The 7 "Leave No Trace" Principles of Outdoor Ethics

guy with backpack pauses on outdoor hike to look at mountain vista

Treehugger / Dan Amos

We all have a responsibility when it comes to enjoying the great outdoors. Staying mindful of the effects that our presence has on the environment, as well as its plants, wildlife, and ecosystems, is a pivotal part of our place in the natural world.

The “Leave No Trace” principles were originally designed as a set of minimum impact practices for visiting backcountry settings in the mid-1980s, but they really apply anywhere—whether it's in a massive national forest or in your own backyard. Studies by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics have shown that just 30 minutes of education on how to be responsible outdoors using Leave No Trace ethics can help children change their sense of connection to nature and improve the likelihood that they’ll leave behind objects they found while outside.

The next time you plan on camping, hiking, or any other outdoor activity, be sure to keep the following guidelines in mind.

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Principle 1: Plan Ahead and Prepare

hiking and backpacking supplies including boots and axe stacked together in woods

Treehugger / Dan Amos

Responsible outdoorsmanship begins well before you step outside, since a trip into the wilderness can easily go from bad to worse if you’re not prepared. That’s why it's important to plan ahead by learning about the rules and regulations for the areas you’re planning to visit, researching weather, and packing accordingly.

In order to reduce your impact on the natural and cultural resources, it is also recommended to schedule trips during off seasons and visit in as small groups as possible. Consider not only the weather and restrictions, but also the terrain, private land boundaries, and how long it will take your group to complete activities (such as hiking).

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Principle 2: Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

hiker and two kids walk and hike on durable surface road in the woods

Treehugger / Dan Amos

According to the National Park Service, “durable surfaces” refer to any maintained trails, designated campsites, rock, gravel, sand, dry grass, and snow. While camping in areas near lakes and streams, be sure to set up camp at least 200 feet from bodies of water in order to protect riparian areas.

Restrict use to established hiking trails and campsites, altering sites as little as possible to keep the natural landscapes just as pristine as you found them. Keep campsites small and focus activity in clear spaces that are free from vegetation, and walk in a single file in the middle of trails to reduce damage, soil erosion, and the development of new paths in undesirable areas.

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Principle 3: Dispose of Waste Properly

man sharpens stick with knife to pick up trash including toilet paper in woods

Treehugger / Dan Amos

Principle three is all about the cardinal rules of the outdoors: pack out what you pack in. Waste, including leftover food and garbage, has the power to affect wildlife, water sources, natural habitats, and even other people. This also applies to human waste (as well as toilet paper and hygiene products), since improper disposal can pollute water sources. While washing dishes, carry water at least 200 feet away from streams or lakes and always use eco-friendly soap.

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Principle 4: Leave What You Find

yellow leaf from tree is picked up for souvenir during hike outside

Treehugger / Dan Amos

If you do end up needing to clear an area of surface rocks, sticks, or pine cones, make an effort to replace them before leaving (and remember that the best campsites are found, not made). When camping inside designated campgrounds with legally constructed facilities like fire rings, do not move them or dismantle them in any way—this can lead to additional impact as they will need to be rebuilt.

Also, avoid carving into trees, hammering nails into trees, or picking too many wildflowers as they may be native plants and slow to reproduce. It is important to leave other natural objects such as rocks, leaves, and even twigs put as they’re needed for animals to build nests or provide essential nutrients. Rather than taking souvenirs from nature, snap a photo instead!

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Principle 5: Minimize Campfire Impacts

hand places another log in outdoor campfire surrounded by forest

Treehugger / Dan Amos

As wildfires continue to impact natural areas more and more each year, it is essential to learn the tricks and trade of responsible campfire use. While gathering around a campfire is a time-honored tradition that most campers wouldn’t dream of skipping, the overuse of fires and increasing demand for firewood can contribute to pollution or spread invasive insects.

Consider investing in a campfire stove or even a solar oven to replace your campfire at least for a portion of your trip. Most importantly, be sure to fully extinguish fires when you’re done. Check out the National Park Service’s guide to campfire safety to learn more.

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Principle 6: Respect Wildlife

hiker in green woods uses binoculars to observe wildlife safely from a distance

Treehugger / Dan Amos

In the matter of wildlife, quiet observation is the name of the game. Not only can touching or feeding wild animals be stressful for them, it can also be dangerous, alter their behaviors, or expose both of you to diseases. Keeping your distance and refraining from disturbing wildlife—no matter the animal—helps lower the chances of accidents. On the same page, be sure to store food and trash securely and properly to avoid human-wildlife conflicts.

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Principle 7: Be Considerate of Other Visitors

hiker with well behaved dog walks along moss covered trail in Oregon forest

Treehugger / Dan Amos

Last but certainly not least, principle seven is a reminder to always be courteous and considerate of others. Things like excessive noise, destructive pets, or damaged surroundings can lessen the quality of other visitors' experience. While hiking, yield to others on the trail when it's safe to do so, and prioritize outdoor travel during off-holidays or weekdays so as not to add to overcrowding (especially in busy destinations).

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