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How To Leave No Trace at Camp: The 7 Principles

Camping is a great way to get back to nature and enjoy the great outdoors. However, our ability to enjoy it in the future depends on how we interact with nature today. With this in mind, national conservation efforts led to the seven principles of Leave No Trace that all backpackers, RVers, and overlanders should know.

What Are the 7 Principles of Leave No Trace?

The importance of conservation has reached record heights as more people venture into the great outdoors. Here’s a breakdown of how the seven principles work and why you should learn them and pass them on to your camping buddies, friends, and children.

1. Plan Ahead & Prepare

Plan your trip carefully and know the area’s rules before you arrive. Doing this allows you to make adjustments to your travel setup. For example, if the region does not allow campfires, you will need another source of heat and might need to cook your meals using other methods.

The National Park Service also recommends the following:

  • Prepare for the possibility of extreme weather, such as high winds and wildfires.
  • Whenever possible, schedule your trip to avoid big crowds.
  • Use GPS and physical maps to reduce the need to mark areas when navigating campsites and hiking trails.
  • If you plan on camping in a large group, try to split up the group to minimize and disperse the impact on the environment.

2. Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces

Overlanders are pioneers in the adventure world. The more pristine an area is, the more tempting it is to explore the hidden gem. However, this is not always beneficial for the environment. Consequently, the Leave No Trace principles ask outdoor enthusiasts to use well-maintained trails and access designated campsites.

The National Park Service provides these extra tips:

  • When using popular camping areas, keep campsites small and choose locations with very little vegetation.
  • When in pristine areas, spread out and avoid recently impacted areas.
  • Camp at least 200 feet away from streams and lakes.
  • Find the best place to camp; do not create one.

3. Dispose of Waste Properly

When packing out your trash, try to reduce the waste that ultimately ends up in landfills. It’s also good practice to pack out other people’s trash if you encounter it. Yes, you didn’t trash the place, but trash is trash. If you care about the environment, help get rid of the garbage polluting it. The National Park Service provides these additional tips:

  • Use toilet facilities whenever possible. If there are none available, dig a cat hole six to eight inches deep.
  • Keep all waste and sanitation activities at least 200 feet away from water sources.
  • Use biodegradable soap.
  • Strain your dishwater and scatter it.

4. Leave What You Find

When out camping, you will find all sorts of things: sticks, rocks, leaves, and berries. It is tempting to take these items home with you as souvenirs. However, it’s essential to leave what you find behind. Doing this helps maintain the area’s natural beauty for future campers and adventurers.

Leaving what you find also extends to leaving it as-is, as much as possible. Don’t erect structures or dig trenches. When you go, it should look like you were never there.

5. Minimize Campfire Impacts

When you can have a campfire, be sure to follow the principles of Leave No Trace. These include building your fire in a designated area, using only dead and downed wood, and fully extinguishing your fire before you leave.

Campfires are a common cause of wildfires, so take special care if you plan to build one in high-risk areas. The U.S. Department of Interior offers these additional recommendations:

  • When selecting a campfire location, choose an open area that is a safe distance away from potential fire hazards.
  • Do not leave your fire unattended.
  • When you put out your campfire, ensure it’s cold before leaving.
  • When towing a travel trailer, complete a thorough check to ensure it does not become a source of fires, such as from safety chains dragging on the ground.
  • Do not park your RV or vehicle on dry brush or other flammable materials.
  • Have fire safety equipment in your vehicle or trailer, such as a shovel, bucket, fire extinguisher, extra water, and fire blanket.

Be sure to check with the local regulations to see what is allowed in the area. If you encounter signs or rules and don’t feel you understand them clearly, err on the side of caution.

6. Respect Wildlife

When out in nature, you will most likely encounter wildlife. Give them their space and don’t disturb them. Yes, that includes the rattlesnake that was happily minding his business before you came along. Observe wildlife from a distance and do not attempt to feed or pet them.

Maintaining your distance is especially important if you encounter a female animal and her children. Failing to do so can lead to potentially dangerous situations, especially when that mother is a cougar or a bear.

7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

The great outdoors is a shared space, so be a good neighbor. Keep your noise level down, don’t litter, and don’t disturb the plants and animals. You might feel tempted to blast music in the wild, but remember that your neighbors are not only humans: animals live there full-time and might not care for the extra noise.

One common complaint among RVers is that other people will encounter wide open spaces and still choose to park next to them. Please don’t be this person. Part of respecting your neighbors is respecting their privacy by giving them the space to enjoy and protect it.

Respect is also due on the trails. Camp away from trailheads, so hikers have easy access to the trail and convenient parking spots. On hiking trails, yield to others and allow people who walk faster than you to get by.

Why Is It Important To Leave No Trace?

When we camp and hike, we visit fragile ecosystems that human activities can easily damage. By following the Leave No Trace principles, we help to keep these areas pristine and beautiful for future generations.

It is also important to remember that we are not the only ones using these spaces. Other campers, hikers, animals, and local communities rely on these ecosystems. Help preserve them for everyone to enjoy.

What will you do to ensure you leave no trace the next time you go adventuring in the great outdoors? Check out the @LeaveNoTraceOrg Instagram page for ideas!