We all aim to leave our mark on the world by achieving great things and going down in history, but when it comes to outdoor activities, the opposite is true. The great wilderness is damaged enough as it is due to human intervention, animals are losing their habitats because of illegal logging, and at the same time, many plants and wildlife are going extinct. While individually we can’t exactly do anything significant to stop illegal logging, we can still make a difference by preserving nature through the LNT principles.
LNT stands for Leave No Trace. It’s a list of seven principles that must be obeyed while we’re out there enjoying nature so we wouldn’t, be it intentionally or unintentionally, leave something behind that would affect nature in a negative way. A good number of environmental awareness authorities across the world have gathered to better educate outdoor enthusiasts on the LNT principles.
Their aim is to preserve nature by educating one individual at a time so our descendants many generations from now will still be able to enjoy the beauty of the wilderness in its natural state.
This article aims to introduce you to the LNT principles by listing them out and elaborating on each rule. You might still find this article useful even if you’re already well-acquainted with the LNT principles since we explain how to comply with each rule in great detail.
7 Leave No Trace Principles
Out there, even actions that we consider insignificant could end up having a long-term impact on nature. In order to prevent that, the LNT principles were created. The concept for these rules was established way back then in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until the year 1990 that the principles really started to get acted upon.
The United States Forest Service created the baseline and has since then worked in conjunction with many an educational organization to better inform people of these principles and to get national parks as well as nature reserves to adopt these rules and put them in effect with every outdoor enthusiast that crosses their path.
Today, no matter where you go camping or hiking, chances are you will encounter a brochure or pamphlet that announces the need to comply with these seven rules while you’re in the green territory:
Principle #1: Plan Ahead and Prepare
Sometimes, it’s not that you actually want to cause damage to nature. Rather, it’s the circumstances that force you to do so. Perhaps you’re lost, cold, and alone, and the sun has started to set over the horizon. You have no choice but to chop off tree branches to build a campfire, or you may need to set out traps to catch dinner for yourself.
No one would blame you for that if it’s either do or die, but if you’ve prepared yourself properly beforehand, chances are emergency situations such as those could be avoided.
Here’s what you should prepare before every outdoors trip:
- Compass, maps, etc. Avoid getting lost in the first place. If possible, familiarize yourself with the area before the real trip. The moment you notice you’ve started to deviate from the right path, retrace your steps. You could use flags or paint to mark the direction in times of emergency, but try to avoid that as much as possible hence why you should never forget to bring the basic directional pointers such as a compass with you.
- Weather forecast. If you believe that you can tell when a storm is coming and wait until the sky turns dark before you even head back to camp, it could be too late. Many outdoor devices today come equipped with a barometer, so we suggest that you make use of that as much as possible and steer clear of bad weather before it hits.
- Survival tools. If, despite everything you’ve done you still got lost, preserving nature might be the last thing on your mind because you’re busy trying to preserve your life. That’s understandable, but why not do both if you can help it? Always carry extra food in your backpack so you wouldn’t have to go hunting. Instead of building a fire, prepare a flashlight and a thermal blanket. These modern conveniences are not just environmentally-friendly, but also hassle-free for you too.
Planning ahead is beneficial for both you and Mother Nature. You would be able to avoid getting yourself into dangerous and stressful situations where the fear and panic could drive you into doing unimaginable things, and at the same time, the great wilderness will be kept safe from the consequences of your actions.
Principle #2: Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
In urban areas, we often see signs that say “Don’t step on the grass.” As we all know, there’s a very good reason for this. Surfaces that aren’t meant to see high traffic but do anyway because people love to walk or camp all over them could be rendered barren and unusable for many years to come.
That lush patch of grass that looks like a great spot to pitch a tent? It will turn all brown and dry in no time if not properly protected. Not to mention camping on fragile surfaces could prove to be dangerous for you too. The mountains are riddled with loose earth that looks solid at first glance but isn’t actually strong enough to hold your weight.
Even if it doesn’t fall apart right then and there underneath you, what you’re doing is basically hastening the process of soil erosion, and this could lead to a major case of landslide in the future especially if the area is one that sees heavy rain often. What happens if there are people camping on top of underneath it when the disaster strikes?
To avoid such circumstances, you should only travel and camp on durable surfaces. What counts as a durable surface? A few rules that you need to follow when searching for a suitable travel and campsite include:
- Don’t camp right next to rivers and streams. If you’re a veteran outdoorsman, you know better than to wash your things (food containers, clothes, etc.) in the river because you could contaminate it. What you may not know is that even camping right next to it could prove to be detrimental to the wildlife that lives in it or those that use it as a water source. Build camp at least 200 feet away from any water sources to be safe.
- Don’t camp or travel where there is vegetation. We’ve already explained why. You don’t want to be responsible for turning a lush grassland into a barren wasteland. No, the blame wouldn’t fall solely on you since it takes the collective effort of a group of people to kill the grass by stepping on it but you don’t want to be the one to open that path and have other people follow in your footsteps. Stick to areas that are already riddled with dead grass, gravel, rocks, existing trails, or places with packed snow if you travel during the winter.
- Don’t build sprawling campsites. It’s not that you’re not allowed to travel in groups; it’s just that you should break down the group into smaller ones and tell each unit to build their tent on solid ground. We don’t often encounter a massive patch of dry land that’s big enough to host more than two tents at once unless it’s on a public campsite, and if you try to crowd all the tents together, chances are you’ll spill over and bother the surrounding grassland.
Principle #3: Dispose of Waste Properly
We believe that you’re already perfectly familiar with this rule. We deal with waste every day—categorizing them carefully based on whether they are recyclable or not, taking them out, and making sure not to litter in public.
As it applies in urban areas, so it applies in the wilderness. What happens if you don’t dispose of waste properly? You get fined. You might be able to get away without getting fined in the wild since the great outdoors is so big and the rangers can’t possibly keep track of who’s cleaning up after themselves properly and who’s not but we believe that no self-respecting outdoors enthusiast would intentionally smear Mother Nature’s beautiful face with their filth.
But what if it’s not intentional? Believe it or not, some people think they are actually contributing to nature by leaving behind certain types of waste such as human waste (sorry if you’re eating lunch while reading this). Well, we won’t lie to you. You really can contribute to nature this way, but only if you dispose of it properly which brings us to a further elaboration on the third LNT principle.
Here’s how you should dispose of different types of waste when in a natural setting:
- To dispose of human waste, you’ll need to dig up a cathole. It should be around 7 inches deep and far away from any natural water sources (at least 200 feet away) to avoid any unwanted contamination. A word of caution: not all natural reserves allow you to contribute to nature this way. Some areas especially those closely related to riverside camping or river trekking, oblige visitors to take their human waste home with them. Luckily for us, we wouldn’t be forced to walk all the way home stinking like a septic tank if we had planned ahead and carry trash bags specially designed to contain human waste with us. Once again, plan ahead; study the rules of the campsite you plan to head off to before you actually depart.
- Other hygiene products and toilet paper will also have to go, naturally. And by hygiene products, we don’t just mean that you’ll have to ball the tampons up properly and throw them into the same human waste trash bag. Just because you’re only spending a night up in the mountains, doesn’t mean you should go without brushing your teeth, for example. So the toothpaste and soap wouldn’t end up contaminating nature, you’ll have to do your business far away from water sources. And yes, that means you may have to tote around a bucket full of water over a distance of approximately 200 feet before you can use it. If that sounds like too much work, consider skimping on a full-body bath in favor of using bottled water to brush your teeth. Don’t worry; no one will judge you. Also, make sure to use only biodegradable shampoo, toothpaste, and soap.
- You may also need to do your dishes up in the mountains, or else the stench of rotting food scraps may render your food container unusable. As usual, put a distance of at least 200 feet between you and any water sources, then use biodegradable cleaning solution. Instead of washing them clean with water, you can also simply wipe the plates clean using paper towels as a temporary solution.
- Throw the used paper towels and all the other trash in a pre-prepared bag and carry them all down the mountains with you. Never leave litter out there in the open to rot even if it’s biodegradable.
Principle #4: Leave What You Find
While you’re out there, you can enjoy nature to your heart’s content, but keep your distance. Rocks, plants, animals, and landmarks should be admired from afar. Avoid touching them if possible, let alone removing them from their original spot.
Understandably, it’s tempting to bring a piece of nature home with you, but rather than keeping these wonders to yourself, wouldn’t it be much better if you could just take pictures and leave the actual objects there for other travelers that come after you to discover?
This rule becomes twice as significant if what you’re inspecting is an ancient artifact. While you could possibly get away with plucking a leaf or bringing a moss-ridden rock home with you, taking away ancient artifacts is considered highly illegal, and you could get into serious trouble for it.
You should always leave the campsite as pristine as how you found it. Avoid making alterations to the site to the best of your ability.
Don’t build any structures you can’t take down quickly after you’re done using it, avoid digging up deep trenches, and avoid putting permanent marks on the trees by drilling a nail into it or tying a rope too strongly around the bark.
Principle #5: Minimize Campfire Impacts
You’re probably thinking that there’s no way you can follow this rule. Building campfires is an age-old tradition, and no camping trip is complete without it. Still, building a campfire is a very damaging, if not the most damaging thing you can do to nature.
We could go on and on about how the ashes could spread, the fire could catch, how the skyrocketing demand for firewood contributes to illegal logging, and how the black smog contaminates the air, but we believe you’re already well aware of all that.
You can still have a memorable camping experience without campfires. Here are a few alternatives:
- Cook using a backpacking stove. It’s much faster and much easier to clean up than cooking with a campfire.
- Illuminate the area with the help of candle lanterns. You could quickly shift the mood down the soothing and romantic path if you do this. You could still play the guitar and sing songs to the right atmosphere.
- Or better yet, blow out all the lights and enjoy a sky full of stars. Stargazing is best done in complete darkness. Lay out a mat, lie on your back, and enjoy the show.
If no matter what you can’t cross campfires off of the menu, you can leash it and keep its destructive nature at bay by:
- Stick to areas with a satisfactory firewood supply. If you’re headed to places where supply is scarce such as the desert or high-altitude areas, warn everyone in your group that building a campfire might be unrealistic from the start.
- Reusing an established fire ring instead of making a new one. This way you’ll keep the damage to a contained spot.
- Don’t fuel the fire too much. Keep it small and controllable. To do this, use small pieces of dry twig that you can break off with your bare hands instead of whole logs of wood.
- Let it burn until there’s nothing left. You might wonder if this isn’t counterproductive. After all, if campfires are so dangerous, shouldn’t you put it out as soon as you’re done with it instead of letting it burn for a long time? Fact is, you should only put the fire out once all the coals and wood have been turned to ash so you can scatter it once it’s cooled down.
- Make sure you extinguish the fire totally. The last thing you want is a wildfire on your conscience.
Principle #6: Respect Wildlife
An encounter with wildlife always feels magical. But no matter how tempted you are, don’t start singing and dancing with your new woodland friends. Just like with rocks, plants, and any ancient artifacts you might find in the wild, you’ll have to keep your distance.
The difference is, while rocks and plants are content without moving and ignore you, animals may not. They could react at the sight of you in a number of ways:
- If they run away, don’t follow them. Take out your binoculars or video cameras and follow them through the lens, but don’t give in to your hunter-gatherer instinct.
- If it looks like they are ready to fight back (even though you’ve done nothing to them) and you’re the one who’s in danger, don’t turn tail and run. Slowly back away without turning your back on them. Try to make yourself look bigger by shouldering your backpack or calling out to your friends. Wild animals are shy and won’t usually confront humans, but if you chance upon them during a harsh winter when food is scarce, when they are nursing their young, or if it’s the mating season, their instinct may prompt them to eliminate the threat.
- Sometimes wild animals might even approach you for food. These unique individuals might seem particularly courageous to you at first, but that’s just because they’ve been spoiled by travelers that came before you. This courage will do them no good in the wild. It makes them less wary and less alert. Don’t give them anything. Even if this conditioning doesn’t eventually make them easy prey for predators, the food you offer could make them sick.
- Even if they retreat at the sight of you at first, they could come back later to nose around on your leftovers. They might even sneak into your camp in the dead of night to steal your rations. Keep your stuff safe and clean up after yourself in the morning.
Principle #7: Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Exactly like what it says on the package. Nature is for everyone to enjoy, so be considerate of others.
You’re already being considerate of fellow outdoor enthusiasts that would come after you by following all of the principles we’ve listed above, but you can take it one step further by:
- Keeping it down. It’s easy to get carried away when you’re camping with your best buds. The singing, the music, and the laughing could get so immersive that you forget to keep the volume under control. Loud noises can bother not just the neighboring tents, but your resident wildlife also, so be sure to tone them down.
- If you’re going downhill, yield the trail to any other group you might encounter that’s going uphill.
- Do your business far away from other people’s campsites. We probably don’t really need to remind you of this since it’s just common sense, but since the place you’re heading to might not have any public toilets, be on the lookout for secluded (yet safe) spots far away from camp.
The devastation of nature by irresponsible corporate entities continues this very second. At this rate, it wouldn’t be long before we cross the point of no return; our descendants may not be able to enjoy the beauty of nature anymore. Luckily, thanks to the effort of nature preserving organizations that tirelessly work to raise the awareness of the public on the importance of leaving salvageable parts of nature pristine and uncontaminated, we can still enjoy the outdoors in their primitive state.
The LNT principles serve as a spearhead that heralds the coming of an age where civilization can coexist with nature. These rules aren’t difficult to remember and to follow. Nature is to be admired from afar. Look, don’t touch. That’s the gist of the Leave No Trace principles.
What do you usually do to make sure you leave the campsite cleaner than it was before you arrived? Did we miss anything important concerning the LNT principles? We welcome any opinions and suggestions in the comments section.