Everyone deserves to enjoy the outdoors in the same way. To promote the protection of wildlife and to reduce the human impact on nature, the US-based organisation Leave No Trace created 7 principles meant to guide hikers and outdoor enthusiasts on how to enjoy nature in a more responsible way. We believe these guidelines to be useful for everyone who is spending time in nature, regardless of where in the world you are.
The 7 principles of Leave No Trace:
1. Plan and Prepare
2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
3. Proper Waste Disposal
4. Leave What You Find
5. Minimise Campfire Impacts
6. Respect Wildlife
7. Consider Others on the Trail
Why is planning your trip so important to Leave No Trace principles? Thorough plans and preparation can save the environment, and your resources, from unnecessary damage. It also allows you to complete your trip safely, confidently and as stress-free as possible.
• First, identify who is coming and make note of their skills, fitness levels and abilities. Ask yourself, does the size of my group meet site regulations? Any planned activities whilst on the trail should match your parties’ capabilities and goals.
• What are the goals of the trip for you and anyone who may be coming with you? Is it just for fun? Are you aiming to hit a certain distance or step goal? Pinpoint a collective target.
• Plan the levels of food consumption as accurately as you can to minimise leftover food - which leaves a trace. Consider preparing one pot meals and bringing light snacks. A one pot meal needs minimal utensils, less cooking time and removes the need for a campfire.
• Remove any food from its packing and place it in reusable Ziploc bags. According to Leave No Trace principles, everything you pack in needs to be packed out!
• Choose the correct equipment and clothing for the trip. Think about comfort, safety and the weather.
• Research the area in advance. You can read books, search the web, look at maps or even contact the land manager for details. Some key areas to consider are varying terrains, regulations and restrictions, and land boundaries.
• Upon your return, evaluate the trip and note areas for improvement for next time!
The goal of Leave No Trace is to move through natural areas without damaging the land or water. Travel damage occurs when vegetation or organisms are trampled beyond recovery. The area left behind results in soil erosion and the development of unwanted trails, therefore, it is best practice to follow established paths and use the trails provided where possible. Travellers who cannot avoid going off-trail should walk on rocks and other hard surfaces and spread out to decrease the possibility of others following in their footsteps.
Each surface responds differently to travellers and has varying levels of durability. Rock, gravel and sand are extremely durable and can survive repeated walking and scuffing. Note that lichens – a plant-like organism – sometimes grow on rocks and are vulnerable to repeat trampling. Ice and snow are a temporary state, so they are overall good choices for travel. Make sure to wear correct footwear, follow safety precautions, and check that the snow layer is a decent enough depth to prevent any damage to the surface below. Other surfaces like vegetation are best avoided as their durability varies. Look for sparse areas with dry grasses or where the vegetation can be sidestepped.
Make camp on durable surfaces to reduce your impact on the environment. Here are a few, important steps to consider when choosing the right spot to set up camp to preserve your surroundings:
• Camp at least 200 ft from shorelines to allow wildlife access to a natural water source.
• Try to camp on sites that are areas of high traffic, so that your use will contribute no noticeable impact. Look for sites with lost vegetation.
• Avoid repetitive routes to reduce the number of times a path is trampled on. Carry water containers to minimise trips to water sources. Soft shoes are also recommended around camp.
• When leaving camp, think about naturalising the site. Cover scuffed areas, brush out any footprints and rake any flattered grassy areas to help the site recover.
• Never remove or clean any organic litter, like leaves, lichen, gravel and stones, as once disturbed it is difficult to replace and can cause damage.
It is imperative you consider the waste you leave behind for the sake of the environment, wildlife and others on the trail. Outlined below are the different types of waste and how to dispose of them correctly according to Leave No Trace principles:
In many places, burying your waste in the correct manner is the best way to avoid polluting water. Burying will also minimise the spread of disease and increase the rate of decomposition. In some places, such as narrow valleys, solid human waste must be packed out. Check with land management of your chosen area for any specific rules.
Burying your waste in a cat hole is the most widely used and accepted form of disposal. It is good to choose an area with maximum sunlight, but also elevated. Dig your cat hole at least 200 ft from any water, trail or camp and make sure it is around 6-8 inches deep and 4-6 inches wide. Once the waste is buried, fill the hole with dirt and cover with natural materials.
Always pack out any feminine hygiene products. Do not burn or bury them. Sometimes latrines may be more applicable to your situation, for example, if you are staying in one place for a longer time. Follow the cat hole criteria for selecting the best location for your latrine.
Toilet paper must be used sparingly and avoid perfumed brands. You should not burn toilet paper, especially in dry lands. It is best practice to either bury your toilet paper in a cat hole or pack it out and take it with you. Some hikers also use natural toilet paper, such as vegetation and snow, but this is not everyone’s cup of tea!
Try to urinate on rocks, pine needles and gravel as this is less likely to attract wildlife, who can disturb plants and dig up the soil. Using a water bottle to dilute the urine can also help cover the scent.
All wastewater, especially that which contains soaps and lotions, can affect the quality of surrounding bodies of water, so minimal use is recommended. When washing yourself or your equipment, keep at least 200 ft from shorelines and use a jug or pot of water to rinse with. Use hot water and elbow grease! Only use unscented and biodegradable soap. The soil between you and the shoreline will filter the used water, just remember to strain your dirty water away from your camp first. Consider bringing a hand sanitizer as these allow you to disinfect your hands without the need for wastewater disposal.
If you pack it in, you must pack it out! It is crucial to wildlife that we pack out things such as kitchen waste and food leftovers. Forgotten and abandoned rubbish not only makes the surroundings unpleasant but has the potential to be deadly. Carry bags to pack your trash up in and, if someone else has left theirs, do the right thing to Leave No Trace and take that with you too.
Allow others to experience nature the way it was intended to be by leaving objects of interest such as rocks, plants, or artefacts the same way you found them. Do not construct items such as tables, chairs, hammocks or lean-tos. Do not dig trenches. If you clear the surface of an area, replace these items before you leave to minimise the trace of human impact. It is good to know that in many protected places, it is illegal to remove any naturally occurring objects from the site.
First, learn how to correctly build a campfire, then before building your fire, stop and think about these five key questions:
1. What is the fire risk for this time of year and the location I have selected?
2. Are there restrictions from the management of the area?
3. Is there sufficient firewood laying on the ground for me to build a fire e.g. fallen sticks or twigs?
4. Do party members possess the skills to build a campfire that will Leave No Trace?
5. Do the conditions of the terrain support the timely regrowth of wood sources? Or will I be contributing to the demand for firewood?
Try to camp in areas where there is a lot of wood, if there is visibly less wood available, move on and find another spot. Choose against having a fire if the area is higher up, in desert climates, or in areas of heavy traffic and usage.
In a high-traffic campsite, an existing fire ring is the best place to build a fire. Keep the fire small and burning only when it is in usage and let the wood burn completely. Put out fires with water, not dirt, as dirt may not extinguish the fire completely and may pollute the smoke emitting from the fire. Avoiding building fires next to rock outcrops as this may scar the natural landscape permanently.
Always observe wildlife quietly, from a distance and in smaller groups, if applicable. The goal is to avoid both scaring the wildlife and forcing them to flee from their natural habitat. Quick movements and loud noises can trigger them. Do not pursue, feed, touch, pick up or approach animals. In varying temperatures, disturbance and stress can affect an animal’s ability to withstand the environmental changes. The exception is in bear country where it is good to make a little noise so that the bears are aware of your presence, and as a result you do not startle them and put yourself in danger.
Your health is also a priority as the animal may carry disease, such as rabies, therefore, if you encounter a sick or wounded animal, do not try to help it, but instead contact the game keeper immediately.
Younger animals may be abandoned by their parents if touched or removed from their habitat by a person. Allow animals access to water sources by giving them the space they need to feel secure; this means setting up camp at least 200 ft from existing water sources.
In desert conditions, it is wise to avoid water holes at night as desert dwelling creatures are usually most active during the dark. With limited water in this climate, desert travellers must strive to reduce their impact on the creatures that live in these natural habitats and what little water they have.
Washing and human waste disposal must be done considerately and carefully as to not pollute the environment and so animals in water and on land are not affected. Swimming is okay in most cases, however, in deserts and other dry climates it is best to leave the scarce sources of water undisturbed so animals can utilise them.
You are visiting their home, so act accordingly. Observe from afar, give plenty of space, and store your food and waste securely and away from any animals.
Everyone should be able to enjoy their outdoor adventure, that’s why the last principle is to be courteous and considerate to other users of the trail. Things like excessive noise, uncontrolled pets, litter and damage to the surroundings all count towards disturbing other users.
It is advised that you travel in smaller groups and travel at off-peak times, avoid holidays and busy weekends if you can. If you take rest breaks, take them off the trail so you do not obstruct others’ paths.
Leave the external speakers at home. If you prefer to hike with headphones in, remember to keep your volume at a suitable level so you are still alert to your surroundings.
Knowing when and who to yield to is essential for a smooth journey. Common practice is that hikers should yield to uphill walkers, if you are going uphill, other hikers will yield to you. If there is a horse on the trail, hikers will yield. Horses will always have right of way as they can be easily spooked. When horses are passing, move off the trail and give plenty of room. If you must talk to the rider, do so quietly and calmly. Cyclists will yield to both hikers and horses. Before passing anyone, it is good to announce your presence and then proceed with caution.
Check if your chosen route has any restrictions on pets, especially dogs. Keep any pets under control, e.g., if they do not have good recall always keep them on lead and remember to pick up their waste.
Considering the 7 principles of Leave No Trace is essential for those who wish to preserve nature and hike sustainably. Nature is our playground and it should be accessible to whoever, whenever. If you are new to hiking, we recommend additional reading like our Hiking for Beginners guide for more tips on how to conquer the outdoors successfully.