The Leave No Trace Ethic

April 10, 2012 · 5 minute read
By Scott Ross — ISA Tree Climber Specialist MA-5192T, Camp and Climbing Director at Riverside Outfitters, lover of outdoor experiential education and Disney movies.
Since the rise of the conservation movement, there has been a long-standing agreement with backpackers, paddlers, climbers and most outdoor loving folks that minimally impacted, natural spaces are something special. More than special, really — something so special we want to make sure that these spaces remain beautiful and untainted by human recklessness for generations to follow. Leave No Trace Principles or LNT are rooted in the 1960’s U.S.D.A. Forest Service. With the growing use of wild areas, environmentalists began to develop a code to help preserve and protect these spaces in years to come. The term “Leave No Trace” is a misnomer. Even in our most careful moments in the outdoors, we all leave a trace. Many of us have heard the phrase “leave only footprints, take only pictures.” The truth is that footprints are impact. Anything we do in the wilderness or parks will cause an impact- this is about damage control. Every hike compacts the soil and can starve vegetation, every climb can cause damage to the life forms living on rocks and trees, every paddle can disturb nesting sites. Animals can also affect the environment but humans are a much more common culprit and have the best chance to stave off deterioration of our natural and common spaces. Spreading the principles of Leave No Trace by you and your party’s actions and by educating those around you will go a long way in insuring that these special places that belong to all of us are cared for and respected. Here are the root principles of Leave No Trace:
  • Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you’ll visit.
  • Prepare for extreme weather, hazards, and emergencies.
  • Schedule your trip to avoid times of high use.
  • Visit in small groups when possible. Consider splitting larger groups into smaller groups.
  • Repackage food to minimize waste.
  • Use a map and compass to eliminate the use of marking paint, rock cairns or flagging.
    • Durable surfaces include established trails and campsites, rock, gravel, dry grasses or snow.
    • Protect riparian areas by camping at least 200 feet from lakes and streams.
    • Good campsites are found, not made. Altering a site is not necessary.
In popular areas:
    • Concentrate use on existing trails and campsites.
    • Walk single file in the middle of the trail, even when wet or muddy.
    • Keep campsites small. Focus activity in areas where vegetation is absent.

In pristine areas:

    • Disperse use to prevent the creation of campsites and trails.
    • Avoid places where impacts are just beginning.


  • Pack it in, pack it out. Inspect your campsite and rest areas for trash or spilled foods. Pack out all trash, leftover food, and litter.
  • Deposit solid human waste in cat holes dug 6 to 8 inches deep at least 200 feet from water, camp, and trails. Cover and disguise the cat hole when finished.
  • Pack out toilet paper and hygiene products.
  • To wash yourself or your dishes, carry water 200 feet away from streams or lakes and use small amounts of biodegradable soap. Scatter strained dishwater.
  • Preserve the past: examine, but do not touch, cultural or historic structures and artifacts.
  • Leave rocks, plants and other natural objects as you find them.
  • Avoid introducing or transporting non-native species.
  • Do not build structures, furniture, or dig trenches.
  • Campfires can cause lasting impacts to the backcountry. Use a lightweight stove for cooking and enjoy a candle lantern for light.
  • Where fires are permitted, use established fire rings, fire pans, or mound fires.
  • Keep fires small. Only use sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand.
  • Burn all wood and coals to ash, put out campfires completely, then scatter cool ashes.
  • Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow or approach them.
  • Never feed animals. Feeding wildlife damages their health, alters natural behaviors, and exposes them to predators and other dangers.
  • Protect wildlife and your food by storing rations and trash securely.
  • Control pets at all times, or leave them at home.
  • Avoid wildlife during sensitive times: mating, nesting, raising young, or winter.
  • Respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience.
  • Be courteous. Yield to other users on the trail.
  • Step to the downhill side of the trail when encountering pack stock.
  • Take breaks and camp away from trails and other visitors.
  • Let nature’s sounds prevail. Avoid loud voices and noises
Ideally, following all of these LNT principles to a “T” is the most effective way to protect our parks, but it is not an all or nothing pproposition. The closer you and those you know keep them in mind, the better protected our spaces will be for wildlife, our own health and safety, and maintaining the natural serenity of these vulnerable locations. I am a professional tree climber and take every reasonable measure to insure that I can enjoy the same tree and explore it with others for many years. We use cambium savers to protect the delicate phloem of the tree from our ropes; we avoid using gaffs or spikes on our boots, use proper pruning techniques and pad the areas around trees we frequently climb to minimize soil compaction around the roots. That said, climbing (as well as all outdoor activities) causes impact. Heavily used spaces like Pony Pasture and Belle Isle are particularly vulnerable and frequently are populated with people unfamiliar with outdoor ethics. The only way to combat this is to change the culture. People of all different backgrounds and life experiences flock to the parks and it is a wonderful thing, it’s what makes Richmond, specifically, so unique. Regardless of why people visit the park, one thing remains true. They would all rather be there than somewhere else. Even if people don’t realize it, all park goers have a vested interest in seeing and experiencing the same beauty that they saw last time. They are OUR parks and WE need to be responsible in how we take care of them.