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Matthew Durrant | 05.20.2017

As more and more people recreate outdoors each year, it becomes absolutely essential for us to practice Leave No Trace individually - and in this day in age, we need Leave No Trace now more than ever! By making more responsible choices about what we do in the outdoors we make sure that the places we love stay beautiful, clean, and open. However, practicing Leave No Trace is not easy. It requires a little more effort on our part and a lot of conscious decision making. But above all it requires a change in mindset from one where we view nature as simply our place to play to one where we understand nature as something much larger and much more important.

Aldo Leopold put it best when he said, “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include…the land.” We would hopefully never do anything that would negatively impact our friends and neighbors in our communities. If we include the land as part of that community, then it becomes more apparent that we must strive to also be respectful of our natural environment; after all, we do depend on it for many, many things. And if it is well taken care of, then our community as a whole will be much more healthy, livable, and enjoyable.

Of course, it should be noted that it really is impossible to leave absolutely no trace of our outdoor activities ("Leave As Little Trace As Possible" just doesn’t really make for a great slogan, though). We must learn to live with this, but that does not absolve us of our responsibility to try. After all, some of our potential impacts can be eliminated, and all of them can be minimized in some way or another. It is also important to remember that the LNT principles are guidelines, not rules, and as such they require a degree of wisdom and judgment in the field based on any number of factors like climate and location. While many situations are very simple and straightforward, others require a little more thought, which is why it is important to understand the purpose and intent of each principle. Fortunately the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics provides a multitude of resources, including area-specific skills, ethics booklets, and activity-specific reference cards to educate people about specific concerns and unique conditions for all types of geography and activities.

Here are some simple tips to help you better practice Leave No Trace in the outdoors.

Plan Ahead and Prepare

A lot of questions can be answered by obtaining the applicable printed materials mentioned above. Going mountain biking? There’s a card for that. Heading to the canyons of Utah? Check out the booklet for that area. Make sure to check the regulations of the area you’re heading, too. There may be special considerations like fire bans and group size limits that you need to be aware of that could impact your trip. Consider repackaging food as other supplies into zipper bags and other reusable containers. The less packaging you bring with you, the less trash you have to deal with and pack out. Additionally, some packaging can be reused as trash containers like zippered beef jerky pouches or Mountain House meal packages.

Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

Good campsites are found, not made. If we concentrate our use in areas that are already impacted and prepared for camping we will not create any new damaged areas. Additionally, it is best to avoid areas that are just starting to show signs of human impact to allow them to recover.

Avoid trail shortcuts, especially switchback cuts. This is a leading cause of unnecessary erosion and scarring. In desert areas, especially, be aware of where you walk to avoid damaging the delicate biological crust (cryptobiotic soil) that commonly forms in arid areas. This layer retains moisture and impedes erosion and often takes decades to reform if damaged. Don’t bust the crust!

Going somewhere where there aren’t any trails or campsites? Camp and walk on surfaces that will show little wear and tear over time like rock, snow, and sand. Spread your group out to dilute your impact. The solution to pollution is dilution.

Dispose of Waste Properly

Always come prepared to pack out whatever trash you bring with you. Pack it in, pack it out. Make sure you are aware of any special regulations regarding human waste disposal. Sometimes digging a cathole is permitted, but in other places, like river corridors, glaciers, and other sensitive areas, all solid waste must often be packed out. Also be aware of any regulations regarding pet waste and come prepared to deal with it appropriately.

Your openness to dealing with human/pet waste can sometimes determine where you should recreate. If you are absolutely opposed to packing out solid waste, then perhaps climbing Mount Rainier or caving is not the right activity for you. Practicing LNT is very much a commitment to a specific behavioral code. When it comes to waste, especially in sensitive areas, your attitude toward dealing with it appropriately can make or break the trip.

Leave What You Find

The things we find in nature, especially artifacts, are cool mostly because we find them in context. It’s one thing to walk into a museum and see some pottery shards behind glass, but it’s entirely another to come around the corner of a desert canyon and find them on the ground below a cliff dwelling right where someone dropped them 1,000 years ago. That is what makes those artifacts so amazing. When we bring things home they lose their context and significance; plus, no one will ever be able to experience those things again in the same way we saw them. Artifacts are best left where they are to tell the story of the people who left them, not to mention the fact that artifact theft is illegal and punishable by law.

One aspect of this principle that people don’t often consider is transporting non-native species from one place to another. Make sure that canoes and rafts are drained, dried, and inspected before using them elsewhere. Additionally, boots and clothing should be inspected for seeds and burs that could be carried elsewhere. They should be removed before embarking on the next adventure. You wouldn’t want to be responsible for spreading cheat grass, would you?

Minimize Campfire Impacts

Fires are best kept to designated fire pits. Additionally don’t create new fire rings: They draw people like moths to a lightbulb and will create a new area of impact. Mound fires and fire pans can be used if needed in other areas. Make sure you know how to properly do this, though.

When fires are used, they should be kept at a reasonable level. Bring your own locally sourced firewood or remember the "4 D's" about gathering wood: 

  1. Dead – Never cut live wood. 
  2. Downed – Only gather wood that is already on the ground.
  3. Dinky – There is no need for anything you can't break with your hands or that is larger you’re your wrist.
  4. Distant – Gather wood at least a quarter of a mile away from your camp and maybe farther in popular areas.

Remember that fire really is not necessary. Bring appropriate clothing to stay warm, a stove and fuel for cooking, and a headlamp or flashlight for light. Lanterns, glowsticks in colored Nalgene bottles, and other such things can be a great substitute for a fire and still give out the aura of sitting around the campfire with friends.

NEVER use the fire pit as the universal garbage pit. Some things may look like they burn away completely, but that is usually never the case, especially with food. Food thrown into a fire pit simply gets its scent cooked into the area and can attract wildlife.

Respect Wildlife

You would be incredibly upset if someone came into your home uninvited and left a huge mess for you to deal with. Likewise, when we recreate outdoors we are visiting the home of the wildlife that live there, and we similarly have no right to trash their home.

Remember that all food and other smellables should be kept inaccessible from wildlife. This is not just for bears; other animals like raccoons, skunks, squirrels, and even ravens can often cause problems and become habituated to humans. Likewise, food should never be allowed into tents because the smell can remain there long after the food is gone.

Human food is not animal food. The things we eat can often cause animals to get sick or lose their natural abilities to fend for themselves. Remember that anytime an animal becomes habituated to humans the animal usually loses out and generally meets some kind of untimely end because of it. This can also be a safety issue for people because animals can become aggressive if they do not get what they want from you.

Certainly wildlife encounters are one of the highlights of being in the outdoors. Just remember that if you are close enough for them to alter their natural behavior because of your presence then you are too close. It is best that we enjoy animals from a distance and let them live their natural lives without our interference. Look but don't touch.

Respect Other Visitors

Most people recreate in the outdoors for the same reasons – to get away from the crowds and enjoy nature. We need to be mindful of that and make our presence as inconspicuous as possible.

  • Consider swapping brightly colored gear for earth-tones. Greens, browns, and grays blend in much better with natural surroundings and can often lead to others not even knowing you’re there.
  • Let nature’s sounds prevail. This certainly does not mean that talking is not allowed, but we can be courteous to others by keeping our conversations at a reasonable level.
  • Planning trips for the shoulder season or off season can often alleviate crowds, plus you’ll get to experience the area in a different way and you may be lucky enough to have it all to yourself.
  • Camping a reasonable distance away from others is a great way to show courtesy to other groups. If there is no other option but to camp next to someone, be friendly and ask if it’s ok.
  • Practice good trail etiquette by knowing when to yield the trail to others. Hikers and cyclists should yield to horses and pack animals, cyclists should yield to hikers, and it’s always a good idea to yield to those who are heading uphill since it’s harder to get momentum going for them.


Practicing Leave No Trace can seem like a daunting task, but in reality it simply boils down to actively making small choices to leave things better than we found them. We can again use the words of Aldo Leopold to guide us in our outdoor decision making: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” It's OUR backyard - let's respect it.


To read more about the importance of Leave No Trace, check out the following articles:


Matthew Durrant is an Outdoor Project Contributor, an active volunteer as a Leave No Trace Master Educator, and the Outdoor Ethics Advocate for the Great Salt Lake council, BSA.


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