What It Means to Leave No Trace

How many times have you wanted to go hiking in a new place and Googled something along the lines of “Top hikes in [insert area here]”? It’s a great way to make sure you see some spectacular views, but you’re almost guaranteed to run into a lot more human impact on the trail you likely chose in the hope of getting AWAY from civilization.

That’s what happened on a recent trip to Vermont and New Hampshire. I had an incredible time exploring outdoors, but aside from the presence of bugs and beautiful scenery, one thing was constant: the trails were crowded.

As much as I love solitude, I also love how the popularity of pursuits like hiking, backpacking, camping, even mountain biking and rock climbing, has grown exponentially in recent years. It means so many others are realizing how wonderful spending time outdoors can be. But with the increasing popularity of outdoor adventure comes the increasing importance of making sure we collectively take care of the outdoor spaces we visit and the flora and fauna that call them home. 

Hiking on popular trails doesn’t have to be unenjoyable. Leave No Trace principles provide a framework for understanding what it means to act in a way that minimizes impact when we travel outdoors. Learn more about the 7 principles and how they apply to your adventures.

1. Plan Ahead and Prepare

Plan and Prepare

While I'm a planner by nature, I also enjoy occasionally having someone else work out the logistics. Who doesn't? But as much as I trust my trip mates to have everything covered, I’ve found I don’t feel comfortable going on trips without first going over some key details.

As fun as it can be to go with the flow, checking for necessary permits and fees, knowing as much as you can about where you're going to avoid getting lost, paying attention to weather forecasts, and understanding the gear and apparel you need to have a safe, successful adventure is paramount. If you're unprepared, you're putting yourself and your trip mates at risk in addition to anyone who may need to come to your aid if something goes wrong. 

2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

On a day hike on Franconia Ridge in New Hampshire's White Mountains, we found ourselves following behind a father and his sons. When one of the young boys stepped off trail, his father reminded him, "Plants have a tough time growing up that high, let's not make it harder on them, okay?" It's wonderful seeing advocacy for natural resources being passed down to younger generations. And as it turns out, staying on the trail can help keep us humans safe, too. 

The second LNT principle also means walking through puddles instead of around them to avoid widening trails, camping in established campsites whenever available (even in the backcountry), and making sure to leave as little evidence of your presence as possible in remote areas. 

3. Dispose of Waste Properly

Pack It Out

Have you ever been on a hike and stumbled upon banana peels, apple cores, energy bar wrappers, or plastic water bottles? Even worse, have you ever needed to do your business, searched for a secluded spot, and found piles of discarded toilet paper all over the ground?

Pack out what you pack in. There’s little more troubling than having a beautiful experience in nature interrupted by reminders of others’ presence via garbage. Sure, orange peels will biodegrade, but it can take 2-5 weeks. Newspaper takes up to six weeks to decompose, and plastic bags can take 20 years. Furthermore, discarding biodegradable items that aren’t native to the environment can cause a host of other problems. So if you happen to see some trash, pack it out for them. And though the concept of digging a cat hole to do your business in might seem ridiculous, it makes a difference.

4.    Leave What You Find

Leave What You Find

When I think about what this principle means, I think about not taking rocks, sticks, or artifacts home with me after a trip, especially when it comes to sensitive or extremely popular areas. And that’s primarily what this LNT principle is for – to advise visitors to natural places to leave cultural artifacts as they are.

But there’s more to it. Leaving what you find can also apply to campsite alterations. Making significant changes to established campsites like building new fire rings can leave a lasting impact. You should also leave live trees and plants as you found them. Pulling branches off of trees, living or dead, carving things into trees, hammering nails into trees, even improperly hanging your hammock is a no-no. And always remember that cairns aren’t just pretty rock art; they are constructed for a specific purpose – to guide the way along trails. Building cairns off trail or just to “leave your mark” can be misleading to fellow hikers and can disrupt the natural surroundings.

It’s easy to think, I’m just one person, doing this one thing, how bad can it be? But if everyone thought that way, the beautiful places we explore could look completely different.

5.    Minimize Campfire Impacts

Minimize Campfire Impacts

I love a good campfire, but an Adventure Journal article about their impact made me wonder how necessary they are. Although the idea of forgoing a campfire might sound ridiculous, humor me for this one!

When you’re in the backcountry, think first about whether you need to build a fire at all. What’s the potential impact? Is the fire danger high? Can you gather enough wood without decimating the area around you, or completely altering it for the next group? Can the area generate enough wood for all of the people visiting it?

If you do decide to build a fire, use existing fire rings if they’re there. Don’t take branches off of standing trees, dead or alive, and don’t bring wood from other places. Put the fire out completely before you go to sleep, and before you leave the campsite. The goal is to leave wherever you had your fire looking as natural as possible, and as close to how you found it as possible.

6.    Respect Wildlife

Respect Wildlife

Given the explosion of social media, this principle shows up a lot in the news these days. But humans approaching wildlife for the best possible photo, to get a closer look, or to share human food isn’t anything new. When I worked in Denali National Park in 2006, before Instagram and Snapchat existed (imagine that!), we had issues with visitors getting too close to moose, feeding squirrels, and not disposing of waste in a way that prevented hungry critters from snagging it.

While many of us may roll our eyes when there’s another report of someone being threatened by a large animal while getting too close for a selfie, it’s clearly not obvious for everyone. In general, this principle advocates for viewing wildlife from afar, avoiding things that may stress wildlife like approaching them or touching them, and avoiding exposing wildlife to human food either by directly feeding them, by improper food storage, or by improper waste disposal.

7.    Be Considerate of Other Visitors

Consider Others

Of all of the principles, this one can be the toughest to define. But from my experience, the best way to look at is it to ask yourself if a particular behavior or choice will, in some way, negatively impact others trying to enjoy the same place, or the same experience, you’re enjoying.

In some cases, it’s tough; I know I prefer being on trails that aren’t crowded, but should others avoid the trail I’m on because their presence impacts my experience? Of course not! When it comes to things like keeping your dog on a leash, minimizing excessive noise, observing right-of-way rules, and observing the other six LNT principles, the choices we make can have a significant impact on others we run into while we’re out, and those who come after us.


We’d love to hear examples of where you’ve seen LNT principles practiced perfectly, violated, and everything in between! How do you work to practice Leave No Trace? Sound off in the comments!


Written by Cairn Ambassador Katie Levy of Adventure-Inspired.com.