Do No Harm

Scouts are the largest organized users of U.S. public lands. Here’s how you can minimize your impact through the ideals of Leave No Trace camping.

It’s been said that Americans are “loving our wilderness to death.”

Too many people are squeezing onto some of our trails and into some of our campsites. The impact can alter the environment, pollute the water, spread diseases and exotic species, and negatively affect local wildlife and the experience of other users.

The Boy Scouts of America partnered with the Leave No Trace Program ( to educate youths and leaders about what they can do to preserve and protect the environment. As Eric Hiser, chairman of the Leave No Trace Task Force, explains: “Leave No Trace represents a cutting-edge application of Scouting’s historic commitment to conserving and preserving our natural resources.

“The principles of Leave No Trace provide useful, ethical guidelines to assist in minimizing our impact on the outdoors, preserving it for future generations.”

Here are the seven principles of Leave No Trace that everyone should try to follow.

Plan ahead and prepare

Avoid the high season on popular trails; you won’t have to compete with hundreds of other people for campsites.

Or hike in less-popular national forests instead of popular national parks.

Consider seasonal issues: In Northern states, hiking in “mud season” (after the snow has melted but before the ground has dried) is as unpleasant as it sounds — and it increases trail erosion.

Once you’ve chosen a destination, check safety concerns such as extreme weather, seasonal issues (snow, high water, lack of water), and hazards. Check regulations, especially regarding group size.

Beyond regulations, use your judgment: Two groups of six are better than one group of 12. Consider dividing into subgroups and going off in different directions.

Travel, camp on durable surfaces

Some surfaces are more vulnerable to damage than others. Durable surfaces include established trails and campsites, rock, gravel, dry grasses, pine duff, or snow. Surfaces that are less durable include muddy trails, riparian areas, arctic-alpine vegetation (especially in the blooming season), and meadows.

In popular locations, try to use areas that already show signs of impact. This means existing trails and campsites. Walk single-file in the middle of the trail, even if it’s wet or muddy — and resist the temptation to cut switchbacks or take shortcuts. Keep campsites small and limit high-impact group activities such as sports to places where vegetation is absent.

In pristine areas without trails, your group should spread out while hiking to avoid creating new trails that might then be used by others. In camp, avoid sites that are just beginning to show signs of use, and instead camp where others aren’t likely to find or choose the same spot. Leave the site as pristine and unmarked as when you found it.

In all areas, choose campsites at least 200 feet from water sources.

Dispose of waste properly

“Pack it in, pack it out.” That means candy wrappers, orange peels, plastic ziplock bags, freeze-dried food packaging, tissue paper, leftover food — anything that wasn’t there when you arrived. Packing out trash left by others is also greatly appreciated.

Deposit solid human waste in 6- to 8-inch-deep cat holes, located at least 200 feet from water, campsites, and trails. When you’re finished, fill in the hole and camouflage it with duff, pine needles, or downed wood.

To bathe, carry a bag of water at least 200 feet from streams or lakes and use biodegradable soap.

The same goes for washing dishes. Scatter strained dishwater and pack out any food scraps.

Leave what you find

“Take only pictures; leave only footprints.” This includes rocks, plants, and other natural objects. It also includes cultural and historic artifacts such as potsherds and arrowheads.

Make sure to thoroughly clean your gear between trips to different regions, countries, or continents.

Otherwise, you can transport seeds and spores that stick to boots and tent stakes to new environments, where, as nonnative species, they can overgrow and do enormous damage.

Minimize campfire effects

Stripped of downed wood, overused campsites have a bare, desolate look — as if you arrived late for yesterday’s party. There’s an impact on animals, too, which use downed branches as shelter and hiding places.

Where fires are permitted, use established fire rings, fire pans, or mound fires and keep the fires small, using wood small enough to break by hand.

Metal fire pans contain the fire and keep it off the ground; mound fires are built on a 3- to 5-inch mound of loose soil or sand that protects the ground under the fire and gets dispersed after it burns.

Never establish a new fire ring. Before you leave a campfire, make sure all wood and coals have burned to ash. Once the ashes are cool to the touch, scatter them.

Better yet, refrain from making a fire and instead use a lightweight stove for cooking. A candle lantern can provide evening light.

Respect wildlife

Don’t feed the animals — no matter how cute, friendly, or tame they seem. Feeding them can damage their health, alter their natural feeding patterns, make them dependent on human food, and expose them to predators.

Animals that become accustomed to humans can be dangerous. Even a docile-looking deer — not to mention a bear — can severely injure humans by aggressively seeking handouts.

The no-feeding rule includes accidental feeding: Store food in animal-proof containers.

Hang it out of reach or follow local regulations and suggestions for keeping human food and trash away from wild animals.

Avoid disrupting animals: Don’t follow or approach them too closely, especially in mating season, nesting season, or winter when they’re vulnerable.

Control your pets: Leash your dogs, and don’t permit them to chase or harass wildlife. Avoid camping near or on animal trails, especially in dry areas where animals may depend on a small amount of water resources.

Be considerate of other visitors

The wrong people moving into a campsite next door can shatter the peace and quiet we cherish in the backcountry. Don’t be those people.

The larger your group, the farther you should camp from others. Avoid loud and raucous games, especially when camped within sight or earshot of others.

On hikes, you should yield to other users when possible — stand to the side and let others pass — especially when you’re part of a large group.

If you encounter pack animals, step to the downhill side and stand quietly as a matter of safety for both humans and animals. When you stop for a break, move away from the trail to allow others to enjoy their solitude as they pass by.

In addition to observing the BSA’s Outdoor Code, Hiser says youths and leaders have a further obligation to follow the principles of Leave No Trace.

“As the largest organized user of our public lands, Scouting can have a tremendous positive influence by training our youth to think and act ethically in the outdoors. In this way, we encourage the next generation to assume stewardship of our lands and the environment.”

Karen Berger is the author of Be Prepared: Hiking and Backpacking, BSA Supply No. 34261.


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