Simple Conservation Tips from Leave No Trace’s Education Director

Six tips from a Leave No Trace expert reveal how the little things in outdoor pursuits can make a big difference for the environment.

Leave No Trace

The 21st century outdoorsman is yoked with a quandary his father and grandfather never had to wrestle: There were some 12 billion outdoor visits last year in the Unites States alone, a number that continues to grow. As more people make their way into the wild areas of our country, the cumulative effects also grow, increasing the chances that the native flora and fauna will be impacted or displaced. The popularity of the American wilderness risks ruining it.

Ben Lawhon, Education Director for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics (“The Center” for short), believes that preserving our natural resources is as simple as being conscious of the little things and how they add up to become significant over time.

“If we can get people to just think about their impact, they’re going to make better decisions”, he said.

According to Lawhon, Leave No Trace — that simple rule we learned as kids from science teachers and Scout masters who would make the rounds on field trips with plastic bags, collecting our banana peels and apple cores — is about action. As a framework for making good decisions while enjoying our wild spaces, Leave No Trace helps outdoorsmen and women be better prepared and more aware of how to enjoy nature while ensuring their actions protect it for the next generation. LNT’s focus is simple: Be aware of your impact, and make an effort, no matter how small, to keep it as small as possible.

Leave No Trace’s Seven Backcountry Principles:

Plan Ahead and Prepare: Poorly prepared hikers and campers, when presented with unexpected situations, often resort to high-impact solutions that degrade the outdoors or put themselves at risk. Proper planning leads to less impact.

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.

Dispose of Waste Properly: Trash, litter and body waste are both damaging to ecological health and are social impacts that can greatly detract from the naturalness of an area.

Leave What You Find: 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, and removing natural, cultural or historic items.

Minimize Campfire Impacts: Because the naturalness of many areas has been degraded by overuse of fires, Leave No Trace teaches to seek alternatives to fires or use low-impact fires.

Respect Wildlife: Minimizing impact on wildlife and ecosystems; properly storing trash and food goes a long way toward keeping wildlife wild.

Be Considerate of Other Visitors: Following hiking etiquette and maintaining quiet allows visitors to go through the wilderness with minimal impact on other users.

As early as the 1960s, the concept of Leave No Trace was being collectively formed by the United States Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service. The theory was a product of an important shift in the culture of outdoor recreation that favored a limited impact on natural spaces over more traditional notions of woodcraft that relied heavily on those resources to survive. Within the growing fad of camping — fueled by the advent of lighter, easier-to-use synthetic equipment — Leave No Trace acted as a sort of bulwark against the potential abuse and overuse of public lands.

By the 1970s, the Leave No Trace philosophy was adopted by the Sierra Club and the Boy Scouts of America, and these relationships helped proliferate its tenets across the United States. In the 1990s, it was positioned at the core of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), further expanding its educational footprint. Today, The Center works with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the USDA Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Army Corps of Engineers to develop programs for nearly any outdoor pursuit. The organization describes itself as forward-leaning and bases its ethos on rigorous scientific studies in the fields of recreation ecology and human dimensions of natural resources. Though LNT has faced criticism in recent years for an overt simplicity that some say places recreation on the same level as the health of natural resources, it remains a core tenet of America’s conservation efforts. Tellingly, its loudest critics also maintain its vital importance.

“We are not”, says Lawhon, “just a bunch of tree-huggers who one day said, ‘Wow, we really love nature.’” By harnessing social media (@LeaveNoTrace has 31,000 followers on Twitter and 88,000 followers on Facebook), developing a mobile application and digitizing Leave No Trace literature, the organization has remained responsive to a growing body of young outdoorsmen and an evolving topography of gear technology and design.

Still, at the core of Leave No Trace is preparedness. Lawhon shared with us some simple ways you can prepare yourself for your next outdoor adventure.

Tips from the Pro


Invest in a good pair of gaiters. One major focus of Leave No Trace is cutting down on human-created trails and keeping those trails that do exist from growing. Waterproof gaiters will keep you on the trail even when the puddles look ominous. By sticking to existing trails, you’re lessening the impact on local flora and reducing the chance of disturbing nearby feeding or nesting animals.

Choose the freestanding tent. There are hundreds of options out there when it comes to tenting. However, finding a freestanding tent that does not rely on stakes to keep it upright is key to LNT’s principles. Freestanding tents allow you to set up on platforms and even the hardest ground sites, keeping you within the designated areas for camping.

Rest easy on a sleeping mattress. For you pros out there, this might be a no-brainer. But for some of us, a sleeping mat seems like just one more piece of gear to haul, or a convenience for the less-than-hardy among us. Whatever your taste, a good sleeping mat will keep you comfortable on the aforementioned sites and off the delicate ecosystems of moss-covered forest floors.

Hang out in a hammock. Sleeping in a hammock can save you a lot of hassle and cut down on a ton of additional gear. It also allows you to set up camp in areas that are otherwise unusable. Tree-saver straps at least 1 inch wide significantly reduce the risk to trees, and a bug net will keep you safe from mosquitos.

Carry your own latrine. It might seem rudimentary, but a simple pit latrine or “cathole” dug 6 to 8 inches deep and 200 feet from water sources, campsites and trails conceals human waste scents and keeps critters away. It also allows for a faster and more natural breakdown of waste that can contaminate water sources and impact aquatic life. A lightweight trowel makes managing waste easy and eco-friendly.

Don’t hog the stream. Campers making numerous trips to water sources add to trail erosion and significantly increase the likelihood of interrupting native fauna during their watering times. By using a packable water bladder, you can reduce your trips to and from the spring, keeping everyone happier and well hydrated.

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