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

1. Plan Ahead & Prepare


Why Leave No Trace is important:

  • By planning and preparing in advance, you can mitigate the majority of potential breaches of the following leave no trace principles. Understanding local regulations/requirements and designing your personal backcountry systems are key to successful planning.

How to employ it:

  • Before your hike 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. This includes ways to deal with trash and recycling. See LNT principle 3: Dispose of Waste Properly.
  • This principle is not an excuse to ridicule people with less experience. We are all constantly learning. The best thing you can do for the community and the environment is to support everyone.

2. Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces

Why it’s important:

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

How to employ it:

  • Stay on trail (and keep pets on trail as well).
  • Do not use shortcuts at switchbacks. They cause trail erosion and save little time. 
  • You should avoid hiking or camping on moss, flowers, lake edges, areas with flora, or other sensitive ecosystems.
  • You should select a place for your shelter to minimize the impact on the soil. Use established campsites if possible.

This principle has been increasingly compromised for the sake of photographs. For example people camping at the lake edge to get a sunrise shot. Be mindful of what you are damaging for a photograph.

Hiker in the desert. Desert areas usually have strict leave no trace rules.
Desert ecosystems are particularly sensitive to trampling and incorrectly disposed of waste (wag bags 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. Human waste is not like animal waste. Human waste can spread diseases. It is also an unpleasant experience finding someone else’s poop.
  • Properly disposing of food waste minimizes animal habituation.  It also reduces 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, local bears may become habituated to finding food there. This creates an unhealthy dependence on humans for food and also increases the likelihood of a negative human-bear interaction. This is dangerous both for hikers and for the bear.

How to employ it:

  • If it don’t grow, don’t throw! You should not leave apple cores, orange peels, seeds and nuts on trail or at camp. They can take decades to break down and introduce non-native competitors into the ecosystem. 
  • Hand soap, biodegradable soap, toothpaste, and dirty water should not be used in streams or lakes. 
  • Pack It In, Pack It Out! is a great 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 and about 4-6 inches wide.
    • Use a shovel to dig & cover your hole.
  • Your business should be done and buried at least 200 ft (70 adult steps) from water sources, trails, and campsites.
  • In sensitive areas consider carrying a waste alleviation and gelling  WAG bag. With a WAG bag you can safely poop anywhere without leaving any waste behind.
  • You should pack our all used toilet paper.
    • Pack the used toilet paper out. You can double bag the used toilet paper using a Ziplock bag. You could cover the outside of the plastic bag with duct tape to hide the used toilet paper.
    • Don’t bring it!
      • Use a backcountry bidet 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. It also allows for others to enjoy what you have 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 wilderness unless it is clearly human trash. For example candy bar wrappers, etc.
  • Avoid constructing improvements to campsites. Don’t add additional tent sites, tables, non-trail marking cairns, etc.  

Take only photos, leave only footsteps is a great motto. You should remove the location tag from your digital photos before sharing. Digital LNT includes not encouraging overuse of spaces that are heavily featured on social media platforms.

Cairn or marker with about nine rocks stacked on each other. Sometimes cairns can be a violation of the LNT rules if used inappropriately.
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 LNT is important:

  • Humans cause about 85% of all wildland fires. As a result you should consider minimizing your campfires. Your choice to have a campfire can deplete important ecological resources.  For example, cutting down trees, or taking a deadfall could be important to cultivating flora & fauna. Your campfire also releases a considerable amount 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. Use established campfire rings.
  • Do not burn trash in fires, pack it out. 
  • Do not harvest firewood from living trees, or from dead trees that are still standing.
  • The firewood you collect should be dead and down.
  • Collect firewood away from established campsites.


6. Respect Wildlife

Why leave no trace is important:

  • Human-wildlife contact is dangerous for animals and for hikers. For example, “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 the wildlife. You should never approach wild animals or make sounds to elicit a reaction.
  • Never feed wild animals. You should always look thorough camp to pick up any dropped items. This could even include crumbs.

7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

Why it’s important:

  • The leave no trace principles are intended to allow every hiker to enjoy the outdoors. 

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 horses, and bikers generally yield to equestrians and hikers. 
  • Be active in providing a safe environment to all users. It is important to be welcoming and inclusive to BIPOC, LGBTQA+ folks, and womxn. This includes speaking out against disrespectful remarks, and stepping in when unsafe situations arise.