Trail Etiquitte and Leave No Trace

Common sense is the easiest way to describe trail etiquette.  There are no rules and seldom a park ranger walking around to make sure that everyone is showing the respect due nature.  Trail etiquette is a personal responsibility we as Scouts follow by way of the Outdoor Code.  Simply stated, we want to leave the land as it was when we found it, better if at all possible.  This is the essence of the Leave No Trace principles.  As Scouts and backpackers we govern our own behavior.

Leave No Trace is a nationally recognized outdoor skills and ethics education program.  The Boy Scouts of America is committed to this program.  The principles of Leave No Trace are not rules; they are guidelines to follow at all times.  The Leave No Trace principles might not seem important at first glance, but their value is apparent when considering the combined effects of millions of outdoor visitors.  One poorly located campsite or campfire is of little significance, but thousands of such instances seriously degrade the outdoor experience for all.  Leaving no trace is everyone's responsibility.

An Ethic

The tremendous rewards of high-adventure treks are drawing more and more people to the backcountry.  At the same time, the vast territory suitable for treks is shrinking in size.  More people and less land mean we all must be careful not to endanger the wild outdoors we have come to enjoy.  A good way to protect the backcountry is to remember that while you are there, you are a visitor.  When you visit a friend you are always careful to leave that person's home just as you found it.  You would never think of dropping litter on the carpet, chopping down trees in the yard, putting soap in the drinking water, or marking your name on the living room wall.  When you visit the backcountry, the same courtesies apply.  Leave everything just as you found it.  Hiking and camping without a trace are signs of an expert outdoorsman, and of a Scout or Scouter who cares for the environment.  Travel lightly on the land.

The Principles of Leave No Trace

1. Plan Ahead and Prepare

Proper trip planning and preparation helps hikers and campers accomplish trip goals safely and enjoyably while minimizing damage to natural and cultural resources.  Campers who plan ahead can avoid unexpected situations, and minimize their impact by complying with area regulations such as observing limitations on group size.  Proper planning ensures low-risk adventures because campers obtained information concerning geography and weather and prepared accordingly.  A properly located campsite results when campers allocate enough time to reach their destination.  Appropriate campfires and minimal trash because of careful meal planning and food repackaging and proper equipment.  Comfortable and fun camping and hiking experiences because the outing matches the skill level of the participants.

2. Camp and Travel on Durable Surfaces

Damage to land occurs when visitors trample vegetation or communities of organisms beyond recovery.  The resulting barren areas develop into undesirable trails, campsites, and soil erosion.  Concentrate Activity, or Spread Out?  In high-use areas, campers should concentrate their activities where vegetation is already absent.  Minimize resource damage by using existing trails and selecting designated or existing campsites.  In more remote, less-traveled areas, campers should generally spread out.  When hiking, take different paths to avoid creating new trails that cause erosion.  When camping, disperse tents and cooking activities-and move camp daily to avoid creating permanent-looking campsites.  Always choose the most durable surfaces available: rock, gravel, dry grasses, or snow.  These guidelines apply to most alpine settings and may be different for other areas, such as deserts.  Learn the Leave No Trace techniques for your crew's specific activity or destination.  Check with land managers to be sure of the proper technique.

Walking on trails is where backpackers spend most of their time during the day.  Trails can quickly begin to look like highways if they are heavily traveled.  By walking in the middle of an established trail, in single file, the trail is not subject to widening by excessive use.  But this is not a hard and fast rule.  When walking on ground not often traveled, spread out a bit.  The land is fragile and by walking in the same place as another person the ground is torn up very easily.  By spreading out, the land is not damaged nearly as much.

The best campsites are found, not made.  Whenever possible, try to use sites that appear to have been used before (it is often to see where the better campsites are because everyone uses them).  When seeking a site to camp on, try to select a location that has been used, before making a new campsite.  As you ready to depart, remove as much evidence as possible of your having camped there.

Try to minimize any site alterations.  Do not dig tent trenches or build lean-tos, tables, or chairs.  Never hammer nails into trees, hack at trees with hatchets or saws, or damage bark and roots by tying horses to trees for extended periods.  Replace surface rocks or twigs that you cleared from the campsite.  On high-impact sites, clean the area and dismantle inappropriate user-built facilities such as multiple fire rings and log seats or tables.  Again, good campsites are found, not made.  Avoid altering a site, digging trenches, or building structures.

3. Dispose of Waste Properly

There is nothing worse than sitting at a nice overlook, gazing into a valley or looking up at a scenic mountain only to find a bunch of trash laying at your feet.  If you pack it in, you pack it out.  Always bring an extra trash bag or two to pick up any trash that was left by a previous group.  Not all are as considerate of the land and others.

Pack It In, Pack It Out.  This simple yet effective saying motivates backcountry visitors to take their trash home with them.  It makes sense to carry out of the backcountry the extra materials taken there by your group or others.  Minimize the need to pack out food scraps by carefully planning meals.  Accept the challenge of packing out everything you bring.


Backcountry users create body waste and wastewater that require proper disposal.

Help prevent contamination of natural water sources: After straining food particles, properly dispose of dishwater by dispersing at least 200 feet (about 80 to 100 strides for a youth) from springs, streams, lakes, and your campsite.  Only use biodegradable soap.
Human Waste
Proper human waste disposal helps prevent the spread of disease and exposure to others.  Cat holes 6 to 8 inches deep and 200 feet from water, trails, and campsites are often the easiest and most practical way to dispose of feces.

When Nature Calls

Sooner or later nature will call.  When the urge strikes and you have to pee, try and urinate on rocks and hard durable surfaces.  Avoid urinating on tress as the salt in your pee attracts deer who can damage the bark and even kill the tree.  For the solid stuff, dig a hole, do your business, and cover it back up.  When choosing a spot to become one with nature, make certain you are a good ways away from the trail, campsite, or water source (about 200 feet).  As a general rule of thumb, if you can see the campsite or trail, you are probably too close.  The hole, 6 to 8 inches deep, can be dug with a trowel, or in those cases of desperation, a stick or rock!  Toilet paper does not decompose very quickly in nature so you have two choices:

  1. You can place the paper in a zip-lock bag and pack it out (ladies, I'm sorry, but feminine products must be carried out) or
  2. You can burn it right there in the hole you've dug.

A word of caution if you chose the latter, be certain the paper has stopped burning before you fill the hole back in.  You wouldn't want to be responsible for a forest fire!  Once your business is complete, take a small stick and stir some top soil in with your gift to nature.  This helps speed decomposition.  Replace the remaining top soil and mark the area with a short stick placed upright in the hole.  This is the universal sign to hikers that a cat hole has been left.

4. Leave What You Find

Allow others a sense of discovery: Leave rocks, plants, animals, archaeological artifacts, and other objects as you find them.  It may be illegal to remove artifacts.

5. Minimize Campfire Impacts

Some people would not think of camping without a campfire.  Yet the naturalness of many areas has been degraded by overuse of fires and increasing demand for firewood.  Lightweight camp stoves make low-impact camping possible by encouraging a shift away from fires.  Stoves are fast, eliminate the need for firewood, and make cleanup after meals easier.  After dinner, enjoy a candle lantern instead of a fire.  If you build a fire, the most important consideration is the potential for resource damage.  Whenever possible, use an existing campfire ring in a well-placed campsite.  Choose not to have a fire in areas where wood is scarce-at higher elevations, in heavily used areas with a limited wood supply, or in desert settings.  True Leave No Trace fires are small.  Use dead and downed wood no larger than an adult's wrist.  When possible, burn all wood to ash and remove all unburned trash and food from the fire ring.  If a site has two or more fire rings, you may dismantle all but one and scatter the materials in the surrounding area.  Be certain all wood and campfire debris is dead out.

Fire rings are an eye sore.  When camping, seek to build your fire in an established fire ring or a place where a fire has obviously been before (this reduces the number of blackened and charred circles on the ground).  Otherwise, dig a fire pit about 6 inches deep, keeping the sod intact for replacement.  Scrape away any burnable material within 10 feet of the fire.  Fires should not be built near overhanging branches, slopes, stumps, logs, dry grass, leaves, or firewood.  Do not ring your fire with rocks as the reflected heat increases the damage to the ground, but if you must for a wind break, be certain to put the rocks back where they were—or at least of close—after the fire has cooled off.  Then spread the ashes out to try to remove as much evidence of fire as possible and cover once more with the sod you cut away earlier.

6. Respect Wildlife

Quick movements and loud noises are stressful to animals.  Considerate campers practice these safety methods:

7. Be Considerate of Others

Sometime during a trip in a popular place, you are likely to cross paths with another hiker or group.  Out of common courtesy say hello or give a friendly nod.  This is a simple way to let everyone know that Scouts are friendly (remember the fourth point of the Scout Law?).  Often, by talking to other groups you can get a feel for the terrain, find the location of the nearest water source, or share information about good campsites.  Be A Thoughtful Camper:

While on portage trails:

While in camp:

More Information

For additional Leave No Trace information, contact your local land manager or local office of the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, the National Park Service, or the Fish and Wildlife Service.  Or, contact Leave No Trace at 800-332-4100 or on the Internet (  For posters, plastic cards listing the Leave No Trace principles, contact:

Leave No Trace, Inc.
P.O. Box 997
Boulder, CO 80306