious gemstones. While dinosaur fossils and historical artifacts are obviously off limits, you can take “small reasonable amounts of material for personal use.” Just remember that if a ranger stops you in a National Monument, National Park, or Wildlife Refuge, you could be ticketed for pocketing something seemingly harmless like a rock. 

Transporting Non-Native Species

This is particularly a concern for boaters whose vessels might transport non-native species from one water source to another. Check for local concerns and regulations before splashing and rinse your water gear post-adventure. 

While the firewood you buy at the gas station is likely heat-treated to kill any stowaways, you don’t know what could be living in it since it’s been sitting outside. Buy your firewood within a 50-mile radius of where you’ll be burning it.

Any wood you’ve collected locally should stay local. If you chop down a tree at your house and plan to bring that firewood camping more than 10 miles away, you could be introducing non-native species hiding in that wood to a new area.


A cairn is an authorized rock pile designed to indicate the correct path or trail forward. Cairns may be large, ancient piles showing the correct route above treeline or in spite of bad weather. Or they could be less than a foot tall, installed by trail maintenance in particularly confusing areas like the desert where an obvious dirt path does not exist. 

This is not to be confused with a passerby’s “artwork” or a tourist’s “I was here” symbol. Piling rocks on top of each other for fun or building unauthorized structures in natural spaces isn’t leaving no trace. Only trail creators, maintenance, crew, or rangers should be building cairns. By constructing random piles you’re not only disturbing an ecosystem and creating an eye sore, you could lead someone in the wrong direction.

5. Minimize Campfire Impacts

A fire on a small river island.
On this tiny river island, you have to pack out the ashes of your fire.

Ashley Thess

  • 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, then scatter cool ashes.

Campfire regulations are extremely dependent on where you are. You might have seen Smokey the Bear next to a “Fire Danger is ____ today” sign. Take into account the risk level there, or call ahead and ask a ranger. Make sure you know if fires are allowed at all, if you are allowed to collect wood, and always make sure fires are completely out when you leave or go to sleep. In some areas where forest fires are a danger, you may need to take an online course outlining fire safety. On a river, you may have to pack out your ashes so they don’t negatively impact the area.

6. Respect Wildlife

  • Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow or approach them.
  • Never feed animals. Feeding wildlife damages their health and alters natural behaviors.
  • Control pets at all times, or leave them at home.
  • Avoid wildlife during sensitive times: mating, nesting, raising young, or winter.

For this section, I’ll simply present you with the “find out” portion of messing around with wild animals, or not having control of your pets:

7. Be Considerate of Others

  • 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.

As in every aspect of life, there is such a thing as outdoor etiquette. Yield to uphill hikers and pack animals. Don’t blare a speaker on a crowded trail or shared space. Treat others with respect.

Why Should I Leave No Trace?

Leave No Trace (LNT) is a non-profit dedicated to preserving our natural spaces. Their seven principles are designed to minimize human impact on the planet. The principles are well-researched and dynamic as new information comes to light and more resources go into protecting the outdoors. 


While all of these fundamentals make sense for anyone backpacking, hiking, or camping for any reason — fun, fishing, hunting, etc. — it’s not always obvious how they integrate into outdoor activities. Consider that going off-trail in a heavily trafficked National Park will erode fragile vegetation, and encourage others to do the same, resulting in sad consequences for the landscape. But if you’re above alpine in a remote mountain range … what trail?

We Are All in This Together

A common mistake when it comes to LNT is considering each principle on a personal level. What are the consequences if I fail to follow Leave No Trace? And the answer is usually pretty minimal. But if everyone thinks that way, the consequences grow, leading to recreational bans on public land. Not to mention the fact that you could also get a ticket or fine if caught by a ranger.

So to utilize the seven principles in a way that makes sense, factor in the actions of others and the specific location you’re in. 

Who Should Leave No Trace?

While a good trip leader should understand and encourage LNT principles within a group, it is not their sole responsibility. It might take years to become a master hunter, backpacker, or fly fisherman, it doesn’t take nearly as much effort to educate yourself on recreating responsibly outdoors. Anyone spending time outside whether that’s in a neighborhood park, public land, or a National Park, should be familiar with Leave No Trace principles. The reverse is true as well, if your outdoor mentor isn’t practicing good LNT behavior, don’t follow their lead.

Anyone enjoying outdoor spaces should be familiar with the basics of recreating responsibly, and the specific regulations of the area. While there is more than meets the eye to most of these principles, each one can be boiled down quite simply: Leave no trace that you were there. 

Final Thoughts

Now that you know all seven Leave No Trace principles, it should be easier to apply them to where you recreate. I also challenge you to take it one step further by leaving the land better than you found it. Picking up trash or participating in a local clean-up is a fun and free way to keep the outdoors wild and beautiful. 

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