The idea of hitting the open road without a plan, without a destination, and without any inhibitions is quite the romantic picture. However, proper prior planning can mean the difference between a successful camping trip and a dangerous situation waiting to happen when taking a journey into nature.
Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics has been a proponent of carefully planned outdoor experiences for 27 years. Their goal is to educate travelers so everyone can have a safe expedition while soaking in picturesque moments and causing minimum impact on natural lands.
Leave No Trace educates millions of people a year with their 7 Principles, a code of ethics that nature lovers should keep in mind whenever camping, backpacking, or even having a picnic.
Table of Contents
Principle #1: Plan Ahead & Prepare
As we said, planning ahead can mean the difference between wonderful memories that will last a lifetime and putting yourself and your travel group at potential risk from the elements. Not to mention, the less prepared campers are for an expedition, the higher the risk of damage to backcountry resources. Here are seven things to consider when planning a camping trip:
- 1What are your expectations or the group's expectations for this trip?Is your group looking to post up by the lake with a hammock and a campfire? Or are you all hoping to spend several days hiking through backcountry? Discussing group expectations before setting off to the campsite can drastically minimize potentially disgruntled campers who didn’t think they’d be walking 10+ miles a day.
- 2What are the varying skill levels and abilities of your trip’s participants?Hand in hand with setting expectations is understanding the skill level of everyone involved in your camping trip. Inappropriately communicated limitations can lead to tricky backcountry experiences depending on how comfortable each party member is in your camp setting. Determining this factor ahead of time means everyone in your party knows what to expect to be safe!
- 3Gain knowledge of the area you plan to visit from land managers, maps, and literature.The more you understand the natural surroundings of where you wish to set up camp, the better. Understanding the terrain, weather patterns, and gathering information about the local wildlife helps prepare your group for unforeseen circumstances that may arise on your trip.
- 4Choose equipment and clothing for comfort, safety, and Leave No Trace qualities.Pack lightly and pack intentionally! Packing a few days ahead of time is always a great option when getting ready for a camping trip. This way, you have time to assess what you’ve packed, consider what you still need, and pack accordingly. Packing with intention eliminates useless items that have the potential to get left behind. Remember, leave no trace!
- 5Plan trip activities to match your goals, skills, and abilities.There is nothing wrong with flying by the seat of your pants and “going where the wind takes you.” However, having set expectations and planning activities to match them ensures that everyone in your group knows what they will be experiencing on your camping trip. Is there a hike you're dying to go on? Take a minute and find out how many miles it is! Is there a river close by for swimming? Double-check that there are no algae blooms to be aware of! A little bit of extra planning goes a long way.
- 6Evaluate your trip upon return note changes you will make next time.At the end of your camping trip through the great outdoors, take stock of the experiences you had! What worked? What didn’t work? Did you bring too much of one thing and not enough of another? This practice will help you plan an even better camping trip next time!
Principle #2: Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces
Understanding how to properly travel through natural lands is a crucial part of Leave No Trace’s mission. The goal is to educate people on the appropriate ways to move through natural spaces without damaging the land or waterways. Travel damage occurs when surface vegetation or organisms are trampled by hikers and cannot be recovered. Eventually, parts of the land become barren, which leads to soil erosion and the degradation of trails. Principle #2 of Leave No Trace addresses traveling through backcountry both on and off trails.
Though hiking trails impact the land, they are necessary to address people traveling through natural areas. One well-designed path is better than many poorly designed ones. Trail use is recommended whenever possible, as it minimizes the chances of wild organisms being trampled.
Travelers should be courteous of other hikers who are also using the same trail. If your group takes a break, step to the side to leave room for others who are passing. Travelers should also be aware that excessively loud noises are rarely appreciated in nature, and avoid shouting for communication whenever possible.
Anything you do when hiking or camping that is not on a designated trail is considered “off-trail.” Off-trail use includes bathroom breaks, exploring around a campsite, accessing remote areas, etc. The two most significant factors that determine how off-trail use affects the land are:
- Durability: the ability of surfaces to withstand wear and remain stable.
- Frequency of use: large groups and frequent use increase the likelihood of damage.
Examples of surfaces that are more durable and have less of a damaging impact on the land are gravel, sand, stone, and snow. Examples of surfaces that are more easily impacted by tramping feet are vegetation, living soil, and desert puddles and mud holes. Hiking or camping across these easily impacted surfaces increases the likelihood of damage to the natural environment.
Camping on Durable Surfaces
One of the most important aspects of backcountry activity to consider is where to appropriately place your tent at the end of a long day outdoors. Finding the appropriate tent spot takes a degree of good judgement to minimize ecological and social impacts. How often is this area used? What is the vegetation and soil like? How likely are you to encounter wildlife? These are all appropriate questions to ask yourself before pitching your tent.
High Use Areas:
- Avoid camping close to trails
- Avoid camping close to water (approximately 200 feet from water’s edge)
- Obey regulations related to campsite selection
- Select sites with low vegetation when possible
- Leave your site clean and appealing for other campers
Undisturbed Remote Areas:
- Minimal impact areas, only visit if you are trained to truly Leave No Trace
- Avoid camping close to water (approximately 200 feet from water’s edge)
- Spread out tents and move camp every night
- Minimize the number of times any part of the site gets trampled
- Leave a pristine site with no evidence of previous use
By being more aware of our own environmental impact, we can all do our part in leaving a site not only the way we found it, but better. With these simple yet intentional steps we can work together to preserve the beautiful places we all love so they can thrive and be enjoyed by generations to come!
Principle #3: Dispose of Waste Properly
It is a well-known fact that pollution and litter have a massive negative impact on our planet. We feel the effects of improperly disposed waste everywhere we look, from overcrowded trash cans in a local park to entire islands of floating plastic in the sea. Leave No Trace invites us all to be genuinely aware of the waste we create while out on a trail and to be responsible for how we manage it.
- 1Human WasteIt is crucial to properly dispose of human waste when traveling through nature, specifically to avoid polluting any nearby water sources. Before setting off on your outdoor adventure, be sure to consult with land management agencies to see what the approved method of disposal is for your desired location. Most times, burying human waste is the correct way to address the issue. However, there are times where packing out human waste is necessary, such as narrow river canyons.
- 2Cat HolesA “cat hole” is the term given to a hole (usually dug out with a small garden trowel) that is used to bury human waste when out in nature. All cat holes should be at least 200 feet away from the closest water source and should be a minimum of 6-8 inches deep with a 4-6 inch diameter. Before leaving your cat hole, be sure to cover it with natural materials, such as soil and fallen leaves. In the event of a large camping group, cat holes should be widely dispersed.
- 3Toilet PaperDepending on the situation (and if there are no exceptionally soft leaves nearby), toilet paper is necessary. However, it should always be used sparingly and should always be white and non-scented brands. The two primary options of proper toilet paper disposal are to bury it deep in a cat hole or pack it out when you leave your campsite. Natural forms of toilet paper (snow, stones, vegetation) have been used for years and are the lowest impact method when camping. It can seem intimidating at first, but it is worth the try!
- 4UrineUrine has a minimal effect on soil composition or vegetation. It is requested to select surfaces that are stoney, have gravel, or thick blankets of pine needles to avoid the possibility of attracting wildlife.
- 5WastewaterWhenever washing yourself or dishes, be sure to remain at least 200 feet from the nearest water source to keep soaps and pollutants out of the water. It is preferable to use soap products as sparingly as possible. Hot water and elbow grease usually suffice. Strain any solids out of used dishwater, and disperse water in a wide radius well away from your camp area. Leftover dishwater containing food smells could attract wildlife, particularly bears.
Other Forms of Waste
When in doubt, “pack it in, pack it out!” Every individual who chooses to partake in outdoor activities is responsible for leaving each natural place looking the same (if not better) as when they found it.
All waste must be taken out of the campsite at the end of your stay. Plan meals that will leave a minimal mess after consumption. Even a leftover puddle of bacon grease has the potential to attract wildlife. Burning waste is not an appropriate form of disposal because it leaves the possibility of toxic residue and is unsightly for visitors that may come after your party.
Be sure always to carry plastic bags to haul out any trash caused by your party or the party before you. Check your campsite for micro trash and leftover food products before settling down. Even items you deem to be decomposable (orange peels, seed shells) can take a long time to break down, and can negatively impact a natural space in the meantime.
Principle #4: Leave What You Find
As appreciators of nature, it’s easy to understand how finding a feather, a bone, or a beautiful rock on the ground could compel one to bring it home as a keepsake. Not only does taking these treasures change the landscape over time (and leave a trace), but it also minimizes the possibility of discovery and appreciation for the group of hikers behind you.
Leave No Trace invites us all to deeply appreciate the things we find when hiking and camping in the great outdoors, but to do so without negatively impacting the land.
Minimize Site Alterations
As stated in previous principles, it is important to leave your campsite exactly as you found it (if not better). This means no digging trenches for your tent. This means no construction of rudimentary campsite improvements from natural materials (lean-tos, tables, chairs, etc). If you clear the ground of any forest material before setting up your tent, be sure to return all moved items to their original places before moving on. Man-made utilities in any campsite should be dismantled, such as an impromptu fire ring. When in doubt, remember: good campsites are found and not made.
Avoid Damaging Live Trees and Plants
Trees are far more susceptible to harm than many people realize, and simple activities from the unknowing camper can potentially be detrimental to trees. Avoid any activity that can cause damage to the bark or any other part of the tree. Do not cut boughs for firewood or for sleeping pads. Under no circumstance should anyone cave their initials or anything else into the bark of a tree. This leaves the tree vulnerable to infections and infestations. Always be aware of the level of vegetation around you, and choose a trail/ campsite that is naturally clear of plants that can be trampled.
Leave Natural Objects and Cultural Artifacts
In national parks and other protected places, it is illegal to remove any sort of natural object. Antlers, petrified wood, or colorful leaves should always remain where you found them. Oftentimes these items are crucial for the surrounding ecosystem in ways we may not initially guess. These same ethics must be extended to cultural artifacts found on public lands. Cultural artifacts are protected by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, and it is illegal to remove or disturb archeological sites. Cultural artifacts can include pottery, arrowheads, tools, and even structures.
Principle #5 - Minimize Campfire Impact
The use of fire in outdoor settings is steeped in the history and tradition of humankind. From the warmth it provides to the heat to cook our food, it’s hard to imagine spending a night in nature without the profound comfort a campfire brings. Yet, with all of the benefits of campfires, it’s impossible to miss the fact that overuse is increasing the damage to our natural environment. Firewood use goes up, individuals build makeshift fire rings inappropriately, and more and more the climate of our woodlands are susceptible to quickly ignited forest fires. Leave No Trace encourages alternative methods of warmth and cooking on long camping trips that have a much more minimal impact on our outdoor spaces.
- 1Should You Build A Fire?Continually assess the potential backcountry damage that may incur before deciding to build a campfire, considering the time of year and location of your site. Before camping, check to see if there are any specific fire-building restrictions for your particular destination. Be sure you have brought enough firewood to minimize the damage of taking other wood from your surroundings. If you must use timber sourced from the environment, is there enough natural dead wood in the area to make up for any wood you take? These considerations before fire-building will increase your ability to Leave No Trace.
- 2Lessening Impacts When Fires are UsedA proper Leave No Trace fire shows no evidence of ever being constructed. If you plan to utilize wood from the environment, camp in heavily wooded areas that are not too high in elevation. Arid and elevated climates make it difficult for wooded plants to grow fast enough to replace used materials. If you use rocks to construct your fire ring, be sure and replace them where they were found before moving your campsite.
- 3Existing Fire RingsBuilding your campfire in an already existing fire ring in a well-designated campsite is always the preferable option. Be sure and keep your fire small, manageable, and only lit while you are using it. A campfire should, under no circumstances, be left unattended. When it comes time to extinguish your campfire, always use water. Likely, dirt will not be enough to extinguish the embers completely. The best method is to use enough water to produce a muddy texture in the center of your fire. Stir the mud with a stick or a shovel until all sounds of active heat have quieted. Avoid building fires next to or beneath rock outcrops; the black soot left by your fire will take many years to fade.
- 4Fire PansA fire pan makes an ideal substitute for a traditional campfire in both setup and clean-up. The pan used should have at least three-inch-high sides to avoid embers spilling over the side onto the ground. Your fire pan should be elevated off of the ground or lined with mineral soil to prevent the heat from scorching the earth around it.
- Never leave a fire unattended.
- Keep wood and other fuel sources well away from your fire when not being used.
- Thoroughly extinguish all fires. Even if you can’t see smoke, it does not mean there is no heat.
- Provide adequate supervision for young people when using stoves or files.
- Don’t bring firewood from home. Either buy it locally or gather your own responsibly.
Principle #6 - Respect Wildlife
Encountering animals in the wild can be a truly thrilling experience. Depending on the animal, it can sometimes be hard to not want to interact with them. What could be bad about tossing a couple of peanuts to an adorable chipmunk?
Whenever you find yourself out in the woods and you spot a wild animal, the most important rule to remember is to look, but not interact. Even an act as well intentioned as sharing food can have negative effects on the animal and the environment. The best course of action is to observe the animal from a distance.
Do Not Approach
Do not approach a wild animal for “a better look,” as this action may force them into the fight or flight instinct. Any amount of interaction can cause stress to a wild animal. Even feeding can lead to an animal’s overfamiliarity with other humans, resulting in potentially bad situations (disease transference, an animal wandering into human inhabited places, etc.)
Keep Your Group Small
It is best to keep your camping group small, as larger groups often cause more damage to the environment and can easily disturb surrounding wildlife. Quick movements and loud noises can be alarming, so it is best to maintain a low level of noise from your group. The exception to this would be if you are hiking through bear country, where it is best to make a little more noise so you don’t find yourself stumbling upon a startled bear.
Notify A Game Warden
If you ever come across a sick, wounded, or young animal who appears to be alone, notify a game warden as soon as possible. Do not approach the animal. Sick and wounded animals will often defend themselves upon approach. Young animals removed or touched by well-meaning people may cause the animal’s parents to abandon them.
Considerate campers observe wildlife from afar, give animals a wide berth, store food securely and keep garbage and food scraps away from animals. Remember that you are a visitor to their home.
Principle #7: Be Considerate of Other Visitors
One of the most important components of outdoor ethics is to maintain courtesy toward other visitors. We are all in nature for similar reasons, to enjoy our connection with the land away from the hustle of our day-to-day lives. Some people find themselves in the woods for birdwatching, others hiking. Some people venture out for foraging or overnight camping. However we choose to enjoy our time in nature, the experience is heightened when we are all courteous of other visitors.
- 1TechnologyAnother topic to consider is the use of technology for different people from different walks of life. Some tech-savvy outdoor enthusiasts prefer to listen to music and record their experiences when out on the trail. Others prefer to break from our technologically filled lives and enjoy the peace and introspection that nature offers. While neither is "wrong" or "right," it is always good to consider ways to minimize how your personal choices impact others' experiences. Maybe choose to listen to your music with earbuds instead of external speakers.
- 2Trail EtiquetteRemember proper trail etiquette when sharing your space with others. Downhill hikers will often step off the trail to allow uphill hikers easier passage. It is always safest to step aside for equestrians, and if you are a biker, you must yield to both hikers and horse riders.
- 3Rest BreaksWhen taking rest breaks on a hike, be sure and find a durable surface off the beaten path to do so, so you are not blocking the trail or harming vegetation. It is also essential to keep a close watch on any animal companions you may have with you. Your dog, although an animal, is not a natural part of the surrounding environment.