How To Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace, taken literally, would mean Leave No House.  To have no impact on the wilderness would mean never to enter.   Never hike the trails, never climb the cliffs, never paddle the waters, never fish the streams, and never camp out under the stars. Even the basic credo to “take only pictures and leave only footprints” would violate a literal reading.

Fortunately, Leave no Trace is not a No Trespassing sign on a barbed-wire fence, but rather a philosophy and guiding principle of conservation for those encouraged to enter.  John Muir said, “The mountains are calling and I must go.”  I’m pretty sure he meant go into the wilderness and not a demand to go out.

Leave No Trace: the Seven Tenets

Once you overcome the confusing title, the principles of Leave No Trace are pretty easy to embrace.  There are seven basic tenets:

  • 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

Together they could be thought of as how to minimize your impact when traveling in the wilderness.  In fact that might be a more accurate name for the cause, but it’s not very catchy. Besides, they already have a Leave No Trace organization and pretty cool website (

There are a variety of organization that provide Leave No Trace training, including the Boy Scouts of America ( and the National Outdoor Leadership School (  I will not attempt to compete or repeat what these organizations offer, but encourage you to explore them.

I will share from my own experience a few observations on each tenet.

Plan Ahead and Prepare

Poor planning can lead to poor decisions in the field.  I didn’t bring my rain fly, so I am going to just dig a big trench around my tent.  I didn’t bring a bear canister, so I am going to just leave my food on the ground.  I didn’t bring a trowel so I am just going to leave my excrement behind that big rock.  Proper planning can significantly reduce unnecessary environmental impacts.

Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

Durable Surface for Tent
Durable Surface

Although it may sound like you are suppose to march and camp in the trailhead parking lot, that’s not exactly the point.  It is true that trampling can damage plants and create erosion in sensitive areas, but let’s face it, some areas are pretty much pre-trampled.  Hiking trails and existing campsites are pre-trampled.   Clustering in pre-trampled areas actually prevents them from expanding.  When traveling or camping off trail, in un-trampled areas, your strategy should be the exact opposite:  spread out.  By not clustering, you decrease the concentration of trampling in one spot.  An area will recover quicker from wide minor trampling than concentrated major trampling.

Dispose of Waste Properly

Cat Hole for human waste
Cat Hole

Most of this can be summed up as: pack it in, pack it out.  If you brought it, then take it when you go.  And speaking of when you go, in most areas human waste should be deposited in 6 to 8 inch deep cat holes.  These holes are deep enough so as not be be disturbed, but shallow enough to mix with top soil micro-organisms which help break down the waste.   Some high impact areas require you to carry out all waste, including human waste.  It gives a whole new meaning to the term “holding it”.  Either be at peace bearing this load, or plan your trip to a less impacted area.

Leave What you Find

Wilderness Trash
Ballon Trash in the Wilderness

Let’s clarify.  If what you find is trash, don’t leave it.  But in most wilderness areas, plants, flowers, rocks, and animals should be appreciated where they are and left for others to enjoy.  In areas that allow fishing and hunting, participate legally, carry your license, and know that your fees are used to help sustain the resources for future generations.

Minimize Campfire Impacts

Let’s not go all crazy here.  The philosophy is to minimize, not eliminate.  There are areas in the wilderness where campfires are allowed, and areas where campfires are prohibited.  Campfires are usually prohibited where wood is scarce, either naturally (such as elevations above the tree line) or in areas of heavy use (such popular lakes and camping spots).  In prohibited areas campfires should not be created, plain and simple. In other areas, however, small cooking fires may be an acceptable part of the outdoor experience.

Small Stove - Durable Surface
Small Stove – Durable Surface

Fires are a natural part of the wilderness life cycle.  Certain plants can only reproduce when exposed to fire.  Past land management experience has shown when we over suppress fires, the underbrush fuel builds up to dangerous levels.  When natural fires eventually occur, and they always do, excessive fuel can cause extremely hot fires which overwhelm the natural fire resistance of large trees.  Fires are not inherently bad.

Minimizing campfire impacts means if you don’t really need a campfire then don’t make one.  Use a small stove instead.  If you need a small campfire for cooking, try to use an existing ring.  If you need to create a fire without a ring, do so in a way that all traces can be eliminate when you leave.

Respect Wildlife

Not that they have a Rodney Dangerfield complex or anything, but animals should be quietly observed from a distance, and never fed.  At least not by us.   In addition to hygiene, a reason to camp 200 feet from water is so animals can easily access it, undisturbed by us.

Be Considerate of Other Visitors

Basic common courteous and respect will care for most of this.  One area people struggle with is what do with stock?  Yes, I know, buy low and sell high, but what about on the trail –  horses, mules, lamas and goats.  Livestock have right of way on trails.  If they, however, are dead, I assume you can go first.  Where safe to do so, hikers and backpackers should step off the trail to the downhill side.  The objective is to make yourself as small and nonthreatening as possible to the animal.

Leave A Legacy

My father backpacked.  I backpack.  My three boys now backpack.  I think we are in fact leaving a trace.  And it’s one I hope will continue.

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