Many of us escape to the outdoors to get away from everyday life and experience something more wild and awe-inspiring. There’s nothing quite like hitting a trail, breathing in the fresh air, admiring the wildflowers and the birds chirping, watching the stars at night, sleeping in a tent and living a wilder life for a change. But in doing so, it’s part of our duty to Leave No Trace.
We undoubtedly have an impact on the environment as soon as we step foot in it. However, in order to reduce any damage and protect it for the future, there are lot’s of things we can do whenever we go outside and spend time in a national park or reserve.
You’ve likely heard of the concept of leave no trace. It’s been around a long time now and is often a phrase that is thrown around by outdoorsy types. But in reality, we can all learn from the Leave No Trace Principles, whether we head out camping for the weekend or just a short walk in the bush. In this blog post, I’m going to detail the seven principles of Leave No Trace and provide some practical tips that you can do to implement them the next time you head outdoors.
What are the Leave No Trace Principles?
While the concept itself dates back half a century, officially, Leave No Trace (LNT) was incorporated as a nonprofit in the USA in 1994. However, in reality, the idea of protecting the natural environment, and leaving nothing but footprints, is not new. In fact, it’s been a large part of Indigenous culture for thousands of years.
But LNT has become more important than ever with the increase in the number of people heading out to explore the outdoors and get involved in various activities. It’s essential for every single person to at least be familiar with the seven principles of Leave No Trace and what they mean for their outdoor adventure.
While they seem quite simple, these principles should be central to everything we do outdoors. By following them, you’ll be making a huge difference in protecting the environment for future generations.
Why is it Important to Leave No Trace?
While most of us can understand the idea of leaving no trace or leaving nothing but footprints, but you’ll be surprised how few of us actually put it into practice. You only have to head out on a hike to find toilet paper left in the bush, plastic bottles washed up in rivers, old campfires people have left or wildlife that have been too often fed by tourists. But, it’s extremely important to abide by these Leave No Trace Principles, if we want to maintain these natural places for the future.
Not only does it encourage us to leave the environment clean of our rubbish, but it also means the wilderness remains as wild as it can be. We undoubtedly have an impact on the natural environment every time we set foot in a national park or on a trail. From soil erosion, to introducing invasive species, and polluted water ways, the impact can be far reaching.
However, by following Leave No Trace, the idea is that we can minimise our impact as much as possible and try to protect the natural environment as it is now for future generations.
The 7 Leave No Trace Principles
There are seven Leave No Trace principles that can be applied to all different outdoor adventures. No matter whether you’re going on a long hike or just heading out camping for the weekend, follow these principles and you’ll be contributing to a more sustainable future.
Plan Ahead and Prepare
The first step to leaving no trace is to plan ahead and prepare for your adventure. Whether it’s just a short walk or multi-day expedition, planning is an important aspect of being in the outdoors. Not only will it be safer and more enjoyable, it also ensures that you’ll be able to execute the rest of the leave no trace principles.
Poor planning may not only be putting yourself in danger, but it often leads to more damage being done to the natural environment. The more you understand the place you’re going and what your adventure is going to entail, the better you can be prepared for everything.
Why You Should Plan Ahead
- It helps you be prepared for whatever is expected from the area e.g. weather, terrain, facilities
- It ensures you and your fellow adventure buddies will be safe if something is to happen
- It helps to minimise your impact and reduce the strain on resources
- Enables you to pack smarter and have essential gear with you
Tips to Help You Plan and Prepare
- Research the national park, hike or area so you’re aware of terrain, climate, facilities, roads or access points etc.
- Check the weather forecast in the lead up to your adventure
- Pack appropriately, including all first aid and emergency essentials
- Understand your own abilities and past experience (and that of other group members if going together)
- Know the potential dangers that might be involved in the location or activity
- Tell someone where you’re going and your expected return dates and time
Read more: Ultimate Day Hike Packing List
Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
While the idea of having formed, marked trails and designated campsites might seem ideal for those who don’t have extensive navigation skills, they’re really put in place to minimise our damage on the natural environment. If we all stick to the same paths, roads and campsites, then it allows the rest of the natural area to be maintained for wildlife.
Trampling through the bush off-track or pitching your tent on fragile vegetation can cause severe damage to the environment that you’re exploring. Not only does it cause short term damage like broken foliage, but if more and more people continue to head off-trail, it can have long term impacts like soil erosion and destruction of habitat. This is why it’s important for us to stick to camping and walking in designated areas where possible.
However, there are some circumstances where off-track exploration is permitted and highly sought-after. We are curious beings after all, and there is a desire for many of us to explore where few others have gone. However, where off-track exploration is allowed such as in the alpine region, this makes it even more important to follow leave no trace principles below.
Why You Should Stay on Trail and Camp on Durable Surfaces
- To prevent destruction of plants and vegetation
- To minimise disturbance of natural habitats
- To prevent soil erosion across large areas
- Increased personal safety by sticking to marked trails and campgrounds
Tips to Help You Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Rock, sand, gravel and hard packed dirt are generally the most durable surfaces to stick to
- Ice and snow also provides a protective layer for vegetation underneath and are considered good surfaces to explore on
- Stick to designated campgrounds and marked campsites to keep human impact to limited areas, even most remote trails will have designated wild camping areas (ask the Parks office or rangers)
- Resist taking shortcuts, even if it’s to just cut a corner. You’ll see plenty of unofficial tracks people might have trampled on to take shortcuts, but try to resist using them as this causes destruction
- Try to walk in single file along skinny trails and don’t avoid puddles or muddy sections by walking around them as this only widens trails and causes further damage (this is why you need good hiking boots!)
- If you’re wild camping in backcountry or alpine areas, try to stay at least 100m away from water sources, as this will help keep the natural water free from contamination
- Try to pick durable surfaces to camp on, away from soft grasses, living soils, boggy areas or other fragile vegetation and spread out your tents if you’re camping in a group
Dispose of Waste Properly
What you carry in, you must carry out. Pack it in, pack it out! This is a simple principle that is one of the most important, and yet for some reason, it’s one that some people struggle to abide by. Whether it’s your food, human waste or other rubbish, you need to dispose of it properly.
Not only does it not look good when natural spaces are covered in litter, more importantly, it causes serious harm to wildlife and contaminates the environment. Even “natural” waste such as fruit peels or skins should be packed out, as this is not necessarily “natural” to the area you’re in and can cause harm to animals who decide to eat it.
While some national parks will have toilets and bins, many do not. This means you need to be prepared to dispose of your own waste properly so that it doesn’t cause any damage once you leave the area.
Why You Should Dispose of Waste Properly
- Keeps trails, camps and natural environment clean
- Prevents any harm to wildlife and their natural habitat
- Limits contamination of soil and water sources
Tips for Disposing of Waste in the Outdoors
- Pack out ALL rubbish, including food waste, and packaging. It’s best to carry a designated rubbish bag that is sealable so you can do the right thing from the beginning of your adventure
- Try to only cook what you intend to eat and if you can’t finish your meal, pack out the remainding food in your rubbish bag
- If you need to go to the toilet in the bush, follow the proper etiquette, which is to find a spot at least 100m from a water source, dig a hole about 15-20cm deep with a trowel and bury it once you’re done
- While non-perfumed, biodegradable toilet paper can technically be buried as well, I personally prefer to pack all toilet paper out. This might seem a bit gross to some, but even biodegradable toilet paper takes time to break down and if you want to really leave no trace, you should pack all TP out with you
- In snow, you always need to pack out your human waste with you, as in these conditions you can’t properly dispose or bury the waste (imagine what happens when the snow melts…!). There are airtight containers designed for this or use a WAG Bag
- For women, tampons or pads should not be buried, and these need to be packed out with you. If you want a waste free alternative, you could experiment with things like a menstrual cup (burying the contents when being emptied) or period underwear (leak proof)
- When washing dishes, use biodegradable soap and throw your dirty water at least 100m away from natural water sources (strain or remove any food scraps from your dishes before throwing the dirty water)
Leave What You Find
Synonymous with leave no trace is leave what you find. While you don’t want to add anything to the environment, you also shouldn’t take anything away. This means leave the pretty flowers, interesting rocks or shells and refrain from touching or breaking any vegetation.
While you might be in awe of the natural environment, this doesn’t mean that you can take some with you and display it at home. Even plucking some flowers is causing more damage than good. Nature should be left just as you found it, so try to resist the urge to pick up or break off.
Why You Should Leave What You Find
- Prevents damage to fragile vegetation and ecosystems
- Prevents destruction or changes to natural habitats of even the tiniest living organisms
- Protects the environment for the future
Tips for Leaving What You Find
- Leave the flowers, the rocks, the shells and any other natural part of the environment, and take photos instead
- Don’t build structures, dig trenches, or create any “improvements” to the camping area, leave everything as you found it
- If you need to move rocks or any objects to erect your tent, then do your best to put them back when you leave
- Don’t carve your name into trees or hammer nails into branches
Minimise Campfire Impacts
We all know how nice it is to have a campfire when spending the night under the stars. There’s something so comforting and entertaining about watching the flames flicker and roasting some marshmallows while enjoying the warmth. However, campfires can have a negative impact on the environment if you don’t follow the proper etiquette.
Some national parks and fragile areas actually prevent campfires and are “stove only” areas. If this is the case, please abide by the rules and bring along your stove instead. There may even be seasonal fire restrictions, so make sure you’re aware of those by looking at the appropriate Parks website.
I personally prefer to use my JetBoil stove for camping. This is the best way to have a minimal impact on the area that you’re camping and hiking, and I find it much easier most of the time. However, if I’ve ever had a fire, it was always within a proper fire pit and done by following safety rules.
There’s much more to think about than just enjoying a fire. Is there enough wood available? Is it appropriate to use the wood in the area? Do you have enough water to put it out? Think before you do.
Why You Should Minimise Campfire Impacts
- To prevent degradation of the natural environment through destruction of trees and fallen debris, and movement of rocks
- To limit the risk of a bushfire
- To refrain from encouraging everyone to have fires in the outdoors (there are many who do not know how to properly manage a campfire sustainably)
Tips for Minimising Campfire Impacts
- Check local fire restrictions and rules around campfires before heading out
- Use designated fire pits or existing fire rings that are already in place or left by others, as this prevents creation of new campfires
- Try carrying a fire pan or packable fire place which keeps the fire off the ground
- Don’t fall trees or cut down branches for firewood, even if you consider them to be dead, as this only damages wildlife habitat
- If there is not enough wood around to support frequent campfires, then don’t have a fire. In many places, it is not sustainable for everyone to have a campfire as there is not enough fallen wood to meet demand
- Ensure you have enough water to put the fire out. If you don’t have enough water then do not start a fire. Even if you plan on letting it burn out itself, you still need to have water in case it gets out of control
- Do not burn rubbish in campfires, other than paper or cardboard, as burning plastic spews out harmful chemicals to yourself and the environment
- Don’t leave fires unattended, even for a minute, as this only increases the risk of it getting out of control
- Ensure the fire is completely out and cold before leaving, do not leave a campfire still smoking or with hot coals as this can easily restart a fire once you have vacated the area and quickly turn into a bushfire
- In the rare occasion that you are starting or building a new fire in the backcountry or somewhere remote, remember to pick a suitable place away from dry bushland, and dismantle your fire ring after use by putting rocks back in their place
It’s not unusual to comes across wildlife while out exploring. Spotting some of our beautiful animals is often one of the best parts about spending time outside. However, we must remember that we are entering into their home and we need to treat them with respect.
This means simply observing them from a distance, giving them space, not disturbing them, not feeding them and allowing them to just live their lives. While I know it can be hard to resist, especially if you’re seeing a koala or a kangaroo for the first time, but it’s really important to keep these animals wild.
Touching them or feeding them can make them sick, and domesticating them can impact the whole naturally balanced ecosystem. It’s also a personal safety principle too, as getting too close to animals and spooking them can lead to attacks or bites. Try to observe from afar and appreciate them for what they are.
Why You Need to Respect Wildlife
- To keep wildlife wild and maintain the natural ecosystem
- To protect endangered species and natural habitats from further destruction
- To keep yourself safe from potential bites, scratches or otherwise
Tips for Respecting Wildlife
- Give all animals plenty of space and try not to block their path, as this will only make them feel trapped
- Observe wildlife through binoculars or a camera lens instead of physically approaching them. If you find yourself wanting to get closer, invest in one of these pieces of gear
- Try not to camp where there are a large concentration of animals, as this will disturb their habitat
- Don’t feed wildlife EVER, even if you think it’s “natural food” like fruit, it might still make them sick
- Store food securely when camping, this might mean bringing several dry bags, hanging food to prevent mice or using a bear canister
Be Considerate of Other Visitors
We all want to enjoy the great outdoors so it’s important to consider other people when you’re out exploring. Trail etiquette or outdoor etiquette is mostly common sense, but there always seems to be some people who prefer to disturb the peace and make it a personal party.
Still, if we’re all to equally get outside as much as possible, we should allow everyone to enjoy it for themselves. And this means following some basic etiquette for the outdoors.
Why You Should Consider Others in the Outdoors
- Everyone is there to enjoy the outdoors, it’s not your personal playground
- Everyone has the right to experience the beauty and sounds of nature, some are there to enjoy their friends company while others want solitude, respect everyone’s reasons for being there
- Each of us have our own way of doing things, don’t pass judgement on others
Tips for Trail and Camping Etiquette
- Don’t camp too close to others, spread out at an even distance to give people space and respect their privacy
- Do not play loud music either on the trails or while camping. Bring earphones if you like to listen to music while walking and have your speaker at a reasonable level when camping that won’t impact others’ experience
- Ensure you only take pets where they are allowed and keep them leashed at all times
- Move over for people hiking faster than you on a trail and allow people going uphill the right of way
- Avoid school holidays or peak periods if you prefer to have the place to yourself or want a quieter experience
- Leave your campground as you found it, with all rubbish packed out and campfire put out
- Be kind to everyone and say hello! It’s always nice to meet new people on the trails and out camping