Leave No Trace and the Extra Yard

“Nine out of ten people who visit the outdoors are uninformed about Leave No Trace and minimizing their impacts.”

~ Ben Lawhon, Education Director LNT Center for Outdoor Ethics

Leave No Trace (LNT) principles are like the golden rules of the great outdoors. A philosophy and set of practices designed to minimize our impact and maximize our enjoyment of the environment. They collectively represent one of the most important skills that any outdoors enthusiast can acquire, because a diligent adherence to their application can play a part in helping to preserve our natural areas for generations to come.

Tasmania’s rugged west coast – one of the most pristine places I’ve ever had the privilege of hiking.


The origin of the “leave no trace” concept – at least as we know it today – dates back to the 1960’s. It was at that time that the US Forest Service started a campaign to promote wilderness ethics, and educate the rapidly growing number of American hikers and backpackers in regards to minimal-impact camping and backcountry travel. In the following decades other organizations such as the National Park service, Bureau of Land Management, Boy Scouts and Sierra Club also came to the party, and eventually in 1994 the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics was established in Boulder, Colorado.

The Seven Principles

The purpose of the LNT Center is encapsulated in the form of its seven core principles, which are as follows:

1. Plan ahead and prepare – An ill-prepared hiker is more likely to encounter problems in the wilderness, which in turn can lead to poor choices and high-impact solutions. 

2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces – When hiking in an area with an established trail system, stay on the path in order to minimize erosion. In regard to camping, remember that good campsites are found, not made. Always aim to leave a campsite the same (or even better) than how you found it. Click here for tips on campsite selection.

3. Dispose of waste properly – If you pack it in, you should always pack it out. For human waste, dig a cat hole at least 6 inches (15 cm) deep and 200 feet (61 m) from the trail, camp or water sources. After you have finished your business, pack out your used toilet paper in a sealable plastic bag. Andrew Skurka has an excellent overview of pooping in the woods on his website

4. Leave what you find – Take only memories, leave nothing but footprints.

5. Minimize campfire impacts – Many people view campfires as a backpacking ritual, however, in the face of ever-increasing forest fire danger and diminishing wood resources, they should instead be seen as a very occasional luxury or an emergency measure.

6. Respect wildlife – Observe wildlife without disturbing it. If an animal changes its behaviour because of your presence, it means you are too close. In regards to food, never feed animals or leave behind food scraps, as it doesn’t take long for animals to become habituated to human food. Click here for more information on wildlife etiquette for hikers. 

7. Be considerate of other visitors – We all have different motivations for heading out into nature. Accepting and being respectful of those differences, makes for a more harmonious experience for all concerned (e.g. If you need to use your cell phone, try and do so out of earshot of your fellow hikers).

Footsteps and memories | Khongoryn Els, Mongolia, 2009.

Recognition and Stewardship

Ultimately the worth of any ethos is measured by the amount of people that put its principles into practice. And when it comes to Leave No Trace, in order for theory to translate into action two things must happen – recognition and stewardship. In regard to the former, we must be cognizant of the impact that our actions can have on our natural surroundings. Whether it be trail erosion, litter, polluted water or habituated wildlife, increasing numbers equate to a greater toll on our ecosystems, and if left unchecked we are in danger of “loving” our natural places to death. One person cutting a switchback, leaving behind food scraps, or not burying their feces properly may not make a big difference, however, many people doing exactly the same thing most certainly will. 

The Karma Bag

The “action” part of the Leave No Trace equation begins and ends with stewardship – taking responsibility for our environment through conservation, volunteerism and sustainable practices. Often this equates to simply doing the little things consistently and diligently. Once the basics (i.e. the seven LNT principles) become routine, consider going the extra yard and doing a little bit more. For example, besides packing out your own trash, bring along an extra rubbish bag (let’s call it a “karma” bag) and aim at picking up at least five to ten pieces of other people’s trash as well. Next time you see that plastic bottle or candy wrapper by the side of the trail, instead of thinking, “someone should pick that up”, embrace the possibility that you are that someone. After all, the weight of the litter is usually negligible, it makes you feel great, and if enough people see you doing it it’s sure to catch on with at least a few! I began carrying a “karma” bag on my hikes in 1995, after my first trip to Mexico’s Copper Canyon. It has been an integral part of my backpacking kit ever since.

Janet Reichl – trail angel extraordinaire. This image is from a wonderful story in the Durango Herald, about Janet’s two decade plus quest to clean up the trails around her home town of Durango, CO.

Trail Work

Another example of going that extra conservational yard is by volunteering to do trail work. Wilderness pathways don’t just take care of themselves, and many hikers enjoy their benefits without giving much thought to all of the time and effort that goes into building and maintaining these backcountry byways. Trail work encompasses everything from construction, clearing blowdowns and drainages, to shoring up eroded paths and re-establishing native vegetation. With increasingly more government cuts to funding for national parks and wilderness areas, the onus for preserving our trail networks is increasingly falling upon volunteer groups and non-profit organisations. These collective efforts rely on the time and efforts of conscientious individuals who don’t just talk about how much they love nature, but actually get out there and put their picks and shovels where their mouths are. The work is usually quite physical and sometimes challenging, but it represents one of the most satisfying ways for outdoorsy individuals to give back and pay it forward.

Trail work on the Continental Divide Trail | Photo courtesy of volunteer extraordinaire, Paul “Mags” Magnanti.

Duty of Care

Leave No Trace is more than just a set of idealistic principles – it is a duty of care with Mother Nature, a personal commitment to leave our natural places exactly how we ourselves would like to find them. Mohandas Gandhi once said that, “what we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.” In other words, if we want to conserve our wilderness areas for generations to come, we need to start treating them with the same care and respect that we ourselves would like to be treated. 






18 Replies to “Leave No Trace and the Extra Yard”

  1. After taking a couple of mate out this summer, poop time had to be covered in there education. Showing them a hole for there business was fine but the paper bit they were unsure about. So got them to fold and put into there empty mountain house food bags and resealed for packing out. Two for one on dry food!

  2. More education is needed on the option of using a bidet. So simple. It grosses out westerners but so much of the world hasn’t used TP ever, and guess what, they’re alive and well. Why scratch your bottom with old trees?!

    Non-hikers just starting in the world of hiking have zero information, just social media encouraging them to “just do it.” LNT needs to be part of getting a permit for any public lands experience. 7.5 billion and counting.

  3. Our motto is ‘Leave the place better than we found it ‘
    My pet hate is the use of drones in National Parks there is nothing more annoying .

    1. Drones in National Parks are illegal. They are dangerous when emergency aircraft is needed for evacuations, wildfires, etc. I have no problem telling someone with a drone that they are breaking the law and can be fined heavily. My son was a wildlands firefighter in the Sierras, and private/recreational drones were a very real concern.

  4. I’ve been backpacking for close to 40 years. While LNT education and knowledge is greater these days, there’s also a lot more folks on the trails and in the backcountry. IMHO, people’s laziness is the primary culprit for trash left in the backcountry and wilderness.

  5. Cam, right on with this article especially the Karma Bag. We do a once a week baggie trip on the Port Hills, Christchurch NZ and have noticed a steady decline in the amount of trash over the last couple of years; now most is from the drunken sex mad youth with their bottles, cans, KFC and discarded latex all close to parking areas. The trails for the most part are now clean and clear so it does make a difference.

  6. Great write up, I think for the most part people who enjoy the outdoors are respectful and clean up after themselves, unfortunately it is the very small minority that don’t abide by these principals and “leave their mark”. The karma bag is a great initiative.

  7. I had a startling experience recently when LNT came up on a forum on BackpackingLight.

    This is a very knowledgeable community, and I assumed that commitment to LNT would be a given. In the UK pretty much every committed walker I know is fanatical about LNT.

    But a large number of posters from individualistic countries like the US and Australia were violently antagonistic, saying in essence that no ******* self-appointed snowflake was going to dictate to them how to behave in the outdoors.

    On the whole, I suspect that most of them behave fairly responsibly, though they do like their campfires. I think it was the idea of a set of written rules that was triggering them.

    Many of them were surprised when I pointed out that the rules had been formulated by a wide coalition of government, charitable and academic organisations and represented a broad consensus of opinion. They seemed to think they had been drawn up by some random individual. They were also unaware of the huge international education effort behind the LNT movement. At least one of these people is quite well known in the hiking community and should really have known better.

    In the UK, thank goodness, LNT is pretty well respected. In contrast to the US and Australia we’re a small country and understand that we have to look after the little wild land we have. When I see people making egregious errors I will usually try to gently educate them and I’ve never had a bad reaction – most people seem grateful for the information.

    Finally, I love the idea of a Karma Bag. I’ve been doing this for years, but giving it a cool name like that will help spread the word – especially with kids.

    And it’s the kids we should be educating – catch ’em young and they’ll hopefully form good habits for life…

    1. Hi Geoff,

      Thank you for the message. Having not personally seen the BPL thread I can’t comment on it, however, I can say that after spending a great deal of time hiking and travelling in all three places you reference, it’s never been my impression that experienced hikers in the UK are that much more enlightened in regard to LNT principles, than their counterparts in the States and Australia.



      1. Hi Cam

        The point I was trying to make was that a significant number of the US and Australian posters had a viscerally negative reaction to the idea of an organised LNT movement. This negativity doesn’t seem to be present in the UK – quite the opposite – so I found this surprising.

        As I said in my post, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the anti LNT posters are behaving badly in the back country. The only real point of contention in the thread was the routine use of camp fires – many Americans seem to be very attached to their fires!

        In my experience the great majority of UK walkers are behaving quite well. The main exceptions would be on honey-pot routes like Ben Nevis or the West Highland Way that attract more casual walkers. I don’t have enough experience of the US to compare.

        1. Hi Geoff
          We Americans have a lot of wood! We haven’t already used it all up, as in the UK. Maybe that’s why the campfire is so important here; there is no shortage of materials. It’s also iconic, something taught in public school history classes, Paul Bunyan tales – the great forests of the west. The romantic imagination plays in to the desire we put into exploring the outdoors, how it ought to be, from whatever our culture teaches us. Unfortunately, campfires do result in wildfires; knowledge and good practice don’t come along with the romance.

          I walked a short bit of the JMT last summer. I was pleasantly surprised to see almost no trash, no obvious toilet leavings, no damaged turf other than existing campsites, no fire rings, etc. Social media can help a lot with LNT, if used imaginatively.

  8. 3 years on the PCT now. I’ve gotta say that 99.9% of the time I’ve not seen any trash.
    There are a few spots though. The worst was the Deep Creek Hot Springs north of Lake Arrowhead. Disgusting. But I would credit that to the Townies that go there, NOT PCT hikers.
    Preachin’ to the choir.

    1. “…….3 years on the PCT now. I’ve gotta say that 99.9% of the time I’ve not seen any trash.” That’s great news!

      I remember there being quite a bit of trash around in the Deep Creek area on both my times on the PCT in 2007 and 2012. It’s a shame, because it really is such a beautiful area, and the springs themselves are incredible.

  9. “Plogging” English for Swedish’s plocka upp, exercising by picking up litter while jogging. I don’t move that fast now but our trekking contest makes the next guys’ visual experience better. Never to excited about stationary exercise groups but find real satisfaction in plocka upp (pick up) more. “Plogging bags” are on all our gear lists. Thanks, Cam for giving Leave No Trace, including the other guys’, more light. Jon

  10. I never bring toilet paper on a hike. I prefer hikes in the more humid areas of the world, and there is nothing like a bit of moist moss for squeeky cleaning your bum.

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