An overview of the seven principles that make up the Leave No Trace initiative

By Heather Madsen

It’s our job as outdoorsmen to protect the outdoors. As we are the ones who most often venture out into the wilderness, we are also the ones who have the most opportunity to potentially damage it as well. Respecting nature and protecting it is the best way to show our appreciation, and preserve it for future generations. That’s why Sportsman’s Warehouse supports charities and causes like the Mule Deer Foundation and Ducks Unlimited, but also why we support “leaving no trace.”

The Leave No Trace movement was spearheaded by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics in collaboration with other organizations like the US Forest Service and National Park Service. The seven principles they ask everyone to follow are based on scientific research and environmental impact studies, and are our best hope for preserving nature for generations to come. Below is a brief summary of each principle with advice on how you can help better protect the great outdoors.

1) Plan Ahead and Prepare

It’s difficult to be prepared when you have no idea what sort of wildlife, terrain, or weather you might encounter. Researching your trip and surrounding environment will help you know what to bring and to expect while you’re out there. Know the capabilities of each person who will be on the trip. Don’t attempt a hike or backpacking trip that is potentially too difficult for any member of your group to complete. Poor planning can lead to delayed travel times or injuries, which can lead to you having to improvise travel plans or camp sites, which in turn may be unsafe or cause unnecessary impact or damage to the land. Do your research and plan ahead.

2) Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

If you’re going to be hiking on a well-established trail, or visiting a pre-prepared campground, be sure to stay on the marked paths and camping areas. There’s no need to trample vegetation or disturb the wildlife if there are well-worn areas available for use. However, if you’re traveling into the backcountry where there are no trails or established campsites, your goal should be to preserve as much of nature as possible. Keep your feet on durable surfaces like rock, sand, or gravel when possible, and spread your group out when walking on grass or other easily impacted surfaces, so you don’t wear a noticeable trail into the ground.

The same idea applies to camping. Only pitch your tent on surfaces that won’t show wear when possible. A good rule of thumb when setting up a campsite in the backcountry is to stay at least 200 feet away from any nearby water source. This distance will make it so you can still utilize the water, but won’t scare wildlife away by being too close. If you have to camp on grass, make sure you take different paths around your campsite to avoid making trails, and move your site every night. Whenever you leave a campsite be sure to remove evidence of your stay. For example, if you flattened the grass with your tent, rake it with a stick to help lift it back up.

3) Dispose of Waste Properly

Human waste can spread disease and contaminate water sources if not disposed of properly. In remote locations, burying waste in “cat holes” is typically the most effective method of disposal. A proper cat hole is at least 6 inches deep and 4 inches wide; located at least 200 feet from all campsites, trails, and water; and properly covered with natural materials when finished.

​Pro Tip: Never use the same cat hole or area twice. Too much waste in one spot can slow down decomposition and negatively affect the nearby environment.

While cat holes are the most popular method, you should always check the regulations and rules for every area you visit. Some locations have a “pack it in, pack it out” policy, which means you cannot bury your waste--you have to carry it out with you when you leave. There are several pack-out products you can buy that will help you do this in a sanitary way. Other locations might have latrines, portable toilets, or dry toilets you can use.

Any other forms of waste should always be packed out with you. Toilet paper and sanitary products are often non-biodegradable and cannot be buried. Burning them is also never recommended since you can't guarantee they'll be fully incinerated, and unnecessary fires increase the risk of wild-fires. Plastic, food scraps, and garbage should also never be left behind. Burning or burying any sort of debris can be dangerous and leave behind litter. Try to condense and pack food items in reusable containers, so you have less trash to worry about. Even organic litter, like banana peels or sunflower seeds, are not appropriate to leave on the ground. It takes up to 3 years for items like peels and shells to decompose in a properly regulated compost pile; in nature it could take even longer.

A similar policy goes for water and washing. A lot of lotions, soaps, and sanitizers are harmful for the environment and wildlife. Even if they’re labeled as biodegradable, these products can affect the water and soil. Use minimal amounts of soap if you must clean yourself or your dishes, and always do so at least 200 feet away from any water sources. And while that lake or pond might look refreshing, remember that it’s a drinking source for animals, before it’s your pool. The oils, sunscreens, bug repellent, and other chemicals on your skin can potentially contaminate the water, and if you’re in an area where water is scarce, you might do irreparable damage to the local wildlife.

4) Leave What You Find

Nature is best left undisturbed, and it’s our job to keep it that way as much as possible. While it might be tempting to build a fire ring, or move logs around to form seating, doing so alters and sometimes damages the environment. Established, high-impact campsites usually already have fire pits, designated seating, and cleared spaces for tents. Use the set-up that is already there to avoid spreading impact to new places. If you’re travelling in the backcountry and have to clear rocks or sticks from an area, be sure to put them back once you leave.

Damaging or removing anything from nature is not only selfish and harmful, but also often illegal. Carving, hacking, or sawing at trees is unacceptable. Flowers, rocks, or other natural materials, like antlers or bones, should also be left alone. Not only does removing them prevent other people from enjoying them, but if everyone who visited that area took home a souvenir, eventually there would be no nature left. Take a picture instead.

5) Minimize Campfire Impacts

While campfires are an iconic part of traditional camping, the over-use of fires and firewood has depleted natural resources and scarred the land in many popular camping locations. An uncontrolled, improper campfire also increases the risk of starting a wildfire. Always know what fire restrictions/regulations are active in your area, and follow them explicitly. Use existing fire pits if they are available. If there aren’t any already built or placed in your campsite, consider what sort of fire would leave the least amount of impact. Fire pans or fire mounds are good alternatives to a traditional ring. A camp-stove or backpacking-stove is an even better option for cooking. They leave no trace, can be packed out, and come in a large variety of weights and sizes to fit your needs.

​Pro Tip: When building a fire, try to only use pieces of wood that are no thicker than an adult’s wrist. Larger pieces of wood, especially those with bark still on them, take too long to burn and will end up leaving behind half burned wood and large coals. Split firewood is also easier to light and produces more heat.

No matter how you decide to build a fire, make sure you extinguish it properly. All wood should be burned to white ash, and flames should be extinguished thoroughly with water, not dirt. Coals should be crumbled and scattered away from camp. Another important element to remember is to “burn it where you buy it.” Firewood should never be brought from home. Insects and diseases can linger on firewood, and if you bring those foreign elements into your camp, they can spread and do significant damage. Either buy it somewhere local to your campsite, or properly scavenge it while in the backcountry. If you do decide to gather your own firewood, remember that it needs to be dead and dry. Don’t hack branches off of trees, even if they’re already downed. Wildlife still lives in those trees and it’s less likely that those branches are properly dried. Picking pieces up off the ground will require less effort on your part, and make a better fire.

6) Respect Wildlife

A good rule of thumb to follow in nature is to never approach wild animals. Not only can it startle and stress the animals out, but they also may carry diseases or try to harm you in order to protect themselves. Often, well-meaning people will “rescue” baby animals they think have been abandoned. Unfortunately, those animals have usually been left there by a parent who thinks they’re safe and awaiting their return. Touching or moving their young may cause the parent to actually abandon or lose their baby. If you see an animal that you think might be hurt or sick, mark the location on your map or GPS and call the nearest ranger or game warden when you can. Never attempt to pick up, touch, feed, or even get close to a wild animal. Also, as mentioned before, keep your campsites and washing areas at least 200 feet away from water so as to not poison or disturb the animals that use it as a drinking source.

7) Be Considerate of Other Visitors

No matter how far into nature you go, don’t forget to be respectful of the other people who may be around. Keep your noise levels to a minimum. Loud noises are disturbing not only to the wildlife, but also to any other people who are nearby and trying to enjoy the natural sounds and environment. If you take a break while hiking be sure to not block the trail. Find a durable surface off the trail to stop and rest on. When in doubt, yield to others on the trail. You may encounter mountain bikers, horse-back riders, or other hikers who are moving faster than you. In order to avoid collision or congestion on the path, move aside to let them pass.

By following these seven principles you’re minimizing your impact on the environment and being a good steward of nature. If you don’t already follow these principles, it’s never too late to start! If everyone does their part to protect the beautiful wildlife around us, we can hopefully preserve it for the generations to come. So remember, enjoy nature but leave no trace.