Leave No Trace Philosophy

Leave No Trace is a concept originally developed in a collaboration of the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the US Forest Service.  Their goal at the time was to teach visitors to respect the natural areas they traveled through and to minimize the impact their visits had there.  The USFS went on to create an education and training program with the National Outdoor Leadership School to promote the concept to ever broader groups.  Scouting and nature conservancy groups also have played a big role in spreading the word.  Those beginnings led to the creation of the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the concepts and giving educators the skills needed to train others on the subject.

Since this is a subject that I find very important in a number of ways I intend to do a series of articles on the subject.  For today I’m more interested in the philosophy behind the concept, but if you are unfamiliar with the subject there are seven basic principles that form the foundation of the practices

  • Preparation
  • Use durable surfaces
  • Proper waste disposal
  • Leave things as found
  • Minimize fire impact
  • Respect wildlife
  • Respect others

Much could be written on each of these and I hope to visit each of them later.   I’ll include some links to more information at the end of this piece if you would like to do some more reading on the subject now.  As I said, I’d prefer to focus on the “why” behind the whole concept today.  Why should people bother to care about the impact their existence in a particular spot has on that spot?  Why make an effort to preserve something we don’t own and may never visit again?  I think the answer starts with the reasons we head out into nature in the first place or even with the definition of the word nature itself.

Nature: The physical world and everything in it (such as plants, animals, mountains, oceans, stars, etc.) that is not made by people

To me that means the marks of humankind are not apparent.  If we strive to go beyond the range of human development and to what extent we can visit a world untouched by man it seems we should have an obligation to leave no mark of our existence there after we’ve passed.  The travelers who follow the same path should be greeted with nature as it exists when we arrived leaving as little evidence that others have gone this way before as we can manage.

Some justify the effort in terms of preserving natural spaces for future generations.  Others are more self serving, being primarily concerned that they might lose access to lands if human impact there is deemed too destructive.  I agree with those reasons, but long before my logical mind can mull the concepts my instinctive mind has already loudly answered the question of “Why?” with a resounding “Why would you do anything else?”  To move through nature with as little disturbance as possible has been a life long avocation of mine.  When I first heard about Leave No Trace much of it was already how I did things. Improving on those instinctive skills is something I continue to work on.

If we really have an appreciation for natural experience and recognize the value of that experience then it seems imperative that our actions are respectful.  Easily enough said, but putting these principles into action requires more than just good intentions.  I’ll be visiting this subject periodically to focus on each of the seven principles in detail, covering some techniques, but also exploring them from a philosophical standpoint.  If we all do our part then most every trail can take on the appearance of the one less traveled by!


Appalachian Trail Conservancy Leave No Trace Practices

Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics

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