Complete Guide to Leave No Trace Backpacking
Leave No Trace is a philosophy on how to conduct yourself while out on the trail – leaving nature pristine and readily enjoyable for whoever follows you. Follow our guide and you will forever only leave footprints.
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You’re in the right place! In this guide, we will be covering the following:
- What does Leave No Trace Mean?
- What are the 7 principles?
- How does this practically apply to me?
Hiking and camping are fantastic ways of connecting with the natural world. The physical, mental, and spiritual benefits to individuals are undeniable. However, as more people adventure into ever-smaller areas of wilderness in search of pristine natural beauty, more and more pressure is put upon the environment.
The ‘Leave No Trace’ philosophy encourages easy to implement principles for hikers and campers to follow while in the wilderness. These seven principles help to not only safeguard the plant and animal life in a given location but also ensure that trails and campsites remain as pristine as possible so that others may also enjoy a wild and unspoiled landscape.
- Be respectful to nature and to others
- If you “pack it in, pack it out” – don’t leave any trash (or other gear) behind
- Minimise any further human impact by keeping to established trails and campsites
- Go one step further, and dismantle/remove any visible human impact such as fire rings or cairns
- Approach wildlife
- Camp within 200 feet of any standing water (streams/lakes), the trail or other campsites
- Take souvenirs with you – leave all fauna, flora and rock samples for others to enjoy – take home
The 7 Principles of Leave No Trace
Ideally, the Leave No Trace mentality should guide all of your actions while visiting wilderness areas, and there are seven guiding principles that form the core ideals. Essentially, you should leave an area completely free of any evidence that you have been there. No fire remnants, no trash or food scraps, few if any footprints. By following each of these principles, you can help ensure that wild places remain wild and that future visitors to the area will be able to experience the same untouched natural beauty.
Plan Ahead and Prepare
Planning ahead for your trip will not only allow you to enjoy your trip fully, but it can help minimize your impact on the area you will be visiting. You should always try and schedule your trip with the seasonal weather conditions and local regulations in mind.
Many areas discourage hiking and camping during certain seasons. This can be due to severe or dangerous weather conditions, but may also be due to other factors. Many wildlife and wetland preserves limit visitation during the breeding or birthing seasons to avoid disturbance to the animals. Some dryland areas discourage or disallow fires during the summer and fall to prevent wildfire risks, so you should be prepared with meals that don’t require an open flame.
If at all possible, you should also go to an area outside of its peak visiting weeks. Not only will this make your experience more enjoyable, but it will reduce the pressure on local resources and trails. Additionally, try to limit your group size. If you’re planning a trip with a large group, try to split it into smaller units.
Know where you will be walking in advance, and when in an area with permanent trails, strictly follow these trails and don’t disturb untouched areas. Or, if you will be traveling cross country, use a map and compass to find your way instead of rock cairns, tree markers, plastic flags or ribbons, or other kinds of trail markers.
Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
We often forget how fragile the earth under our feet can be. In areas with mossy ground, it may have taken a hundred or more years for that moss to establish itself. Even seemingly tough desert soils can be easily compacted by foot traffic which in turn decreases the soil’s ability to soak up infrequent rainfall. For these reasons, you should always stay on established trails and campsites whenever possible. If you are in the backcountry, stick to more resilient surfaces such as rocky or stony ground, areas with dry grasses, or on the snow-covered ground during the winter.
Riparian areas are one of the most sensitive to disturbance, and so special care should be used when crossing through or camping near streams, lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water. Try to ford in shallow, stony crossings, and always camp at least 200 feet away from the water’s edge. This not only protects the land near waterways but also allows wildlife access to the water.
Once you’ve found a suitably flat and durable surface for a campsite, keep your disturbance of the spot to a minimum. The camping area should be as small and compact as possible, and the land should not be altered in any permanent way. In other words, avoid clearing brush and fallen trees, and don’t dig berms, large latrines or tent footings. In pristine wilderness, avoid sites where it appears that the landscape has been impacted by previous campers. Allow the disturbed area a chance to regenerate and pick a spot with as little vegetation as possible for your camp.
Dispose of Waste Properly
This principle can be succinctly summed up as ‘pack it in, pack it out.’ Any items that you bring into the wilderness should return with you when you leave including trash, food waste, and even used toilet paper. While this may seem extreme to some, if you’ve ever stayed in a dedicated campsite and come across the half-buried remains of the previous visitor’s toilet area, you can understand why this is such an important rule.
This is one principle that is often overlooked or not planned for before a trip. You must be certain to bring enough trash bags, sealable food containers, and toilet paper waste bags, and you should have enough room in your pack to carry out all of your trash. Before you leave the campsite, have all members of your group perform a sweep of the area and pick up any overlooked trash and spilled food.
Leave What You Find
It can be tempting to collect mementos from your trip, but the Leave No Trace philosophy mandates that you leave all plants, animals, and even rocks and other natural materials where you find them. Not only does this preserve the integrity of the area, but it helps prevent inadvertently transporting organisms to a new area. Even dead wood for fires can harbor invasive species. Instead, bring a high-quality camera and capture the beauty of the natural world in photos.
This principle extends to historical structures and artifacts as well. Should you come across rock art, ruins, or other cultural or historical artifacts, do not touch them.
Minimize Campfire Impacts
In general, avoid using a fire if you have other means of cooking, use established fire rings where available, and keep your fires as small and efficient as possible. A good rule of thumb is only to use fallen sticks which you can break by hand. You should never let a fire burn unattended or go to bed unless you know for certain that the fire is completely cold. All wood and coals should be burned down to ashes. Once the fire is cold, scatter the cool ashes.
One of the best ways to minimize the impact of fire should you need one is to use a fire pan. A fire pan is a metal bowl or disk in which you can build a fire without leaving a burnt circle or pile of charcoal and fire debris behind on the ground when you leave. If you must have a fire when using dispersed camping areas, use a fire pan to keep the area pristine.
Many species of wildlife depend on large, intact parcels of wilderness for survival and their ability to hunt, mate, and raise young can suffer if there is too much human activity in an area. To help preserve animal populations, it’s important to respect their wildness and try to allow them space and resources to thrive.
Even if wild creatures seem interested in you, don’t approach them, and observe them from a distance. Never purposefully follow or track them if this may alter or impact their behavior. Never intentionally or unintentionally feed wildlife. This means safely storing both your food and trash in animal safe ways and in a secure area.
If you plan to bring your dog hiking with you, they must be under your control at all times. For most pets, this means they should be on a leash. If you feel your pet will be too excitable or too loud, they should stay home or should only accompany you to less sensitive areas. Ask ahead if dogs are banned from the area, or if they are seasonally banned during breeding or birthing times.
Be Considerate of Other Visitors
The last principle of Leave No Trace is perhaps one of the most important. By preserving the integrity of wild lands, you not only allow wildlife and vegetation to thrive, but you also allow the people who follow you to enjoy the unspoiled backcountry as well. You should always respect other visitors to the area, and be mindful of their desire to experience pristine nature.
As much as possible, try to be invisible to others. Big fires, loud talking or music, and large groups can disturb the ability of the others to enjoy their visit. Let the natural songs of birds be your music, speak softly, and avoid traveling in a large group or during high traffic times of the year.
On the trail, you should yield to other travelers if they need to pass. Respect the privacy of already erected camps, and choose another area to spend the night if you will be within sight. Above all, use common sense and common courtesy when you do cross paths with another group.
Leave No Trace: On the Trail
The cardinal rule of leaving no trace on the trail is, of course, to use well-established routes to keep human impact limited to as small an area as possible. If no path exists, find the firmest and most durable surfaces for hiking. But how should you treat areas where no hard ground is available? You may encounter areas where shifting or muddy ground makes leaving no trace a difficult proposition. In such cases, special care is required to keep the area as untouched as possible.
General Trail Etiquette
There are some generally accepted rules that should be followed to ensure that both you and subsequent visitors to an area can thoroughly enjoy a trail. First, avoid walking through sensitive areas where you may create a trail by disturbing marshy ground, delicate vegetation, or compacting the soil too much. This is especially important if you are traveling with a large group.
Rock cairns are currently somewhat trendy, but knowledgeable hikers avoid creating rock cairns which serve no purpose. In an otherwise unspoiled landscape, a group of rock cairns is a jarring reminder of past human visitors to an area. Likewise, you shouldn’t permanently mark trees by cutting their bark, painting on their trunks, or tying ribbons to them. If you need to travel across unmarked terrain, be sure you know how to use a compass and map proficiently, and use them to navigate rather than trail markers.
When sharing an established trail with other groups, you should always try to keep a respectful distance between your party and theirs. If possible, walk far enough behind that you are out of sight. If another group is gaining on you and will pass soon, it’s often a good idea to take a break a short distance off the trail to allow them to pass you by.
Even if you think you are alone on the trail, keep your noise level as low as possible to keep from disturbing other hikers. Some Leave No Trace advocates also recommend wearing clothing which allows you to blend into your surroundings while hiking. This not only makes you less visible to other hikers, but also to wildlife.
Have you ever wondered why trails on hillsides are almost always in a zig-zag shape? Not only do switchbacks make traveling up a slope less tedious, but they also help protect the landscape.
Steeply graded land is much more prone to erosion and trails which go straight up a hill will quickly degrade. During heavy rain or when heavily traveled, loose soil and rock will rapidly disperse downhill. This not only eventually destroys the integrity of the trail, but it can also foul waterways below the slope and can cause small mudslides which wash away vegetation.
When on an established trail, always stick to the switchbacks. Don’t make or use shortcuts between levels of the trail. It may be tempting at times to shorten the length of your hike, but remember that you are visiting the area to enjoy your experience and that slowing down to appreciate the hike is part of that experience.
Dealing with mud on a trail hike isn’t always intuitive. Many people choose to step around muddy areas of the trail which often leads to side trails being created and eventually leads to more mud and soil disturbance.
While it may seem strange to hikers who are unfamiliar with the Leave No Trace philosophy, the most responsible thing to do is to stay on the trail even when it becomes muddy. Most footwear designed for hiking has enough grip and is waterproof enough to handle a good deal of mud. A set of hiking poles will make it easier to walk over muddy ground if you’re fearful of slips and falls.
Beaches and Other Sandy Areas
In sandy areas, your goal should be to leave as few footprints as possible. In deserts and dryland areas without trails, try to stick to rocky or stony ground where possible. Following dry stream beds and arroyos may be tempting but should be avoided for several reasons. Not only is it likely that you will leave a long-lasting trail of footprints in your wake, but flash floods may be common in the area, making dry river beds a dangerous place to walk especially during stormy summer days.
Additionally, these areas are usually the main wildlife corridors for the region. You may risk frightening them away from the few places where they can find shade and water in the area, and you put yourself at a higher risk of encountering dangerous animals such as javelinas and mountain lions.
Beaches usually have several parallel sand environments. Usually, the most sensitive section of a beach are the dunes which separate the shore from the inland areas. These dunes protect the land from storms and high tides and are usually a habitat for nesting seabirds, rare mammals like the beach mouse, and endangered plant species such as sea oats. They are also highly susceptible to erosion when walked on. The Fish & Wildlife Service explain the significance of dune habitats and their wildlife on their homepage.
Most beaches will have clearly marked signs or fencing which excludes people from the dune areas but avoid them even if they are not marked. Many rocky beaches have tide pool areas that are alternately exposed to the air or submerged underwater. These, too, are home to an array of sensitive and endangered creatures and shouldn’t be disturbed if possible.
The best place to walk on a beach is on the damp compacted sand just above the water. Here, you will disturb the sand least, and if you do leave footprints, they will be washed away during the next high tide.
Leave No Trace: At the Campsite
The area surrounding your tent is likely to be the most impacted by your presence when you spend time in the wilderness. It’s therefore incredibly important to adhere to Leave No Trace rules while at your camping site. By acting conscientiously, you can leave behind almost no evidence of your stay and can allow others to enjoy the area.
Guidelines for Establishing a No Trace Campsite
Creating a camp site that adheres to the 7 Leave No Trace principles takes planning and some basic knowledge of the environment. You should get a general idea of where you will spend the night before you even leave your home. Wilderness areas often border privately owned land, and you should be sure that you have permission to camp in a particular spot before you get there. Even on public lands, camping overnight may be limited to particular dispersed camping areas.
At the minimum, you should find a specific camping area before your adventure. Once you arrive, make sure that your chosen camping spot is on clear, level, and compact land that is at least 200 feet from the trail, bodies of water, and other campsites. Ideally, you should find a campsite that is out of eyesight of other overnight visitors. At a minimum, try to place your tent where it is the least visible.
Erect your tent on the bare ground whenever possible so as to not disturb vegetation. Remember that tall grass may be permanently damaged by the weight of a tent and its occupants and is often home to ticks, ants, chiggers, and other unwanted neighbors.
It goes without saying that the best way to prevent leaving a trace when it comes to fires is to never make one in the first place. Even in areas where campfires are not limited to established campgrounds, you should always try to minimize your use of fire. Not only are they dangerous if left unattended, but they can use up an enormous amount of fuel. This can lead to several unintended consequences.
In popular areas, nearly all of the dead wood on the ground may be used up by campers to make fires. While this might not seem problematic, decomposing wood is an important habitat for innumerable species of insects and fungi which are, in turn, a source of food for many animals. It also adds nutrients to soils and offers cover for prey animals.
Once all of the dead wood is gone, some people will turn to cutting live branches from trees and shrubs which can rapidly alter the ecology of the area. Or, they will bring wood from home which can introduce pest species to the area.
Fires also produce two other kinds of disturbance that can impact other campers who are miles away: light and smoke. Even if your campsite is otherwise undetectable, a tell-tale trail of wood smoke or the glint of your fire at night can quickly break the illusion of solitude for others in the backcountry.
If you must build a fire, use a fire pan that has been elevated off of the ground by several rocks, build as small a fire as you can, use only dead wood, let it die down to white ash, and scatter the ashes when you leave. This brochure from the BLM is a good source of information on fire pans and how to use one.
Food and Cleanliness
Even if you avoid using a fire to cook your food, one of the biggest causes of campsite disturbance is cooking food and washing up afterward. It isn’t until you’ve made a meal while camping that you realize how much mess a typical meal creates.
Food packaging is the first of many considerations when adhering to a Leave No Trace mindset. Keep food wrappers to a minimum and repackage food before your trip if it reduces the volume of trash you’ll need to carry out. You may choose to use tinfoil to cook, but it is messy and often left behind in fire rings. Either carry it out when you leave or use reusable cookware.
After the meal is done, make sure to properly dispose of any water used for cooking as well as the water used for cleaning up. Sprinkle it away from camp and away from any nearby bodies of water. Make sure it doesn’t contain any food particles, and always use biodegradable soap. Here is a list of eco-friendly soaps for backcountry use.
Food scraps should be buried in a cathole – a six to eight-inch deep hole dug with a small trowel or camp shovel – or carried out. Even though it will eventually biodegrade, food waste will attract insects and animals and is a visual reminder of human habitation.
Once you’ve digested your meal, you’ll have one more duty to perform. Solid human waste is biodegradable, and so does not need to be packed out, but that doesn’t mean you can simply pick any old bush as your temporary restroom.
For the health and safety of your fellow campers and the sake of simple courtesy, you should always dig a small hole and bury your waste. A simple six-inch deep cathole should be deep enough and should be completely covered then obscured to hide all trace. Be sure to make your deposit at least 200 feet from any water, trails, and from any current or future camping spots.
When you’re ready to leave, make sure that you and your companions pack up every single item you’ve brought to the campsite. Once the tent and all of your gear and belongings are ready, each person should visually inspect the campsite to ensure no trash, food waste, or other signs of human habitation remain.
If you’ve used rocks to anchor your tent or as part of a support for a cooking stove or fire pan, return them to their places and cover any disturbed soil if appropriate.
Front Country vs Back Country Considerations
Most people apply LNT principles to their backcountry camping trips to one extent or another. In pristine areas, it’s easy to recognize the importance of maintaining the unspoiled feeling of an area. But Leave No Trace can be equally important when making use of ‘front country.’
The word front country isn’t often used, but the idea behind it is simple. While the backcountry is generally inaccessible by car and is often only used by visitors willing to travel for a day or more to reach prime camping spots, the front country is easily reached by car and is primarily available for day use or short overnight trips.
It is understood to include easily accessible and well-established paid campgrounds, hinterlands surrounding urban areas, and sparsely populated areas.
Leave No Trace principles may be more or less applicable depending on the area. A loud campground that has recreational vehicle parking, as well as tent sites, should still be looked after. Picking up trash and disturbing your neighbors as little as possible is still a courteous practice, but you’ll have more leeway when it comes to building fires, and you probably shouldn’t worry about wearing brightly colored clothing.
Frontcountry may encompass urban greenbelts and city parks. Although you likely will not spend the night in these areas, Leave No Trace dictates that you stick to established trails, that you give wildlife a respectful amount of space, and that you clean up any trash you may create including pet waste. In short, the green spaces and not-so-pristine wild places that surround urban and rural places deserve just as much consideration as the backcountry and maintaining these areas for the enjoyment of all should be a priority for anyone who values the principles of Leave No Trace.
Negative Trace: Going Beyond Leave No Trace
Negative Trace is just what you might imagine from the name. If you believe in the ideas behind Leave No Trace, then by taking the next step, you can help reverse the damage caused by less knowledgeable hikers and campers.
Practicing Negative Trace is as simple as picking up stray garbage that you might find along the trail. By picking up food wrappers, water bottles, or other refuse you can not only beautify an area, but you prevent others from seeing that spot as a place that they, too, can dump their trash.
Beaches are great places to practice Negative Trace since so much plastic garbage can float on the water, and because picking up trash off of the shore makes such a positive difference in the way the beach will look.
If you want to, you can take on even more ambitious projects. Fire rings not only look unsightly in otherwise pristine areas, but they also encourage other campers to use the spot for the night. Therefore, one of the best things you can do in the backcountry is to dismantle stone fire rings in dispersed camping areas.
For the truly dedicated, try to find a volunteer organization that is dedicated to trail maintenance, reforestation, or riparian habitat restoration. Wildland Restoration Volunteers is one such organization that focuses on restoring areas in Colorado and Wyoming. These projects often do a great deal to restore wildlife habitat and to keep already existing trails and campsites well maintained.
References & Further Resources
Safety & Environment Further Reading
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