A Scouter's guide to teaching Leave No Trace ethics

Click here to read Leave No Trace recommendations from three experts in the field.


Are you and your Scouts following proper Leave No Trace principles? These days, keeping campsites pristine shows respect for the environment—and other Scouts.

AS A BOY SCOUT in the early 1980s, Ben Lawhon helped police his troop’s campsite to make sure no trash had been left behind. He also dug trenches around his tent—a makeshift moat to keep his sleeping bag and gear dry. At the time, Lawhon (and presumably his troop leaders) didn’t recognize the discrepancy between the two customs. Now, as education director for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, he certainly does.

Garbage: Don’t leave camp without it. Whatever it takes—a police line, a requirement that each Scout pick up 10 pieces of litter, or a detour on a canoe trip to collect shoreside refuse (above)—make sure that “leave what you find” doesn’t refer to trash. Campfires can create garbage, too. So if you can’t use a stove (which leaves no trace), make sure your blaze is small and uses dead or downed wood. (Photo by Eric Zamora)

Scouts and Scouters don’t ditch their tents these days—they know better. But many troops still use camping practices that run just as counter to Scouting’s conservation ethic. That’s why Lawhon and fellow Leave No Trace experts are working hard to increase awareness of Leave No Trace principles in Scouting.

“We’ve made such great strides in the Boy Scouts over the past six or seven years and have really elevated the Leave No Trace program within Scouting,” Lawhon says. “But we still have a lot of work to do.”

So do Scout leaders, especially those of us who learned camping techniques from our fathers many generations ago. “The youth pick it up and are on board immediately,” says Jeff Marion, Ph.D., a lifelong Scouter who studies how recreational use affects national parks and forests. “In many cases, the folks we’re trying to reach are the old-school leaders.”

Old school or not, any Scouter can—and should—get up to speed by learning, practicing, and teaching Leave No Trace behaviors. Here’s how.

Learn Leave No Trace
Leave No Trace is not a slogan or a set of restrictive rules. Instead, it’s an ethic coupled with low-impact habits (see sidebar at right) that should be part of any outdoor experience, whether a hike in a city park or a backcountry expedition. The idea is simple: Leave the places where you recreate better than you found them by minimizing your impact on the environment.

Scouts hiking in the backcountry make sure to abide by the second LNT principle, by traveling on "durable surfaces" and by minimizing their impact on land without a specified trail. (BSA File Photo)

How exactly do you do that? The best way to find out is by getting trained. Leave No Trace content is woven into the BSA’s core outdoor training programs, and many councils offer general awareness courses in settings such as roundtable and summer camp.

Beyond that, three levels of in-depth training are available: BSA Leave No Trace 101 is a 3½-hour course that helps Scouts and adults at all program levels understand and apply Leave No Trace principles. The 16-hour, overnight BSA Leave No Trace Trainer Course prepares individuals age 14 and older to serve as Leave No Trace trainers. Boy Scouts and Varsity Scouts who complete this course are qualified to hold the Leave No Trace Trainer position in their unit. At the top of the pyramid, the five-day, five-night BSA Leave No Trace Master Educator Course teaches individuals age 18 and older how to conduct courses and train trainers.

For details about Leave No Trace, visit bit.ly/LNTguide or contact your council’s outdoor ethics advocate.

Practice Leave No Trace
Of course, it’s not enough to simply learn Leave No Trace principles; you have to put them into use. The more you use Leave No Trace techniques, the more natural they become.

"Bear bags" contain food and other scented items that may attract animals. This photo illustrates the correct height of the bag to make sure that wildlife cannot reach. (BSA File Photo)

Along the way, you’ll also discover nuances you hadn’t thought of before. Take the second principle: “Travel and camp on durable surfaces.” A campsite that’s quite durable when you set up on Friday evening (a farm field or a dirt-covered campground, for example) can turn into a muddy mess after a weekend of rain, leaving you little choice but to create huge ruts when you leave. “That’s avoidable,” Marion says. “You could have gone in there with the vehicles, dropped stuff off, and parked back on a hard-surface road, or you could have used handcarts or wheelbarrows to avoid impacts from heavy vehicles.”

Teach Leave No Trace
As a Scout leader, your Scouts look to you for leadership, and they’ll learn from your example. But you can and should do more than just set a good example while outdoors.

Look for teachable moments during outings and publicly recognize Scouts who embody the Leave No Trace ethic. Beyond that, be sure to include Leave No Trace training in your unit program; for specific teaching resources and activities designed to engage your Scouts, visit bit.ly/LNTguide. Chapter 7 of the Boy Scout Handbook and chapters 7 through 10 of the Fieldbook are also great resources for Scouts on Leave No Trace principles.

LEAVE Only Footprints
From an early age, Scouts learn to take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints. Leave No Trace is simply an organized way to put that adage into action.

Leave No Trace can do something else, too. It can help improve Scouting’s reputation among land managers—many of whom have encountered too many Scouts who have left too many traces.

“Scouts are oftentimes not met at the door with open arms,” says Wade M. Vagias, Ph.D., the National Park Service’s outdoor ethics coordinator. “We’re working to change the paradigm and move in a better direction.”

And that’s a great set of footprints to leave.

Eagle Scout Mark Ray writes frequently for Scouting and the Eagle Scout magazines.


Fire Pitfalls

The experts we spoke with said campfires are the biggest Leave No Trace problem they see. “You talk to backcountry rangers, and they’ll say, ‘I’ve cleaned up a thousand fire pits in my career, and I’m just sick and tired of it,’” Jeff Marion says.

While campfires are sometimes appropriate, you should never create new fire pits, burn wood that’s bigger around than your wrist, cut down trees for firewood, dispose of trash in fire pits, or transport wood over long distances (which can spread invasive insects such as the emerald ash borer). Instead, collect small, dead, and downed wood from near your campsite, build your fire in an existing fire ring or on a durable surface, and burn the wood to ash.

“We’re not saying you can’t have campfires,” Marion says. “But a low-impact campfire is very different than the traditional campfire Boy Scouts built in ages past.”

7 thoughts on “A Scouter's guide to teaching Leave No Trace ethics

  1. I am interested in finding out where BSA Leave No Trace Master Educator Course might be offered, including time, dates, and location.

  2. Great Southwest Council is also hosting a Masters Educators Course July 16th – 21st near Durango, CO. The course has two sections: a front country camp experience and back packing on the Colorado Trail (with Llama support). Both promise to be excellent experiences. Visit the Great Southwest Council’s website for more information. http://www.gswcbsa.org

  3. Pingback: Letters to the editor - Scouting magazine

  4. Pingback: Lead an ethics debate on Leave No Trace values - Scouting magazine

  5. Pingback: Leave No Trace: Share the Responsibility - Troop 718

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