Leave No Trace: Low-Impact Campgrounds

Written by Michele Wheat


The Leave No Trace initiative has gained momentum as more people become aware of the importance of protecting the environment and natural areas in it. Anyone who enjoys camping and hiking has a responsibility to leave the areas they visit looking as if they were never there at all. Most people understand the importance of picking up litter and not disturbing natural spaces. However, it's possible to do harm to the environment even without knowing that you're having a negative impact. Learn how to enjoy the outdoors without causing harm to your natural surroundings. Whether you frequent campgrounds or you're more of a day visitor to hiking trails, you can take simple steps to preserve nature.

What Is "Leave No Trace?"

Leave No Trace principles are a guide for people who visit natural areas. These principles apply to both "frontcountry" areas that are accessible by car and "backcountry" areas that require hiking to reach.

  • Plan and prepare before you go.
  • Spend time on durable surfaces only (designated trails and campgrounds).
  • Dispose of all waste properly.
  • Do not disturb things you find.
  • Minimize the impacts of campfires.
  • Respect the wildlife.
  • Be considerate of others.

Low-Impact Camping Tips

Those who enjoy camping can have a negative impact on the environment in many different ways. However, with awareness and a little preparation, outdoor excursions don't have to harm natural areas.

  • Planning ahead means learning about a campground before visiting, keeping groups small, and using maps to navigate the area. Plan simple meals that don't require cooking with heat and that don't produce much waste.
  • In areas of high use, limit your activities to places where the vegetation is gone to prevent causing further harm. Always use existing trails and designated campsites.
  • The rule of "pack it in and pack it out" is simple and effective. Whatever you take in with you for camping should also be taken back out with you. Remove foods from cardboard boxes and repack them in zip-top plastic bags when possible to reduce the amount of packaging you'll have to carry back with you.
  • Don't alter campsites by digging trenches, hammering nails into trees, or building structures.
  • Use existing campfire rings whenever possible, and use camp stoves for the least impact. If wood is scarce, opt to skip a fire. Only burn wood you find on the ground. And always extinguish fires completely before retiring for the night and before leaving a campsite.
  • Observe wildlife from a distance, but don't disturb the animals.
  • Be as quiet as you can in natural areas, and respect others' privacy. Don't have parties or play loud music, which can bother other campers and animals.

How to Hike and Leave No Trace

Even if you only visit an area for a day trip, it's still important to use these principles. Ideally, you'll only take photos and memories with you when you leave and no one arriving after you will be able to tell you were there.

  • Learn about the area before you go so you know the type of terrain you might be hiking in and what type of weather to expect.
  • Walk single-file on designated trails, and don't take shortcuts that will harm the landscape. Walk through mud puddles instead of around them, or you might widen the hiking trail. And don't trample plants.
  • Don't leave any trash behind, including biodegradable items such as apple cores and banana peels. If you find others' trash while you're hiking, pick it up.
  • Don't move rocks or pick plants.
  • Go without a campfire, or keep the fire small and always in a designated fire ring.
  • Don't approach animals, and never feed them human food. If you have a pet with you, keep it restrained.
  • Be respectful of other trail users, keeping your voice down. Obey all posted trail rules, including yielding the right of way when necessary. Wear earth-tone colors to minimize your visual impact.

Additional Resources