Why the 7 Principles of Leave No Trace Matter Now More Than Ever

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It’s an undeniable fact that getting outside and exploring nature is good for your mind, body, and soul. But is it good for the natural world? That depends.

Have you ever stacked rocks in creeks or waterfalls? Do you intentionally veer off established hiking trails and into the wilderness?

Do you pick wildflowers when you visit national parks or state parks? Do you kill snakes you see on the trail, or try to get close to wild animals such as deer or black bears for selfies? 

If you answered yes to any of these questions, your outdoor explorations may actually be doing more harm than good. In this story, we’ll explore why responsible travel is vital to protecting local ecosystems.

The sad truth is that most people don’t actually know what environmental stewardship is, or the role that we, as outdoor adventurers, play in it. That’s what the 7 principles of Leave Not Trace are for!

These principles help us prevent damage to natural areas, destructive fires, overly crowded parks, and polluted water. This code for outdoor ethics also aspires to protect wildlife, and to connect people to nature.

Here, we’ll explore the origins of the Leave No Trace principles, explaining what they are, why they matter, and how they can guide each us to become environmental stewards for the places we love to explore.

READ MORE: The Cradle of Forestry in Pisgah National Forest (Near Brevard NC)

View from the summit of the Blue Ridge Pinnacle Trail - leaving no trace
View from the summit of the Blue Ridge Pinnacle Trail

Origins of Leave No Trace

The original concepts behind the Leave No Trace ethos came from a push for increased environmental conservation after the mass destruction of WWII.

The Leave No Trace movement didn’t officially gain steam until the 1960s. This is around the same time that recreational camping became more common (mainly because things like tents, sleeping bags, and gas stoves became more widely available to consumers).

With the increase in visitors to US National Parks, National Forests, and National Wildlife Refuges, these parks began to educate visitors on how to have a minimal impact on the environment.

In 1987, the U.S. government created a pamphlet on “Leave No Trace Land Ethics.” Conservation-minded organizations such as the Sierra Club, National Outdoor Leadership School, and Outward Bound also encouraged low-impact behaviors.

In 1990, the U.S. Forest Service created the national Leave No Trace education program. The program went hand-in-hand with their other outdoor education programs, like Smokey Bear and Tread Lightly!

Since 1994, the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics has managed the national Leave No Trace program. They research current issues and constantly update information on their LNT website.

They have helpful infographics and information on the seven principles of Leave No Trace. And while the program originally started as a guide for backcountry camping, their principles have since been adapted for the “front-country,” too.

READ MORE: The 20 Best Pisgah National Forest Hiking Trails in North Carolina


The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace

Otter Falls Trail Sign - leave no trace principle
Otter Falls Trail Sign

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare

The first principle of Leave No Trace is to plan ahead and prepare for your adventure. Although this is most important when exploring the backcountry, it’s also important for day trips into the woods.

Park rangers and outdoor educators created this principle to encourage preparation for issues regarding safety, food waste, and resource damage.

Hikers that don’t know enough about the area (or who are inexperienced) may risk getting injured, lost, or have inadequate resources for their adventure.

But if you plan ahead and prepare, you’re less likely to put yourself and others in danger.

This principle is adapted for the front-country as “Know Before You Go,” which is the same idea.

It means to do proper research about the place you’re exploring, pack adequate food and water, wear appropriate clothing, and follow maps to stay on marked hiking trails.

READ MORE:The 15 Best North Georgia Mountains for Hiking

Linville Falls Campgrounds on the Blue Ridge Parkway NC - leave no trace principles
Linville Falls Campground on the Blue Ridge Parkway in NC, by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett

2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

Damage often happens when people go off trail, or camp in unapproved spots.

When plants or organisms are trampled under your feet or tents, the area can lose flora growth and experience soil erosion.

Hiking trails are there for a reason: They give people a specific route to travel on that is mapped, marked, safe, and uses a strategically small portion of the ecosystem.

When you do need to go off-trail during a backcountry hike, try to find durable surfaces such as rocks, sand, gravel, ice, and snow.

Try to avoid walking on vegetation, or in standing water. Avoid making loud noises that will frighten wildlife.

Use these same guidelines for setting up your camp. Designated camping areas are always best. But if you’re going to camp in the backcountry, try to find durable surfaces to camp on.

This principle is almost exactly the same for front-country travel, encouraging people to “Stick to Trails and Camp Overnight Right.”

READ MORE: The 20 Best Blue Ridge Parkway Hikes for NC Day Trips

Harley Davidson at Moccasin Creek Campground
Camping at Moccasin Creek State Park in North Georgia

3. Dispose of Waste Properly

Trash can be dangerous to animals, plants, water, and other people if not disposed of properly.

That’s why the third Leave No Trace principle encourages you to be mindful of how you get rid of things. This principle also outlines what you should do with different kinds of waste.

For example, it’s a bad idea to put food waste on the fire, because it may not completely burn. So it can attract animals you don’t want at your campsite, especially black bears!

If you wash your dishes and then dump the water in a stream, the chemicals in the soap can be damaging for the water and the species living in it.

For the front-country, the principle is “Trash Your Trash and Pick Up Poop.”

Carry plastic bags for stowing waste to throw away at home. Use bathrooms or outhouses whenever possible. Pick up your pet’s poop. And never put any waste, food, or soap into lakes, rivers, or other waterways.

READ MORE: The 21 Best Blue Ridge Parkway Waterfalls in North Carolina

Mountain Laurel - leave no trace principles for kids
Mountain Laurel, photo via Canva

4. Leave What You Find

When people take flowers, rocks, or other objects from nature, it damages ecosystems and also takes away from the experiences of the people that come after them.

The fourth principle of Leave No Trace asks that visitors try to make the most minimal impact possible.

This includes something as simple as moving pinecones to set up a tent, but moving them back where they were when you leave.

It’s also very important to avoid damaging trees and plants. Don’t cut down trees, even for firewood. Do NOT carve initials into trees. Try not to trample or pick wildflowers or other plants.

Objects such as antlers, petrified wood, colored rocks, or cultural objects like Native American arrowheads should also not be moved.

The front-country principle, “Leave It As You Find It,” is the same. Or, as the common saying goes, “Take only pictures, leave only footprints!”

READ MORE: The 25 Best Hiking Trails in North Georgia Bucket List

Grandfather Mountain, Profile Trail Campsite - lnt principles
Grandfather Mountain State Park Campsite, photo by Emma Gallagher

5. Minimize Campfire Impacts

Campfires are almost synonymous with camping, so it’s difficult to imagine one without the other. But campfires can be extremely damaging to nature if you’re not careful.

First, take time to look up whether or not there are any fire restrictions in the area. You can also ask the rangers at the national or state parks you visit.

The least harmful option is a camp stove, because they’re easy to use and Leave No Trace. However, if you do want a campfire, the first thing to consider is where to build it.

Try to find an existing fire ring made out or rocks. Having fires limited to only one spot reduces the damage on the soil. Firepans are also a good option, since they protect the soil.

Next, you’ll need firewood. You should never harm a live, standing tree for firewood, because birds, squirrels, snakes and insects make their homes there. The best option is to gather dead limbs that have already fallen.

You can always buy firewood, but it should be from a local source rather than from home. The wood you burn needs to be present within the local ecosystem.

It’s also important to make sure wood is burned all the way through, and fires are put out with water. Always tend to a fire regularly, and try not to burn it too high or for longer than you need.

The front-country principle for this is “Be Careful with Fire,” and advises the same things.

READ MORE:  15 Highlights of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in Western North Carolina

Elk in Cataloochee Valley at Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Cataloochee Elk in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, photo by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett

6. Respect Wildlife

In all of the above principles, the primary goal of the LNT principles is to have as little effect on surrounding nature as possible. This includes respecting the rights of wildlife.

Whether you’re driving the Blue Ridge Parkway, hiking in DuPont State Forest, or spending a few days in Shenandoah National Park, it’s always a bad idea to get too close to wild animals.

Long story short, if your presence appears to alter their behavior in any way, you should back away. This goes for animals on land as well as those in lakes, rivers, and the ocean.

If you’re into wildlife photography, it is ALWAYS recommended to do so from afar. You should never touch or feed animals, and even loud noises can be damaging to them.

You must be careful to give wild animals their space, be quiet, and take measures to prevent them from getting into your food and garbage.

The front-country principle summarizes this perfectly with its title, “Keep Wildlife Wild.”

READ MORE: The Cataloochee Valley Elk in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Mary Gabbett Hiking Trails at James Sloppy Floyd State Park_
Walking w/Dogs at James H Floyd State Park in Summerville GA

7. Be Respectful of Other Visitors

The last of the Leave No Trace principles is to be respectful of other people you’re sharing the area with. 

Playing music, talking loudly, and not making space for others on trails are all disruptive. But these behaviors have become increasingly common in the COVID era, as mass tourism issues overwhelm America’s parks. 

Many people want peace and solitude to appreciate their surroundings, so try not to take away from the tranquility of nature.

Remember that you’re also sharing trails with other hikers, runners, cyclists, and/or equestrians, and be mindful of those around you.

If you bring your pets with you, make sure they’re on leashes where required, and that you’re picking up their poop and aren’t allowing them to bother others.

At the time this article was written, the pandemic was still prevalent. One important way to respect others is by wearing a mask and maintaining a respectful social distanced when you’re on the trail.

The front-country version of this mainly applies to popular hiking trails, urging everyone to “Share Our Trails and Manage Your Pet.”

READ MORE: 30 Fascinating Blue Ridge Mountains Facts


Examples of Bad Behavior vs. Leave No Trace


 Not following a path

 Phone not being charged

 Not paying attention to the time

Have Map and Follow Trail

Charged Phone or Battery Pack

Planning Your Hike

Going to close to an edge

Getting caught in a strong current

Travel on durable surfaces

 Stay on marked trails

Not storing food properly

Not disposing of trash properly

Do not leave food or trash out

Dispose of waste properly

Spray-painting rocks

Carving name into trees

 Stacking rocks

Picking flowers

Leave what you find

 Have minimal impact

Don’t take flowers or objects

Ignoring fire bans

Cutting down trees

Bringing firewood from home

Pay attention to restrictions

Only already fallen limbs

Only local firewood

Touching animals

Being too loud

Feeding animals

Respect wildlife

Do not get too close or be loud

Never feed animals

Store food correctly

 Not yielding to others

 Leaving pet feces

Not wearing a mask (during COVID-19)

 Yield to hikers, bikers, and equestrians

Always dispose of trash and pet feces

Wear mask and socially distance

–by Sonny Grace Bray; lead photo by Bret Love

Leave No Trace logo

We encourage anyone who loves the Blue Ridge region to learn about the Leave No Trace principles of responsible environmental stewardship. 

Stay on marked trails, take only pictures, pack out your trash, and be considerate of others who share the trails and parks you explore. 

Remember that waterfalls and rocky summits can be dangerous. Never try to climb waterfalls or get close to a ledge to get a selfie.

When you're exploring the wilderness, it's better to be safe than to be a statistic!

The BRMTG was created by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett, the award-winning team behind the world-renowned responsible travel website Green Global Travel. Born and raised in North Georgia, Editor-In-Chief Bret Love grew up hiking and camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his family. A professional writer/editor since 1995, he's covered travel and culture for 100+ publications, including American Way, Destination Marriott, Georgia Travel Guide, National Geographic, and Southbound. In 2010 he co-founded the award-winning website, Green Global Travel, which is ranked among the world's top travel blogs. Since launching BRMTG in 2020, he and Mary Gabbett have visited 50+ Blue Ridge Mountain towns together. Though she lived in NYC for 14 years, photographer/Business Manager Mary Gabbett's family has Georgia roots dating back 200+ years. Her great-grandfather was President of the Western Railroad of Alabama. Before moving to Atlanta in 1989, she fell in love with the North GA mountains, where her aunt owned a cabin. In 2010 she co-founded Green Global Travel, and has since traveled to more than 40 countries on six continents. Her photos have appeared in numerous travel publications (including National Geographic and Southbound) and various textbooks.