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Leave No Trace LNT Principles and Philosophy for Backcountry Hiking

What Is the Leave No Trace Philosophy?

Anyone planning to use our public outdoor spaces should be well versed in the Leave No Trace philosophy, which breaks down into an easy set of guidelines we can follow to take care of the wilderness.

It’s our responsibility as recreationalist to respect and conserve the outdoor spaces we travel through by minimizing our human impact on wild spaces. As a climber, backpacker, fisherman, or outdoorswoman, the seven Leave No Trace (LNT) Principles provide guidance to follow when you are planning an outdoor adventure. 

The seven Leave No Trace principles are as follows: 

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly  
  4. Leave What You Find
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts 
  6. Respect Wildlife
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors 

If you’re ready to take care of the natural world you love so much, keep these Leave No Trace principles in mind.

Ready to venture into the wilderness? Be sure to follow the LNT principles.

1. Plan Ahead and Prepare

Plan ahead and prepare means organizing the details of your trip in the comfort of your own home before actually embarking on any adventure. This helps ensure the safety of the members of the trip rather than putting them at risk by getting stuck in a storm you were unaware of because you forgot to check the weather! Or getting turned around by a ranger because you didn’t get a permit. 

Why is this part an important part of the Leave No Trace philosophy? LNT.org suggests a few reasons: 

  • It ensures your safety, first and foremost
  • It helps you to prepare for causing minimal resource damage
  • It helps to ensure your trip is safe and enjoyable
  • It helps you feel more confident as you head out, while also learning more about nature.

When you’re preparing for your next trip, consider the seven elements of trip planning:

  • Goals: What are your expectations?
  • Skills: What skills and abilities do you or your team have?
  • Educate yourself: What do you need to know? What can you learn from maps and literature?
  • Equipment? What do you need to be safe and comfortable while leaving no trace? 
  • Activities: What activities match your goals, skills, and abilities?
  • Recap: What lessons and notes can you take away from this trip? 

Finally, consider these other important elements of LNT that are easy to forget in the planning  process:

  • Are you fully prepared for the weather and terrain? 
  • Are you aware of all regulations and restrictions?
  • Are you aware of any potential private land boundaries?
  • What will your average hiking speed be and anticipated food consumption? Remember: “leftovers create waste which leaves a trace!”
  • Does your group size meet regulations, trip purpose and Leave No Trace criteria? 
Be fully prepared for the weather you will experience on your trip.

2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces 

There are three areas to consider with LNT travel: on-trail, off-trail, and camp selection.

LNT On-Trail Travel

Trails are a network of walkable highways that take a lot of hard work to create and maintain. They are created to minimize human foot traffic impact by concentrating travel to one path as well as creating directional ease while traveling in the backcountry. It is important to stick to the trail to reduce damage to land and waterways. 

A significant problem when main trails are not followed is what’s created instead: social trails. Social trails are smaller braided trails going in all different directions and destroying flora and fauna living in those spaces. 

An example of an area with a lot of disastrous social trails is in Joshua Tree National Park. While the barren landscape of a desert may seem openly accessible to walk wherever one wants, there are many microscopic organisms living in that soil and stepping on them results in death. To follow the Leave No Trace philosophy, stay on the trail and make sure your children and pets stay on the trail as well. 

Unwanted “Social Trails” deviate from the main trail, destroying desert plants.

It is also important to not cut switchbacks (as tempting as it may look) because they are there to combat erosion. Can you imagine how hard it must be to carve out a trail in the side of a mountain to begin with?! 

In areas where the soil is dry and rocky, like the Sierra Nevada range in California, erosion can happen very quickly. 

Let’s play a game for this lesson. Here we go! 

You have been walking for an hour or so and you need a break, you look around and see you have three options:

1. The trail you are standing on. I mean hey! It’s a durable flat surface.

2. A large, flat-topped granite rock placed ever so nicely right off the trail so you can still wave at your fellow hikers as they walk by.

3. An inviting meadow full of wildflowers and butterflies just begging for you to kick your shoes off and sprawl out. 

Which one do you choose?

[A] Incorrect. Plopping down in the middle of the trail wouldn’t be very considerate to your other fellow hikers and would force them to travel around you which could cause a social trail. 

[C] Incorrect. A meadow is most definitely not a durable surface. Meadows are delicate landscapes and take a long time to grow. They also feed a lot of wildlife.

[B] Correct! A large granite boulder off to the side of the trail is most definitely a durable surface and doesn’t impede anyone else who might happen to walk by. 

Backpackers rest off-trail, in a non vegetated area as per LNT guidelines.

LNT Off-Trail Travel

Although it’s important to stay on the main trail provided, there are occasions when one must go off-trail; to find a place to go to the bathroom, when doing a cross-country backpacking trip, or getting to a climb are all reasons to go off-trail. 

When doing so it is still important to be considerate of your impact. According to LNT.org, there are two factors to consider when traveling off-trail:

  • Durability of surfaces and vegetation
  • Frequency of travel (or group size)

Let’s break these two down:

1. Durability of surfaces and vegetation: When traveling cross country consider the ground you are walking on and how fragile it is. Here is a general chart illustrating degrees of fragility:

Durable Rock, Sand, Gravel
Durable Snow and Ice
Moderately Durable* Vegetation
Not DurableLiving Soil
Not DurableDesert Puddles and Mud Holes

*Consider durability based on specific vegetation 

Understanding how to travel on and off trail is essential part of LNT philosophy.

2. Frequency of Travel (or group size): Try and mitigate any issues by not traveling in groups with more than eight people. If you’re in a large group traveling off-trail, consider fanning out rather than all walking in a line.  

LNT Camp Selection

Camp is the area where people will be spending a large amount of time and causing the most impact on one given space. Choosing an appropriate campsite is one of the most important decisions someone can make when traveling in the backcountry. 

On popular trails, campsites will be fairly obvious, void of vegetation and located on a flat spot. Kitchen areas should also be consolidated to one previously impacted spot generally away from your tent site. If there are no previously used sites refer back to the “Durability of Surfaces and Vegetation” chart above to choose an appropriate spot.     

  • DO, camp 200 ft (70 adult steps) away from water.
  • DO, spread out. Many people choose to backpack for the joy of solitude in nature, they don’t want to hear you snore all night. Pick a site out of the way from the trail and other campers.  
  • DO, save enough time and energy at the end of the day to choose an appropriate campsite. Excuses like weather, we were exhausted, or late arrivals are just that, excuses.    
Tents should be set up away from water sources and spread out.

3. Dispose of Waste Properly

If you aren’t in an area where you’re required to pack out your human waste you must dig what is called a “cat hole” to follow the Leave No Trace philosophy. If you’ve never dug a “cat hole,” the process goes like this

#1: Grab a trowel for digging.

Sharp flat rocks also work if you find yourself in a pinch.

#2: Choose the right spot, which depends on a few things

  • The location for your cat hole must be at least 200ft away from water. This includes places where there are visible signs of water runoff and/or where water could travel in a rainstorm. This is important in order to not contaminate water sources. 
  • Look for an elevated spot with rich soil, undergrowth, and sunlight if possible. These factors will help aid in faster decomposition. 
  • Find a spot that has been unused. 

#3: Once you have found your spot it is time to dig!

Cat holes should be 6-8 inches in depth and 4-6 inches wide. If you are in a desert landscape cat holes should be shallower due to the fact that soil is not as rich in organic matter to aid in the degrading process. Desert cat holes should be 4-6 inches deep

#4: Pack out your toilet paper.

In some wetter more forested places it is acceptable to bury your toilet paper but my opinion is to help out mother nature and always pack out your TP. It will only speed up the decay process and it’s not hard to bring a ziplock bag and throw it in when you are done.  

Note that feminine products should always be packed out. 

#5: Cover your cat hole with the upturned soil and disguise it with nearby foliage. Voilà!    

Urine

When going pee, you don’t need to dig a hole, but it is ideal to find a spot with rocks, gravel, or pine needles. Some animals are attracted to the salts and have been known to dig up a used area. 

Wastewater

In order to keep our streams and lakes clean, dirty dishwater and any other contaminated water should be disposed of 200 ft. away from water sources. When washing dirty dishes, bring a small metal strainer to strain the food particles out of your dishwater before tossing the water, then pack the food particles out in your trash. 

Using as little soap and other non-natural products as possible is also best. Most of the time hot water suffices when washing dirty dishes.     

4. Leave What you Find 

This rule is self-explanatory. We want to be able to enjoy our natural land for decades to come, therefore preserving the land and resources there should be one of our top priorities as hikers, climbers, campers and outdoor enthusiasts. You may think taking that one rock is no big deal but if everyone continues to take just one rock, eventually there may not be one more to take. 

Cultural artifacts go along with this—they are not yours to begin with therefore they are not yours to take. Leave them as a reminder and a tribute to the people that traveled the land before you did. Furthermore, taking any artifact is illegal as well as any natural object in a national park. 

Let nature be nature. Leave what you find, where you found it.

5. Minimize Campfire Impact  

To build a fire or not to build a fire? That is the question. When it comes to following Leave No Trace principles, there are a few details to consider first.

  • What is the fire danger in your area? 
  • Is there currently a fire restriction in your area? Something you should already know because you planned ahead and prepared!
  • Consider your elevation and refrain from fires in alpine zones. If you are in an alpine elevation zone (9500’ and above), the flora growth rate significantly slows due to the harsh elements at that altitude therefore, there is less of it.
  • Is there already a constructed fire ring or will you have to build one? Building a fire ring can negatively impact the area around you so if you do need to build a fire ring, do you know how to deconstruct it properly?
  • Are the weather conditions right? If it is windy it may not be the best idea to build a fire. 

All these questions should be asked before a fire is built. With the invention of lightweight camp stoves, fires are no longer a necessity in the backcountry. Stoves do a great job of cooking your food and use a lot fewer resources in the process. So before you build a fire ask yourself, do I really need one? 

If the answer is yes, here are some guidelines for collecting firewood, the cleanup process, and safety:

  • Only collect deadwood that is not attached to a standing or fallen tree. Intact trees are an abundant ecosystem home to many plants and animals.
  • Breaking branches off fallen or dead trees is a clear indication of human impact. 
  • Make sure all wood is burned down to white ash, soak thoroughly in water (just sand is not good enough), and spread away from the camp.
  • Re-naturalize the affected area by spreading leaves, branches, and soil.
  • Always pack out excess litter left behind from campfires. Aka: scraps of cardboard that didn’t fully burn.   
  • Never leave your fire unmanned.
  • Keep extra wood away from fire. 

Nearly 85% of wildfires in the United States are caused by humans, so before starting a fire please make sure to consider the points discussed above. If you want to learn more visit our How to Start a Fire instructional post.

6. Respect Wildlife 

Seeing wildlife in the backcountry is a special treat that should never be taken for granted. When observing wildlife, do so from a distance as to not invade their space and to maintain your own safety. 

Furthermore, always camp 200 ft. away from water in order to give wildlife the access necessary to drink from that water source. It would be frustrating to come back to camp after a long hike or climb only to find out your food bags have been chewed through by marmots or mice. 

In keeping your distance, remember to never touch or feed the wildlife as it desensitizes them to people. This trains them to see people as a source for food. We must always remember that the backcountry belongs to the wildlife more so than us. It is imperative that we conserve and respect the home of all the sensitive creatures, big and small, that live in it. 

7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors 

Many people venture into nature to enjoy wildlife or find solitude. Below are some tips to help keep everyone’s backcountry experience enjoyable. 

  • Use earbuds when listening to music so you don’t disturb wildlife and other hikers. 
  • When choosing a campsite, give your neighbors space. Camp at least 50 ft. away from another camp whenever possible.   
  • Uphill hikers have the right of way. It is easier for a downhill hiker to step aside than an uphill hiker who has set a climbing pace. 
  • Step aside for pack stock (mule and horse trains). 
  • Take breaks on a durable surface off the trail. 
  • Have control of pets and always clean up after them. 
The outdoors is for everyone, be respectful of your neighbors.

Enjoy the Wilderness, but Leave No Trace

The wilderness is a wonderful place to get away and enjoy the natural beauty that’s all around us. The only way we’ll be able to come back time and time again, however, is if we follow the Leave No Trace principles, ensuring that the wilderness we love so much stays as healthy and happy as us.

Written by Lauren Breitenbach

Lauren is a wilderness backpacking guide AND she happens to be one of the founding members of Têra Kaia. If you’d like to learn more about LNT or outdoor adventure reach out to her at lauren@terakaia.com!

About the Author

Lauren Breitenbach has been a backpack / rock climbing guide since 2015. She spends at least a quarter of her year in a tent guiding trips such as the John Muir Trail, Mount Whitney, and women’s climbing clinics. She has multiple certifications from NOLs and American Mountain Guide Association including her Wilderness First Responder Certification, Single Pitch Instructor Cert, and Apprentice Rock Guide.

Lauren Breitenbach

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