Leave No Trace

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These phrases may seem like no-brainers: ‘pack it in—pack it out’ and ‘leave no trace’. However, in the middle of the twentieth century littering was a big problem in the U.S. These ideas are now common sense for most outdoor recreationalists thanks to education campaigns that taught the public to not be litterbugs. Even though littering is now frowned upon, and illegal, trash and other signs of human impact are still pretty common on public lands. The goal of this article is to introduce the concept of leave no trace and the guidelines that help people recreate outdoors sustainably.

Leave No Trace is a non-profit that was founded in 1994, but the philosophy dates back much further. Examples of indigenous cultures living sustainably exist all over the world. In the late 1980s the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Forest Service joined together to publish a pamphlet aptly named “Leave No Trace Land Ethics”.

The leave no trace concept grew and evolved over the years as new research was conducted to shape policies and regulations. The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) was asked in the early 90’s to help develop science-based recommendations to minimize human impact on protected lands. That research became the basis of minimal impact education and training for the general public and land managers alike.

Organizations, companies, and individuals have also adopted policies that prioritize sustainability and reflect a leave no trace mindset. The aim is to minimize human impact on the land and protect it for future generations. Let’s touch on a few of the general recommendations now.

Preparing for Your Next Adventure

Before heading out, make sure you research the area you plan on visiting. Are there any restrictions or regulations to know about the area? Rules and regulations may change depending on time of year and type of land.

Educate yourself on what wildlife is around you and how you should act if you come in contact with a dangerous animal. If you’re considering bringing your dog, check online before you go, or call the ranger station for that specific park to confirm dog policies. Make sure to obey leash rules so dogs do not chase wildlife, and pick up and pack out their waste. Do not leave bags next to the trail to grab on the return trip as these are unsightly and often forgotten.

As far as gear and food go, try minimizing the amount of trash you bring. You can do this by removing extra packaging beforehand and avoiding individually wrapped items.

Check the weather and make sure you have adequate gear. When planning an itinerary, make sure you understand and prepare for possible risks that could occur. Carry a map and a phone or GPS, and have a plan in case of an emergency. Your impact as a recreationalist is not limited to trash you may leave behind. If something happens and you require a rescue, that operation may put first responders in danger.

Camper in the Uintas, UT

Minimize Impact

A big thing to remember when exploring in the outdoors is to stay on designated trails and in established campsites. This helps the natural habitat from becoming overrun by thousands of people each year. Make sure to learn and follow the regulations where you’re recreating because they’re established based on conditions and pressures of a specific area. Just because something is permissible in one park doesn’t mean that’s the case everywhere.

For backpacking and other dispersed camping in backcountry areas, make sure campsites are at least 200 feet from streams or lakes. This is necessary to protect water sources and the vulnerable riparian ecosystem.

Waste of All Kinds

Arguably the most important leave no trace principle is to pack out all your trash. The spot you visited should look like nobody was ever there. There is no reason to ever leave trash behind. Always be prepared to leave with the stuff you brought—including all the trash. Don’t assume that there will be a garbage can.

Before you leave a campsite or picnic area, make sure you walk around to look for litter. Pick up any trash or small debris that may have blown onto the ground. The goal is to leave a site better than you found it, so if there’s a piece of trash from another party, then pick it up. It’s a good idea to bring an extra trash bag and help pack out any trash you find.

Many national and state parks have public bathrooms, but you should always be prepared in case one is closed. WAG bags are important to carry with you for emergencies. Take a look at our previous post, How to Plan for a Single Day Backpacking Trip for a more detailed overview.

Don’t Bring Home Treasures

It can be tempting to bring things home from the outdoors. There are historic areas and archaeological sites located in national parks and protected areas that may contain artifacts. It’s important for items to be left where they are for these areas to be preserved so future generations can experience them.

Transporting things unknowingly is also possible. Non-native and invasive species cause serious damage to natural ecosystems. Utilize wash stations at boat ramps so you don’t carry stowaways from one lake to another. Avoid moving plants, wood, and other natural objects to different areas. This includes transporting firewood, which can introduce invasive beetles that decimate forests.

Fire Safety

The fire seasons in the western states seem to be longer and more intense each year. No matter where you’re camping, it is necessary to know the current fire rules. Conditions can change each day so make sure you’re updated with the latest information and comply with all restrictions.

Always use designated camp fire rings. Keep fires small, and have a shovel and water jug nearby just in case. If you do start a fire, then it is your responsibility to put it out. A good rule of thumb is to douse with water, stir, and then douse again. Make sure the embers are completely out before walking away. You are solely responsible for the fires you start—that includes legally if you burn down a town ‘accidentally’.


Seeing wildlife in person can be a beautiful and even lifechanging experience. In protected areas, it’s important for wild animals to stay wild. That means limiting exposure to humans. If your presence causes an animal to flee or stop eating, take that as a sign to leave slowly and not disturb the animal further. Never feed wildlife—no matter how cute or hungry they look. And never try to handle wild animals—even if they seem hurt or abandoned. Your attempts to help an animal are more likely to harm it in the long term.

Keep an eye on your bag so you don’t end up feeding animals by accident. Critters can be opportunists. Especially in heavily trafficked areas, animals become familiar with human food and associate your pack or a plastic trash bag with a tasty meal. Secure your food in a bear-proof canister or bag to be sure it’s safe.

As stresses on eco systems increase pushing them to their limits, it is imperative that we minimize our impacts on the lands we recreate in. Leave no trace is not a set of rules but more a set of guidelines. Like anything in the outdoors, remember that specific situations can change things. If we were to really leave no trace at all there would be no hiking trails or campgrounds. So be gentle on yourself and others, and try to keep these guidelines in mind.

By Calindra Revier, Jans Content Writer & Media

Additional Links:

How to Plan for a Single Day Backpacking Trip

History of LNT – Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics