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The Dire Consequences of Neglecting Leave No Trace Principles

When camping, hiking, mountain biking, and exploring the great outdoors, it’s crucial to avoid damaging your surroundings. Following the seven Leave No Trace principles are vital to protecting wildlife, plant life, and natural resources. Let’s take a closer look at these principles that everyone spending time outside should know!

What is Leave No Trace? || REI

What Is Leave No Trace?

Leave No Trace is an organization dedicated to protecting the natural world. Through education, skills, research, and science, Leave No Trace helps people care for and preserve the outdoors. Whether exploring a state park, National Park, or playing in your backyard, the Leave No Trace principles apply everywhere.

Why Are the Leave No Trace Principles Important?

The Leave No Trace principles are crucial to preserving the environment for plants, animals, and fellow humans. If we disturb natural areas, we visit too much; it’s likely that they will not recover for many years. Beyond the damage to the ecosystem, future visitors will not get the same experience as you. In many cases, damage to natural areas gets them closed off to human access until they recover.

In our travels in the US and abroad, we have seen many natural areas we used to visit closed in the last 10 years. Most of these places have been closed off due to irresponsible recreation that has caused damage. We have seen firsthand people trashing, shooting, driving, and doing other activities that damage these delicate areas.

The seven principles guide us in our interactions with the outdoors. Each principle provides specific information to minimize our impact on the environment. They help us positively affect the natural world, preserving the land, water, air, and ecosystems for generations.

Pro Tip: Always follow these 20 Golden Camping Rules Every Camper Should Know.

Two campers cooking in forest by tent
Preserve the environment by always following the 7 Leave No Trace principles.

What Are The 7 Leave No Trace Principles

Below are the seven Leave No Trace principles that help us protect the natural environment. These alert us to how our actions affect plants, animals, other people, and entire ecosystems. Whether you’re at Yellowstone National Park or a local county park, these principles apply. 

1. Plan Ahead and Prepare

It’s crucial to prepare when visiting outdoor spaces. Knowing the weather forecast and the potential dangers is essential to enjoying and surviving your time outdoors.

But planning is about more than safety. Try to visit high-traffic areas in the off-season or during early morning hours to avoid heavy foot traffic on trails. Repackage food before you leave to minimize waste and avoid single-use items.

2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

Always camp in existing sites instead of making your own. Stay at least 200 feet away from water sources to protect riparian areas. In backcountry or rudimentary locations, avoid setting up camp where there is little impact. Hike on trails in a single file, so you don’t disrupt the land. This Leave No Trace principle is critical in protecting the land and vegetation.

3. Dispose of Waste Properly

Most parks have “Pack it in, Pack it out” policies. You won’t find trash cans anywhere. What you take in, you must take out with you. In places with bear activity, always dispose of food in bear-proof containers. Adhere to posted signs about recycling and waste management. 

In addition, try to use toilets when possible. If you must use the bathroom in a remote location, dig a hole 6-8 inches deep, at least 200 feet from water and trails. When you finish, completely cover it up.

Pro Tip: Avoid doing any of these 7 Absolute Worst Ways to Get Rid of Your Camper Trash.

RV campsite next to lake
Leave No Trace goes further than just disposing of your garbage and is crucial to consider while hiking and camping.

4. Leave What You Find

You might have seen signs that say, “Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints.” This is Leave No Trace principle number four. Don’t collect rocks or take home a bottle of sand. Don’t touch ancient artifacts or historic structures. Not only can you break them, but the oils from your hands can damage old ruins. 

5. Minimize Campfire Impacts

Although Instagram makes it look like roasting marshmallows over a campfire is the ultimate camping experience, you want to minimize your influence in backcountry locations without fire rings. Instead, use a camp stove for cooking and a lantern to provide light. Always wholly extinguish a fire before going to bed or leaving the campsite.

6. Respect Wildlife

There’s something magical about seeing a moose in the Rocky Mountains or a bison at Yellowstone. However, you should view these animals from a distance. Not only can your interaction be fatal to yourself, but you can also endanger the animal. When people feed wildlife, the animals rely on humans for food instead of their instincts. Keep food in the correct storage containers. Another part of respecting nature is leaving animals alone when nesting, mating, or wintering.

Pro Tip: Check out these 5 Reasons to Not Feed the Wildlife While Camping.

7. Be Considerate of Others

Finally, the last of the Leave No Trace principles is to be considerate of others. You want other visitors to enjoy their outdoor experiences, too. Yield to other hikers on a trail, camp away from trails and additional tents, and keep your noise level to a minimum.

Woman hiking at sunset
Whether you’re hiking for the day or camping for multiple nights, following Leave No Trace principles will help protect the environment.

The Problems the Leave No Trace Principles Address

So how did the Leave No Trace principles come about? There are specific problems they attempt to solve and reasons people have adopted them. Let’s take a look at five challenges these principles seek to address.

Trashed Natural Areas

By preparing and eliminating single-use items, you’re less likely to end up with trash. When you have junk, correctly disposing of it means keeping it off the ground and out of waterways. This keeps wildlife safe and our natural world more beautiful.

Water Pollution

The trash from a campsite can end up in rivers and streams. This is why it’s crucial to camp 200 feet away from a water source. Properly disposing of waste eliminates trash that can end up in oceans and lakes where birds, fish, and marine life can die from ingesting it.

Wildlife and Human Interactions

Whether you feed a wild animal on purpose or by accident, it’s more detrimental to the animal than you may realize. Bear-proof containers are crucial to their protection and yours. If bears start to rely on human food, they’ll lose their instincts and abilities to hunt. They also interact more with humans, which is dangerous for people and wildlife.

Pro Tip: First time using a bear-proof container? Our guide on How to Use an Ursack Bear Bag the Right Way will keep you and the wildlife safe.

Brown bear by stream
Protecting the wildlife is a core aspect of Leave No Trace.

Damaged Trails

Experts have created trails for people to enjoy exploring the outdoors. They often lead to stunning views and secret swimming holes. But when we venture off-trail, we trample vegetation and destroy ecosystems. By staying on trails, we’re limiting our impact on the natural world. We’re also less likely to disturb habitats and have close encounters with wildlife.

Lack of Outdoor Stewardship

The Leave No Trace principles encourage outdoor stewardship. The organization seeks to get children, families, and adults into nature responsibly. Instead of spending hours on screens, kids should spend hours outside. By providing these guiding principles, Leave No Trace equips parents and teachers to educate kids about the importance of conservation while enjoying all the activities and beauties of nature.

Is Leave No Trace a Law?

The Leave No Trace principles aren’t laws. Law enforcement won’t arrest you if you don’t move to the side on a hiking trail to let someone else pass by. However, protecting the environment is essential. You should follow these principles whether there are punishments or not.

Olympic National Forest even released a statement saying, “Wildernesses are to be ‘retained in their primeval character… and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions’ (1964 Wilderness Act). Every wilderness traveler must accept the challenge to LEAVE NO TRACE of their visit in order that our public wildlands can remain wild, clean and pristine for all to enjoy. All visitors to National Forests and National Parks are being asked to commit to certain practices that when applied will protect and preserve the primeval character of these wildlands.”

The 7 Principles of Leave No Trace

Is Zero Waste Camping Possible?

Zero waste camping means you’re minimizing the amount and toxicity of your waste while camping. You’ll be as conservative as possible when it comes to your camping resources, reusing when you can, and limiting the number of items you burn or bury. 

The goal is to limit your footprint and impact on the natural environment where you’re camping. By following zero waste camping, you’re helping to ensure that future generations can enjoy the same activities. Here’s how:

You may have heard of the three Rs – reduce, reuse, and recycle. However, those that embrace the zero waste movement follow five Rs. Let’s look at each of them!

  1. Refuse – Refusing free things helps you to eliminate one-time-use items in your life. Getting free stuff can be convienent, but it prohibits you from minimizing your environmental impact. When it comes to camping, refuse items like paper plates, disposable cups, and plastic cutlery. It may be easier or less time-consuming to use, but it might surprise you how much waste you create, even on a short weekend camping trip.
  2. Reuse – Camping supplies are often items that people purchase with good intentions but then rarely use. So, do some thrift shopping in stores, yard sales, and even on popular websites like Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist. You could score a great deal on lightly-used camping gear!
  3. Reduce – When you practice reducing, you’re simply limiting the number of items you need. When it comes to camping, there are plenty of gizmos and gadgets out there for you to purchase. However, you don’t need lots of fancy gear to have a great camping trip.
  4. Recycle – While camping, there are many things you can do to recycle and avoid creating waste. You can make citronella candles or firestarters. You could even use milk cartons to create homemade lighthouses to use as camping lanterns. It can be exciting to find new ways to recycle while camping!
  5. Rot – Composting is another way to look at this form of zero waste camping. By composting, you allow the items that can break down over time to do their thing. The better you are at composting, the more you can speed up this process as well.

Did You Know: Composting isn’t just for your food…it’s for your toilet too! Read more to find out What’s So Great About RV Composting Toilets?

ZERO WASTE CAMPING // Green Gathering Festival Vlog

Do Your Part to Protect Our Natural Resources While Enjoying the Outdoors

We must all do our part to protect our natural resources. The Grand Canyon wouldn’t be so grand if there were trash everywhere. The coral reefs of the Florida Keys wouldn’t lure millions of visitors yearly if the fish and marine life started dying off because of water pollution. Keep our most beautiful places pristine. Protect our wildlife. Leave what you find so future generations can enjoy the great outdoors.

Have you learned the Leave No Trace principles? How have you seen people following or ignoring them during your outdoor adventures? Tell us in the comments!

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About Cait Morton

Co-Founder, Logistics Queen, Business & Content Manager, and Animal Lover

An Upper Peninsula of Michigan native (aka a Yooper), Caitlin is the organization, big-picture, and content strategy queen of our operation. She keeps everything orderly and on track.

With a background in Business Management, she supports and helps channel Tom’s technical prowess into the helpful content our readers and viewers expect. That’s not to say you won’t find her turning wrenches and talking shop – RV life is a team effort. She keeps the business and the blog moving forward with a variety of topics and resources for our audience.

Believe it or not, she is rather camera shy, though she co-hosts the Mortons’ personal videos and The RVers TV show.

Caitlin’s passion lies in outdoor recreation and with animals. Some of her favorite things to do are hiking, biking, and getting out on the water via kayak, SUP, or boat.

She also loves the RV life due to the fact that you can bring your pets along. Sharing information about safely recreating outdoors with your whole family – pets included! – is very important to her. Because of this, Caitlin spearheaded the launch of HypePets in 2023.

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Saturday 25th of March 2023

Thank you for sharing these. I think many younger travelers have not been exposed to them. A few things you haven't covered- light pollution can cause animals to go off course or alter behaviors (like mating). Part of leave no trace is not picking the flowers, flowers are literally the reproductive organs of a plant and when you remove them you prevent reseeding of the plant you found so attractive.

I have seen rock cairns (can disturb fish eggs or reptiles in addition to being visual pollution), people etching names into trees or rocks (on petroglyphs and in caves), pooping on trails (should be noted some areas are human waste pack out areas), people leaving bags of trash at campsites, food peels on trails at GNP.... Just so many it makes me cringe.