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Leave No Trace Master Educator Certification

Hammocks are Very Low Impact Camping Shelters
Hammocks are Low Impact Camping Shelters

Last week I took a 5-day Leave No Trace, Master Educator class in the White Mountains. This is the highest level of training provided by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics and enables me to train people who want to become Leave No Trace trainers as well as children, teens, and adults who want to take less intensive LNT awareness classes.

This class was a mind-blowing experience for me on many levels. It was taught almost entirely outdoors during a multi-day backpacking trip where we hauled a lot of group gear, camped, and cooked together. I don’t do that very often myself, but it put me in the shoes of many of the people I will be teaching Leave No Trace too.

The outdoor classroom was also instructive because Leave No Trace is best taught during a hiking or camping experience, rather than in a classroom. That can be challenging for instructors since you need to recognize “teachable moments” on the fly as you encounter them. Each of the students in my class had to teach two LNT principles to the rest of the group this way, where you pretty much had to make up a lesson plan on the fly. It’s definitely doable, but requires that you pull in factual information and present it in a fun, interactive format that is appropriate to a variety of different audiences.

Heavily Impacted "Stealth" Site along the Appalachian Trail, White Mountains
Heavily Impacted “Stealth” Site along the Appalachian Trail, White Mountains

The LNT principles P-T-D-L-M-R-B can be easily remembered as Pass The Donuts Left My Rasta Brother!

    1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
    2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
    3. Dispose of Waste Properly
    4. Leave What You Find
    5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
    6. Respect Wildlife
    7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

Guidelines Not Rules

Finally, this Master Educator class really made me take the LNT principles to heart and apply them in a variety of ambiguous situations including on-trail and off-trail, in managed and pristine camp sites. For example:

  • Is it ok to camp at a moderately impacted stealth campsite instead of an adjacent heavily impacted one?
  • Is it ok to cook inside a shelter?
  • Should you always hang a bear bag or use a canister in bear country, even if you are staying at a shelter?
  • Is it ok to bushwhack?
  • Is it ok to stealth camp in pristine locations?
  • Is it ok to camp less than 200 feet from water?
  • Is it ok to use biodegradable soap in a stream or pond?
  • When is it ok to light a campfire?

Truth is, the Leave No Trace principles are often interpreted as rules that specify what you should and shouldn’t do in the outdoors. It’s easy to understand why people think that because they look like rules when listed in print, but they’re really not as black and white as you might think.

Very Low Impact Camping at a Pristine Site
Low Impact Camping at a Pristine Site

Making Conscious Choices

Instead, Leave No Trace is a system of ethics or guidelines designed to help preserve wilderness and outdoor recreational area so that current visitors and future generations can enjoy them. That might sound uncomfortably ambiguous, but ethical judgments about human behavior are like that. If anything, the role of the Leave No Trace principles is to help you make behavioral choices that minimize the impact that a human presence has on the outdoors and other peoples’ experiences.

To illustrate the control we have over the choices we make, consider the following LNT Principles and scenarios that illustrate them:

Be considerate to others

Have you ever taken a hike with a group of other hikers to de-stress from work, only to have one of the hikers answer their cell phone and start a long conversation about some crisis in the office that everyone has to listen too?

A group of mountain bikers yields to hikers and horseback riders on a trail; they move to the side of the trail for others to pass, and dismount from their bikes when they encounter pack animals or riders.

Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

A tree has fallen across a hiking trail and instead of climbing over or under it, hikers create a spur path around it, trampling a stand of wildflowers that were growing in their path, creating a mud wallow, and accelerating erosion when it rains.

A group of 8 hikers decides to camp off-trail at a stealth location in the woods that is carpeted with moss and new saplings. While they could all look for tent sites individually, they send one person ahead to find a good location for their camp that is relatively clear of understory growth and covered with more durable forest duff to reduce the damage that 8 people would probably have if they all blundered around in the woods at the same time.

Don't Tread On Me
Don’t Tread On Me

Teaching Leave No Trace

I’m quite excited to become a Leave No Trace Master Educator because it will give me the opportunity to teach a lot more people about hiking and backpacking and how to do them responsibly. Teaching has really become important to me over the past year in my career transition from an internet professional to a outdoor writer, and something I want to continue to develop as a vocation. I just can’t get enough of it!

But even more, the ethics of Leave No Trace and their application to real world situations resonates more and more with me as I apply them on my own trips and expeditions. That’s a bit of a surprise because I’m not big into institutionalized belief frameworks.

On balance, I see the good that can come from adopting the ethics in order to preserve the outdoors and respect others’ experiences. There are a lot of outdoor users, most I suspect, who don’t think about the consequences of their actions on others or the future of the places they like to visit. If I can make just a few more aware of their choices by exposing them to Leave No Trace, I can be satisfied with that.


  1. Great summary of the LNT principles. It is great to see people like you writing on topics like this to raise awareness. The main takeaway I got from this? Just use common sense, and actively think about your your impact on where you hike and camp.

    • Common sense helps, but I’ve also learned a lot of different techniques for minimizing impact and respecting others that people wouldn’t necessarily think about unless they’ve been exposed to an LNT awareness session. It’s humbling actually. I’ve always thought I had a clue about these things, but you would be amazed at how little it takes to create an impact, such as a trail in the woods that others follow because it’s there, regardless if you intended to create it or not.

  2. Excellent point. I am always looking for classes and instruction in my area on these topics from local hiking groups. A little education goes a long way. On another note, it is also a lot of fun to participate in local wildlife groups that do volunteer trail cleanup days, and prairie restoration events. Great for meeting other hikers too. First hand experience in seeing what sort of impact people have can be an eye opener.

    • Absolutely. I do a lot of trail and campsite restoration and removal by myself and with groups and it really hammers the points home. I feel like crying at some of the bootleg sites we come across, but I still believe that education is the answer.

  3. I just recently started backpacking again after a 20 year hiatus. I have been amazed by the changes in gear and huge focus on lightweight. This is dwarfed by the changes in peoples mind set towards respecting nature, the other people around you, and who may come after you. Most people just didn’t Think this way 20 years ago. But there is still a long way to go educating people how they impact the world around them. I applaud your efforts and just want to say thanks!

    • Good or ill – I’ve always been a sucker for big challenges! But you raise a really good point. LNT is still a relatively youthful movement and really only started about 30-40 years ago in response to the huge outdoor recreation movement of the late 70’s and 80’s, which has continued to snowball to this very day. While any one individual may have a minor impact, when you multiply that impact by the hundreds or thousands that come after them, you can observe some devastating long term effects. Part of my motivation is completely selfish – I love the outdoors and want to keep it as pristine as possible for the rest of my life, but I also think we have a deeper moral responsibility to each other that goes beyond that. Heavy stuff for a hiking blog, eh?

  4. Sounds like a very worthwhile class, love that it is all outdoors. I’ve always thought of LNT in the negative, heavily on the N for NO. I’m sure a class like this would give more appreciation for what is good to do and what the benefits are…why and how we care about trails and wilderness areas. I’m lucky enough that it doesn’t take too long to get remote, but boy does this need to be promoted in the heavily populated areas. All it takes is one trace to really ruin a campsite when our dogs sniff it out.

    • I agree with you and one of the key motivations I had for taking this class was to help raise awareness in my local community (and train more teachers), in an area called the Middlesex Fells in Boston, that’s very heavily used by hikers, runner, dog walkers, and mountain bikers. Everyone wants to preserve that area but there’s a lot of friction between the groups that use it. I think one way to lower the tensions is to educate people about how to use the area in a less impactful manner and to adopt a common way of discussing the impacts and mitigation techniques.. That may be an uphill battle, but you need to do what you can in this life. :-)

  5. Awesome Philip!! This looks like a great way to give back and help others learn about how to treat the treasure we call mother nature. I gotta say, the title really pulled me in. Congrats on your reaching the next level in outdoor education!

    • Thanks Dave – If you, Grant, and Mike want a class the next time I’m in Austin, just let me know. I expect to be back in Texas sometime in the next few weeks. Grant started this all when he introduced me to Kurt Achtenhagen from Leave No Trace last summer, who turned me on to the idea of teaching LNT at the Master Educator level. I’m very thankful to both of them for that.

  6. Sounds like a great class, I’ll be watching for your class schedule. I try to practice LNT principles as much as possible, but would definitly be open to a class as I hope to start overnights this year.

    • Al, I’m just working on pulling a schedule together now.Where do you live if I might ask? I am eager to keep my momentum going and schedule a few classes this summer.

      • I live in Milford NH. I would be willing to travel for the class also. I was going to take the recent classes by AMC in Boston but could not arrange my work schedule around that many dates.

  7. I’m probably going to start a firestorm with this comment, but I’m really conflicted about the whole Leave No Trace idea.

    Every person leaves a trace. If you go to the woods you’ll leave your trace there. Your footsteps will cause different types of plants to grow. You’ll take water from the streams and water plants elsewhere. You can’t help but change things by being alive and being there. To me the point is to be aware of what change you’re making and to be as intentional as possible about it. What influence to we want to have on this piece of land? Okay, then because of that we need to act in these ways.

    In urban areas especially we put aside land because we want to feel less crowded… to experience that wonderful middle of nowhere feel. And yeah, then walking as lightly as you can, sticking to trails, etc is the right answer, and I think it’s great that it’s being taught.

    On the flip side when I hear Leave No Trace I hear “The woods would be better off if you never came here. You can’t do anything but damage”… and that just isn’t true. People have been here a long time, and if we’re careful we can encourage diversity, production of useful plants… whatever it is we’re hoping to achieve. I guess what I’m trying to say is it’s hard, and we’ve lost a lot of the knowledge, but if we pay attention and try hard we can be a positive influence. And more importantly maybe we don’t have to feel guilty for being outside.

    • Disappointed? I think we all violently agree with you.

    • Leave No Trace practices recognize that some amount of impact is likely but challenges you to avoid those that can (like felling a tree w/an ax for firewood) and minimizing those that you can’t avoid (like picking an already devegetated spot to erect your tent). They are voluntary guidelines, not rules – in fact, if everyone adoped them we could avoid (make unnecessary) lots of rules. For example, the managers at Shenandoah National Park no longer allow campfires because of all the campfire-related impacts of our predecessors.

      The negative association between visitation and human impact is unfortunate but it’s a fact that we can’t deny – 600 some million visitors to our public lands annually is going to create some impact. If we are to preserve the lands that we all love to visit we need to accept the responsibility to learn about those possible impacts and adopt LNT practices that can avoid or minimize them. The more you learn about the natural conditions of the areas you visit and about appropriate LNT practices, the better able you are to Leave No Trace.

  8. Congratulations!
    Outdoor ethics fits beautifully with minimizing pack weight, going further, and reaching areas less traveled. If you ever get a chance to visit with one of the LNT Traveling Trainer teams, do it. I just had them spend a night with me in MN and I picked up a ton of ideas.
    Presenting LNT workshops to youth is just a ton of fun. Best of luck sharing the story in your neck of the woods.

    LNT Dude
    (ME course at Northern Tier in 2006)

  9. I was raised where camping was a BIG Fire and cutting down everything in sight was what we did…
    Kudos to Jeff Marion & Erik Lund, LNT Master Educator Instructors for an excellent course in BSA LNT(May 2012). Education is the key to preserving our outdoors and the BSA Scouting program is an idea place to start. (i.e. Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Venturers).

    We need for more Scout Leaders to get involved with LNT as ME and Trainers and get the word out to these young scouts so they can help preserve and enjoy the outdoors.

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