Leave No Trace: The Benefits and Problems

Leave No Trace is an approach to wilderness conservation which seeks to minimize the environmental impact from outdoor recreational activities. Some people have questioned whether Leave No Trace is more harmful than helpful when it comes to environmental protection. In this post, I look at the benefits and problems of Leave No Trace.

7 Principles of Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace was popularized, in part, to help park rangers and managers deal with the increased foot traffic into parks. It is an important method of ensuring the conservation of plants, animals, and waterways in our beloved outdoor spaces.

The 7 principles of Leave No Trace are:

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare: Understand park regulations and vulnerabilities in wild landscapes to help protect fragile ecosystems.
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces: Keep to trails, designated camping spots, and avoid walking on vegetation.
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly: “Pack it in, pack it out” was one of the earliest Leave No Trace principles. In the 1970s, the US Forest Service advocated that you pack out your trash to reduce the waste found in parks.
  4. Leave What You Find: Leave nature unaltered. Do not remove plants, rocks, and historical structures. Do not build shelters.
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts: Keep campfires small and in designated campfire spots. If there are no designated spots, use a portable camping stove.
  6. Respect Wildlife: Do not feed, approach, or disturb wildlife. Keep pets on a leash.
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors: Share the trail with other hikers, be courteous, and quiet in outdoor spaces.

Advantages of Leave No Trace

These principles have been important to help maintain the integrity of parks and wild landscapes. Chris Loynes explains, “Leave No Trace has value in that it alerts recreational users to the need to tread lightly in fragile landscapes and impacts the behaviours of recreational users of such places.”

Personally, I’ve seen several problems when people do not respect the places they camp and hike. These include not packing out waste, trampling on endangered plants, over-foraging, campfire damage, and feeding wildlife. Leave No Trace is a logical response to these issues.

Problems With Leave No Trace

The issue that people have with Leave No Trace is the philosophy that underpins it as a model of conservation. Leave No Trace sees nature, intentionally or not, as external to our everyday lives. It promotes conservation in our parks and wild spaces without discussing the larger picture.

For example, someone can practice Leave No Trace despite packing their gas-guzzling SUV with synthetic camping gear and driving 3 hours to reach their campground. Leave No Trace focuses on preserving spaces used for outdoor recreation without considering the larger impacts people might have outside of these spaces.

This impact includes the growing consumerism that’s associated with outdoor recreation. We’re buying more and more gear without considering our environmental footprint. For example, a butane stove still has an impact even if it replaces a campfire. We have to consider the impact associated with the extraction of natural gas and the mining of metals.

In this way, conservation under Leave No Trace has centered around “protecting wilderness as a recreational landscape” while “dismissing larger questions of the modern economy, consumerism, and the environment” (Turner). We come to accept that our urban environments are polluted and seek to escape to the “wilderness” which we aim to keep clean.

But, it’s a myth that we do no damage to our parks even when we practice Leave No Trace principles. Our everyday behaviours outside of them also have effects. Pollution to the air, soil, and water makes its way into our parks. Deforestation around the perimeters of parks put stress on flora and fauna. So too does the stress of climate change.

Additionally, some argue that Leave No Trace dissuades people from interacting with their landscapes causing them to lose important knowledge about their local ecosystems. They argue that the more separate we feel from nature, the less invested we are in preserving it. Sometimes, the best conservationists are those that have something to lose when the plants and animals disappear (i.e. foragers, hunters, fisherman).

Rethinking Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace has important advice for hikers and campers that can help preserve outdoor recreation spaces for future generations. Critics of Leave No Trace want to rethink it as a model for conservation by expanding our understanding beyond parks and wild spaces.

Chris Loynes argues, we must acknowledge “that traces are inevitable and encourage debate about what traces are reasonable, proportional, and ethical.” He also asks that we consider the ways that people can “leave a trace” in wild spaces and in their communities that make positive impacts.

There are lots of ways that we can promote sustainability and reconnection to our natural environment. I can think of a few including; re-designing our city spaces to have more greenery, providing outdoor education to children, making outdoor spaces accessible to all people, creating community gardens and green playgrounds, having public transit to outdoor spaces, investing in sustainable energies, etc. Some of these suggestions go back to a prior blog post I wrote about individual versus collective action when it comes to conservation.

What’s your opinion of Leave No Trace? Have you found it to be beneficial? Do you think there are limitations? Let me know in the comments section.

NOTE: When I originally wrote this post, I understood LNT as a set of principles or guidelines. LNT is also an organization with a Board of Directors, corporate sponsorships, and community partners.

Articles and Further Resources

James Morton Turner. 2002. “From Woodcraft to ‘Leave No Trace’: Wilderness, Consumerism, and Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America” in Environmental History.

Chris Loynes. 2018. “Leave More Trace” in Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education and Leadership.

For a more detailed summary of Leave No Trace principles, you can visit the Scouts Wiki page.

4 comments on “Leave No Trace: The Benefits and Problems

  1. When I first read the title of this blog I thought, “what could be the problem with LNT?” Thank you for bringing up the greater issue of environmental impact and interaction because it’s true, a greater awareness is needed. My family and I bought land in interior Alaska for this very reason. We wanted to be able to interact more closely with nature.

  2. I don’t see why it’s framed as either/or. Taking care of undeveloped areas does not equate to not taking care of other places, and it’s disingenuous to present it that way.
    “Keep the bedroom clean” doesn’t automatically mean “let the kitchen get filthy”…

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