top of page

The 7 Leave No Trace Principles | What Are They & How To Follow Them

Leave No Trace Principles on sticking to the trail



In the past couple of years, more and more people have been heading out to explore the Great Outdoors. While it is awesome that a greater number of people are heading outside to explore and admire this planet's natural beauty, that rise in people has also led to an increase in environmental problems - including, most noticeably, higher levels of environmental degradation.

That is why it is more important than ever for people to focus on being respectable outdoor stewards. This means you try to decrease your impact at every possible point of being outside - from how you spend your time along the trail, to where you set your tent up at night. Luckily, there are some really clear ways to lower your impact. Enter the 7 Leave No Trace Principles.

These seven principles clearly outline some of the most important things you can do to decrease your impact on our amazing natural environment. From some obvious ones (like don't litter) to some tips that you may not have even considered before (like where the best place to pee is). Below we outline each of the 7 Leave No Trace Principles and also give you clear examples of how you can follow them yourself once you are out adventuring.

➳ While we hope this guide covers everything you need to know, if you are looking for more resources, we highly recommend checking out the USA National Park website for even more information on following the Leave No Trace Principles.




1 | Plan Ahead and Prepare

By putting in a bit of time and effort before heading out on the trail, you will likely not only enjoy your adventure more, but you will also help minimize damage to the land you are exploring. Trip planning is just as important as the actual trip - especially if the trip or adventure is a bit more hardcore (like a long full-day hike or backpacking trip).

Some of the main things to consider during the trip planning stage are: what is the overall goal and expectation of the adventure (is it to thru-hike a popular trail? Backpack to a remote lake?), what does the area look like and what could be some possible problems (i.e. very little freshwater, a steep, rocky pass to climb), what kind of gear will be needed in order to be prepared for the trip so you can do it safely and not leave any lasting damage to the environment, and finally (and this might be the most important) you need to figure out if the adventure is actually within your skillset and ability level. Knowing your boundaries and your comfort level is a very important step in the entire trip planning process. You don’t want to be out in nature, completely overwhelmed and in a tricky situation. This is when accidents occur and when you are more likely to damage the area you are in.

Besides those questions above, a few other important things to do and look at before hitting the trails are to always check the weather beforehand, including the morning of; to review regulations and restrictions in the area (especially regulations on group size and fire restrictions), take one last inventory of the food you are planning to bring with you on the trail (it is smart to bring the exact amount of food needed and to stick to uncomplicated, plastic-free food), and make sure you are packing enough water or looking to see if there is ample fresh water along your hike (then you just need to pack a water filter).

By doing a bit of trip planning before hitting the trails, you are setting yourself up for a more successful (and FUN) experience out in nature. Plus, you are more likely to explore the landscape in a safer, more respectable way if you are completely prepared. Below is a good example of what not to do.

| A group doesn’t check to see if fire restrictions or bans are in place and instead they just plan on cooking over a campfire. Once they get to the spot and see there are restrictions in place, they disregard it and collect wood nearby to make a fire. This can not only lead to starting a wildfire (which is obviously veeeery bad) but it also adds to the compounding effect of heavy recreation use that leads to environmental degradation.

While the rest of the 7 Leave No Trace Principles cover things that will actually occur while out adventuring, the first principle should definitely not be overlooked. Therefore always remember to do some form of trip planning - for yourself, your peace of mind and the environment.

Male hiker drinking water in the desert


2 | Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

The whole goal of traveling and exploring the outdoors is to move through natural areas while avoiding any damage to the land or waterways. Damage from travel often occurs when the surface vegetation and other organisms get trampled beyond recovery. The resulting barren area then leads to soil erosion and the development of undesirable trails (like those pesky social trails that seem to crop up everywhere).

While you could argue any trail - even one established by land management personnel - is a form of damage to the environment, for the most part, those established trails are a very necessary response to the fact that people will travel along that area no matter what. Concentrating people onto one set trail then leads to less landscape degradation overall. This is why it is super important to always stick to those established trails when out hiking, biking, or backpacking.

Bushwhacking, going off trail and creating new trails, all cause problems to the landscape. It is always better to have ONE trail than many different (often poorly created) trails. Even if you think a small shortcut won’t cause much harm, by doing it yourself you often leave traces that then other people see and think they can also do. This compounding effect then leads to environmental degradation, soil erosion and just a plethora of some not-so-pretty trails.

If you do have to travel off trail for some reason - commonly to reach a more remote area, if you are exploring a place that doesn’t have established trails, or if you are looking for a private spot to use the bathroom - then you should pay attention to the land you are walking on. Hiking along durable surfaces is key here. So if you can, focus on only walking on ground that can tolerate repeated trampling (like rocks, sand and gravel).

This idea of being out on durable surfaces is also really important when you are looking to set up camp. If you are backpacking in the backcountry or anywhere there isn't already established campsites, then make sure to double-check that the area you are pitching your tent is able to tolerate the weight and use. A good rule of thumb for this is to pitch your tent in a spot that already looks like it has been used before (this is true for backpacking and also when looking for a spot to park and vanlife for the night). You will likely be able to tell if a spot has been camped on before by the fire ring, a cleared flat spot, and an overall look of human use.

Some landscapes you should NOT hike or camp on are vegetation (especially fragile vegetation like you will find in meadows or in the high alpine), and living soil - especially cryptobiotic crust, which is commonly found in the desert (also try to avoid walking in watering holes and puddles in the desert, for water is a very important and precious resource for animals that live there).


| Avoid camping near popular trails or bodies of water; in fact, try to camp at least 200 feet from any type of water source (this is best for wildlife).

| Try to camp in a spot that has already been used (in some cases there will even be camping signs or markers). If a spot has already been used a lot, one more night likely won’t cause much harm.

| If you are camping in a more remote/unpopular area, try to move your site every night so you don’t cause long-term harm, and also try to spread out your tents and gear.

| Set up your camp kitchen (if you need one) at least 200 feet from any type of water source. Also, try to place your kitchen equipment and other heavy gear (like backpacks) on solid surfaces like rocks.

| When you pack up and leave camp, ALWAYS do a double check to make sure you have not left any gear or trash behind (pack everything out with you). Furthermore, put in the extra effort to hide any signs that you actually camped there (cover scuffed areas, wipe away footprints, etc.).

The key takeaway with the second Leave No Trace Principle is to try sticking to established trails whenever you can, and if you do have to go off trail, try to avoid fragile ecosystems and plant life. Similarly, when camping in the backcountry, try to pick a site that has already been used a lot.

Large wooden sign along a hiking trail in Mount Rainier National Park


3 | Dispose of Waste Properly

The third Leave No Trace Principle can be divided into two different parts: the disposal of human waste and the disposal of trash.


It might not be the sexiest topic out there, but it is one worth talking about: how do you properly dispose of human waste while out in nature. Well, to start, you need to figure out what is the right method for the landscape.

Most of the time, digging a “cat hole” and burying your waste is the best way to go. A cat hole should always be between 6 and 8 inches deep and 4 to 6 inches wide. Once used, a cat hole should be adequately covered with the original dirt you dug up as well as native materials like sticks and rocks.

The only time this is not the safest form of disposal is near bodies of water (you should always try to be at least 200 feet away), or if you are in a fragile, high alpine environment.

In the instances where you shouldn’t just dig a cat hole, you will need to bring the proper pack-out system (a common set-up for hiking and backpacking is something known as a wag bag). You can find these pack-out systems at many outdoor gear shops (or just Google how to make your own).

Toilet paper and other sanitary items (including female items) should also always be disposed of properly. More often than not (and really the best practice overall) is to pack out all toilet paper and sanitary items. When heading out on the trail, bring a designated plastic bag for all TP and other bathroom items. We know it is gross, but the environment, the wildlife, and other adventurers will thank you.