Outdoor Ethics: 7 Basic Guidelines of Leave No Trace

Not sure where to pitch your tent, how to do dishes, or where to go the dreaded #2? Brush up on your outdoor ethics and learn best practices for your outdoor adventures with these basic Leave No Trace guidelines.

As more people get outside, it’s critical that we as outdoor enthusiasts know how to enjoy the outdoors responsibly, to ensure that the special places on our planet remain that way for our enjoyment and for future generations. That’s where the 7 basic principles of Leave No Trace come in. Leave No Trace is a non-profit organization that has establish a set of ethics and best practices for when we are on the trail, camping, and recreating outside. They build a foundation of respect for our wild places and allow us to conserve the integrity of the land that we love getting out and experiencing.

Before we get into what the principles of Leave No Trace are and how we can use them to minimize our impact when we’re playing outside, let’s cover what Leave No Trace is not.

  • Leave No Trace is not about rules and regulations
  • Leave No Trace is not about right vs. wrong
  • Leave No Trace is not black and white

Leave No Trace is a framework for making responsible decisions when we engage in the outdoors so that we can continue to have wild and healthy places to explore for generations to come. It’s not about placing rules on what we can and cannot do in the outdoors; instead Leave No Trace is what allows us to have fewer rules. If we all take care of the places that we play, then there is no need for rules; but once we begin to leave our trash, go off trails, and do our dirty business anywhere we want – that’s when we begin to see areas closed to use and rules enforced.

It’s the ethos of Freedom through Responsibility. So Leave No Trace becomes even more than a set of guidelines. It is an ethic, a belief, a state of mind, and a way of existing in the world where we are making positive decisions that create an environment we wish to live in.

Learn how to be an environmentally-friendly outdoor adventurer with the 7 basic guidelines of Leave No Trace

Now that we have the deep, soul-searching side of Leave No Trace covered, let’s talk about the principles! There are 7 Principles of Leave No Trace and they are all pretty much common sense. The principles and techniques for minimizing impact vary depending on our activity, the environment we’re in, and how many people are in our group. We will cover the 7 Principles on a very basic level, if you are interested in more specific techniques or the science behind the guidelines, go to the Leave No Trace website or take a Trainer or Master Educator Course to get certified and enhance your knowledge!

The 7 Principles of Leave No Trace

1) Plan Ahead and Prepare

If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

  • Do your research; depending on your trip this can take 30 minutes or many months.
  • Know the regulations – Are fires allowed, do you need a permit, what wildlife are in the area?
  • Check the forecast. Be prepared for extreme weather.
  • Be aware of hazards like flash floods in the desert, and have an emergency plan – know what you are going to do if someone gets hurt or lost.
  • Schedule your trip during non-peak times. No one likes waiting in a line to be outside.
  • Repackage your food to minimize potential waste when you’re out there. Leave the cardboard box that your oatmeal packets are in at home.
  • Double check that you have everything you need to have a fun and safe time. It’s always a good idea to let someone know where you’re going, when you plan on coming back, and what to do if you don’t.

2) Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

Durable means tough like your mom’s pork chops.

The general rule here is if a trail or campsite exists – stick to it. If a trail or campsite does not exist – do your best not to create one.


  • Concentrate use on existing trails and campsites
  • Stay on the trail – no cutting switchbacks! Walk right through that mud puddle in the middle of the trail – that’s why you wore hiking boots, get dirty!
Learn how to be an environmentally-friendly outdoor adventurer with the 7 basic guidelines of Leave No Trace


  • Disperse use so that you are not creating trails or sites where one did not previously exist.
  • Stick to durable surfaces like rock, gravel, dry grasses
  • Avoid fragile surfaces like vegetation and riparian zones (that’s the area near a water source).
  • Avoid places where impacts are just beginning.
  • It should look as if you were never there!
  • Protect water sources by camping 70 big steps away from water.
Leave No Trace sets guidelines for where to camp when there is no established campsite

3) Dispose of Waste Properly

Pack it in Pack it out.

  • Simple – we want to leave places as good or better than we found them. Pack out all your trash and any you find along the way.
  • Pack out everything including food scraps, apple cores, orange peels, etc.

How to Poop and Leave No Trace

  •  If there’s a bathroom USE IT. If there’s not, we shouldn’t just poop anywhere we’d like.
  • If you need to poop make sure to go 70 big steps away from water, trails, and camp – then dig a hole.
How to poop in the woods according to Leave No Trace guidelines
  • Find a place that has nice rich soil, your cathole should be 6-8 inches deep. This allows the microbiotic activity in the soil to breakdown your waste.
  • When finished, fill your cathole in with the dirt you took out and disguise it. Pack out your TP and ALL feminine products. We like to use doggy bags or duct tape a Ziploc so you don’t have to look at your poopy TP.
  • Be aware of areas with special regulations, like the Whintey Portal and many permitted rivers, that require you to not only carry out the TP, but also the poo.

For Dishes

  • To wash yourself or your dishes, carry water 200 feet away from streams or lakes and use small amounts of biodegradable soap or no soap at all.
  • Scatter strained dishwater and pack out the food scraps with the rest of your trash. Fore more information on how to do dishes deep in the backcountry, see this post.
How to do dishes according to Leave No Trace guidelines

4) Leave What you Find

  • This one is super easy. See something cool? Take a picture, put it back. Boom!
  • If it’s cool enough for you to want to take home with you, then it’s cool enough for someone else to enjoy.
Learn how to be an environmentally-friendly outdoor adventurer with the 7 basic guidelines of Leave No Trace

5) Minimize Campfire Impacts.

Let’s keep this one simple too.

  • If there is a designated fire pit and no fire ban in effect, it’s time to sit around a warm fire and cozy up with your s’mores and ghost stories. Gather wood from a wide area and only use scraps from already dead and downed trees.
  • Keep your fires small and in control. And don’t leave them looking like the photo below. Don’t throw your trash in the fire for the next camper to find.
  • If this isn’t possible, use a lightweight stove to cook your food, connect with your surroundings without firelight, and enjoy that big beautiful sky full of stars.

ProTip. If no fires are allowed ENO camp lights laid out on the ground create a surprising likeness to a fire. People will gather around. You may even see some folks with their backs turned warming up their buns!

6) Respect Wildlife

You’re in their home so give ’em a break.

  • Observe animals from a safe distance.
  • Never feed wildlife! It is unhealthy and is a rabbit hole to bad habits and negative interactions with humans.
  • Store your food and trash safely. If you are in bear country read this: Being Safe in Bear Country
  • Easy with the dogs. Keep your dog under control and don’t let them bother or chase the wildlife.

7) Be Considerate of Other Visitors

You should know this one from your mom or kindergarten. It’s the Golden Rule, you know it!

  • Everyone loves music but not everyone loves your music. Sound travels far… So if you must play music, ensure that the volume of your tunes is kept to a minimum so your neighbors can’t hear it.
  • People tend to get outside to get away from people so the more we can be out of sight and out of sound of people makes it more enjoyable for everyone.

That does it. Easy peasy right?! These are simple things that we can all do to minimize our impact and help preserve the health of our wild places and the experiences that we share out there.

Remember that LNT is not black and white but about making the best possible decision to minimize our impact in the specific environment and circumstances that we are in. Not a set of do’s and dont’s, but a guideline to help us leave the places we visit as good or even better than we found them!

See you out there!


Written by Roland Mott

Roland worked as a Traveling Trainer for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics for 3 years, during which he lived out of a Subaru camping over 250 nights a year.

8 comments on “Outdoor Ethics: 7 Basic Guidelines of Leave No Trace

  1. Glad you finally got to this information 🙂 Just off of, as you know, my 13th Grand Canyon rafting trip. I am constantly amazed on how well taken care of the canyon is, considering that close to 25,000 people per year use that corridor. I step into camps that I know were used the previous night, but find nothing to indicate that.

    One mention I would like to make is regarding catholes in desert landscapes. Those areas have no or very few biologics in the soil, as mountain areas do, making the breakdown time for feces much longer. Therefore, the practice mentioned in your blog should be amended for those areas. As in – take it out 🙂

    Another mention is to the awareness of crytogamic soils – prevalent in desert areas. These small, somewhat innocuous patches of black lichen-like growth takes hundreds of years to accumulate, and they are what holds the desert together. They should not be stepped on.

    All in all a pretty good intro to wilderness ethics and stewardship – Scott

    1. Thanks for chiming in Scott! Glad you liked the post! I updated it to mention that many areas have special regulations that require that solid human waste also be carried out. Hope you had an incredible trip through the Grand!

  2. Thought I’d put my question to the LNT crew, and got a response this morning. Agreeing with me that there are far fewer biologics in the desert soil, they suggested a shallower hole – 4 – 6 inches, compared to 6 – 8. They also suggested keeping in mind that water/rain in the desert often has a longer “carry”/being that much of the water runs off the surface. In short, be especially aware of proximity to water sources when considering a desert cathole.

    And yes . . . the Grand Canyon lived up to it’s first name 🙂 Posted a number of my GoPro clips on FB . . . if you’re ever interested in getting ‘virtually’ wet 🙂

    Glad you survived The Burn 🙂

  3. Super cool article! And you are right about the dog thing, it’s so annoying when I see dogs out chasing squirrels and what not. I have made sure my dog is trained well enough to not leave the campsite.

Leave a comment

You can leave a comment, but you wont be able to add any links.

* You can not add any links to your comment as was previously mentioned above