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Has Leave No Trace Failed?

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I hate to say it, but I have a nagging feeling that the entire Leave No Trace movement is dead. DOA. No one except the Boy Scouts of America seems to teach it anymore and the only mention you ever see of Leave Not Trace is when the LNT principles are printed by outdoor companies on their gear in an effort to greenwash their corporate image.

While I believe in the outdoor ethical principles advocated by the Leave No Trace organization and use them personally, I don’t believe that the vast majority of people who enjoy outdoor recreation in the United States even consider or give thought to consequences of overuse impacts on our natural lands.

If you hike, backpack, and camp, surely you’ve experienced resistance to:

  • Putting dogs on leashes so they don’t harass other hikers by barking and jumping on them or running after wildlife.
  • Dog owners who refuse to pack their dog’s poop out of city and state parks or national parks and forests and leave baggies of the stuff on the sides of trails for others to pick up.
  • People who create huge new campsites besides trails and along stream banks instead of using sites that have already been created and impacted.
  • Campers who need to have a campfire every night and strip all of the living trees nearby for usable wood to burn, even if its green (and won’t burn).
  • People who jump in ponds, lakes, or streams wearing suntan lotion and DEET insect repellent or insist that it’s ok to wash their frying pans in lakes if they use biodegradable campsuds.
  • Limiting the ever-growing crowds of hikers and trail angels on the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail who are loving it to death.
  • People who won’t mute their cell phones when hiking or camping to prevent disturbing other visitors who only want to hear natural sounds or play music from portable speakers at campsites in the middle of the forest.

Why isn’t Leave No Trace Awareness more widespread?


  1. I was really disgusted this past weekend, hiking past the George W. Outerbridge shelter, along the AT between Ashfield Rd. & Lehigh Gap in PA. There was trash everywhere, and many wrappers in and around the fire pit that were not even singed, just tossed there. A few thru-hikers were in the area (rear guard), and the wrappers had not been there long, but I can’t say who’s to blame. That doesn’t take LNT education, just common courtesy & common sense. Do hikers really expect janitorial service (or their moms) at the shelters? I usually only see this type of thing at shelters & campsites, not ALONG the trail.

  2. LNT is taught here in the Midwest, and seems to be adhered to on trails (not so much on streams, which are frequented by drunk floaters). Even on very popular trails, I rarely carry out more than one trash item generated by someone else. I suspect that at least half of the people do not litter, and a goodly percentage also pack out the occasional food wrappers. As for TP, I confess that I look for an appropriate leaf to use (these are oak forests) in order to avoid packing out TP, or use a single square and stuff it down the cat hole before finishing the dirt topping. Someone ought to sell quick-disintegrating TP for camping.

  3. I think it began to run into problems when “Leave No Trace” went from being a simple phrase in the English language to being a trademarked motto. next thing you know, someone will trademark the words “Please don’t litter” and “stay on the trail.”


    This was a great conversation to read as I researched a LNT & Negative Trace article I am writing. I found the comments informative, insightful, passionate and frustrating. It changed my approach of the article to some extent.
    I agree with many of the comments here and I find others very telling of people who justify others frustrations.

    Robert makes some great points; ” I think it will be easier to teach the ethics of backcountry travel to people who know and love those places.” It is paramount to encourage people to share the love of the outdoors.

    But then…

    Some don’t seem to get it (to me), caught up in over thinking it maybe, from both sides of the spectrum. I (naively?) thought LNT was a set of guidelines.

    Some seem to have this tone of not wanting the wilderness regulated at all. I can relate, and if fairies cleaned up the unicorn poop this would be a wonderful outlook, but in reality, we are a pretty destructive species. They may not remember when many lakes were dead in this country. Literaly fish floating on top oil-swirling trash-congested dead pools of something like water mixed with toxic gunk. A horrible time that made a lasting impression on me as a kid and which was only changed by… wait for it… regulation. And they mention in the future tense, places under-used possibly being over-run by industry, a statement which is sadly mistaken. It is happening now! All over. Our natural treasures are being co-opted to fuel convenience right next to me here in Arizona as I write this.
    I understand their entitled attitude rampant in these “it’s all about me” times…
    I understand the whiny “it’s my forest” attitude…
    I understand the old timers who feel grandfathered in and can “generally” adhere to “most” LNT principles…
    I understand the “we are nature” attitude that always seems like a thinly veiled justification for sloth and ignorance as a paradigm…
    I even understand the purist ideals of untouched wonderment…
    What I don’t understand is the lack of vision.
    We can not rationally justify a LNT approach ONLY when in the backcountry. For true progress to be made the ethic needs to be applied throughout our societal and economic framework. This is not to minimize or obscure the importance of LNT which has been a formidable force in reducing impact, but the consideration of the larger picture should also be applied. For example, is having a campfire truly worse impact than using a campstove? Because then, of course, we have to take into account the mining of the fuel & stove materials, processing, production, shipping, etc, but, who wants to do all that math? We can’t care about a small pit being dug in the bush and not think about the effects of the ginormous open pit mine just outside the National Park boundaries that produced the valve stem of the campstove.

    There is some kind of balance that needs to be achieved.

    Of course, there are many different levels of involvement that folks will come in with. And those levels will change as experience is gained. Those more experienced with the effects of “trace” will need to be tolerant, helpful and encouraging to spread the word, and yes, they will need to be these things while watching extremely bad habits take place. On the other hand, there is a line that can not be allowed to be crossed and this is often hard to see. This line will also be different for different people but, when it is crossed it will be blatantly obvious and often too late.
    We get upset about dog shit on a trail but feel powerless against a conglomerate being given fracking rights on the edge of a national treasure that will inevitably and irrevocably change that treasure forever. Which is the more dire “trace”?
    Ah! And here is where a lot of outdoorsy folk loose me. Did Hayduke mean nothing?

    Wilderness ethics are a tough nut to crack. There are so many different views, approaches, types of users and abusers. LNT has not failed because it has spanned the gap between so many of them.
    Unfortunately, for LNT to truly succeed, EVERYONE would have to get out into the wilderness to gain a substantial appreciation, which would leave a trace thus defeating the purpose.
    But the idea of LNT has always been on the right track and the time is ripe for great strides once again in popularizing it. It just needs a new kick in the ass. I find that, generally, people want to do the right thing. They do, of course, need the right information.
    And the time is now imminent for people who care to take it to the next level or we will continue seeing the wild places chipped away by our own lack of action.
    Some of the comments here have mentioned what works. Those need to be taken further. Wider spread, easily accessible, simpler info and web presence. Hand-outs at trail heads and refined user-friendly teaching approaches, etc, etc, etc.
    And some of the things that work have not even been mentioned here because maybe the idea is too big and scary to face, or because this is on the web and big brother is watching. It is probable that our efforts would have more impact on reducing impact if we focused on the larger issues a bit more, i.e. federal, state and local legislation supporting corporate “rights” to these lands that is rarely contested, EPA and BLM policies that need updating, involvement in and support of the groups protesting for and defending environmental awareness and progressive legislation, and of course, good old fashioned monkey wrenching where and when need be. There are many different approaches.

    But I digress….

    Where backcountry trail life is concerned, reducing overuse impact on our wilderness is truly a noble cause. I just think there are “rings” of varying degrees of use that may need to be part of the conversation. One can not expect a family of 5 to adhere to the same level of use as a solo thruhiker, and I guarantee you, that family is not getting to the “rings” of wilderness that the thruhiker is. It is more important ‘that’ they get there than exactly how they act when they do. Given the right nudge, they will get it in time. The multinational conglomerate,  unfortunately,  will never get it until the 2nd industrial revolution is in full swing.

    There will always be a very diverse understanding and varying approaches to something so intricate, something that involves so many areas of understanding, i.e. ethics, science, aesthetics, responsibility, discipline, action, etc. The trick to getting everybody on board is to make it sexy (to use a marketing term).

    There are pragmatists, purists, radicals, deniers and lazy-ass people that all play a part in making it work. Ultimately, others on the trail are not the real enemy, unless they wear khakis and carry surveyor gear.

    Hayduke lives.