Protect the Environment through Leave No Trace

Nature is beautiful, but somehow humans always find a way to mess it up. It’s unfortunate, really, as although humans have sometimes preserved the best places representing some of the world’s most natural beauty, there are other times where we have destroyed entire ecosystems and left nothing but ruin in our tracks. Luckily, the world’s attitude is changing about our natural resources and the stunning landscapes and people are trying to learn more about how to protect our environment. 

For us outdoor adventurers, we too want to be cognizant of how our activities can be harmful to the environment. A hike seems like a careful activity, but if done wrong can actually be harmful. 

The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace teach us all how to enjoy the hiking, kayaking, and camping we all enjoy while ensuring our choices and activities are still helping us all protect our environment. 

Infographic of the 7 steps of Leave No Trace to Protect Our Environment

Table of Contents

Principle 1: Plan Ahead and Prepare

Planning before you head outdoors for any adventure is essential to ensuring that your activities do not harm the environment. Being prepared ensures you enjoy your trip and that you’re able to protect the environment while you’re using it. If you don’t prepare then you’re likely to be stuck in an uncomfortable situation and one that could damage the natural resources, even inadvertently. 

So, how do you prepare for being outdoors?  Be sure you can answer the following questions. 

man looking at hiking trail map on hiking trail

Protecting the Environment for Beginners and Short Trips

For anyone who is new to outdoor activities like hiking or kayaking, planning to this level can seem extreme and overwhelming. Mostly, you just wanted to throw on some old shoes and get outside because it seemed like a good, fun thing to do. I completely understand that. But, it is important to take a few minutes before you head out to ensure you’re going to enjoy your time and that you won’t be causing harm to the environment. 

For short day trips, this preparation should take only about 5-10 minutes. Pick an activity that fits with who will be going. A solo 3 mile hike is a very different trip than a family kayaking day and you want to make sure that whatever you’ve chosen to do fits with the abilities of who will be participating. 

Then once you’ve found a place, do a quick google search to determine if there are any special rules (or even costs) associated with this location and check the weather. Finally, just grab a good backpack, load it up with enough water, food, and other items you’ll need, and head out. Don’t forget to bring a bag for trash. Rule 6 is all about waste, so you’ll want to be prepared to handle it as you create it. 

See? Not too bad!

So, how does all this preparation actually protect our environment?

Protecting the Environment for Experienced Adventurers and Overnight Trips

Experienced outdoor adventurers need to be even more aware of how planning and preparing can protect the environment. These longer and more advanced trips require planning to execute correctly, as there are many more details to consider. For example, if camping you need to know how you’ll be purifying water, or what types of food to bring with you. Human waste also becomes an issue to prepare for, as you will need to go at some point, and this has to be done properly in order to keep the environment healthy. 

One general guideline to remember is the 200 ft rule. Essentially, if you’ll be using or expelling any non-natural product (like soap, or human fluids/waste), be sure to keep it 200 ft away from any natural water sources to prevent it from contaminating the water. 

Another significant concern is fire and how to handle it. Many parks in the Northeast prevent open fires so you’ll need to know where fires are allowed, and have plans for how to safely cook, with or without a fire.

For overnight trips you’ll also need to consider questions like these:  

campsite on durable surface to protect our environment

Principle 2: Travel and Camp on Durable Services

Outdoor areas, like hiking trails or camping grounds, have been carefully designed to allow for people to use them. A significant amount of planning goes into park and trail design to minimize the effect it has on the land. This planning and construction is done to limit the damage frequent human travel and use will have on the environment. 

It is always important to respect the design of these locations even if we may not understand them. Sometimes, it’s faster to go from point A to point B in a cut through than it is to follow the winding trail. But there is a reason the trail was designed that way and following it is your way of ensuring you are protecting the environment while using our natural resources.   

backpackers hiking in field
backpackers hiking in a group

Hiking Considerations

While hiking you must always stay on the trail, even if it isn’t the fastest way to your destination. Sometimes though, you do have to move off trail when using the bathroom or by letting other hikers go ahead of you. 

When you do need to move off trail try to find areas that are rocky, sandy, or covered in ice. Avoid crossing water, or stepping into puddles, especially in drier or desert environments. And, the best rule is to travel in small groups and spread out so as not to create a trampled path others would be encouraged to follow. 

Camping Considerations

Campsites can be extremely damaging to the land, so to protect our environment it’s essential to choose appropriate areas for camping. If uncertain, always use designated campsites and never exceed the campsite capacity. 

campsite in proper area to protect the environment

Popular Camping Areas

Popular areas typically have campsites that have already been impacted so that further use will not cause any more significant damage. These areas have no vegetation covering them and are typically 200 ft away from any water source. If camping here, be sure to only camp where a campsite clearly has been established and do not make your own on nearby vegetation. 

Remote Camping Areas

In remote areas, finding an already established campsite is unlikely. So, to ensure you are able to protect the environment, spread out tents, avoid trampling vegetation as much as possible, and wear soft shoes around the campsite. Utilize rocks for kitchens, and camping at least 200 ft away from water is always an excellent rule to follow. When leaving the camp, help remove signs of the site by brushing pine needles, or other loose brush over the area. 

Water Sports Considerations

Traveling via water in kayaks or paddle boards also needs considerations to ensure causing no harm to the environment. Specifically, special care should be taken to ensure proper cleaning of boats to prevent contamination of rivers or lakes in different locations. Some organisms, like mussels, will attach onto boats and become invasive if released in a different river. So, ensure you are only traveling in designated waterways and with clean equipment. 

two kayakers in open body of water

Principle 3: Properly Dispose of Waste

Humans produce a lot of waste. When we go into nature, we bring in trash, create human waste, use other bathroom products like toilet paper or tampons, and generate wastewater. All of these waste products need to be handled properly in order to protect the environment while we are out in nature. 

discarded mask on a beach is not protecting our environment
tin can discarded in pine needles
  • Trash

    Pack in what you pack out is the golden rule of trash. Always bring some type of bag with you solely for trash collection.

  • Organic Waste

    Organic waste like banana or orange peels, pistachio shells, or other food scraps should not be left in nature. Often these products can take years to degrade properly, so this should also be considered trash and packed out in trash bags.

  • Human Waste

    Urine should be released on rocks or pine needles when possible, and at least 200 ft away from water sources. Feces should be released in a 6-8 inch deep cat hole also 200 ft away from water. When finished, cover, and do not use again.

  • Other Bathroom Waste

    Toilet paper, wet wipes, and tampons or other feminine products should be packed out in a waste bag and not buried. Also consider using more sustainable products, like a Kula Cloth or menustral cup if possible.

  • Wastewater

    The dirty water from rinsing or washing anything in nature is considered wastewater. This should only be performed 200 ft away from water sources. Scatter or bury dishwater. Be careful of rinsing sunscreens or lotions from the body as it can be damaging to vegetation. Use only biodegradable products and hand sanitizer whenever possible.

Principle 4: Minimize Campfires

Campfires and camping seem inseparable. And, in the past, fires were required for cooking while camping or backpacking. Today, though, an increase in lightweight portable stoves make campfires a non-essential part of camping. But, that doesn’t mean that people are okay giving up campfires. Fires are nostalgic, and many people won’t even consider camping without the ability to form a campfire. So, fire safety, and environmental fire safety are essential to ensure that you are using first in a way that won’t harm the environment.

starting a campfire properly

Should You Start a Fire?

Before starting a fire make sure you ask yourself these questions

How to Choose Firewood

Firewood should always come from fallen trees. Standing trees, even if dead, can be a home for wildlife or insects and should be left alone. Choose small pieces of wood, with a diameter of only a couple of inches at most. You should be able to break this wood using your hands only. If it’s too thick to break, it’s too thick to burn. Ensure your wood comes from a wide area, and not just one source.

And remember to never bring wood from home. If you will be buying wood, do so from a local vendor, or else you risk contaminating the area with invasive species. 

How to Clean Up After a Fire

The first step to cleaning up after a fire is to thoroughly burn the wood to white ashes. Then, you’ll want to soak the ashes completely with water and spread throughout the campsite. If you are near a river, you should pack up your ashes and remove them from the site yourself. 

Then, before leaving the site take nearby soil to cover up the campfire area to leave it as natural looking as when you found it. 

Following these steps will help ensure that fires are used only in safe conditions, and that proper firewood and cleanup will occur. 

Principal 5: Respect Wildlife

Wildlife is always better viewed from afar and this is a general guideline to follow in any outdoor situation. Most wildlife should be observed only from a distance, and special care should be taken to prevent frightening them. This means being quiet and simply letting them be (except for bears, special note on that below). Also, avoid camping or staying for long periods near water sources. Animals need access to their water sources, and your presence will prevent them or startle them. 

Never pursue wildlife, as threatened animals are not typically safe to be around. Beyond that be sure to never feed wildlife. Wild animals when fed tend to lose their fear of humans, and that is very dangerous for them. Animals who are not afraid of humans come closer and closer to normal dwellings in search of an easy meal, and this is a death sentence for them. Wild animals cannot be near humans without getting harmed, so let them be and never feed a wild animal. 

If you see a sick, injured, or even young animal you also should leave them be. Only trained professionals should handle sick or injured animals, and removing young wildlife may prevent parents from finding them again. Respecting wildlife means leaving them alone and not disrupting their normal lives. By doing this, you are helping preserve and protect the environment and the animals that live in them. 

bear in a field respect wildlife

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Special Note on Bears

Bears are mostly gentle creatures who want to be left alone. They can be dangerous though, especially if they have young cubs with them, so it is important to provide extra respect and care to avoiding interactions with bears. 

The first way to do this is to make yourself known. If hiking alone you will want to make noice so that bears can hear you coming. Typically, if a bear hears you they will avoid you, so in especially remote places it may make sense to talk to yourself or to your group to make your presence known. If you’re hiking alone, and are respectful about it, this may even mean playing music or a podcast so you can be heard. 

When camping, you’ll want to make sure you store food properly in bear safe containers. This may mean packing in a bear canister or bear bag. Some states, especially in the Northeast, require by law for you to have proper bear-safe containers when in the woods. If you are new to camping in a bear area make sure you know how to properly prepare for preventing bears from arriving at your campsite as this can save you from a very dangerous situation. 

Principle 6: Leave What You Find

Leave what you find is essentially a “look, don’t touch” command for adults and should be applied to anything you encounter outdoors. 

For plants, animals, and other vegetation, leave them be. This means avoiding picking flowers, sampling edible plants, and damaging trees through carving or other means. For other objects, this means avoiding taking pretty leaves, petrified wood, colored rocks, sea glass , or sticks. Although, I understand the desire for a souvenir from your experience, it’s always better to take a photo or making a drawing than to take something from nature. Protecting the environment means leaving it all in nature. 

So, what about rocks? Leave them be as well. Some people like to build Cairns, which are intentionally stacked rocks,  as a way to mark monumental or otherwise sentimental locations or ideas. However, cairns should only be built by park rangers as a way to mark trails above the tree line. Never tamper with or build unauthorized cairns. 

Cairn trail marker

Principle 7: Be Considerate of Others

Natural resources should be available for use by everyone. This means we have to share, and sharing means that we have to be considerate of others while using resources with others. It also means we need to consider how our activities will impact future visitors as well. 

Overall, the biggest ways people are inconsiderate in nature are through uncontrolled pets and excessive noise. Most parks will have specific rules for pets. Following these rules is essential for protecting the environment and protecting your pet. Off-leash pets in bear country can be life-threatening to all involved, so don’t put your loved one in danger like that. There are several off-leash trails in nearly every area, so if you want to take your furry friend with you and let them run around off leash, please do so only in those locations. 

on-leash dog on a trail

Noise can also be extremely disruptive for those wishing to get into nature for some peace and quiet. If you’re traveling with a group be cognizant of how loud you’re talking. Sound carries easy in the woods, so even a slightly elevated conversation may carry in the woods for over a mile. Also, if you choose to listen to music either wear headphones, or if you’re doing it for bear-safety precautions, be aware of how far the sound will travel. 

Trail Etiquette

Also, it’s important to ensure you know the rules of the road when it comes to being on the trails. This includes being aware of the right-a-way while hiking (uphill hikers go first), and how to navigate mountain bikers, trail runners, and horses on the trail. Be sure to not block trails when resting, especially when resting as a group.

We all want to protect our environment, and by following the seven principles of leave no trace while outdoors we can ensure that our environment and our natural resources can be used for many years to come. 

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