Beyond Leave No Trace

First off, let me start by saying that I’m a proponent of having a minimal impact on the outdoors. I pack out what I pack in, pick up trash when I find it, and leave the woods and waters in the best state I can when I leave. I also avoid blaring music and generally being obnoxious while in nature. That said, I think there’s more to being a good steward than simply following the principles of Leave No Trace.

Although Leave No Trace is undoubtedly a good concept, it has become a universally-used phrase in the outdoors without regard to whether it’s practical in every situation. Instead of just checking the list of boxes, I think it’s time to adopt a more well-rounded mentality to how we as people interact with the land.

A Leave No Trace sign

What is Leave No Trace?

Although the organization wasn’t created until more recently, Leave No Trace as an idea started back in the 1960s. As more and more people ventured outside to explore, frequently-used areas started to degrade. The impacts were varied. Trash was left, natural items were taken home, and there was excessive foot traffic in small areas.

Something needed to change, and Leave No Trace was a good solution. It includes 7 principles that are fairly self-explanatory:

  1. Plan ahead and prepare.
  2. Travel and 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.

Together, these principles work well to keep the impacts in high-use areas to a minimum, while still allowing people to get out and enjoy nature.

A mountain stream flowing through a meadow.

What it does well

The idea behind Leave No Trace is a good one, and I can see value in all seven principles listed. Leave No Trace does a lot of things well, and they should be recognized.

First and foremost, it gives the general public, especially those who only get into nature a few times a year via established parks, an appreciation of wilderness and the importance of keeping it wild. Without the education and inspiration provided by the principles, many would have no concept of their impact. Simply knowing what Leave No Trace is might encourage someone to pack out trash they would have normally discarded or think twice about cutting down a tree when there’s dead wood available to burn.

Additionally, following the principles is vital in high-use areas like national parks where there are, realistically, far too many people crammed into one natural place.

Some of the principles are also pretty much flawless as they’re written. For example, it’s pretty hard to argue against being considerate of others.

Why we need to go beyond Leave No Trace

I’m not trying to imply that practicing Leave No Trace is somehow detrimental to the environment. If someone follows the guidelines correctly, there’s a good chance they’re having a very small impact on the area they’re visiting.

I am, however, trying to be practical about the best ways to actually conserve and protect our ecosystems, and simply treating Leave No Trace as a checklist to being the perfect steward doesn’t cut it.

One way it falls short is that it gives people the impression they have done their part and had no effect on the environment. While it is, by all means, better to practice Leave No Trace than not, picking up one’s trash isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card.

People who could be making smarter decisions at home like reducing water or energy use, donating money to organizations that are helping the cause, or volunteering time to clean up waterways, may never get to that point because according to the signs at the park, they “left no trace” while they were there.

Two men picking up trash from a river.

This isn’t necessarily Leave No Trace’s fault, but it would also be a simple thing to address. Having different versions for different areas of life might be beneficial. While you’re in a national park, packing out what you pack in is a priority. Meanwhile, when you aren’t in the park, buying locally when possible or reducing water use could be tenets. Additionally, taking a proactive role in protecting nature, by donating or volunteering, should be something everyone who enjoys natural places participates in.

We’ve done enough damage so far that leaving no trace isn’t good enough. We need to work toward removing the trace we’ve already left. This is especially true of us, the consumptive outdoor crowd of hunters and anglers. We obviously leave a trace when we go out. It’s not one that’s listed in the rules, but it’s a trace nonetheless. Nature provides plenty for us, and the least we can do is put some time back into her.

Leave No Trace is also slightly, and understandably, flawed in that it acts as a black-and-white set of rules in an obviously-complex grey area of outdoorsmanship. This matters more in the age of social media, where people have taken to policing others’ outdoor offenses (which, I have no problem with considering I’m of the belief that doing something damaging to the outdoors for the sake of followers is laughable and pitiful). While I don’t mind a bit of public shaming for egregious and blatant abuses of nature, some of the rule-reading has gone too far in my opinion.

For example, I think someone tossing a plastic water bottle on the ground along a high-use trail, where others will see it and be encouraged to do the same, matters more than someone spitting out a mouthful of empty sunflower seed shells deep in the backcountry where they are scattered and will probably never be seen again, eventually degrading into the ground cover. Although both people in this situation technically broke the “disposing of waste properly” principle, one is noticeably more egregious than the other.

I’d hope that anyone trying to police bad outdoor behavior would be able to determine which of these scenarios is worth their time and energy to correct and which isn’t, but since the rules are black-and-white, sometimes too much energy is spent on too small an offense.

But, of course, the argument arises, “what if everyone were doing it?” (“it” being a minor offense like spitting a sunflower seed or keeping one of a billion small pebbles on the side of an unnamed mountain). And yes, that’s true. But, not everyone is doing it. Apply that logic to anything else. What if everyone went to the store at the same time? The supply would immediately run out. What if everyone got on the same road at the same time? There would be tons of accidents and hold-ups. The system works because not everyone does do it.

So, while making sure people follow Leave No Trace while they are visiting high-traffic areas is necessary, focusing on the little girl who picks up a pinecone while backpacking with her family probably isn’t a good use of time.

This is why thinking beyond Leave No Trace, and applying a little bit of nuance, is important.

So what’s the solution? I don’t think there’s a single clear answer, but there are strides we can make in the right direction. Allowing Leave No Trace to escape the bounds of public lands and percolate into everyday life would be a start. Let’s encourage people to leave as little trace as possible on the planet as a whole.

Additionally, we should use the principles to actually get people closer to nature and understand how they interact with wild places, instead of treating each as a rule to follow. It’s easy to ignore a rule, but it’s hard to ignore the feeling of guilt when you know your actions are having a negative effect on the places you care about.

Treating it as a lifestyle, instead of a checklist, is what we should all be doing, and encouraging others to do as well.


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