Remember that time you were enjoying nature – and your escape from everyday life – only to find empty wrappers and cans right next to the trail? Or the discarded pieces of toilet paper ruining your picnic? Our love for the outdoors can take a toll. Impacted areas suffer from litter, invasive species, habituated wildlife, trail erosion, polluted water sources and more. Whether you’re a newbie to the outdoor community or you’re a dinosaur on the trail, it’s important to know how to protect the environment.

No one heads for a hike or ride planning to spoil nature, but leaving a trail or campsite just the way one found it, can be harder than it might seem. Fortunately, the Leave No Trace organization has provided guidelines that are fairly easy to live by.

1. Plan ahead

Poorly prepared people often resort to high-impact solutions that degrade the outdoors or put themselves at risk. Read up on the regulations and special concerns for the area you’ll visit. Prepare for extreme weather and emergencies. Schedule your trip to avoid times of high use and visit in small groups when possible. Use a map and compass to eliminate the use of marking paint, rock cairns or flagging.

2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces

While hiking or biking, we can damage the surface vegetation when organisms are trampled beyond repair. The resulting barren area leads to unusable trails, campsites, and soil erosion. Resilient types of terrain include established trails and campsites, rock, gravel, dry grasses or snow. Pitch your tent where others have before you, and avoid marshy or wetland areas.

Taking shortcuts, which is especially tempting when switchbacks zigzag up a mountain, causes erosion over time. Use the existing trails as much as possible and walk in single file. As with trail cutting, widening trails by walking double or triple across ruins trailside vegetation.

3. Dispose of waste properly

Don’t litter or leave your trash, it can potentially cause greater environmental damage and takes away from the views. Bring a small bag or container to carry out all trash from what you’ve brought in. Gallon-sized zip lock bags work well because they seal off odors. Tip: Take snack foods out of pre-packaged wrappers before heading out. This way, you’ll have less trash to take back home with you.

If you’re camping, make sure to minimize waste water. Designate a bathroom area 100 meters from any lake, river, or stream, and do the same for kitchen tasks such as washing dishes. Scatter your strained dishwater.

Found at any outdoor store, biodegradable soap can be used on kitchen utensils, pots, and pans as well as on yourself. Use only this soap, which breaks down quickly and easily, as shampoo and even laundry detergent. To wash yourself, give yourself a sponge bath away from water sources. Some campers like to use a solar shower, with water warmed by the sun. To stay clean between baths, enjoy lake or river swims!

Urinating in the woods is not a violation of Leave No Trace. However, never leave any toilet paper, and fecal waste is to be buried a certain distance from both paths and water sources.

Following the ‘leave no trace’-principles can be a fun adventure in itself. Try making sketches of the things you find instead of taking them home. Make your own picnic or ask for paper wrapping at the local market. Enjoy a bit of wild swimming in between soap baths.

teenage girl swimming in lake

4. Leave what you find

Minimize site alterations: don’t dig tent trenches and don’t cut branches from live trees. Never hammer nails into trees or permanently clear an area of rocks or twigs. Don’t remove other natural items, as they are an integral part of the local ecosystem.

We know this rule is a tough one for kids. It means leaving that pretty rock or special feather where you found it. You can still make it fun, tough. Take a photo or make a sketch and place the image in a special trail journal.

5. Minimize campfire impacts

Many areas have been degraded by overuse of fires, so seek alternatives such as a lightweight backpacking stove. If you can’t avoid it, use low-impact fires. Always keep your fire small and use existing fire rings or fire pans whenever possible. Use wood pieces no thicker than your wrist to ensure that the wood goes to ash before bedtime. Allow the wood to completely turn to ash and use water to put it out.

6. Respect wildlife

Minimize the impact on wildlife and ecosystems. The four rules to remember are: no touching, no feeding, no bothering and no picking up. Hunting is forbidden in almost all national parks and make sure to check the local rules on fishing.

Store your food properly, so no animals feast on your meals. Suspend it in a bag in the air at night or use odor-proof canisters.

7. Be considerate of other visitors

Follow hiking etiquette and keep noise to a minimum so that you minimalise your impact on other visitors. Give uphill hikers the right of way and pause on the side of the trail when they’re passing.

At the start of any trail, a sign will indicate which methods of transportation are allowed. Adhere to this, and don’t bring motorized vehicles on hike-only or bike-only trails.