Thru-Hiking 101: Leave No Trace (LNT) Principles on Trail

1. Plan Ahead & Prepare

Why it’s important:

  • By planning and preparing in advance, you can mitigate the majority of potential breaches of the following 6 principles before evening getting on trail. Understanding local regulations/requirements and designing your personal backcountry systems are key to successful planning.

How to employ it:

  • Research local fire regulations, camping restrictions, and wildlife. Always check the local land agency’s website (BLM, Forest Service, Park Service, etc.), and contact them if you need clarification. 
  • Create a system for waste management (trash and recycling bags or jars, wag-bags, etc.  -see principle 3: Dispose of Waste Properly)

This principle is not an excuse to ridicule folks who are less experienced in the outdoors than you are, or have less access to planning tools. We are all constantly learning, and the best thing you can do for the community and the environment is to support everyone in that learning. 

2. Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces

Why it’s important:

  • Being intentional with where we hike, break, and camp helps protect fragile ecosystems and limits usage to specific areas. This is particularly important on high-use trails, but hikers should always be aware of where they are walking and camping.

How to employ it:

  • Stay on trail (and keep any animal companions on trail as well).
  • Do not use shortcuts at switchbacks. They cause erosion and save little time. 
  • Avoid hiking or camping on moss, flowers, lake edges, areas with flora, open alpine zones or other generally sensitive ecosystems.
  • Find surfaces that will not be damaged by your shelter and body weight, such as exposed and compacted soil, small rocks, or sand. Ideally, use established campsites.

With the rise of social media, this principle has been increasingly compromised for the sake of photographs (i.e. camping at lakes edges to get sunrise shots, or leaving the trail to get a better view). Be mindful of what you are damaging for a photograph.

Hiker in the desert
Desert ecosystems are particularly sensitive to trampling and incorrectly disposed of waste (wagbags are often required).
Photo courtesy of Kenna Sarae.

3. Dispose of Waste Properly

Why it’s important:

  • Properly disposing of human waste mitigates pollution of nearby water sources (no, human poop is not like animal poop!), the spread of diseases, and the generally unpleasant experience of finding someone else’s poop.
  • Properly disposing of food waste minimizes animal habituation and the spread of non-native species into ecosystems. (In this context, habituation is the process by which animals become familiar with the habits of trail-users and adjust their natural behavior. For example, if hikers routinely leave food crumbs at a regularly used campsite in Glacier National Park, local bears may become habituated to finding food there. Not only does this create an unhealthy dependence on humans for food, but also greatly increases the likelihood of a negative human-bear interaction, which is dangerous both for hikers and for the bear.)

How to employ it:

  • If it don’t grow, don’t throw! (Apple cores, orange peels, seeds and nuts, should not be left on trail or at camp. They can take decades to break down and introduce non-native competitors into the ecosystem.) 
  • Dilution is not the solution to pollution! (Soap (even if biodegradable), toothpaste, and dirty water should not be diluted in streams or lakes. More information below.)
  • Pack It In, Pack It Out! (General rule of thumb: if you bring it into your hike with you, it should leave your hike with you.)

Human Waste

  • Cat holes should be dug 6-8 inches deep, 4-6 inches wide (I generally teach a shaka deep and a shaka wide -Kenna).
    • Use a trowel to dig & cover your hole, but not to move feces!
  • Your business should be done and buried at least 200 ft (70 adult steps) from water sources, trails, and campsites (I generally say 300 ft. from water if I am in a region with heavy rainfall -KK), ideally in a space where runoff will not carry your waste into nearby water.
  • Toilet paper
    • Pack it out (double ziplock bag it, cover the outside with duct tape for sights and smells).
    • Don’t bring it!
      • Use a backcountry bide or natural toilet paper. Some examples include:
        • Rocks (preferably smooth)
        • Snowballs
        • Sticks (preferably smooth)
        • Pinecones (go with the grain!)
        • Leaves (be extremely careful about what you’re using!)
        • Tall grass
        • Moss
        • (Be sure to bury any natural toilet paper that you use inside of your cathole.)

4. Leave What You Find

Why it’s important:

  • Leaving resources in their ecosystem both preserves and protects the natural ecosystem and allows for others to enjoy what you’ve seen. Equilibrium can be easily affected by users removing resources such as wildflowers. Cultural assets should be treated with the same respect and left where found.

How to employ it:

  • Do not take anything out of an ecosystem unless it is clearly human trash (i.e. candy bar wrappers).
  • Avoid constructing “improvements” (tent sites, tables, lean-to’s, non-trail marking cairns, etc.).

Take only photos, leave only footsteps is a great motto. (Just remember not to tag your location when posting photos that you took! Digital LNT includes not encouraging overuse of spaces that are heavily featured on social media platforms.)

Cairn
Albeit common, cairns should only be constructed as trail markers and generally only by trail maintenance crews.
Photo courtesy of Dahn Pratt

5. Minimize Campfire Impacts

Why it’s important:

  • 85% of wildland fires are human caused; the importance of minimizing your campfire impact cannot be overstated. Having fires can deplete ecological resources (e.g. cutting down trees, or taking deadfall that is important to cultivating flora & fauna) and emits considerable amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

How to employ it:

  • Know the current fire regulations in the area that you are hiking.
  • Keep your fires small and manageable — be mindful of the space you are using. Use established rings with buffer zones to flammable vegetation.
  • Do not burn trash in fires, pack it out. 
  • Dead and down! (Do not harvest firewood from living trees, or from dead trees that are still standing).
  • Collect firewood away from established campsites.

 

6. Respect Wildlife

Why it’s important:

  • Human-wildlife contact is dangerous for animals and for hikers. “A fed bear is a dead bear.” See our food waste and habituation section under “Dispose of Waste Properly.”

How to employ it:

  • Respect space between you and wildlife, never approach fauna nor make distressing noises, etc. to elicit a reaction
  • Never feed animals and conduct thorough camp sweeps to pick up and pack out any dropped crumbs, etc.

7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

Why it’s important:

  • Ultimately, this principle is intended to allow every hiker and other trail-user to enjoy their experience. Much of this is dependent on your actions with the previous six principles.

How to employ it:

  • Avoid playing loud music or yelling. 
  • Avoid shooting guns. 
  • Keep pets on leash (or equivalent) or under strong voice command.
  • Uphill hikers have right-of-way. Hikers generally yield to equestrians (horses), and bikers generally yield to equestrians and hikers. 
  • Be active in providing a safe, inclusive environment to all users. Being welcoming and inclusive to BIPOC, LGBTQA+ folks, and womxn includes, but is not limited to, speaking out against disrespectful remarks, and stepping in when unsafe situations arise.