Leave No Trace Principles cover

The 7 Leave No Trace Principles [A Quick Explanation]

Written By: author image Kyle Cash
author image Kyle Cash
Kyle is the writer behind The Travel Runner. He’s a full-time traveler and adventurer who’s visited over 20 countries, including places like Thailand, Mexico, Vietnam, and Albania.


Love exploring the outdoors? Learn the 7 Leave No Trace Principles and help protect the trails, forests, and wilderness areas you play in for years to come.

Imagine heading out for a trail run, excited for fresh air and stunning views.

But as you go, something feels off. The trail is littered, widening in spots where people have gone off-path, and you hear the dreaded sound of someone’s Bluetooth speaker blaring music.

It’s not ideal for you, and it’s not ideal for the environment and animals, either. 

So, enter Leave No Trace. A set of seven principles that help us have a minimum impact on national parks, state parks, and other areas of the natural world we visit. This way, we keep them intact and continue enjoying them in the future.

If this sounds like something you’re down for, let’s dive in.

Save this for later! 📌

What is Leave No Trace?

Leave No Trace (LNT) isn’t just a slogan. It’s an entire movement dedicated to protecting our wild places.

It began in the 1960s, as more and more people started heading outdoors for recreation. And the negative impacts became impossible to ignore.

Today, Leave No Trace is a simple framework of seven principles that slows degradation. This way, the trails, campsites, and wild spaces we love remain pristine for years. Think of it as a toolkit for being a responsible outdoor adventurer! It helps you enjoy nature without harming it.

And it’s not just hoodoo nonsense. Its principles are founded on research about how ecosystems function and constantly evolve with the latest research.

So, it’s important to stay current and do what we can.

The Seven Leave No Trace Principles

1. Plan ahead and prepare

Being prepared isn’t just about having the right gear.

It keeps you safe, minimizes your impact on the trail, and makes your trip more enjoyable. Think of it as your adventure blueprint for leaving no trace! And it often consists of many things you’re already doing. We need that little extra to make sure everything goes off without a hitch (well, mostly.)

Here are some tips to follow as a hiker/trail runner:

  • Know your route: Research and find the trail ahead of time — distance, difficulty, and potential hazards. Download maps onto your phone with a hiking app or watch, but don’t forget a paper backup in case technology fails!
  • Leave an itinerary: Tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back. This ensures someone knows where to look if you don’t return as planned.
  • Check the weather: Be prepared for sudden changes impacting trail conditions or extreme weather. Knowing the forecast helps you make safe decisions and pack the right gear. (I’ve been caught in this mistake one too many times.)
  • Understand trail conditions: Has it rained recently? Are there closures or seasonal restrictions? Check official websites and local outdoor resources for up-to-date information.

2. Travel & camp on durable surfaces

Trails are designed to handle foot traffic, but even a single step off-trail can damage delicate plants and contribute to erosion.

Camping on durable surfaces is one of the most important Leave No Trace principles, like you can see in this photo

If you’re like many people, you try to step around the mud or avoid it at all costs by going around it. But that widens the trail or camping area and increases its impact on the surrounding environment. So, there are a few simple tips to keep trails in great condition and make life easier for our trail maintenance crews!

Here are some tips for staying on track:

  • Stick to the trail: Resist the urge to go around, even if it’s muddy or rocky. That initial walk-around can quickly become a detour that widens the trail and disturbs fragile ecosystems.
  • Muddy puddles? Go through!: It might feel icky initially, but running straight through muddy sections is better than widening the trail around them. Embrace the splatter — it’s a badge of honor for being a responsible trail runner/hiker!
  • Stay single-file: If you’re hiking in a group, walk single-file on narrow trails to minimize your overall impact.
  • Camp smart: Choose established campsites! Look for areas that have already been cleared and have minimal vegetation to set up your tent.

3. Dispose of waste properly

We’ve all tossed that spare bit of food into the trees around us, thinking, “It’ll be a nice snack for some animal.”

And that’s the problem. It might seem small, but repeat this many times, and animals rely on the snacks for food. And that alters how they act, which is very bad for them and the environment.

Here’s how to minimize waste:

  • Trash bags: Always bring a few spares, even on short hikes or runs. You never know what you might find that you must carry out (and sadly, other people’s litter sometimes, too).
  • “Wag bags”: Not familiar to everyone, but they’re essentially bags to cleanse solid human waste.
  • The “natural” stuff: Fruit peels, nut shells, etc. These take far longer to decompose than you’d think (think thousands of years) and attract wildlife in ways that harm them. And repackage food you don’t end up eating.
  • Toilet paper: Sadly, leaving used TP beside the trail is common. The best option is to pack it out and dispose of it properly.

4. Leave what you find

Everything you find on the trail has its place in its environment.

Every rock, plant, and seemingly insignificant pinecone is where it’s supposed to be and doesn’t need our help (especially when we take it). But it’s not just natural items. It’s illegal to take any historical artifacts you find, including something as simple as an arrowhead.

So, here’s what to leave alone:

  • Natural treasures: Resist the urge to collect flowers, rocks, antlers, or other natural souvenirs. Instead, take photos of the objects themselves. It doesn’t seem like much, but imagine a million people picking that pretty flower each. Pretty big, right?
  • Historical artifacts: If you find something unique (arrowheads, etc.), report it to park rangers. These objects tell the area’s story and should be left undisturbed for everyone to appreciate.
  • The work of others: Sometimes, you find man-made stacks of rocks. While the intention might be harmless, these disrupt the natural landscape. Also, don’t build your own (like cairns) because they can confuse hikers. Leave it to park officials.

5. Minimize campfire impacts

Campfires leave lasting scars on the environment; even a small, poorly managed fire poses a serious risk.

I mean, you’re smart. I don’t have to explain how having a fire in an area surrounded by flammable items could go seriously wrong. So, knowing when and how to enjoy them safely is vital!

A Firemaple portable campstove sits on a table

Here are some tips for responsible campfires:

  • Know the rules: Always check if fires are permitted in the area. Seasonal restrictions are common and are in place for a reason!
  • Use existing fire rings: If fire rings already exist, use those rather than creating new ones.
  • Keep it small: A big bonfire isn’t necessary. A small, contained fire is enough for warmth and cooking.
  • Fuel responsibly: Only burn dead and downed wood found on-site. Never cut branches or transport firewood long distances (it can spread invasive pests)
  • Extinguish completely: Before leaving your site, your fire should be COLD to the touch. Douse it thoroughly, stir the ashes, and ensure no lingering heat. Even consider making a “campfire soup” as they call it.

Bonus Tip: Consider a camp stove for quick, easy meals! This reduces your impact and often eliminates the temptation to build a larger fire than needed. There are popular brands like JetBoil, but I use this FireMaple, and it’s worked wonderfully for me (and I saved money compared to JetBoil!)

6. Respect wildlife

Wild animals are already wary of humans.

And our actions stress and disrupt their natural behaviors, harming them even if we mean well. Remember, YOU are the visitor in their home! This includes noises and approaching them, which have guidelines to follow so you can continue to watch them in their natural environment.

A mountain goat rests on a ledge in Zion National Park

Here’s what to keep in mind:

  • Keep your distance: Never approach or try to touch wildlife. Use binoculars or camera zoom for a close-up view.
  • Food storage is key: Secure ALL food and scented items away from your campsite or area. Even empty food wrappers attract animals used to careless humans.
  • Noise control: While some chattiness helps alert animals, unnecessary yelling or loud music disrupts peace.
  • Leashed dogs: Even well-behaved dogs can trigger a chase response. Trails where dogs are allowed are common. But remember, it’s still a wild space to respect.
  • Seasonal awareness: Know if it’s mating season, when animals are extra sensitive, or if there are bear warnings in the area.

7. Be considerate of other visitors

Sharing the trails means respecting everyone’s right to enjoy them.

A little awareness goes a long way in creating a welcoming outdoor community! This is one of the most misunderstood areas of trail etiquette I come across. Not through anyone’s fault or bad intentions but through a lack of awareness.

A sign shows proper trail courtesy and who should yield

So, here are some trail etiquette tips you may have not been aware of:

  • Yield to uphill hikers: They usually work harder, so a quick step aside and a friendly greeting are appreciated!
  • Announce yourself: A polite “On your left!” lets slower hikers know you’re passing safely.
  • Sound check: Blasting music drowns out nature for everyone. Earbuds are fine, but keep it at a level where you can still hear your surroundings.
  • Pack out your trash: Litter is an eyesore and harmful to the environment. Don’t leave it for others to clean up.
  • Trail karma: Lend a hand if you see someone struggling, and offer to take a photo for a fellow hiker… every positive interaction makes the trail a better place and more welcoming for everyone.

Ready to start your Leave No Trace journey?

Want to take your commitment to protecting the trails even further?

Visit the official Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics for more in-depth resources and tips. You can even take a course or watch webinars to become Leave No Trace certified and help inspire others to do the same!

And sign up for my email list for all the best outdoor tips and tricks! 👇🏼

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author avatar
Kyle Cash Owner
Kyle is the writer behind The Travel Runner. He’s a full-time traveler and adventurer who’s visited over 20 countries, including places like Thailand, Mexico, Vietnam, and Albania.