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What is Leave No Trace?

Leave No Trace (LNT) is a set of seven guidelines for how to minimize your impact during outdoor activities. Promoted by the Center for Outdoor Ethics since 1994, Leave No Trace seeks to help maintain our shared environment as more and more people flood into outdoor activities.
There are separate versions of LNT for every activity you can imagine - from climbing to fly fishing and beyond - but they all come back to variations on the same seven principles. If you’re familiar with the basics, it’s pretty easy to follow LNT no matter what you’re doing.
If you’re interested in learning more about LNT, look into LNT Awareness courses - running from half an hour to a full day in length, these courses cover the below principles and practical examples of implementing them. These courses are taught by LNT Trainers - a two-day certification - who are trained by LNT Master Educators, which is a five day cert.

 

One Quick Note:

LNT is a set of guidelines, not rules. Ideally, everyone would follow LNT all the time in everything they do, but it’s sometimes just not possible or practical.
When I run LNT awareness courses, there’s always one asshole who’ll say things like “oh, so if someone falls off a cliff I can’t go save them, because I have to stay on marked trails?” The answer to these sorts of “gotcha” questions is that it’s obviously okay to temporarily ignore LNT in emergency situations. The system would be pretty dumb otherwise - think of what a trace it would be to leave someone’s body in the woods!

 

One More Quick Note:

I split up most of the principles into guidelines for “frontcountry” and “backcountry” areas, which are loosely defined terms at best. Here, “frontcountry” means areas with any level of human development - any trails or camping areas at all. “Backcountry” means “pristine” areas, with no signs of human presence - including trails.

 

The Principles:

1. Plan Ahead and Prepare.

When I’m teaching awareness courses, I usually save this one for the end. I’m gonna do that here, too.

 

2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

This one is pretty self-explanatory. The impact of your foot compacts soil, squeezing out the pockets of air and water that roots and soil animals depend upon. While one footstep isn’t going to do much, multiple footsteps will start to kill off plant life and make the area look like a trail - making it more likely others will follow, and turning it into a full-blown trail.
A “durable surface” is one that won’t show any impacts from you using it. Generally, rock, ice, snow (if it’s 6” thick), and compacted soil are considered durable surfaces - even in frontcountry areas, it’s fine to walk on these. Uncompacted soil and vegetation, meanwhile, are not durable surfaces.
Also, if you’re ever in the Southwest, don’t step on the black soil. That’s cryptobiotic crust, and without getting into it, one footstep can take up to fifty years to repair.

In Frontcountry Areas:

In Backcountry Areas:

  • Bushwhack spread out, not in a line, to disperse your impact

  • Walk as much as possible on durable surfaces, avoiding vegetation

  • Don’t alter a site to camp in - good campsites are found, not made

  • Hike and camp at least 200 feet away from bodies of water

 

3. Dispose of Waste Properly

Fun fact - we can’t say “take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints” because it’s copyrighted by Disney. But that’s basically what these two points mean.
You have two types of waste - trash and human. Trash is almost always a “pack it in, pack it out” situation, unless there are designated receptacles in a frontcountry area. Human waste is discussed in more detail below.
No awareness training is complete without some jabroni claiming it’s okay to leave food scraps in the woods, as they are biodegradable. This is wrong and specifically discussed below.

How to Dispose of Trash:

  • Pack it in, pack it out.

  • Minimize the amount of trash brought into the woods - take wrappers off before leaving the car, avoid using soap if possible.

  • Don’t leave food scraps in the woods

    • Some food scraps take months to decay, and are a negative impact on the experience of the next people to use the area

    • Some food scraps include seeds, which may introduce a non-native species into the area

    • ALL food scraps are food, which will attract animals to human-used areas

  • If something must be disposed of in the woods (typically greywater from washing dishes), spread it over as large an area as possible, 200 feet away from trails, campsites, and bodies of water.


How to Dispose of Human Waste:

  • Always dispose of human waste at least 200 feet from bodies of water, campsites, and trails

  • Urinate on the ground or on rocks, NOT on trees or vegetation

  • Defecate into catholes or trenches:

    • For catholes, dig a single hole at least six inches deep for defecation. Use a stick to stir the feces into the soil and to cover the hole.

    • In more highly used areas, use the stick to mark the hole.

    • LNT experts pack out their toilet paper; otherwise, bury it with the feces.

    • If staying in an area for more than one day, dig a trench for multiple uses rather than many holes and expand as needed.

  • In highly protected or sensitive areas, pack out toilet paper and feces in a poop tube or biffy bag

  • If local regulations differ from these guidelines, follow the regulations.


4. Leave What You Find

This is probably the easiest of all of the principles. Don’t take things out of the woods. Past the legal considerations - most “cool plants” that people take are endangered; any human artifact that’s been in the woods for over 50 years is considered to be an archaeological artifact and is criminal to remove - there’s a human one: if you think something is cool enough to take with you, odds are the next person in the area would want to see it, too. Someone was kind enough to leave it there for you to see - pay it forward.
Also, don’t stack rocks or touch cairns. Cairns are trail markers ideally only used in situations where paint is impractical; stacking rocks or changing cairns may confuse and endanger hikers in the area.
If you see something that you think should be moved - like Native American artifacts, invasive species, or misleading cairns - let the land manager know.

 

5. Minimize Campfire Impacts

There’s a lot of things that live in the soil - like microbes and fungus, sure, but also plant roots. Like almost everything else, they’re not happy when you set them on fire. It can take decades for areas to recover from being burned, depending on the local ecosystem.
The easiest way to minimize the impacts of your fire is to not have one - cook stoves are faster, cleaner, and easier than fires for most purposes.

For Frontcountry Areas:

  • Only use fires in designated fire rings - do not create or destroy rings.

  • Don’t move fire rings in campsites - use the same area as people before you

  • Don’t move firewood more than fifty miles, across state borders, or through quarantine areas

  • Never cut standing wood for a fire - even if it appears dead

  • Keep your fires small:

    • Only use things you can break by hand

    • Don’t build a fire taller than the fire pit is wide

  • Burn all wood to ash - don’t leave charred sticks

  • If you must leave a charred stick, leave it in the fire pit - don’t put it back in the woods!


For Backcountry Areas:

  • Follow all relevant regulations - fires are prohibited on many public lands

  • Try to avoid building fires entirely

  • If you must build a fire, use a fire pan or build a mound fire. Pack out your ashes.

  • If you cannot pack out your ashes, scatter them over as wide an area as possible, 200 feet from any body of water, campsite, and trail


6. Respect Wildlife

Interactions between humans and wildlife tend to go one of three ways:

Humans + Small Animals (the “bird”):

Small animal get stressed by interacting with humans. Small animal uses energy to escape from humans, rather than escape from predators or find food. Small animal dies.

Humans + Small Animals (the “chipmunk”):

Small animal likes the easy food source provided by human-used areas and starts to spend more time there. Small animal starts to become a nuisance, and will possibly attack humans (or their gear, in campsites) for food. Increased small animal density in area starts to attract larger predators. Small animal dies.

Humans + Large Animals (the “bear”):

Large animal likes food source provided by human-used areas (be it the human’s food or the small animals). Large animal becomes a nuisance, either raiding equipment or possibly attacking humans. Large animal may have to be relocated or possibly put down due to nuisance status. Large animal dies.

None of these are great.
Avoiding interactions with wildlife starts with disposing of waste properly, to keep human-used areas from becoming an easy food source and attracting animals. Also remember that wildlife is wild - if you want to take pictures of an animal, keep your distance to avoid startling it.

For All Areas:

  • Always follow all regulations for an area - including using bear bags or bear cans as needed

  • Don’t leave food out and unattended. Store food (and other smellables) at least 200 feet from your campsite

  • Don’t feed animals.

  • Do not approach wildlife - let them have their space.


7. Be Courteous of Other Visitors

 It’s the golden rule. It’s the same reason to follow the rest of Leave No Trace - you’re making other people’s outdoor experiences better in the hopes they do the same for you.

For All Areas:

  • Yield to other groups on the trails - especially if they’re smaller, faster, or going uphill.

    • Technically hikers have the right of way over bikers, but they’ll also get hurt more if they get hit

  • Don’t make unnecessary noise, especially while in the backcountry

  • Control your pets - and leash them if you’re expecting other visitors


All that then brings us back around to:

1. Plan Ahead and Prepare

I save this one for last both because it’s the most important - how can you follow the other six without planning? - but also because it effectively contains the other points. There’s no way to dispose of waste properly if you didn’t bring a trowel; there’s no way to respect wildlife if you forgot your bear can at home.
It’s obviously impossible for me to give a checklist of everything you need to plan for every trip you’ll ever take. Below are some questions and tips to get you thinking.

In Frontcountry Areas:

  • Go in groups of no more than 8-10 people

  • Know your facility:

    • Where are the trails? Campsites?

    • Are there trash receptacles?

    • Are fires allowed? Are there rings?

    • How do I need to store my food?

    • Where can I get water?

  • Know your trip:

    • What will the weather be like?

    • What clothing will I need?

    • What gear will I need?

    • How am I cooking?

    • What preparations do I need to make before I go?

    • Am I prepared for an emergency situation?


In Backcountry Areas:

  • Go in groups of no more than 3-5 people

  • Know your area:

    • What’s my destination?

    • Where are the bodies of water?

    • Where’s the best area for bushwhacking?

    • How will I be able to store my food?

    • How am I planning to cook?

    • Can I dig a cathole, or do I need to pack it out?

  • As above, know your trip