The 7 Principles of Leave No Trace

Spring is here and the days are getting longer. For many outdoor enthusiasts, this means it is time to start getting back outside. As you prepare to venture out this year, take a moment to get familiar with the seven principles of Leave No Trace (LNT). This set of guidelines helps clarify how we can each participate in outdoor recreation responsibly and leave minimal impact on the lands we are visiting.  

  1. Plan and Prepare

Taking a little bit of time to plan out your adventure can go a long way. It is important to research the details of the location you will be visiting so you know what resources are available and which are not. Some parks you visit may be trash-free, meaning there are no trash cans on-site and visitors are expected to carry out all of their trash. If you’re going hiking, you may want to know if there is a bathroom at the trailhead. Knowing details like this can help with packing and how you plan your stops. This principle is especially important during the pandemic as location hours, operating statuses, and regulations change frequently. Checking in advance will help you be aware of what to expect. Nowadays, it is always recommended to have a backup plan as well. If the location you are visiting has an app or Twitter account that provides real time updates, this can be a useful tool for checking current conditions.

  1. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

Photo by Evelyn Parks

When enjoying the outdoors, it is important to stick to the trail or to designated campsites to help protect vegetation.  Going “off trail” tramples fragile plants that live along the trail. The more people do so in a certain area, the more the vegetation becomes eroded until it is stripped away completely. On the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, there is an endangered plant called the Sentry Milk Vetch. It is endemic to the South Rim and is so rare that it is only found in three locations in the park. The greatest threat to this special plant is being trampled. This is just one example of what can be protected by staying on the trail. Check out this article to learn more about the Grand Canyon and its amazing native species.

  1. Dispose of Waste Properly

There are two main components to this principle: trash and human waste. For trash, it is important to be sure that all trash you create while outdoors is thrown away in a designated trash can or taken with you to throw away, if you are at a trash-free park. Be mindful of items that accidentally become litter, like wrappers that fall out of your pocket and, lately, disposable masks. One type of item that is often a source of confusion is fruit peels, such as banana or orange peels. While they may be biodegradable, these should still be packed out because if they are not native to the area you are visiting, they are not part of the diet of the local wildlife and should not be introduced.

Disposal of human waste requires more planning and preparation. Depending on where you are, guidance dictates that waste be disposed of either in a 6” deep hole or packed out in a special bag, nicknamed a “wag bag.” Toilet paper should be packed out as well. Visit the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics for further guidance.

  1. Leave What You Find

On your outdoor adventures, you may come across interesting or extraordinary items such as bird feathers or an arrowhead. Removing these items can be harmful to the natural and cultural environment, prevents future visitors from enjoying the same discoveries that you made, and in many situations, may be illegal. This principle also highlights leaving the natural environment in the same overall condition as you found it by adhering to established trails and campsites, not carving graffiti into a tree or on rocks, etc. This principle can be summed up by the common saying, “Take only photographs, leave only footprints.”

  1. Minimize Campfire Impacts

Photo by Evelyn Parks

If considering building a campfire, take into consideration your location and the current conditions for the fire danger such as wind, drought conditions, etc. The agency whose land you are staying on is a good reference for guidance and current conditions. If conditions are not safe for a fire, a camp stove may be a better alternative. When building a campfire, the fire should be built in a designated fire pit so that it is properly contained. The wood should only be removed from the local environment if there is enough to not cause harm. Bringing wood from an outside source should be avoided as this risks introducing non-native species to the area. Ensure that all fires are completely extinguished using water.

  1. Respect Wildlife

The easiest way to respect wildlife is to give them their space and enjoy them from afar. It is important to always leave an animal a path away from you and never make them feel cornered. This is worth keeping in mind in your vehicle as well in places with big game animals like Yellowstone National Park.

Photo by Evelyn Parks

Avoid feeding wildlife and follow the protocols in place at the location you are visiting to keep food, scented items, and trash secure, such as properly latching bear-proof trash cans. While it may seem harmless or cute to feel an animal, their digestive systems are not used to the same food that we eat and it could make them sick, or they could become reliant on human handouts. In extreme cases, this may lead to the animal being euthanized if its dependency on human food is considered a danger, as has been the case with a few bears at a couple of national parks in recent years.

One final wildlife consideration to keep in mind is that when camping, select a location at least 200 feet from water sources to allow wildlife space to come and go from these sources freely.

  1. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

This will mean something slightly different to everyone. In the end, it comes down to being respectful of others and the location you are visiting. If you like to enjoy music while hiking, consider doing so in a way that doesn’t disturb wildlife and fellow outdoor enthusiasts. If you are bringing your pet along for a hike, be sure to follow location-specific guidelines.  These guidelines, such as leash regulations, are there for the safety and security of other visitors as well as local wildlife. 

Where will you be putting these principles into practice this summer? If you are looking for inspiration, check out the Guide to the Best Hiking in National Parks for an easy and challenging option in five incredible parks.  

Header photo by Evelyn Parks

For Evelyn, true joy is hiking to a mountain top or waterfall, while surrounded by sounds of nature and catching glimpses of passing animals. Her trifecta of passions are wildlife, travel, and conservation.Follow her on her blog, Expeditions With Evelyn, and her Instagram!


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