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Has Leave No Trace Failed?

Click for Video of the Crying Indian: Keep America Beautiful

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. No, it’s not failed. It just needs to be taught and practiced. People have to learn how to experience nature ethically and responsibly.

  2. I don’t think its failed, I see we’re seeing a combination of increased popularity of hiking combined with the results of a couple of generations raised with far too much self esteem and “its all about me (and only me)” attitudes.

    With increased popularity bringing more people to the trails, you’ll get people who just don’t understand the concepts of LNT or who simply don’t care. I use a trail in a state park for a quick hike a couple of Sunday mornings each month. In the winter, its spotless. As early spring approached, I noticed a lot of dog waste along the trail. The park rangers responded by posting signs asking dog owners to bag it and carry it out. Within a couple of weeks, the trail was littered with little plastic bags of dog waste. I suppose the owners were waiting for mommy or the maid to come along and clean it up.

  3. Maybe LET is a legend in its own mind?
    Seriously what do you see in Parks and Wild lands? Lots of people who have not been there before.
    Yes there are quite a few that feel that they are im-priviledged to do anything they want, we have all experienced _that_. But mostly, I think, it’s people who think their little impact won’t count bad use they won’t be back again.
    LET is not reaching them.
    I don’t kniw, is it taught in every school? Maybe it should be embedded in that Core Values curriculum that I’m hearing about lately (we have no kids). Maybe it’s time for the Scouts (Boy _&_ Girl, Cub, Sea, all of them) to firm one overall structure for a re-surgence.

  4. If we are packing out dog poop, shouldn’t we go ahead and pack out their pee as well? What’s the substantive difference, in terms of LNT? Merely the time it takes for the earth to absorb it? Same goes for human poop and pee, of course.

    Didn’t most of our forests originally have lots of coyotes and wolves, before humans exterminated most of them? Why is it a bad thing if our dogs run around after deer or rabbits? Isn’t the overpopulation of such former prey a sign of human impact? (I am not a dog owner, but I do like it when a friendly fella comes running up with a big smile, with a look that says, “How ’bout this, huh?”)

    Would you consider the banging of carbide on rock a natural sound? How about the resonant twang of the trekking pole shaft?

    Has LNT failed? Depends on the standard. Leaving ABSOLUTELY NO trace is not quite possible. It requires us to suspend the laws of physics, as much as our aspirations of ethical or aesthetic purity might demand otherwise. So, if we take “Leave No Trace” on its face, of course it has failed. Success was never possible.

    It does not help that some people (looking at you, Philip) seem to use LNT as a means of arguing for an experience that they want to have, at the expense of the experiences others might want to have.

    Is packing out waste worth the effort, factually, in terms of preserving nature? Or, is this more of a preference of a specific personal aesthetic experience, knowing full well that, if waste-carrying was truly enforced, it would greatly decrease the number of people that visit the parks?

    As soon as there is a trail in the woods, a trace is left. There then becomes a vast gray area. When you don’t acknowledge the gray area, and hold to a specious ethical high ground, you make yourself easy to dismiss. There is a large discussion to be had here, and I hope this is only the beginning. To say LNT has failed would be like saying highway speed limits have failed. After all, no one goes the speed limit.

    We all understand that speed limits still have value, and that law enforcement respects a buffer zone. Its all a bit patronizing, but the goal is clear: less accidents on the highway. LNT is also patronizing, but it does seem helpful in reminding people that others will be using the same spaces, and they would like to pretend you were not there. But isn’t LNT a bit like a speed limit of zero? The buffer zone on the highways is an extra 5-10 miles per hour. I suggest that a more helpful discussion would be to define the buffer zone for LNT.

    • Oh, I have plenty to say on this subject, but Mordecai said it pretty well. In principal LNT is a nice idea, but in reality, it’s just not doable.

      • While I don’t completely agree with all of Mordecai’s points, much of what he says is true.

        I think there are two big problems with LNT.

        1) It’s way too academic and has to be translated into English so that people can understand it.

        2) the non-profit that controls all the messaging and licensing of educational materials has to be modernized and restructured so it can broadcast the message far and wide. is it’s own worst enemy. They have no idea how to use the Internet or traditional media to amplify their reach or how to create passionate local evangelists in a highly scaleable way at the local level.

    • Mordecai, great response. Your post pretty much states how I feel about the issue as well. There definitely needs to be a buffer area in LNT.

      Humans ARE part of the eco-system, full stop. The reality is, we live in an evolving system. Change is normal, and that includes changes brought about by each other. When we try to stop all change (as I often feel LNT attemps to do) we’re only going to frustrate everybody. The more realistic goal would to be ensuring the eco-system remains robust. If an activity seriously cripples the robustness of the system, perhaps we should stop that activity and vice versa.

      • The buffer area is taught in classes, but most people who learn about LNT, read about it and don’t ever attend an awareness class so they think it’s all absolute do’s and don’ts.

        It seems to me that the LNT messages should be reformulated or restated so that you don’t have to attend a class to learn them. Who has time for that in this day and age?

        Very helpful insight!

  5. No, it has not really failed. Day hikers, people who use trail heads to camp, motor boaters, mountain bikers, and other easy to get to areas are heavily impacted. I have seen long stretches of trails without a single piece of litter, but the trail was heavily used.

    The NPT is a good example. Wet, muddy, full of deep pot holes and side trails avoiding the wet. Yet not a single piece of litter. A gentleman, John, I camped with one night could not find a bottle to replace his broken Sawyer Squeeze bottle in hiking between three campsites. The same area I picked up a single piece of mylar from an energy bar. (We were hiking in oposite directions.) I also lost a gatoraid bottle, but backtracking a couple miles did not reveal it. There is really next to no litter on the trail. It *is* heaviiy impacted, however.

    Other NY trails are close to te same. Little real litter, except maybe at campsites. Then this is mostly stuff that is left to make things convenient. Firewood has always been a problem around lean-tos. And, they often collect enough pots, pans and grills to outfit a kitchen. People don’t seem to realize that everyone carries what they need. 30 years ago, I would find a LOT of beer bottles around a lean-to. Now, I see none. Aldt state campsites, they have been selling wood for the past 15 years or so. Mostly, the tourists buy it…gone are the days of hiking out into the surrounding country to find wood. (Well, uh-humphhhh, unless you are an old timer like me.)

    LNT has not failed…is not failing. It needs to be presented to every person before that person goes into the woods. For the past few years, many families have been going car camping. As I pass through these state campgrounds, they often have some of the messiest camps, with 1, 2, 3 sometimes 4 children running around. They do not leave anything a mess when they leave, though. They do a grounds check, for stakes, bits of paper, etc. (Though often they will leave a fire smouldering…) This does nothing to mitigate the impact on the site, however. The rangers must still clean out the fireplace. Heat will eventually destroy the rocks used to build the firplace. The grounds often get dished in from traffic. Rocks, big trees, and scrub (often picked for marshmallow sticks) are retreating. Sand and gravel fill will soon follow. About 80-100 car campers (usually in groups of 3 to 5) are present for every backpacker (usually in groups of 2 to 3.) Most of the wood is purchased by the car campers. And, yes…there is a campaign to NOT burn trash in the fireplace. No one cleans out a firplace before using it. This is a direct result of car-camping, I believe. Firewood used to be left on site. It is now trashed along with the ashes.

    Backpackers do a much better job, but few have figured out that scattering the ashes in the forest is OK. On wild sites, you usually don’t need a campfire in warmer months. Backpackers often will break a fire down, and scatter it, anyway. Fire rings are an exersize in futility. I have seen sites with heavy stones fallen INTO the fire where the loam has dried and burned. No one bothers to line the bottom with sand or gravel. Every state, every ecology will need to deal with this in it’s own way. Out west, it is often too dry to risk a fire. In other places, it is too wet to really get one going. But without some sort of education on the principles of LNT, no one would care. I believe in education to aleviate this.

    Yes, I agree with the above. LNT should be taught to everyone, in elementary school. Like basic health, it helps everyone to maintain their corner of the camp site.

  6. I think the problems you list are more “Do Not Disturb” than “Leave No Trace”

    Besides poop, which humans produce too, what trace does a dog leave besides getting in your way?

    What trace does a cell phone leave besides disturbing your peace?

    You seem to have gathered this sense of entitlement over the years that the wilderness is all yours. I can see how hiking year round as much as you do can create this.

    The wilderness is not yours and you have to share it, regardless of other people and their activities.

    One of the first times I went up Monadnock (gasp! – yes that super busy place that I have grown to love so much some how) I heard an old man say “Stay on trail or stay home”. I think the trail minimizes the impact to the wilderness the best. Yet you advocate stealth camping and bushwacking. No matter how carefully you do either, you are still tramping on virgin soil and breaking branches somewhere along the way. Leading big groups thru the woods on a bushwack seems even worse…

    Ive given up backpacking and camping because to me its too boring so I trail run now. I still appreciate your site, but I just see the development of someone becoming more bitter and jaded that the rest of the world is encroaching on his “wilderness”.

    Maybe you should take a break from hiking and camping then when you go back you can really appreciate it. Too much of a good thing can be bad.

    Also, with the increase in people spending time in outdoor activities, I think you need to be aware of this and expect it. I try my damnest to hit the trail my 7 and be “done by one”. I love killing big runs in the early morning hours when all Im fighting is cobwebs and the only time I really see people is on the path back to the car.

  7. We live in a society that has created a cult of the individual. We have our own Facebook pages, our own Twitter feeds, our own Pinterests and Instagrams. One consequence of this cult of the individual is an egocentricism that often precludes considering the consequences of one’s actions on others or the environment.

  8. LNT has not failed. I think LNT just needs a broader distribution to not only include wilderness areas. City parks, Playgrounds, soccer fields etc… Unless we get more people to understand what it is and how long term it can effect you and next generations it will be kept in a niche setting.

    Thumbs up to Bentbrook. Its not about me anymore.

    Nothing in life is perfect, but not trying to help protect what belongs to all of us is a shame. That is just selfish.

    We are all hikers, runners, walkers, campers, dog walkers, and all of us want to enjoy a peaceful setting that is as clean as it can be.

    I have no perfect answer, but LNT maybe try to broaden it to include all groups. Its a tough sell. LNT requires an effort and common sense. Something that seems more and more lacking in todays society. Last is my snarkey comment for the day.


  9. Yes it has, but only because of a certain segement or population of our Country who routinely trash or leave trash behind whereever they go. They are pigs to say the least. At my favoritie summer Campground for two weeks I see all kinds of people over those two weeks. If it wasn’t for R.V.’s it would be worse than it is, they more or less trash up the inside of the R.V. but if they are tenting..they leave a mess..I am friends with the Campground Hosts at this Campground and they regale me with stories of the people who leave trash and they tell me they send a Bill to those Offenders for the clean up costs associated with their mess. And they are banned from all Parks until the fine is paid…But Slob Backpackers are a different story, The messes they leave would be a lot worse if it were not for the fact that those Backpackers following behind them usually clean up the site. Personally I have carried a lot of extra Trash out of the Sierra Back Country left by paid Hiking Tour Groups, who pick up the trash within the site but dump it behind a Bush or a Rock either right away or somewhere on the trail. The Group people who lead these groups are of course High and Mighty and their propaganda tells of LNT, etc. etc. but for the most part that is just a cover up. Most Work Groups these Groups sponsor basically clean up their own trash their own groups have left behind and expect to be patted on the back for it…And be it Trail, Side of the Road, behind a Rock or Tree, in your frontyard…It is the fault of the Parents who raised these people and no amount of education will change their life style or trail style if the Parents have not trained them otherwise.. In my neighborhood we can always tell when the number of Renters increases in the area by the amount of trash in the streets, your our front yards and on the Public right of way…I do not live in an “exclusive” sub division just a small one where anything out of the norm stands out like a sore thumb…Just like a Yellow, Orange, Red, and Gray tents stands out against the forest background anc can be seen for miles…

    • Once again you prove what an awesome adventurer you are…selflessly carrying out garbage. I agree these big name conservation groups that spend millions of dollars are just wasting time. Individuals like you living in the sub divisions with their camouflage tents are the real heros.

      You should host a class about how to raise your children, design ultra-light gear, pick up garbage, and why everyone else is worse at it than you.

      • We get the message Mr anonymous. You don’t value eddie’s opinions. However, as the site owner, I do. A lot. He’s a long time reader, contributor, and my friend. So ease off on your personal attacks on him or I will ban your comments in the future. This is a civil web site. Please respect other people even if you don’t agree with them. Carry on.

      • To Cowardly to use their name, typical of their low breeding. …I have led groups of hikers including, Boy Scouts, as a Patrol Leaders, a platoon, and Squad of Marines every couple of months, Deputy Sheriff’s and their sons, and Medical Personnel from the Hospital I worked and other groups over the years into the Mountains and I have taught LNT long before it became a “Buzz Word” . Your a good laugh for me…your anger is probably drawn out of the guilt you feel,,so what Elitist Group of Hikers do you belong if I have to guess.. Thank Philip, I must of hit a real guilty nerve on this person whomever they maybe and the guilt is too much for them to bear and to ashamed of themselves to even use their real name…

  10. No – LNT is not dead. But I’ve got to agree with Mordecai on some of his points, including the fact that is its own worst enemy. Much of the information is not easily accessible on the site, and the way it’s presented isn’t accessible to your average joe who’s a weekend hiker, car camper, or whatever. My oldest son and I are certified LNT trainers, and I *still* have difficulty finding the information I need.

    In their essence, LNT principles are quite simple. They need to be boiled down to that, and presented based on the type of activity. Are you car-camping or going out for a Saturday-afternoon hike on a trail in the front country? Here are the top 5 things for you to keep in mind. Section hiking the AT? Here’s what you need to know. Backpacking in for a week of fishing in the back country? Here you go.

    I realize that the information is broken down like this, but it’s not readily accessible to the average person. I truly believe that if the principles were broken down into more bite-sized chunks AND people understood the reasons behind them, you’d see a lot more people following them.

    Just my tuppence.

    • The web site is a train wreck. I completely agree. Worthless. Embarassing even,.

      As a trainer, one get’s the impression that is funded by the printed materials they sell and that they don’t want to let go of that revenue by making the information freely available and reproducible on their web site. That is backwards thinking in this day and age and a recipe for failure.

  11. It has not failed the more it’s taught the more people will learn . I educated people every hike I lead .

  12. So if I don’t take my dog with me, do I need to pack out the deer and bear scat that I see instead? I get not wanting someone’s domestic pet to defecate on the trail, but it’s poop! Another rain or two and it’s gone. Personally, if my dog did relieve himself on the trail, I’d just grab a stick a shuffle it off the trail and move on. Sorry if that makes me a bad person in the lofty eyes of some, but I won’t be losing any sleep over it.

    I actively try to leave as little impact as possible when I hike, but when dog feces is treated with the same level of offense as leaving empty beer cans all over creation I honestly have a hard time motivating myself to do more research about what they think I should or shouldn’t do in the wild.

    • The idea with scat is that you pack out what you bring in. If these areas were home to packs of wild dogs, then dog poop out in the area would be natural. But by bringing in a foreign animal (your dog), you’re introducing something foreign into the ecosystem. By packing out your dog poop, you’re removing that foreign item. It’s the same responsibility you have if you take your dog for a walk and it poops on the neighbor’s lawn.

      Or were you just being sarcastic and not really asking for an answer?

  13. As a concept and a brand LNT is terrific and simply. The failure has occurred in the communication and complexity surrounding the bureaucracy. The organization has complicated what should be a simple message on par with “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute.” I think the failure is also in the communication to new hikers/campers at trailheads and the lack of accountability. In National Parks, backcountry hikers are required to get permits, view training videos, and understand the rules. While I’m not suggesting that this should be required everywhere, nor that it is feasible, having more visible trail sign-in sheets that require hikers to sign a LNT agreement with the park could at least reinforce that commitment. As others have mentioned, each hiker has different interpretations of what LNT means, but I think we can all agree that if those that trek into the wilds applied some basic ethics of LNT to their visits the overall wilderness would be better for it. A reduction in discarded cans, bottles, snack bar wrappers, cleaner water ways, fewer firepits (or at least fewer ones with dense coal beds), fewer carved trees, less noise, increase respect for each other. We can’t force everyone to comply with our vision for LNT, but making people who are good intentioned but new to the winderness aware of the “Leave No Trace” mantra what it means will likely lead to more thought before doing something contrary to that ideal. We have a great trademark slogan that is easy to remember, understand, and apply in basic; now we need to spread the word and increase the level of accountability.

  14. Until you posted this I had no idea there was a certification for LNT. I am definitely getting myself hooked up. So – not quite dead yet.

    That said – whenever I hit the LT I see plenty of garbage and debris of all sorts – usually in the shelters or firepits. These seem to happen mostly at lightly used (off the main LT) or those near roads. The caretakers seem to do a great job of picking up after folks – but these areas are either not visited as frequently by caring folks or are too heavily used to maintain the LNT standard.

    In conversation with my nephews (12-15 in age) visiting from Cali – one was very familiar with LNT philosophy. I found that heartening. The other wanted to cut branches, dig through the forest to make “Surviorman” type shelters and (I have to admit) do the typical stuff I did as a 15 year old.

    I don’t think LNT is dead or dying. I think there are plenty of hikers that care. And, in fact, anyone who thinks of himself/herself as a hiker most likely is very aware of their impact. The fact is that there are a lot of folks who are ignorant of or do not care about their impact on the out doors.

    I do not think this “careless” attitude is unique to LNT or any one particular human activity. I’ve met plenty of folk who don’t take the type to recycle their garbage properly, who don’t secure their weapons properly, who don’t manage their chronic diseases properly, who don’t …etc.

    The fact is that, as always, some people are passionate and care about any particular topic and then there are a lot of folk who just don’t. Look at it from the inside – as someone who practices LNT can make it feel as if no one gives a darn – but that’s just not true. It’s just that many don’t.

    So we must remain steadfast, try to educate and avoid getting distressed about it. I mean – the commercial with the Indian is from the 70s and in beautiful VT it is _still_ easy to find trash along the roadside thrown from some passing car.

  15. There are many good points above. I agree for the most part that the “annoyance” factors, like cell phone ringing or an over-friendly dog don’t really leave any trace to begin with. They bug me to a certain extent, but they aren’t leaving an impact on the environment. (That being said, I DO mute my phone)

    As for leashes, my dog is virtually never on leash, but he is under my verbal control. He doesn’t jump on hikers, but rather takes his cues from me. If I keep walking, he keeps walking. If I stop to chat he stops. He might “introduce himself” to the stranger, he might not, but that includes neither barking not jumping.

    He listens when I tell him to leave wildlife alone, too. We followed a trio of turkeys for 1/4 mile the other day. It took about a million “right here” and “with me” commands, but he didn’t bark or try to chase them. He will try to chase the ocasional squirrel or chipmunk, but that’s usually only because they start running as soon as they see us coming. It entices him. I know it’s not right, and I am always able to call him off with verbal commands.

    As for poop, I’ll tell you flat out that I don’t pack it out. My dog is very private about his poops, and never goes on trail. Actually there are many times when I never see him do it. He wanders off trail for a minute and comes back. I wouldn’t be able to find the poop if I wanted to. When I do see him go, I bury it using the same guidelines as human feces.

    I loosely follow most of the other guidelines. I rarely build fired while backpacking. I choose sites based on distance from trail/water/etc. I hammock, so that has very little impact on the surrounding ground and plant life. No bathing/washing dishes in water sources.

    Like most, I feel that the messaging and access to information from LNT just needs to be updated. That website is a mess.

  16. I don’t find the 7 principles that hard to grasp since it’s basic common sense really, but most folks don’t know them. The question is how will they learn them and will they even care if they do. Seems so many are all about me nowadays.

    To me it’s just taking care of the limited resources we have. I want to be able to enjoy them for decades to come and hope my children will as well. That won’t happen if people continue to abuse them (points 2-5 and in some cases 6). Point 7 is just common respect and courtesy. Do I want to hear your ipod in an area where they can’t even use power tools to clear a trail. No. If you wear earbuds, more power to you.

    This is not a typical data point (I hope), but in the designated wilderness area near me (which is bordered by a public lake), I packed out 15.5 pounds of trash (more than my pack weight and about the same size) on my last trip there. That was a downer on my experience for sure, but I hope my actions set a good example for the Scouts on the trip.

  17. I see it as an awareness issue. I don’t think you need to take a class but more education needs to occur. In my mind when your teaching a class on LNT your typically preaching to the choir. The majority of the trash I see on the trail is typically left by none hikers. It is these people that need to be reached.

  18. I think the general public doesn’t really know LNT principles or common sense principles for outdoor ethics. Frankly, there are worse items than some of what is on your list, (and some of what is on your list is bordering on the nitpicky/tedious—no one washes sunscreen off before going swimming in the local lake or the ocean—frankly there are bigger pollutants to water from septic systems, agriculture and the like)—like the people I see carving their names into rocks and trees, people harassing wildlife (killing snakes that aren’t a threat to them), and a plethora of other dumb moves people think they can do in nature including feeding wildlife and releasing balloons.

    LNT isn’t dead—it just isn’t known.

  19. Well, I’ve been naive…when I’ve seen the little bagged up dog poop left on the trail I just assumed the dog owner would pick it up on his or her way back to the trailhead, not wanting to carry it for the full hike. Guess maybe I shouldn’t give the benefit of the doubt…

    More general comment: Seems to me the biggest problems aren’t the folks who routinely hike and camp, it’s the folks who come out one or two weekend a year. If LNT is going to be successful it has to reach and penetrate through to these folks.

    I didn’t realize the Boy Scouts taught LNT…last time I camped in the back country in proximity to the scouts I found them to be very destructive and trashy. Maybe it was just that particular troop…

    • @FreelanceTrekker – Unfortunately, your comment about Boy Scouts is all too accurate in too many cases. BSA does emphasize LNT principles. Unfortunately, many Troops don’t, and all too many Troops also see the monthly campout as just a way to blow off steam (and, unfortunately, I include our Troop in that on a regular basis). This reflects poorly on BSA.

  20. Every time you get off the boat for Isle Royale NP, you get a detailed LNT brief. That seems to be working there.

  21. Unfortunately, the ‘primary’ place LNT seems to get taught is through Scouting, and (a) Scouting has been in decline for 40 years and (b) Scouting has done an EXTREMELY poor job of “living” LNT as opposed to “teaching”.

    So a big problem is where to find the people to teach them? Most public schools don’t have big outdoor programs. You can try to better integrate with college outdoor clubs, but I don’t think the you hit enough of the “user base”.

  22. I can’t believe you are griping about an ANIMAL crapping in the woods.

    I also can’t stand it when someone acts like humans are somehow outside of nature and the environment. People are part of the natural world, just as much as a bear, beaver, or butterfly is.

    Mordecai is right on every point.

    LNT are good Conservation principles, allowing for responsible use of the land. However, your arguments seem to point toward a policy of Preservation, something that can never work in the long term. If people can’t use wilderness areas, or use becomes a huge pain in the ass due to a bunch of punitive regulations, then they will quit using them. The wilderness will then become some abstract idea, and eventually lose its importance to the public, and lead to its eventual destruction in order to build vacation homes and golf resorts.

  23. Very good discussion here. Being a frequent backpacker I try to follow the LNT principles to the best of my ability but I’m sure I fall short sometimes if compared to the exact wording of the “LNT” website.

    With that said I still believe that with ongoing education the future trail users will do better. I’ve never taken a LNT class but have learned from my fellow backpackers, forums and my mistakes. And when I see people with blatent disregard i will say something in a non-judgemental way. And its up to them if they want to take heed.

    I don’t think it’s a practical idea that we will absolutely leave no trace as many have said in previous comments. And, unfortunately, it will always be the job of the “few” (trail maintaners, conscientious hikers,etc) to clean up after those that lack either the practical sense or just don’t care. In any event LNT is a good goal to try to reach!

  24. I volunteered with Keep America Beautiful and a local river advocacy group. Both organizations put volunteers into classrooms to teach the little ones and both organized clean-up campaigns such as KAB Adopt-A-Mile and river clean-ups which netted truckloads of litter. At first I did not want to clean up other peoples’ trash because I was angry and disgusted with them. The way I came around was to think of my other fellow citizens who would not have to look at the trash. The litterbugs’ negative behavior (and my anger) is erased with a postive behavior (service to others).

    There has always been mess-makers. Keep America Beautiful was founded in 1953, so it’s not something that can be blamed on a new generation. They are just the next to deal with it. Perhaps we see more trash because the population has grown. I like the current KAB slogan: “Keep America Beautiful is the nation’s leading nonprofit that builds and sustains vibrant communities.”

    I believe that we backpackers/hikers are also a vibrant community, that we have an opportunity to lead by example, and that our classroom is the woods. I hope Philip will pass along the excellent feedback from this discussion to so they might try to improve their effectiveness. It’s a big responsibility, not just the trash part, but the conservation ethics, too.

    “The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.” – Paulo Coelho

  25. If your standards are high enough, anything that requires a classroom session to teach, or anything longer than 5 minutes will inevitably fail.

    If you define success as a significant reduction in impact than I think it’s been a success. Sure, there are still the ignorant people out there but I think there are fewer of them and their impacts are more limited to the most accessible areas.

  26. Philip, this topic has pushed a number of my buttons. Is Leave No Trace really a movement? I don’t know. It is certainly a worthwhile expression of wilderness ethics. In that sense it is neither alive nor dead. How it should be applied probably depends on the amount of human traffic in that region.

    My concern is the ongoing erosion of the wilderness. Part of the problem is that the people who own the wilderness, we the people, live mainly in urban areas. There are vast numbers of young people growing up who have no idea about real wilderness. Those of us who enjoy human powered wilderness travel can talk about the places we go, but the real message of wilderness is not delivered with our words and photographs. It is my experience that people need to go there. Then, the wilderness speaks powerfully and silently for itself. I believe that if we don’t encourage people to have wilderness experiences, it may not be there for future generations.

    All across the United States there are groups of people working to complete a national system of scenic and historic trails. It is an amazing and wonderful vision of what is possible. I’m also aware that this must be the work of the current generation. Because of the pressure of development, if the system of trails is not completed soon, the full vision might never be realized.

    Here in Canada, our urban areas are a string of cities just north of the American border. Many of our trails lead into the wilderness, and the real adventures begin when we go beyond the trails.

    At this point in our history, and in the development of our culture, I believe we need more people discovering our wild places. It’s interesting that I just used the word “wild,” and even the term wilderness begins with “wild.” During much of the history of Canada people talked about “taming the wilderness,” and “breaking the land.” No wonder when people travel into the backcountry they think that unruly behavior is acceptable.

    I think it will be easier to teach the ethics of backcountry travel to people who know and love those places. Often the only thing that urban dwellers hear about their local wilderness is the dangers of going there unprepared – probably as a result of a search-and-rescue drama, and about what not to do out there from those of us who act as if the wilderness is ours.

    And don’t really have a conclusion — maybe it is that I would rather spend more time encouraging people to experience the wilderness, which is their heritage, than lecturing them on what not to do. With regard to Leave No Trace, I would rather lead by example, and answer questions when people are ready to ask.

  27. A lot of good comments here.

    I am so happy when my dog can get off leash and run — if I put in 10 miles she puts in at least 30, on and off-trail. Most people we run across love seeing her, especially with her backpack on, but when we notice people who look nervous about a dog, or they have a dog on leash, we always pull her over to the side and hold her until they say they are o.k. with her, or they pass by. I don’t pack out her poop (or mine), but I take care of it so nobody will ever know it’s there.

    I suspect a lot of the problems are from locals who go to some of the more popular locations. Many places along the trail are accessible to people who live in the area (I’m jealous of them), and seem to be good party spots. I wish I could post pictures here; I’d love to show all the graffiti on the rocks at Bake Oven Knob (along the AT) I saw last weekend (I hope Billy didn’t jump). It ruined some good pictures. Surprisingly, I found a large half-full contractor-type trash bag in the woods behind a campsite at the beautiful Quarry Gap Shelter, two miles north of Caledonia SP (along the AT). I suspect it was not from either section or thru-hikers, but I don’t know for sure.

    Although in many ways the surge in outdoor popularity results in “loving the trails to death” (paraphrasing), we all want more people to abandon their sedentary lifestyles and get outside and play. I love getting away from it all (including people — I sometimes expect to see concessions stands at some places along the AT), but then I also have many fun, friendly, and interesting conversations with the hikers I meet along the trail. It’s sometimes difficult finding a balance, but there are plenty of less-traveled places available (Philip, I’m really upset you told everyone about that hike in Shenandoah. I picked it out specifically as beautiful and isolated, and now that everyone knows about it I expect that by the time I get there someone will have opened a chain of French-fry stands along the trail).

  28. Philip, one thing you glossed over is that LNT is a practice, a set of guidelines, not hard and fast rules. LNT isn’t a set of right vs. wrong and there are levels of conservation and sustainability, which is often variable depending on the location. This is what irks people (on both sides), especially when you lay down infractions such as noise, leashed pets, etc. that sound like rules but really aren’t. LNT is supposed to be a framework for helping folks grow in civility with each other and the land they use.

    I often worry that the outdoors becomes a members-only club where only those elite who are “fifth-order black belts” in LNT are allowed in. LNT, on a basic level, is about encouraging people to use the outdoors, but in a responsible way. Often we need to get people outdoors to help them appreciate it vs. pass a test before they came come play in the sandbox.

    I’m also an LNT Trainer and I find that I have to temper my own enthusiasm depending on the group I am with. For example, I don’t like it when folks spit sunflower shells on the ground or toss non-native fruit garbage along the trail. A lot of people don’t see that as a problem. I try to use these as teaching opportunities rather than “you’re wrong/I’m right” arguments. Sometimes the timing isn’t right or there are bigger issues at stake for a particular trip. I also try not to get too upset if I modify my behavior on a trip, risking the “hypocrite” label if I’m not 100% vigilant. I don’t want LNT to be a competition or a way to judge people. We all make mistakes or have to make tough choices over two “wrongs.”

    I do agree 100% about the center clinging desperately to old systems. Knowledge and information should be shared fiercely and freely. I understand selling materials for off-line use, but the basic information should be available now so people can learn, share, and improve.

    I agree with some of the other posts about the growing entitlement, individualism, egotism, and narcissism fueled by our Western culture’s obsession about “me” and seeking or caring more about our own satisfaction than others. The introduction of the smartphone has only made this a bigger problem. And this isn’t going to be stopped by LNT per se; it’s a bigger issue that ripples across the fabric of our society and culture. There’s no silver bullet on changing culture, but I think it starts at the home, extends to our schools and community organizations.

    There is a growing trend right now in sustainability, local and natural food sources, etc. I would say there is an opportunity there for LNT to find parallel and analogous partnerships to weave these values into the cultural mindset.

  29. Well written, Derek!

  30. In general I agree with Mordecai and others up thread. Quite a lot of Philip’s post seems to be more about annoying behavior, rather than true “leave no trace” issues. Specifically regarding a couple of points:

    Dogs: I frequently take my dog on day hikes. She is sweet and generally well behaved. I keep her on leash around trail heads and in areas with lots of people about. When we get further out where there are fewer people I often let her off leash. Most people seem delighted to meet an obviously happy dog frolicking, but I keep a leash handy and call her back if someone looks as if they might have issues with dogs. I have had few complaints.

    Dog poop: I bag her poop on heavily used trails, trailheads, campgrounds, and similar areas. When on a trail, if I plan to return the same way I will sometimes leave the bag for retrieval on the way out. I strongly suspect that is the case with most bagged poop you see on trails. Anyone who goes to the trouble of carrying bags and using them probably plans to retrieve it as well. Further out in more wilderness settings I don’t see dog poop as any more of an issue than moose poop or bear poop, but I will use a stick to swat it off the trail so no one steps in it.

    Cell phones, and other electronic noise makers: I’ve generally found that a polite request to turn down the sound generally works well. Many times people are just following city habits, and simply not thinking about the impact on others out in the woods.

    Campfires in areas without adequate wood, carving out new campsites, etc: These are genuine LNT issues. Education and setting a good example are the best approaches.

    Limiting use of some areas: This is always a tough one. It is clearly a big issue in areas with limited wildlands adjacent to large population centers. It is no doubt necessary in some areas but it is also hard to come up with a permit system that is simple, fair, and workable.

  31. I am an REI Outdoor School Instructor and I teach LNT in every class. I too, am frustrated by the hordes who seem to be oblivious of the consequences of their actions. Please help keep LNT alive, spread the word, help preserve our wilderness for future generations. Thanks!

  32. Although I have no empirical evidence I feel LNT has been a success. Most people I talk to have the concept that “My actions have consequences.” The difference is how much time someone has dedicated to thinking about it. For me the progression was along the lines of:

    1. Clean up your trash, don’t pollute
    2. Careful where you camp, laying down makes it harder for things to grow
    3. Even biodegradable stuff has an impact when i throw it into the woods
    4. My footprints are causing damage to the environment simply by my presence

    Many of the people you see are still only around “my” step 1. If they continue being active I suspect most intelligent people will consider their actions.

    The most important thing to teach these people is that they have the ability to affect their environment through actions. I am Extremely interested in do people not care about their impact or do they not think they have one? So much in life is hard to influence perhaps people are just “brow beaten” into thinking whatever they do doesn’t matter.

  33. I love dogs but dog shit stinks ! and its not fun stepping in it on the trail .you can try to get it off but the smell sticks with you for miles .. its not like wild animal shit.. it is much much worse . so saying wild animals shit in the woods so my dog can to is just a excuse to make your self feel better about being a lazy ASS. im not saying pack it out but get it off the trail .no one wants to step in it.. not even YOU or ppl that take there dogs out. LNT is dead at some spots and alive and well at others places …the spots I hike are all clean so I have to say its doing ok …I don’t like to here ppl playing music . I go out to the mountains to get away from that stuff but I can understand some ppl think differently and don’t like being without there music . I just walk until I cant here it seems to work most of the time ..Lots of bashing on this post seams like you struck the asshole nerve on some ppl .. they all know what your trying to say but they get all technical about it when its simple clean it up ASS HOLS !

  34. As long as there’s careless, thoughtless, and selfish people, damage to natural areas will continue to happen. Educating in LNT, in my opinion, helps minimize the impact but won’t end it, however, minimizing harm is much better than allowing it to increase. The more that the principles of LNT are brought to the fore, the more people will be influenced to make some personal progress. If it is never mentioned, people might not give certain aspects of it a second (or even first) thought.

    Speed limits come to my mind. If the speed limit is 55 MPH on an open road, perhaps only a third of the drivers will observe it but probably 90% will keep it under 65. Without a speed limit, the road might become the Autobahn (I won’t go into the statistics that the accident rate on the Autobahn is less than that on our Interstates) and many more people might be driving dangerous speeds. Another example is smoking. There’s been plenty of education of the dangers and rates have dropped in the USA but countless people still make bad decisions no matter what information is out there. However, without the concerted education, the problem would be much worse.

    My mother taught her five children to respect the rights and feelings of others, not to litter or pollute, and to clean up after ourselves. She and my father also instilled in us a great love for the outdoors and all the flora and fauna out there. She wasn’t squeamish and we had pet snakes, spiders, scorpions, and countless other critters around the house (I did learn not to put my pet spider in the same container as my pet scorpion–the scorpion didn’t object in the least to the feast). I’ve tried to inculcate the same principles of respect in my daughter and grandkids.

    When we come back from a hike, we always have trash with us that we’ve picked up. When I walk around the block, I pick up trash. Once, we canoed a dozen miles or so down the Colorado River in Texas and completely filled the canoe with trash from the river. We tried to take out at a place convenient to the dumpster but it had a sign stating “Do not take out here”. I pulled over anyway so I could dump the trash. A park ranger came running to tell me I couldn’t disembark there, saw what I was doing, and said, “You can take out here any time you want!” Although I’ve never taken our dog on the trail, when we take a walk in the neighborhood, I pick up her deposits. I always want to leave whatever spot I’ve been better for my having traversed that place.

    As far as I’m concerned, LNT isn’t dead as long as some progress is being made.

  35. Grandpa’s third paragraph really resonates with me. To me, LNT is not an elitist attitude or philosophy, but simply a formalized framework for how to be respectful and considerate of the flora, fauna, and other humans while you’re out in the wilderness.

    There are certainly people who have not been raised to be respectful, and frankly I have no idea what to do about them. But for others, the ones who do at least want to be considerate, there’s a wide range of adherence to LNT, regardless of whether LNT in its official sense is actually on their radar.

    I, for example, am one who, till relatively recently, was guilty of a number of things I would never do now. I did jump into streams and lakes with sunscreen or DEET, I did create new campsites out of pristine areas, and I did collect too much scrub and deadwood for too-frequent campfires. This was all out of ignorance, and I wish I had known then what I know now. But I don’t look with reproach on my former self or on others who might also be ignorant of LNT principles. I do tend to pass judgement on those who do things that to me see like obvious transgressions (graffiti, cutting down trees that won’t burn for firewood, etc.), but maybe even there I’m too quick to condemn and perhaps they just don’t realize how what they do impacts the wilderness and those who are passing through.

    So while LNT may at times seem to be a Sisyphean undertaking, I don’t think we can abandon it as “failed” but instead need to keep quietly preaching it, while trying not to come off as holier than thou.

  36. This really appears to have hit a nerve with people, which is good, I like people being passionate about the outdoors.

    I learned LNT as a boy scout about 7 years ago, when they were very first adopting it. I will say that it should not be underestimated how much influence Boy Scouts can have on a program like this. There are a lot of boy scouts out there, and they teach what they learn to their friends. Also, an organization like boy scouts is large enough to keep a movement alive, so pushing boy scouts to keep LNT as a core class can have long term lasting effects on the outdoor community.

    It seemed to me that Boy Scouts was getting more in to LNT since I finished (I heard that they changed their shoulder loops from red to green to symbolize boy scouts devotion to LNT and to be less “showy” and distracting while out on the trail).

    I have taught a good number of people to backpack, and I always promote leaving no trace, although I did feel like LNT went a little far in some cases, possibly scaring people off. I don’t know anyone who is backpacking for the first time who would be willing to pack out toilet paper after using it. There has got to be a better compromise than asking people to carry dirty toilet paper in their pack.

    How do people feel about horse trails and letting horses leave their droppings on the trail? I feel like it makes the experience worse for hikers, but also I don’t want to ruin people’s time who enjoy riding horses in the back country. Is there anything that can reasonably be done about this?

  37. Last year I completed a thru-hike of the Long Trail. I actually thought that the lack of trail maintenance did more damage and impact on the environment than any campsite I have ever seen. Huge portions of the LT are 10 feet wide from hikers trying to avoid mud. In a few sections of the trail you could see attempts to divert water. However, for the most part, hikers almost have no choice but to trample vegetation. I do take LNT very seriously, but walking through 18 inches of mud for miles isn’t reasonable either. I recently hiked the AT in CT and was really impressed with how well the trail was maintained. I would argue despite far more human traffic in CT there is much less human impact than the LT north of the AT. Although many of the issues already mentioned are valid, I would argue well maintained trails would be a good start. I would also add sufficient blazes too. It is amazing how many “new” trails are created by hikers merely looking for the trail.

  38. Leave No Trace is also taught by the Girl Scouts for any outdoor activity. Though Girl Scouts are doing fewer and fewer outdoor activities

  39. Isn’t selling cookies an outdoor activity?

    Of course, I always eat them indoors. The cookies never make it to the trailhead.

  40. Most LNT education I’ve seen is crap, and that doesn’t help. They spend all day on not picking berries, but they fail to emphasize the importance of planning and preparation (so, for example, you don’t NEED to pick berries!).

    I bet if you asked most LNT instructors out there, they would give you a nice lecture on durable surfaces… as they step into the woods to avoid a puddle in the trail. Drives me crazy.

    Lastly, unfortunately a lot of it is gear based, and that can be tough for young folks. I see a lot of instruction with scouts (girls, boys, and other programs) where they drill LNT in the classroom, but when it’s the day of the hike none of the kids are wearing waterproof shoes, none have a hard shell or an extra layer, etc…. so the kids just don’t have the right gear to step in that puddle–and they need to build a huge file to dry out and warm up.

  41. 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.

  42. 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.

  43. 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.