Leave-No-Trace Ethics

By Carley Fairbrother

Is There Room for Curiosity in Leave-No-Trace Ethics?

I want to start off with a story. Bear with me.

My first introduction to habitat destruction was when I was eight years old. The ditch at the end of our driveway was my favourite place to play in the early summer. It contained the densest population of tadpoles I have ever seen to date. Not just any tadpole either – Pacific tree frog tadpoles – my absolute favourite. I spent hours mucking around the ditch, and on rainy days, I’d stay inside and read about frogs. Sometimes the ditch would dry up, and I’d have to beat the birds to collect as many as I could to transport them to an old wooden barrel in the garden, where, to my delight, I could monitor their metamorphosis.


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A Pacific tree frog. Photo by Devin Edmonds, USGS.


Then, one spring day, I came down to the pond to find the ditch to be cleaned of all life. Nothing but muddy water remained. No slime, no weeds, and no tadpoles. A machine had come by to dredge the ditches in the neighbourhood. The next year, there were no tadpoles in the ditch, nor the next year, nor the next. There was no long enough still water to sustain a tadpole population.

Fast forward 25 years and I am a teacher, outdoor educate, and guide. Add to that eight years of working in natural resources, and you might start to get the idea that I really love nature. I’m pretty sure my passion for learning and teaching about nature started in that ditch.

Between my passion for protecting nature, and my passion for getting people outside and enjoying it, it seemed like a logical step to become a Leave-No-Trace master educator.

Leave No Trace is a term you may have heard floating around in the outdoor community. Often it’s used in the context t of picking up garbage or hiding your fire ring, but there is so much more to it. The Leave No Trace Centre for Outdoor Ethics have set forth the Leave No Trace Seven Principles for reducing recreational impacts on wilderness areas. It doesn’t stop there though. There is a lot to think about with each principle. In fact, it’s enough to fill several books.

I worry, though, that as people learn more about the Leave No Trace Principles, they will start to feel as if nature is a delicate museum that we are lucky enough to be allowed in. That does not sound like a whole lot of fun to me, and is far from the reason many of us seek out nature.

Perhaps, it would be helpful to share a little about Leave No Trace Seven Principles.


The Seven Leave No Trace Principles


Plan Ahead and Prepare

This may seem like something that falls into the safety category, but safety and LNT are pretty closely linked. If you are cold and hungry, chances are you are going to be worrying a lot less about the impact that you make. Plan for bad weather and emergencies.

It’s important to know about the area you are going into. Plan your route and bring a map and compass. Know the regulations in the area you want to go and plan accordingly. A lot of rules in wild areas are there to help keep them wild.

Also, try to stay in small groups or split larger groups up.


Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

Stay on the trail and avoid shortcuts. Wear shoes that will allow you to go through or over difficult terrain such as rocks or puddles as going around can cause trail braiding or widening. This can lead to erosion and soil compaction, which kills plants and can destabilize or harm the original trail.

Curiosity in Leave-No-Trace Ethics 2
This trail has been braided as people attempt to walk around the rocky spot. With fewer plants, this area is more susceptible to erosion. Photo by Carley Fairbrother


If you are hiking somewhere with no trails, spread out so that trails don’t form.

Camp in designated campsites whenever possible. Sometimes park managers build tent platforms out of wood or gravel. It may be tempting to camp on the soft ground next to them, but the tent pads are there to concentrate the impact.

If there aren’t designated camp pads, try to find a place that does not have vegetation and keep your camping area small.


Dispose of Waste Properly

Oh boy, is there a lot to say about this principle. I would hope that most people reading this are already careful to pack out their garbage, but there is so much more.

Food Waste:  Food scraps can attract unwanted animals to camp or to the trail and is unsightly to other park users. When backpacking, prepare meals in portions before leaving to avoid leftovers and pack out anything you don’t eat. Burning food waste and food-packaging can bring smells into camp and attract wildlife.

Washing dishes: People commonly believe that their biodegradable camp soap is safe for streams and lakes. However, soap, biodegradable or not, works because it is a surfactant. It reduces the surface tension of water and can cause a decrease in oxygen, which can cause algae blooms, which will lead to even less oxygen. Instead, wash then around 70 m (around 100 steps) from a water source. If there are scraps in the dishwater strain them out.


Curiosity in Leave-No-Trace Ethics 3
This sign in Ladakh India reminds visitors to use the toilet. Pit toilets are not always pleasant, but they are the best and safest way to dispose of human waste in the backcountry. Photo by Carley Fairbrother


Human waste. Always use a toilet or outhouse if it’s provided. Urine is typically not an environmental hazard, but going close to camp could create a smell, and too much in one area will kill plants. Try not to use the same spot over and over. Feces are a different story. They need to be buried in a cathole 6-8 inches deep 70 m (100 steps) from camp, trails, or water sources. In some places, such as Denali and Mt Ranier, human waste has become such a problem that it is mandatory to carry it out. If we don’t manage our waste properly, this may become common practice in in less sensitive areas.

Toilet Paper and Hygiene Products: If you are using a pit toilet, it’s fine to put your toilet paper in there. It used to be common to burn toilet paper in catholes, but that can cause forest fires. The best LNT practice is to pack it out in a ziplock bag. In mild climates burying a small amount of toilet paper is usually okay unless local regulations say otherwise. If the climate is cold or dry, or if  a lot of toilet paper was used, it should be packed out. Making a switch to natural (leaves, moss, etc.)  can solve this problem, but certainly isn’t for everyone. Always pack out feminine hygiene products, even if you have access to a pit toilet.


Leave What You Find

This one is quite simple. Don’t move plants, animals, rocks, artifacts, or soil. That means no building furniture and structures for camp, or taking cool rocks or flowers home. This does not apply to garbage of course. Nature will be very happy if you pack out other people’s trash.


Inspecting Pictographs in the Stein Valley. It is important not to touch pictographs and petroglyphs as the oils in our hands can damage discolour the rock. These are often sacred sites for people still living today. Photo by Carley Fairbrother


Minimize Campfire Impacts

Fire bans are becoming more and more common, so check regulations before you go. Even if there isn’t a fire ban, consider not having one. Backpacking camp stoves are light and much more efficient for cooking than a fire. If you must, keep it small and, if there is one, use established fire rings, fire pans, or mound fires (instructions for mound fires are available on the LNT website). Using small wood that you can break up with your hands will help ensure that it gets completely burned. Never take live or dead standing trees for firewood and remember that even dead logs provide habitat for fungus and animals. They also decompose, adding nutrients to the soil. Always make sure the fire is completely out before you go to bed, and keep water on hand while it’s burning. Once it’s completely cool, scatter the ashes and hide any trace of fire.

As a side note, aluminum foil, which often ends up in fire rings, can do a lot of damage to an animal’s stomach. Packing it out, even if it’s someone else’s could save a life.


Respect Wildlife

This is another simple one, but one that is often ignored or forgotten. Handling, feeding, or pestering wildlife is not only bad LNT practice, it’s against the law in most places. Many animals such as bison, elk, and bears are killed each year because they attack after people get too close. Of course animal attacks can harm, or even kill humans as well. Even a squirrel can deliver a nasty bite.


Greey jays (also know as camp robbers or whisky jacks) are famous for their bold moves and have learned that humans are often happy to feed them. Human food could potentially harm their digestive system and make them dependant on humans. Photo by Carley Fairbrother


Feeding animals presents other problems. Their systems aren’t designed for human food, and it can make them sick. It can also make them dependant on humans for food. When larger animals get too used to the idea that humans provide food, they will sometimes attack. Always be careful to pick up food scraps and store food properly. Look up the best practices for storing food in your area as they vary depending on local wildlife.


Be Considerate of Others

Some people are surprised to see this on the list, but it makes sense. One of the reasons for adopting the LNT principles is to leave the wilderness for other’s to enjoy. When you are in the wilderness, remember that others are there to enjoy nature as well. Keep your voices quite and music turned off. If you meet someone on a  narrow trail, the person walking downhill should yield, as stopping and starting can break the rhythm of the uphill hiker (though they might also take the opportunity to rest).

Of course, the best way to respect others is to follow the other six principles, and just be friendly and courteous.


Now, let’s return to 8-year-old Carley, who is not leaving things how she found them, and not respecting the wildlife. For the record, I also loved to build forts, collect rocks, dig holes, and an assortment of other typical kid activities. I still do, for that matter. I refuse to give up my curiosity.


My dad catching tadpoles earlier this year when we discovered they had returned. Adults like catching frogs too.


What if my mother had come outside and said, “Leave those poor tadpoles alone!”?

I would never have cared about them enough to spend my spare time reading about them, I wouldn’t have watched their magnificent metamorphosis, and if I’d noticed their home being destroyed, I probably wouldn’t have cared. I would have been introduced to habitat destruction at school, but I might not have cared or even understood. I might have seen a picture of a rainforest being logged and gone back to thinking about my weekend.


Now before I get anyone swearing off the LNT principles I want to tell another story.

It is the story of the easiest twenty bucks I have ever made. When I was around twelve, a friend and I were catching tadpoles at our local lake. The lake was famous for its giant tadpoles. A man approached us with a bucket and offered us one dollar for every tadpole we could catch. Half an hour later he had a bucket of tadpoles to take home to his pond and we each had a soggy twenty dollar bill.

Years later, I learned that the bullfrog tadpoles we had caught were invasive in our area and reeking havoc on the local frog population. This time my “harmless”  frog catching did result in some environmental destruction.

So which is it? Should we be catching frogs, building forts, and collecting interesting plants in the name of curiosity? Or should we be treading carefully so we don’t ruin the wild places we have left?

I think the balance is found in education.

While LNT proponents are working hard to educate outdoor adventures about why LNT is important and how we can best carry out the principles, we can’t ignore the other ingredient in making LNT work. People need to care. And to do that, people need to spend time in nature, but not just walking down the trail. They need to let it awaken their sense of wonder and curiosity. They need to feel completely immersed in it. Without this component, they won’t care enough to follow the LNT principles.

Both are necessary. The association that I worked with to become an LNT Master Educator also runs a pond program where folks can come out and catch frogs and invertebrates in the wetland. They take that time to talk about how important that ecosystem is, and about invasive frog species – a lesson I need 25 years ago. Kids and adults alike love it. That is how nature stewards are made.

Nature exploration can be done while minimizing damage to wild places. When collecting natural objects or building forts with students, we always discuss how taking things will affect the ecosystem and talk about what is okay to take or disturb. We talk about how what’s okay in the schoolyard, may not be okay in a park or in someone’s yard.

While some LNT proponents may have you thinking otherwise, The Leave No Trace Centre for Ethics seem to share my view, at least to some degree. As Jeffery Marion writes in his book, Leave No Trace in the Outdoors, “…Leave No Trace is not about a fixed set of rules. Rather, it is about awareness of recreational impact to the environment and the experience of other visitors and about developing your knowledge of practices to avoid or minimize your impacts”  – Jeffry Marion, Leave No Trace in the Outdoors

When you hear about the LNT principles, I encourage you not to feel that you are being told never to touch nature again. We are part of nature, which is exactly why we all need to take care of it. Just do so in an informed way, and be conscious of what your actions mean. The LNT Principles help guide that learning.

I’ve focussed a lot on the backcountry in this article, but their are plenty of tips for front country, as well as a number of other outdoor activities. I urge you to visit https://lnt.org/learn/7-principles to learn more about the Seven Principles.


My husband sitting in a swinging chair made from driftwood and beach garbage. Making something useful out of these materials would have little to harm the environment. Someone undoubtedly had a great time making it, and we enjoyed having it in our campsite.



The author, Carley Fairbrother, also created a ‘Bad Claymation’ video about the Leave No Trace principles, which appears below:



Camping for Women readers who have not yet checked out or subscribed to Carley Fairbrother’s ‘Last Grown Up In The Woods’ channel on YouTube are more than welcome to do so here.


Carley Fairbrother is the creator and host of the YouTube channel, The Last Grownup in the Woods, geared at getting adults outside and connecting with nature.

After a seven year career as a backcountry park ranger, she returned to school to get her Bachelor of Education and dedicate her life to helping kids get outside.

She loves to travel, but is most at home in the forests and mountains of British Columbia, Canada.

She enjoys hiking, climbing, canoeing, building forts, and eating bugs.

32 thoughts on “Leave-No-Trace Ethics

  • January 16, 2021 at 10:21 pm

    It is good to be as respectful of the environment as much as possible. I belong to some conservation groups, and there is a lot of controversy over things from stacking rocks to making fairy houses. I think there are some good ways for people to enjoy nature with very minimal impact.

  • December 2, 2018 at 5:03 pm

    It is really important for everyone to respect and care for our surroundings and this post is gentle reminder for each and everyone of us. Thanks for sharing it.

  • November 6, 2018 at 4:47 pm

    I love that you touched on this topic. Ethics travel is a topic that is only growing in popular amongst travelers. Glad to see you staying ahead. I honestly don’t think I could ever camp like you but might try it one day.

  • October 31, 2018 at 12:42 am

    This post is a great reminder for people to respect the environment and our natural resources. We must keep in mind that we may unknowingly cause a breach in the ecosystem if we are not careful with our actions. Thank you for sharing this post.

  • October 30, 2018 at 11:45 pm

    This was a great post full of helpful advice! I grew up camping, too, and love sharing that with my kiddos!

  • October 29, 2018 at 2:55 pm

    This is definitely a serious discussion that needs to be given importance for everyone. We can’t help but be disappointed to see places shut down or permanently off-limits to travelers because it was abused and not taken cared of. Thank you for sharing these tips. I just shared your post too to spread awareness.

  • October 29, 2018 at 2:05 pm

    This is a thought-provoking post and it definitely prompts us to watch our step while dealing with nature. It is important to be considerate towards nature and its creations. I often find people picking up things while on hikes and adding more litter. Both needs to be restrained. Thank you suggesting a number of things and it was interesting to read the no trace rules. Also, I didn’t know that spreading out is useful while on trails.

  • October 29, 2018 at 11:31 am

    We love going camping as a family. It’s one of my girls’ favorite activities. This information is something that we all have a responsibility to pass onto future generations if they are to continue enjoying the wilderness.

  • October 29, 2018 at 11:19 am

    This is a great post for anyone who is into hiking and/or camping. People love to do adventure but they fail to educate themselves on how to do it without harming nature. This awareness is a must for everyone.

  • October 29, 2018 at 9:12 am

    This is some really great information and food for thought on Leave No Trace. I value my time on the great outdoors and feel strongly about the future of our natural assets – so this was really helpful.

  • October 28, 2018 at 6:26 pm

    I think this is a very informative post that every first-time hiker and family should read! If we want these beautiful trails and lands to exist and continue to thrive then teaching conservation is a must.

  • October 28, 2018 at 5:22 pm

    I get what you mean by leaving no trace and at the same time it shouldn’t be about thinking of nature as a museum. Nature is meant to be explored and enjoyed. At the same time you shouldn’t do anything to damage it or dirty it up with our own waste.

  • October 28, 2018 at 4:45 pm

    This is a very informative article. We’ve been doing a lot of hiking so I’m glad to find this useful information. I just recently learned that some invasive insects that destroy trees are carried by hikers on their shoes so in one place we visited, they have something that you can kinda clean your shoes before your journey to the woods.

  • October 27, 2018 at 8:20 pm

    These are really great tips! I love hiking and try to keep nature as it was when we arrived, it’s important to respect our world like this.

  • October 27, 2018 at 8:00 pm

    Proper behavior is really just common sense, but I’m always surprised by how many people don’t have any. I’m teaching my kids to be more aware.

  • October 27, 2018 at 10:00 am

    Loved this. I love hiking and nature trails etc and I’m frequently horrified about the mess people leave behind; how flowers, trees etc are damaged for the perfect photo. Very inspiring post, thank you

  • October 27, 2018 at 8:00 am

    Very well written blog. I am a nature lover too and it just breaks my heart to see humans destroy the natural habitat of wild animals. We forget that the other species have an equal stake on this planet. Another irksome behavior, as you have mentioned is feeding wild animals our food. I was once horrified to see a tourist feeding chips and wafers to marmots. Of course, I intervened. We all should speak up. Sharing this on twitter and facebook.

  • October 27, 2018 at 6:44 am

    A wonderful experience that you will experience adventure to see the world in the wild life and for you to survive all the obstacle be prepared your self .After a hardtime reaching the top., There you will receive and beauty you waiting for.

  • October 27, 2018 at 3:35 am

    When we hike, and are off trail, I often think we instinctively follow in a single line—thinking we’re doing less destruction. But it makes perfect sense to spread out to minimize impact on a single spot. Thanks for elaborating on the principles!

    • October 27, 2018 at 6:43 am

      I still walk behind the person in front if I’m not thinking about it. I have to make a conscious effort not to. I think part of it is that the person in the lead usually chooses the easiest route.

  • October 27, 2018 at 1:26 am

    Thank you for such an informative post on LNT. While I was already practicing a lot of what you listed here, I still learned a great deal. We must do everything we can do enjoy nature without damaging it.

  • October 26, 2018 at 10:49 pm

    I am not a camper but this post is ridiculously informative! So many of the facts you had listed here I had no idea. I didn’t even know that was such as thing as biodegradable soap and what suffacants even were. There are heaps of facts here that are of course usable in many situations. We may not be campers but we are hikers and beach goers. Everything about waste, food and leaving on traces are all applicable.

  • October 26, 2018 at 5:09 pm

    I think this sounds really great! I love protecting nature while still enjoying yourself!

  • October 26, 2018 at 4:28 pm

    I wasn’t aware of the precise Leave No Trace Principles. Campers and hikers need to respect these. That was interesting about wearing footwear that allows you to walk through puddles or over rocks.

  • October 26, 2018 at 3:49 pm

    I’m not much into camping myself but the more I read posts from here makes me want to get on that journey soon as possible. It is a great way to teach kids how to respect nature and abide by rules surrounding it. We should be putting our best to protecting the environment and there are some great tips here to start with . Simple but would make a difference.

  • October 26, 2018 at 1:09 pm

    Your post is so inspiring. I am surely going to pen about habitat restoration and taking care of it in our area. Love the way you are doing your bit for the planet.

  • October 26, 2018 at 11:00 am

    I really appreciate your writing and environmental friendly influence. I write about that myself and trying to put more and more effort in protecting the environment and producing less carbon footprint. Thanks for spreading such a positive message.


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