Leave No Trace Backpacking and Camping

Campsite with Rocks and Trash Scattered Around

What is Leave No Trace?

Leave No Trace refers to a set of outdoor standards that, if followed, lessens human impact on nature and promotes conservation of our natural surroundings. 

   Leave No Trace Principles

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly
  4. Leave What You Find
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
  6. Respect Wildlife
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors


Plan Ahead and Prepare

As a young Boy Scout, I was taught to always “be prepared.”   It took me years to realize that this does not always mean to bring a lot of “stuff” to make sure you’re ready for anything.  I believe the majority of being prepared means to be mentally prepared and be armed with knowledge.  Make sure you know the kind of terrain you will be camping or backpacking.  Know local laws, regulations, fire restrictions, if bear canisters are required, and so on.  Plan ahead by studying maps and knowing where shelters, designated campsites, and water sources are.  One piece of equipment that I recommend always having while camping or backpacking is a compass.  It can be worth its weight in gold, but only if you know how to use it.  Prepare for possible emergencies, bad weather, or injuries.  Of course, you can’t bring a huge first aid kit armed with advanced life support equipment, but having some basic first aid skills can go a long way.


Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

When hiking, try to travel on established trails.  If you do have to go off the trail, avoid stepping on vegetation.  The same goes for camping, avoid sleeping or pitching your tent on vegetation.  Set up tents on leaves, straw, or bare ground.  Whenever possible, use campsites that are already established.  Make your campsite as small as possible.  Before you leave, make sure the ground is restored to the way you found it.


Some areas that were once designated camping areas are sometimes closed so that vegetation can be restored to its natural state.


Dispose of Waste Properly

Nothing is more frustrating than backpacking down a trail or arriving at a campsite and seeing trash strewn about.  Or maybe you’ve seen toilet paper sticking partially out of the ground or not buried at all.  Don’t be one of the contributors to this problem.  A couple of suggestions – pick up trash if you see it.  If you don’t want to pack out someone else’s toilet paper, then dig a “cathole” and bury it.  Also, pack out any food waste that you generate.  Bury human waste.  Find an area at least 200 feet (70 steps) away from any trails or water sources.  Dig your cathole 6-8 inches deep and 5-6 inches wide.  Look for areas with easy-to-dig soil that get plenty of sunlight.  This will aid in decomposition.  Do your business.  Fill in the cathole.  Cover the area with leaves or straw.


Leave What You Find

When you arrive at your campsite, take a mental note of the way it is before clearing any debris.  If you clear any leaves or small rocks, make sure the ground is restored to the way you found it before you leave.  Unless you are playing a joke on your hiking buddy by putting rocks in his/her backpack when they are not looking, don’t mess with any large rocks.  Just kidding.  Don’t pick up or dig up any rocks, period.  Many of the rocks that are partially or fully buried help prevent erosion, so it’s best to leave them alone.  Now, I can’t say I’ve never picked a flower for my wife on the trail.  So, if you do pick a flower or two, just make sure you know what kind you’re picking.  If you don’t, just leave it alone or take a picture.  You don’t want to accidently pick some endangered or threatened species.  Also, don’t damage any trees.  If making a clothes line, just tie the line directly to the tree trunk.  Don’t use screw-in hooks or eyes.  This can cause serious and sometimes permanent damage to the tree.

Unburned trash and firewood left in campsite.


Minimize Campfire Impacts

Of course, not having a fire is the best option when it comes to Leave-No-Trace camping or backpacking.  But, let’s be honest, there are few other things that can replace the mesmerizing allure and stress-relieving effect of a campfire.  It can raise morale and lift spirits.  So, if you do build a fire, make it low-impact.  When camping, use a firepan if possible.  Otherwise, use an already established fire ring or pit.  Burn only downed wood from that area.  The use of firewood from other areas can introduce unwanted parasites that may be harmful to local vegetation or wildlife.  If a fire ring or pan isn’t available, a mound fire is another low-impact option.  Keep fires small and only burn small wood that you know will completely burn.  Make sure you let it burn down to ash.  When it is cool and you know there are no hot coals left, gather up the ashes and spread them out over a large area.


Respect Wildlife

The saying “if you leave them alone, they will leave you alone” generally holds true, when speaking of wildlife.  Don’t approach wild animals and don’t try to feed them.  Again, going back to the “Dispose of Waste Properly” principle, make sure you pack out any food scraps.  If you leave them where you ate or throw them down, animals will find them.  One may ask, what the problem is with this?  Well, when animals eat the leftovers or other scraps, they associate humans with food.  This will draw wildlife into campsites.  It’s a pretty scary experience to have a bear looking for food just outside your tent in the middle of the night.  Also, store your food properly.  Use bear cables or a bear box if available.  If these aren’t available, then hang your food bag and your trash in a tree at least 10-12 feet off the ground and at least 8-10 feet from the trunk.  This will not only keep bears from getting your food, but other animals such as racoons and opossums, which are notorious for stealing from campsites.


Be Considerate of Other Visitors

When camping around others, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  If camping in a campground or a campsite along a trail, keep loud noises to a minimum.  Don’t walk through other people’s campsites.  If you start a fire, be mindful of the smoke.  If the wind is continuously blowing it toward other campsites, it’s best to just put it out.  Avoid using radios unless you have headphones.  If you are sharing a shelter, be courteous to others staying there.  Don’t take up too much room or leave your stuff spread out everywhere.  On the trail, step to the side and let others by when they approach.


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