How to Protect the Outdoors: 7 Principles Leave No Trace

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As we go out to embark on our next outdoor adventure and travels we should do our best to help protect natural areas and their beauty so they can be enjoyed for many years to come. This is why it is important to know, help educate, and motivate others to use the 7 Principles Leave No Trace, created by the Center for Outdoor Ethics. In this article I am going to breakdown and discuss information and tips for following the seven principles. 

Why are the 7 Principles of Leave No Trace Important?

In 2020, the National Park Service (NPS), reported 237 million visits to recreational parks across the nation, now that’s a lot of people! Also, note this was a down year with a decrease in visits by about 90 million from the previous year but numbers are expected to go back up. 

Now, it is great that people want to enjoy these beautiful places, however, with increasing numbers this can most definitely take a toll on these places. While most often people mean well and don’t intend to damage the environment, a lot of people have not had the opportunity to learn how to protect it and keep it clean.

This is why it has become very important to follow and help educate others about the 7 Principles of Leave No Trace. That way we can help minimize damage and preserve these places so next generations can continue to enjoy them and live in a clean environment.  

7 Principles Leave No Trace

1. Plan ahead & prepare

The very first principle of Leave No Trace is to plan ahead and be prepared. Planning ahead ensures that when you head out on your adventure you’ll be ready for the conditions. Before you go out you should always have a plan, research the area, and be prepared. This will help to make sure you stay safe on the trip, know the rules and regulations, while also minimizing resource damage

Tips to Plan Ahead & Prepare

  • Have and idea of what you’ll be doing, where, and when
  • Know what skills you have and the people you are going with 
  • Research the area that you plan to visit, talk to park rangers, have a hard map on hand, and stay up to date
  • Planned activities that are within your skill range and if trying something new make sure you’re extra prepared. 
  • If something didn’t go your way on your trip, be sure to remember your mistake and change something for next time. 
  • Make a packing list, evaluate your list, and make sure you have all that you may need
  • Check the weather forecast and check for any closures 
  • Read current legislation, check for any restrictions, or bans 
  • Be sure to know how much food to bring on your trip, plan out meals for each day
  • Have a designated place for storing trash and picking up dog poop

2.Travel & camp on durable surfaces. 

When traveling or camping, always make sure to stay on the trail and only and only camp in designated areas. If there isn’t a campsite or a trail try not to create one whenever possible. The goal is to try and minimize impact by avoiding erosion, killing plants or tundra, or contaminating water supply. 

Hiking on Trails 

It’s crucial to spend as much time as you can on the route when hiking in an area with one. When you come across other hikers on the trail, give them room to pass while doing your best to stay on the path. It’s crucial to refrain from shouting or making loud noises when conversing with others.

Hiking off Trails 

When going off the trails for example usually in search of using the bathroom or trying to find a backpacking campsite. It is important to try and stay close to the trail if unable to use sturdy surfaces to step on or vegetation that will be able to support your weight. When walking off trails try to disperse your steps to minimize damage on terrain.

Stay on the trails and off fragile vegetation

Surfaces that are sturdy include: 

  • Gravel, sand, or rocks 
  • Snow and ice 
  • More durable vegetation like timber, weeds, grass

Areas you should watch for include: 

  • Wildflowers and delicate vegetation
  • Soil or tundra
  • Desert puddles of mud holes 


When setting up camp it is super important to know where to set up your tent. This way you do not cause harm to the surrounding environment. In general you want to look at your location in regard to water and other surrounding areas. 

Tips for Camping in High Use Areas 

  • When camping stay 200 feet (70 adult steps) away from water sources to protect them
  • Find a place that offers some solitude and avoid camping close to hiking trails 
  • Look for high use areas with sturdy soil and vegetation cover already lost 

Tips for Camping In Remote Areas 

  • Disperse  use by moving your campsite every night
  • Find durable surfaces like sand or gravel  
  • Stay 200 feet away from water sources or take (70 adult steps away) 
  • Avoid places that are showing signs of campsite breakdown 

3.Dispose of waste properly. 

Pack it in, pack it out! Waste being left behind is the most common mistake most travelers make. Basically when it comes to disposing of waste properly. Whatever you bring in, you are responsible for bringing it out. Pack up all the trash you have and if you see some trash do your best to pick it up. 

Human Waste

  • If you can find a bathroom, use it. 
  • This way we help minimize the spread of pollution to water sources, disease, and so someone else doesn’t find it on their shoe. 
  • If you have to go poop in the woods go 200 feet (70 adult steps) away from any water source, find an area rich with soil natural to the area, dig a hole 6-8 inches deep and bury the waste, pack out used toilet paper and any other products 
  • Diapers, tampons, toilet paper should all be packed out. Bring a zip block bag and seal it up and take it with you. To later then dispose of them in proper containers. 

Waste water (dishwashing)

  • Wash dishes, carry the water 200 feet (70 adult steps) away from any streams or lakes, use little amounts of a biodegradable soap or no soap.
  • No soap should be ever used directly into water sources! 
  • Strain dirty dishwater with a strainer over dirt, away from water, and pack out food scraps in a bag 

4.Leave What You Find. 

As much fun as it is finding super interesting rocks, picking flowers for your mom, and plucking plants can be. This principle means that you should leave these items as they are and not manipulate them. Basically, leave it the way you found it.

Minimize Site Damage

Leave every campsite or area you visit the way you found them. Do not damage them by digging trenches or removing plants for camp setup or fire starting. If you are starting a fire or even thinking about it. Make sure you know the current legislation in the area. Then when you are done put out your fire completely by pouring water over it or smothering it. 

Minimize Damage to Trees and Plants

Don’t pick out wildflowers or plants from the outdoors. Flowers and plants are often important sources for insects and animals in the surrounding areas. Don’t carve your names or hammer nails into trees. The “Tom loves Susie” carved into the tree may look cute for the minute you do it but leaves an everlasting scar on the trees. 

5.Minimize campfire impacts.

Nothing beats chilling around by a campfire roasting some marshmallows for the best smore. But, it is important to know the rules of where you can and cannot have campfires. Fire damage is a big deal; it leaves a scar on forest life that takes centuries to recover from. 

Nearly 85% or 8.5 out of 10, of wildland fires in the US are caused by humans. These fires are a result of many things such as irresponsibly leaving campfires unattended, burning debris, discarding cigarettes, acts of arson, and equipment use/malfunctions. Almost all of these are preventable. 

Use local firewood to prevent bringing any pests or diseases to the area you’re visiting and make sure to fully extinguish your fire. 

Tips to Minimize Campfire Impact-

  • Know the current fire laws are there any bans currently?
  • Camp where wood is abundant, avoid making fires in dryer elevated areas or the desert
  • Most established campgrounds have a fire ring, use that to keep it contained and never leave a fire unattended
  • Know the campground rules, do you need to use a fire pan, mound fire, or is there a ban, check the Leave No Trace site for more info. 
  • Use approves containers for fuel
  • Never burn plastic, aluminum foil, or trash 
  • Fully extinguish all fires and burn wood down to ash or smother with water
  • A fire pan is great for areas that allow fires but don’t have fire rings, just make sure to elevate it on rocks or line it with soil so it doesn’t burn the ground

6.Respect wildlife.

Observe wildlife from a distance and observe them quietly. Don’t try to scare the animals or bother them. This is for your safety and their safety, if you haven’t seen the buffalo videos at Yellowstone by now, go ahead and watch this. This shouldn’t have to happen if people kept a safe distance from wildlife. 

Please don’t touch or pick up animals. They may bite or attack you and trust me you do not want to have to get a rabies vaccine. It is very painful. Always observe wildlife from a distance. Staying at least 25 feet away from most animals and at least 100ft away from bears, wolves, and other dangerous animals is safe. Remember you are a visitor in their home. 

Additional Tips

  • Travel quietly, except in bear country where it’s better to make a little noise to startle bears
  • If in bear country pack your food appropriately, and carry bear spray
  • Do not touch, get close, or feed wild life let them do their thing!
  • Control your pets when out in the wild 
  • Camp 200 feet (70 Adult steps) away from existing water sources 
  • Use binoculars or a zoom lenses on your camera to view wildlife
Moose and calf

7. Be considerate of other visitors. 

Treat others how you want to be treated. After all we are all out here trying to enjoy this beautiful world. All the people you encounter are just trying to enjoy the great outdoors like you. It always pays off to be nice and courteous to other people on the trails. Small things like controlling how loud you play your music, not littering, and managing your pets go a long way. 

Tips for trail etiquette

  • Hikers going uphill have the right of way on hikes
  • Group leader/riding pack stock have the right of way on trails
  • Let others moving quicker than you pass
  • Avoid playing music loudly and talking to each other loudly
  • Control your pets and try to prevent them from bothering others

Final Thoughts 

Well, I hope this article about the 7 principles Leave No Trace assists you in safely enjoying and minimizing your impact on the outdoors. Remember to review these guidelines that way you are ready to tackle the great outdoors and do it in a mindful way so we can help preserve natural areas for the many generations to come. 

If you have any questions or comments pertaining to these principles let me know down in the comments below! Remember to be considerate, help educate, and motivate others to follow Leave No Trace.

© 1999 by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics:

Editor note: This post was originally published October 12, 2o21 and has been updated for more accuracy and comprehensiveness

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