The seven principles of Leave No Trace

Posted by Jackson Delaney on

There is plenty of misinformation out there about how to behave outdoors. Leave No Trace makes enjoying nature easy.

According to Dean Ronzoni, Director of Corporate Development at The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, nine out of 10 people are misinformed about how to behave when they are outdoors. With more people than ever getting outside to experience the benefits of nature, these gaps in knowledge can put strain on the very places that bring us such pleasure.

Luckily for all of us – and nature – Leave No Trace has set out The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace. Together they, “. . .provide an easily understood framework of minimum impact practices for anyone visiting the outdoors.” Though developed for the backcountry, the principles can be applied to a variety of settings and activities.

We have summed up the main points covered by the seven principles here but be sure to visit for full descriptions.

Principle 1: Plan ahead and prepare

A good trip into the outdoors boosts your confidence and mood. Advance preparation ensures everything goes safely and smoothly. It also ensures nature is not compromised. Leave No Trace suggests seven things you can do in this phase:


  • Gain knowledge of the area you visit from land managers, maps and literature.
  • Choose equipment based on safety, comfort, and Leave No Trace qualities.
  • Prepare activities that match skills and abilities.
  • Evaluate your trip upon return and note changes you will make next time.
  • Elements to consider: Like water access, terrain, regulations, land boundaries, food consumption and group dynamics.

Principle 2: Travel and camp on durable surfaces

Leave No Trace recommends using trails whenever possible to ensure your travel and camping does not trample or otherwise damage surface vegetation or communities of organisms. After all, that is why land management agencies go to all the trouble of constructing trails in the first place.

If you go off-trail, consider the durability of the surfaces you are on. Rock, sand and gravel, as well as snow and ice are all ideal for repeat visits. On the other hand, travel on vegetation should be spread out to avoid creating paths. In the desert, you should avoid living soil, puddles and mud holes.

For camping, obey regulations related to campsite selection and only camp in an undisturbed area if you are skilled in Leave No Trace techniques (the organisation provides detailed instructions about this on their website). Generally, it is a good idea to camp on sites already impacted by use, so you will cause no more noticeable changes. Exposed bedrock, gravel and sandy areas are ideal sites because they lack vegetation.

Principle 3: Dispose of waste properly

“Pack it in, Pack it out,” is familiar to seasoned outdoor enthusiasts and a valuable concept for those new to nature as well. In short, it is the responsibility of every visitor in nature to clean up after themselves. Preventative measures include planning meals that do not generate much garbage and carrying a waste bag to collect your trash.

Wastewater is a big topic, because managing it properly keeps pollutants out of the water supply. To wash yourself, or your dishes, use a container to collect water and take it 60 metres from the water supply before using. Grey water should be strained and scattered broadly.

Proper disposal of human waste is also vital. Doing so prevents water pollution, minimises disease spread, maximises decomposition, and – of course – stops someone else from stumbling upon it. You should always consult the area’s land management for guidance on this topic, but in most cases, burying your solid waste in a “cat hole” is the most effective method. For all the practical details about cat holes, visit Leave No Trace.

Principle 4: Leave What You Find

The feeling of discovery is one of the more satisfying aspects of being in nature, so it is important to leave rocks, plants, archaeological artefacts and other objects as you find them.

To do this while camping, first evaluate each site and conduct yourself accordingly. Avoid digging trenches, constructing shelters and furniture from trees and plants. If you clear an area of surface rocks, twigs or pinecones, replace them before leaving. You can also clean up after others!

It goes without saying that you should avoid damaging live trees and plants. For example, instead of picking a flower, take a photo or sketch it. Hammering nails into trees, tying guy lines to trunks and carving initials into the bark? By Leave No Trace standards, these actions are absolutely unacceptable.

Principle 5: Minimise campfire impact

Campfires are steeped in history and tradition, and for some it is unthinkable to camp without one. Should you? It depends. The time of year and administrative restrictions should always be considered. Furthermore, you should think about whether the area has enough wood to support a fire and regenerate afterwards.

If you decide to build a campfire, ensure it leaves no trace by using a fire pan, constructing a mound fire or making use of an existing fire ring. Avoid using wood from standing or downed trees, and instead opt for small pieces of dead wood.

If a campfire is not the right choice, use a camp stove. Fast, flexible and efficient, they are now an essential component for minimum-impact camping.

Principle 6: Respect wildlife

Learning about wildlife is always best done through quiet observation, rather than disturbing it or getting close just for a “better look”.

Small groups are best to trek with in this regard, as they are quieter and less likely to spook animals. As is true in all situations where animals and humans are in close proximity you should not feed the animals, nor should you force them to flee (or pursue them if they do). For your own safety, as well as theirs, animals should never be touched or picked up. They should also always be allowed free and secure access to clean water, so set up camp, wash and dispose of human waste 60 metres away from water.

Principle 7: Be considerate of other visitors

Everyone enjoys nature more when we are courteous towards each other. Excessive noise, uncontrolled pets and damaged surroundings all take away from nature’s appeal, so there are many ways to be considerate of others. If you bring your dog, make sure it is only to camps and trails that allow them. If you like to listen to music while you walk, use ear buds to respect those who prefer an anti-tech experience.

Did you know that there are plenty of unwritten rules about trail sharing too? For example, hikers going downhill move aside to allow uphill hikers space to get by. Hikers yield to equestrians. Bikers yield to both equestrians and hikers.

Which of The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace do you swear by? The realities of working with people to adapt their behaviour in nature can be complex. Especially when you throw different cultures, environments and ecosystems into the mix. But breaking things down into seven conventions is the ideal way to unite people towards a common goal: respecting nature.

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