Leave No Trace principles every family needs to know

With Earth Day coming up later this month, April is the perfect time to talk about caring for our public lands. My kids have heard the Leave No Trace mantra since early childhood, but it’s always good to brush up on best practices for preserving the wilderness we love.



This season, Leave No Trace launches a multi-year, Leave No Trace in Every Park campaign. Subaru/Leave No Trace Traveling Trainers will be visiting ‘hot spots’ across the country (severely impacted areas), giving them attention and helping educate the public. I was lucky enough to sit down with one of them to ask top questions most families have about leaving a lesser impact on the wilderness.

Q: I am aware of the seven principles of Leave No Trace. Is there a ‘crowning’ principle in particular families would bear in mind while in the outdoors?

We encourage people to think of the cumulative impact as a crowning idea for the principles. Over one billion people visit federal and state lands each year. If one person leaves an impact such as litter, feeds wildlife, takes an item out the environment, or walks on a non-durable surface it will not impact the outdoor area significantly, but the cumulative effect of these impacts happening repeatedly over time would have a dramatic impact.


Q: How does trail cutting or ‘bush-whacking’ hurt the wilderness environment?

We encourage people to walk in the middle of the trails even when they are muddy. If you walk around the mud you will erode the sides of the trail making it wider and you could crush vegetation on the edge of trails.

As trails widen vegetation diminishes and eventually land management agencies will have to fix the trail. Along the same lines, we encourage people to not cut switchbacks since it can result in the hillsides between the trail to erode.

If a group of people wants to hike off trail we encourage them to disperse, rather than hike in a single file. By dispersing people won’t step on the same spot, which can cause a new undesignated trail to form.


Q: Could you describe best practices for finding a suitable campsite in backcountry situations when established sites are rare?

If established sites are rare and the land management agency does not have designated spots that are provided for campers to use we recommend the following considerations. Camp 200 feet (the equivalent to 70 adult paces and 100 kid paces) away from water, trails, and other campsites. Find the most durable surface available such as rock, sand, snow, or dry grass to camp on. If you find a site that is showing some signs of impact, such as significant soil compaction, stay there, but if it is only showing small signs of impact leave it alone for the area to recover. Move on to another more durable site that is showing no signs of impact. Bonus: dish washing tips and car camping tips!

Q: What’s the best way to completely put a fire to ash and ensure it’s safely out before leaving?

Fires are a great part of camping; they give us light, warmth, and s’mores! Making sure that we are responsible with our fires ensures safety for you, other visitors, and wildlife.

Before having a fire, ensure that they are allowed in the area you are camping in.

Ensuring that your campfire is out completely before you leave or go to bed is a very important part of camping. First, choose firewood that is no larger than your wrist as it will burn to ash more easily than larger wood. Check local firewood regulations as some areas do not allow wood not from the area to be brought in as it may harbor invasive insects.

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Be sure to burn all wood to ash. Then, you want to guarantee your campfire is out cold. First, use plenty of water and sprinkle it over the ashes: to help the process use a stick to stir the ashes while pouring the water. If the fire area is too hot to touch, it is too hot to leave or go to bed. Bonus: how to build a mound fire.

Q: Tips for carrying out all trash? For instance, our family always unwraps food items as much as possible before departure, so there’s less trash to carry out later. 

We encourage people to take a trash bag along with all of their other essential items for any outing. Repackaging food before heading to the trail helps decrease the amount of trash you will have to pack out. We also encourage people to even pack out all food scraps. Human food is unhealthy for wildlife; they become dependent on humans for food and become attracted and conditioned to human food and trash. Which is unhealthy for both the wildlife and humans. Fruit peels can take up to 2 years to biodegrade and most are not native to the areas they are left.

We like to say, if you weren’t there would it be there?

Q: Young kids naturally enjoy making forts, rock dams, or other ‘structures’ at backcountry campsites…how can they channel this desire to create and explore in line with Leave No Trace practices?

We get this question all the time. It is important to educate children on the importance of Leave No Trace while still inspiring creativity and fostering a sense of adventure to connect kids to the outdoors. We still encourage children to play in nature and still follow Leave No Trace. Kids can still build forts or structures at campsites and then before leaving they can simply dismantle the structures.

If kids want to collect items, first make sure to check the rules and regulations of the area to make sure it is ok to collect something.

We encourage only taking one item instead of several, this generally also makes that one item more important to the child as they often attach a special memory to one item they have really given some thought to during an adventure.

Q: A nitty-gritty bathroom-related question: Leave No Trace has always stated that human waste and soap or shampoo should be 100 feet from water sources. What about rafting companies’ ‘dilution is the solution to pollution’ method? 

Usually in the backcountry, we want to be 100 feet away from any water sources, trails, and campsites when doing dishes or bathing.

However, western river corridors sometimes have different recommendations for human waste and gray water. In river corridors, the river is usually the most durable surface. The rivers in deep canyons present difficulties for the normal recommendations because you usually cannot get 100 feet for gray water or 200 feet for human waste disposal away from the water.

Leave No Trace recommends packing out all solid human waste with a reusable, washable toilet system. Always follow local regulations as some areas allow the use of bag-type systems to pack out human waste. Often, urine and strained gray water are required to be deposited directly into the river.

The old saying goes, “dilution is the solution to pollution.”


Thank you, LNT, for helping educate Pit Stops for Kids families!

About the author

Amy Whitley AUTHOR: Amy Whitley is the founding editor of Pit Stops for Kids and content editor of Trekaroo. She writes on staff monthly as a family travel expert at Go Green Travel Green and Practical Travel Gear, and contributes to Outdoors NW as an outdoor adventure traveler. Find Amy at Google.




  1. The Adventure Ahead says:

    Such an important post! Great information for all people – big and small – to review!

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