A land ethic reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.
Watch a snowflake float down and land on the sidewalk. Within a few seconds, it has vanished, possibly leaving a faint spot of moisture. One snowflake is insignificant.
Go to bed and look outside the next morning and see your sidewalk 5 inches deep in snow that you now have to shovel. What happened? A whole lot of tiny, insignificant snowflakes piled up and made a big impact, that's what!
The same sort of thing happens in the outdoors. One person dropping litter, stepping on fragile vegetation, or in some way not caring for the area will most likely be of little significance. But, when the millions and millions of visitors to the outdoors each year all contribute a bit of garbage or misguided actions, the results become a serious impact!
These seven principles help guide the ethical choices we make to preserve the outdoor experience for generations to come. Leaving no trace is the responsibility of every person. Please remember that these are not rules and regulations - they are guidelines to help shape and direct your ethical beliefs towards the world and your place in it.
Plan Ahead and Prepare
Hikers, campers, backpackers, horsemen, snowmobilers, rock climbers, rafters, and all other users of the outdoors can minimize potential damage to natural and cultural resources by taking time to plan and prepare for their trip. By performing proper planning, unexpected situations are avoided, local regulations are understood and followed, and a more enjoyable experience results.
Planning and preparation includes:
- Learn area regulations
- Avoid times of high use
- Obtain permits and permission as needed
- Understand weather patterns and potential extreme situations
- Keeping group size small, splitting large group into smaller trek crews
- Repackaging food to minimize waste
- Skill with map and compass and knowledge of the area being visited
Planning and preparation ensures:
- Risks are minimized because potential risks are known
- Attainable goals because routes and terrain are known
- An enjoyable trip because participant skills match the activities planned
- Minimized campsite impact because adequate time is allotted to reach and choose a site
- Minimized campfire impact because meals, shelter, and clothing are planned
- Minimized garbage and waste disposal because appropriate food is chosen and packaged
Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
By concentrating activity to durable surfaces, damage to vegetation is minimized.
While one step onto a meadow of grass will recover quickly, just a few people can damage the land enough that it can not recover soon enough to prevent others from seeing the damage. They may see it as an easier trail and use it, trampling it even more until it can never recover.
The same sort of problem can occur when an established campsite is occupied by a group too large for the area causing the site to gradually enlarge. Or, a site that is used too often can become void of all vegetation.
Durable Surfaces include:
- established trails and campsites
- rock, but be considerate of lichens
- dry grasses
- water, for travel by watercraft
- compacted soil
- camp at least 200 feet from water sources and off the trail
- find your campsite - don't create one by changing the land to suit you
- Concentrate activity in popular or high-use areas:
- use existing trails and designated campsites
- walk single file in middle of trail tread, even through mud
- focus activity where vegetation is absent, where ground has already been bared
- keep groups and campsites small, place tents close together on bare ground
- if you divide your group, do not visit between sites to avoid creating social trails
- Spread out activity in pristine areas:
- keep an eye out for areas where impact is just beginning and avoid those areas
- take individual paths across non-trailed areas to prevent formation of a trail and possible erosion
- travel on and make camp on the most durable surface available
- move camp daily to allow vegetation to recover
- minimize traffic in camp and wear soft shoes to reduce damage to the area
- follow local regulations above all other advice
Using durable surfaces ensures:
- existing trails will remain usable and unnecessary new trails will not be created
- established campsites will remain available for use
- the area will remain looking more like wilderness for future visitors
- your impact on the area will be as light as possible
Each area you visit may have different guidelines for minimizing your impact. Please review the Special Considerations pages for details. And, remember to check with local land managers to ensure you follow their prescribed techniques.
Dispose of Waste Properly
The proper way to dispose of all trash, garbage, left-over food, and human waste is to pack it out with you. This ensures that you have left nothing behind to affect the area you visited. Human waste is the one item that, because it's just yuchy, is most often left behind so disposing of it properly in the wild is a critical skill to learn.
There is really no excuse or reason to leave behind any food or trash, though. Burning it, burying it, or leaving it for the animals all cause very bad situations, often much worse than people imagine.
Pack It In, Pack It Out!
Disposing of waste includes:
- use only small amounts of biodegradable soap
- wash dishes and body at least 200 feet from camp and any water source
- strain water through a fine screen to capture food particles and pack them out
- disperse the water rather than pouring in a single spot
- Human Waste
- this is most likely way to spread disease and illness to other people, so it needs to be done with vigilance
- deposit at least 200 feet from water source, campsite, and trail
- bury in shallow 6 inch hole dug in soil, not sand or gravel, then cover hole
- pack out toilet paper rather than bury it
- prepare only what you will eat to reduce garbage
- collect all scraps and pack in plastic bags
- recover dropped and spilled bits also
- pack it out with your other garbage
Disposing of waste ensures:
- water resources will be more pure and usable
- established campsites will be used more because they will look nicer
- animals will look for natural food away from campsites
Leave What You Find
Not only should we leave nothing behind that we brought into the area, we should take nothing away that we found there.
By appreciating, photographing, and leaving attractive items untouched, visitors next year, tomorrow, or even later this same day can discover them anew and feel the great sense of excitement that you felt. Who knows, just yesterday someone may have been tempted to pick that flower but left it there just for you!
The only thing you should take out is the garbage of other people you may find.
Leaving what you find includes:
- leaving flowers, sticks, driftwood, bark, rocks, arrowheads and other artifacts, animals, skeletons, and any other items without required permits and permission
- leaving campsites as you found them:
- do not dig trenches around tents
- do not create furniture or structures
- do not hammer nails into trees
- do not chop or saw trees or throw hatchets at trees
- do not alter the area in any way
- be careful whenever you tie an animal, hammock, or other rope to a tree to prevent damage to the bark
- return pine needles, sticks, surface rocks that you may have brushed aside
- refraining from arranging stones or scratching on rocks or drawing in sand or dirt to 'leave your mark'
- prevent invasion of non-native species from one area
Leaving what you find ensures:
- a more natural experience for others
- continued health of the area
You may even consider improving a campsite before you leave. Dismantling and dispersing multiple fire rings, tables, lean-tos, and other inappropriate structures may make the campsite more usable. It is best to check with local land managers beforehand to find out if the campsites you plan to stop at should be cleaned or left as they are.
Minimize Campfire Impacts
Fire is good. Fire is a tool, light, and warmth. A campfire is actually one of my favorite things about camping. But, a campfire should not be thought of as a right nor a necessity. There are some times and places when a campfire really should be done without.
Areas with too many visitors creating too many fires to allow the replenishment of the fuel supply are being overly impacted.
I think this is probably the most contraversial principle of Leave No Trace. There is more debate and disagreement about this one and I believe that's because it isn't as clean-cut at the others. Please remember that these Leave No Trace principles are guidelines to help you form ethics about interacting with and preserving the quality of our wild lands.
Minimizing campfire impacts includes:
- knowing local regulations regarding campfires
- using an alternative to a campfire:
- for cooking, consider using backpacking stoves which are fast, clean, eliminate need for firewood, and have zero local impact
- for warmth, bring and use adequate clothing rather than huddling by a fire
- for lighting, try a candle lantern
- using an existing campfire ring in established sites
- going without a campfire when wood is scarce, such as desert, alpine, or high-use areas
- building a 'Leave No Trace' fire:
- remove trash from fire area and pack it out
- use only dead and down wood
- use wood you can easily break by hand
- burn all wood to ash to eliminate left-over black wood
- scatter cool ashes far from campsite
Minimizing campfire impact ensures:
- pristine areas stay pristine
- fires exist only in established sites
- forests are able to maintain or recover their supply of firewood
There are many different fire management practices in place, depending on the location. Some land managers want people to consume more firewood to prevent explosive wildfires while others have banned all campfires. Be sure to check with local authorities to ensure you are following their regulations or recommendations.
Remember that we are visitors to someone else's home when we go into the wild - the residents are the animals. Not only that, they did not invite us to visit! So, understanding and respecting their needs is critically important.
Keep wildlife Wild.
Respecting wildlife includes:
- being quiet
- observing from a distance
- moving slowly when around animals
- avoiding disturbing their nests, food and water sources, and resting areas
- being aware of their breeding and birthing seasons and giving them more space
- managing our food, garbage, and other attractants to prevent disrupting their natural eating habits
- controlling pets at all times
Respecting wildlife ensures:
- animals will continue to occupy the areas we visit
- animals will not become nuisances
Be Considerate of Other Visitors
All of these Leave No Trace principles have an aim of preserving the country for future visits. Being considerate of other visitors is reminding us to care for visitors today as well as tomorrow. By being thoughtful of others, you preserve the quality of their experience and most likely impress on them some of your ethical beliefs.
Being considerate includes:
- traveling in small groups to be less of a visual impact
- using clothes and gear of a neutral, natural color to minimize visual impact
- leaving radios and the like at home and keeping your group's noise level low
- maintaining distance between your group and others of which you are aware
- respecting private property and regulations on public property
- showing courtesy to others you meet and following common trail etiquette
Being considerate ensures:
- a more fulfilling experience for everyone
- further distribution of the Leave No Trace ethics
- a better impression of your group that may get passed on to local land managers