Leave No Trace

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Leave No Trace is a set of principles for participation in outdoor recreation that seeks to minimize the impact on the natural environment. Proponents of Leave No Trace believe that individual impacts caused by recreation can accumulate to degrade the land. Therefore, the Leave No Trace message encourages people who spend time in the out-of-doors to behave in such a way that they can minimize unavoidable impacts and prevent avoidable impacts. It is often summarized: "Take only photos, leave only foot prints."


The roots of Leave No Trace can be traced to the 1970s and 1980s.[1] In those decades, the United States Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service started to teach their non-motorized visitors how to have a minimal impact on the land. Also in the 70s, groups such as the Sierra Club were advocating minimum impact camping techniques. A pilot program in the 80s between the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) and the High Uintas Wilderness tried to reach a wide audience. Finally, a national education program was developed in 1990 by the United States Forest Service in conjunction with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).

James M. Turner[2] has examined the political history of "Leave No Trace". Turner attributes the creation of the LNT ethic to wilderness advocates, who needed popular support for wilderness, but wanted to minimize human impact on wilderness. Severely limiting wilderness access would lose support for the Wilderness Act. Turner claims that wilderness advocates turned wilderness ethics 180 degrees, from 'woodcraft' (where wilderness travelers exploit wilderness resource in order to rebel against modern technology), to 'Leave No Trace' (where travelers use the latest technology to minimize impact).

The Leave No Trace program is managed by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, [3] formerly Leave No Trace, Inc., which is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and inspiring responsible outdoor recreation through education, research and partnerships. Leave No Trace tries to build awareness, appreciation and respect for our wildlands.


Leave No Trace provides a framework for outdoor recreation decision making, which is summarized in the following 7 principles:[4]

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare: Poorly prepared people, when presented with unexpected situations, often resort to high-impact solutions that degrade the outdoors or put themselves at risk. Poor planning can result in improperly located campsites because groups failed to plan enough time to reach their intended destination, or improper campfires or excessive trash because of failure to plan meals or bring proper equipment.
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces: Damage to land occurs when surface vegetation or communities of organisms are trampled beyond repair. The resulting barren area leads to unusable trails, campsites and soil erosion.
    • In high-use areas, Leave No Trace suggests that people concentrate activity, which makes further damage unlikely.
    • In areas of very little or no use, Leave No Trace encourages people to spread out. Taking different paths when hiking off-trail will avoid creating new trails that cause erosion. Dispersing tents and equipment, and moving camp daily will avoid creating permanent-looking camp sites.
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly: Though most trash and litter in the backcountry is not significant in terms of the long term ecological health of an area, it does rank high as a problem in the minds of many backcountry visitors. Many people believe that trash and litter detract from an area's naturalness. Thus, Leave No Trace recommends that trash and litter should be packed out. Further, backcountry users create body waste and waste water which requires proper disposal according to Leave No Trace.
    A cathole may be dug with a trowel
    • Waste water: Avoiding soap and dispersing dishwater far away from natural water sources will prevent contamination.
    • Human waste: Proper human waste disposal prevents spread of disease, exposure to others, and speeds decomposition. Catholes, 6 to 8 inches deep and 200 feet from water, are often the easiest and most practical way to dispose of feces.
  4. Leave What You Find: Leaving rocks, plants, archaeological artifacts and other objects as found will allow others a sense of discovery. Similarly, Leave No Trace directs people to minimize site alterations, such as digging tent trenches, hammering nails into trees, permanently clearing an area of rocks or twigs.
  5. Minimize Use and Impact of Fire: Leave No Trace encourages people to use lightweight camp stoves, instead of fires, because the naturalness of many areas has been degraded by overuse of fires and the increasing demand for firewood. If a campfire is constructed, Leave No Trace suggests using an existing fire ring in a well-placed campsite or to use a fire pan or mound fire. True Leave No Trace fires show no evidence of having ever been constructed.
  6. Respect Wildlife: If enough people approach or interfere with wildlife, it can be disruptive to animal populations.
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors: Following hiking etiquette and maintaining quiet allows visitors to go through the wilderness with minimal impact on other users.

Application in the United States

The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics has partnerships with the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The "Leave No Trace" method is encouraged strongly in the Boy Scouts of America. An example of how this partnership works is that wilderness areas managed by the U.S. Forest Service actively promote adherence to Leave No Trace principles. The Center has also developed partnerships with other parks, municipalities, and agencies that wish to incorporate the Leave No Trace program in information and messages provided to the public.


See also

Related Merit Badges

Sometimes it is easier by doing two or more merit badges together as a joint activity:

External links