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Zero Evidence at the Scene: The Essence and Importance of Leave No Trace

Words and Photos by Rebecca Sperry

Spend any amount of time in the outdoors community, and you'll be hard-pressed not to hear the three-word phrase, "Leave No Trace," pass over the lips of at least one person. As an outdoors enthusiast myself, it came as quite a shock to me when, in recent weeks, a well-known hiker, Julia Sheehan, posted some not-so-nice messages on her social media; responses she got from individuals who were clearly not educated about the Leave No Trace Principles. Her posts left me wondering, do we assume people know what we mean when we say, "Leave No Trace?" As someone who enjoys the outdoors on a regular basis, it behooves me to not only practice LNT but to educate others about these seven principles.

The History of Leave No Trace

Before we tackle the principles themselves, it's helpful to understand where they come from and why they are so essential. The concept of "leaving no trace" is arguably centuries-old, linked to the actions of Native Americans and Indigenous peoples. These cultures have taught and practiced land stewardship values for hundreds of years. However, the development of the principles themselves and the adoption of said principles by government agencies like the United States Forest Service (USFS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and National Park Service (NPS) didn't happen until the 1960s and 1970s.

With the increase in visitors to national parks and the boom in popularity of outdoor recreation, these government agencies were challenged to develop a solution for the lack of education surrounding outdoor ethics among recreators and park visitors. The concept of leaving no trace continued to be discussed by these government agencies, and over the next three decades, various pamphlets and programs were developed under different names such as Wilderness Manners, Wilderness Ethics, Minimum Impact Camping, and No-Trace Camping.

In 1987, after determining that they needed to come together and create one pamphlet that the various agencies could distribute, the "no trace" program was formed. The original pamphlet that was developed by the Bureau of Land Management and then distributed can be found here. By the 1990s, the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) was brought on board to develop training programs, and in 1994, the National Outdoor Recreation Summit, which includes a variety of outdoor agencies, got together and formed the 501(c)(3) nonprofit officially known as the Leave No Trace organization. Further reading on the history of the LNT Organization can be found here.

More Than Lip Service

Forming an organization to educate the public was the first step in protecting our lands; however, as someone who is familiar with the Leave No Trace Organization, I wanted to know more about what they actually do to not only "talk the talk," but to "walk the walk." After browsing their website, I discovered that the organization does more than just hand out pamphlets at trailheads or spout the phrase "Leave No Trace" from the mountaintops. Although they are best known for the development of the "Seven Principles," The Leave No Trace Organization has over a dozen other issues they are focused on solving in terms of preserving our outdoor spaces. Educating people about the impact of fires, how overuse and misuse of trails erode them, and how to be safe outdoors are just a few of the other areas this organization tackles on their website. On top of outlining and educating outdoor recreators about how to practice "leave no trace," their website also provides crucial information about trip planning, camping and traveling outdoors, and being considerate of others.

The Principles

When it comes right down to it, though, the main goal of the Leave No Trace Organization is to educate people about the Leave No Trace Principles. All too often, I find myself carrying out other people's trash, picking up painted rocks that have been placed along the trail, or watching people trample alpine vegetation for a photo opportunity. Even though we have been led to believe that there are no rules in outdoor recreation, being outside and spending time enjoying nature should not be a veritable free-for-all where we do what we please, go where we feel like going, and assume that the wilderness will always be there. We have a terrible habit of thinking that just one person won't have a big impact on the destruction of our lands, but we are very wrong in that assumption. Our responsibility as a community of outdoor recreation enthusiasts is to self-govern and educate each other about the importance of outdoor ethics and the seven principles of Leave No Trace.

The Leave No Trace Principles are:

1. Plan Ahead and Prepare

2. Travel & 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

    One of the best things about the LNT Principles is that they are fluid and re-evaluated by the LNT Organization on a regular basis. Further information about the principles, along with resources, can be found under each of the links above.

    Looking Towards the Future of Outdoor Recreating in a Digital Age

    With the increase in popularity of social media platforms like Instagram, there are both pluses and minuses for outdoor recreation. Beyond just talking about the LNT Principles to fellow outdoor recreators while outside, it has become the unavoidable responsibility of frequent outdoor enthusiasts to take to their own social media accounts and use their voices to educate the masses about the LNT Principles. Getting "Insta-famous" or becoming an "Influencer" has caused a massive spike in foot traffic on our trails, and this increase means more trash and trail erosion. Conversely, these platforms can be used as a way to reach the masses more efficiently, leading to more opportunities to educate newer outdoor enthusiasts about the LNT Principles.

    Rather than trying to swim against the tide, let's come together as a community. Let's use the tools we have to teach people how to properly recreate outdoors, about the impact they can have on trails (both positive and negative) and use our social media platforms to demonstrate proper wilderness ethics.

    Resources and Further Reading:

    Leave No Trace Website

    COVID-19 and Leave No Trace

    Leave No Trace Training/Courses


    Rebecca is an avid hiker based out of New Hampshire. She hikes almost exclusively solo, prefers the less-traveled trails, and is working on hiking all of the trails in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. You can follow her journey on her website: rebeccasperry.com

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