Leave No Trace Best Practices

Leave No Trace principles are a framework of best practices that are critical knowledge for anyone who spends time in nature. They were developed to minimize the impact of backcountry travelers on sensitive ecosystems.

Especially with the increasing number of people recreating outdoors, acting in accordance with these principles is essential if we wish to preserve our natural areas for ourselves and future generations. Though LNT practices originated in the backcountry, they apply anywhere, whether you’re on a remote backpacking trip or out for a day hike in the front country. 

LNT principles are a lens through which you can make decisions in the backcountry, ranging from how to choose a campsite to how to poop in the woods. They are foundational skills which we instill in clients on all of our guided trips.

This post explores the 7 principles of Leave No Trace along with examples of how to apply them.

1. Plan Ahead and Prepare

Proper planning increases safety and enjoyment of a trip while minimizing impact on the land. I can recall several instances where poor planning resulted in avoidable mistakes, such as sharing one set of micro spikes with a hiking partner for a snowfield crossing in the Wind River Range, and not having sun protection for a trip in the High Sierra.

Fortunately, planning is a skill that can be learned. In our Plan Like a Pro course and in the online curriculum for our guided trips, we teach a 7-step process to planning any backcountry trip:

  1. Define the trip parameters: Where, when, with who, and why?
  2. Research the conditions, like temperatures and bug pressure.
  3. Select gear that is appropriate for the parameters and conditions.
  4. Plan snacks and meals.
  5. Collect or create navigational resources like maps and guidebooks.
  6. Gain the requisite skills and fitness for the itinerary. And,
  7. Complete a final systems check just before hitting the trail.

2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

Long lasting damage to the land and waterways can occur when we trample vegetation and microorganisms, causing impact to a site beyond its ability to repair. The resulting barren soil is more prone to erosion. Focusing activities on more resilient surfaces, such as gravel, sand, snow, and dry grasses can minimize impact.

Responsible travel can occur on trail and off trail. Trails are designed to concentrate traffic, so when traveling on trails, avoid creating new paths by cutting switchbacks or widening the trail by walking on the sides of it.

When traveling off trail, it’s important to note that frequency of use and larger group sizes increase the likelihood of impacting an area. Spread out to reduce the likelihood of the same spot being trampled multiple times and do your best to stay on durable surfaces.

If you must walk on vegetation, dry grasses are generally more resilient than wet ones. Avoid walking across cryptobiotic soil or through desert mud holes and puddles.

Walking on durable surfaces, such as granite slab, reduces impact of off trail travel.

Be particularly aware of fragile ecosystems that are easily damaged and slow to repair, such as alpine areas. When we take clients off trail on guided trips in the Sierra, for instance, we spread out rather than walking in a line, we avoid repeatedly taking the same path to a water source, and we avoid crushing the vegetation when possible.

The same mentality applies to campsite selection. Poor campsite selection can not only lead to a miserable, sleepless night, but can cause damage to the natural resources in an area as well.

  • In high use areas, camp 200 feet from water and choose campsites that are already impacted, where you or your group will cause no further impact.
  • In more pristine areas, spread out campsites and avoid using the same route to water, the kitchen, or any other common area.
  • Avoid landscaping a site, such as by digging a trench or building furniture, and do your best to naturalize campsites before you leave, such as by brushing pine cones and sticks back over the area.

When leaving a campsite, my goal is that any future visitors are unable to tell that someone has slept there before. Learn more about choosing a 5-star campsite here.

3. Dispose of Waste Properly

How to poop in the woods is one of our favorite topics to teach on. If you’ve spent any amount of time on popular hiking trails, you’ve most likely encountered a TP bloom — used, unburied toilet paper on the surface of the ground, often “hidden” under a rock or behind a log. It’s pretty gross.

In some places, such as narrow river canyons, human waste must be packed out, but in most cases, you can bury your poop.

Toilet paper must be buried thoroughly in moist environments and should be packed out in arid environments and fragile alpine ecosystems, or better yet, not used at all. The way to leave the least trace is to use the backcountry bidet method. Read this and this for details on how to execute the method and properly poop in the woods.

The back-to-front nature of the water bidet can pose a risk of UTI for women, so as a female, I modify Andrew’s method by doing a final rinse from front-to-back. Squatting extra low and finishing with a wet wipe can also help.

On that note, wet wipes, tampons, and all other trash should always be packed out.

If using a biodegradable soap to wash your dishes or yourself, avoid contaminating waterways by carrying water away from the source. 

4. Leave What You Find

It’s likely that you’ll find beautiful and interesting rocks, plants, and artifacts when traveling outdoors. It’s one of the reasons we go out there. By leaving these items where you find them, you allow others to discover them as well. Furthermore, the animals that inhabit the land often use these natural materials as food and to construct their homes. Additionally, avoid damaging living trees, such as by carving into them. “Take only memories, leave only footprints” is a common saying that encapsulates this principle.

Spread out during off trail travel to minimize trampling the vegetation.

5. Minimize Campfire Impacts

Fire bans are common in many areas, both to reduce wildfire risks and to protect resources in high-use areas. So check land agency websites before your trip to be aware of current regulations.

Due to the increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires, in the American West we generally discourage campfires unless they are necessary for safety reasons.

If you do decide to have a fire, minimize impacts by using existing fire rings, gathering wood responsibly, and following safety protocols.

6. Respect Wildlife

When traveling in natural areas, keep in mind that you’re a visitor in someone’s home. The lands we hike through are habitat for birds, mammals, insects, and other wildlife. As a visitor to these spaces, try not to disturb the residents. That means giving wildlife plenty of space, observing quietly from afar, not blocking their access to water, and avoiding behaviors that might stress them out, such as approaching or touching them. In national parks, people who intentionally get too close to wildlife face fines and jail time.

Respecting wildlife also means packing out your garbage and not feeding them, intentionally or unintentionally. It doesn’t take much human food for animals to become food-habituated. When this happens, they can become “nuisance” animals, which can lead to adverse human-animal interactions and eventually to the euthanization of the animal. Proper food protection, as detailed here, here, and here, and packing out food scraps are best practices.

7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

Everyone has a right to access the outdoors and to enjoy their experience. Be considerate of others by avoiding excessive noise, cleaning up after yourself, keeping your pets controlled, yielding to equestrians and those traveling in the uphill direction, and being mindful of how your actions are impacting someone else’s experience. For example, if you choose to listen to music while you hike or watch a movie in your tent, use earbuds. If you need to make a phone call, step out of earshot. Be courteous and respectful.

Posted in on March 15, 2022
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5 Comments

  1. Hunter on March 16, 2022 at 12:16 am

    Great guidelines!

  2. Thomas on March 27, 2022 at 8:28 am

    I would add a couple of other things; first, that we should refrain from building cairns, ducks or other forms of rock monuments, and second, that we should refrain from broadcasting amplified music.

  3. David Schmidt on March 30, 2022 at 6:27 pm

    It seems to me that small cairns can sometimes be very useful as markers to help people from getting lost, and I don’t think they significantly degrade the environment. I have encountered cairns that were actually placed by park rangers. I do agree that we should not build cairns at passes or mountain tops just to celebrate the success of being there.

    • Bob on April 17, 2022 at 12:21 am

      The problem is people think ‘stone stacking or rock balancing’ is art and everyone enjoys looking at it. Not only are dozens (if not hundreds) of rock piles unsightly but moving rocks around to balance them causes unnatural erosion among other problems. Plus, on it’s illegal on federal lands.

  4. Cindy Outlaw on April 6, 2022 at 8:12 pm

    Point #3 said – “Toilet paper must be buried thoroughly in moist environments….” I feel that TP should ALWAYS be carried out and never left behind no matter what the environment is. What do you think about changing the TP advice?

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