Lead an ethics debate on Leave No Trace values

Read our Leader’s Guide to Leave No Trace and learn how—and why—you should teach Scouts the importance of Leave No Trace values.

THE SEVEN PRINCIPLES of Leave No Trace (below) are intentionally open-ended—some might say vague—which makes them work well in settings such as city parks, Scout camps, national forests, and wilderness areas. Literal-minded Scouts, though, may have trouble applying the principles in situations where the right action to take isn’t always clear. An example follows.

The Dilemma
Many teenagers think of spring break as a time to head to the nearest beach or theme park. Not the members of Troop 412. Each March they travel to the Ouachita Mountains near the Oklahoma-Arkansas border for five days of backpacking. During most years, the Scouts enjoy seasonably warm weather. But this year is different. The nights are cold, the trails are a muddy mess, and the Scouts only packed shorts and T-shirts.

Tuesday’s hike takes the group along—and occasionally across—the Kiamichi River. In keeping with Leave No Trace principles, the Scouts stay on the established trail, even though it’s little more than thick, clinging, ankle-deep mud. To top things off, rain starts falling in late afternoon. As the sun sets, they drag themselves to a campsite, tired, hungry, and soaked to the skin.

As most of the Scouts collapse onto their packs, the patrol leaders’ council huddles to discuss plans for setting up camp. Senior Patrol Leader Jon Albertson suggests pitching tents and getting the camp stoves going for dinner, but Nate Blackledge, patrol leader of the Rattlesnakes, disagrees. He has already started building a giant campfire so all the Scouts can warm up and get their boots and clothes dry.

Jon shakes his head, pointing out that Leave No Trace recommends that campfires—if they’re built at all—be small. He says to Nate, “Look, dude, you didn’t want to stay on the trail this morning. You threw your orange peel on the ground after lunch. What part of ‘Leave No Trace’ don’t you understand?”

“The part that says we’re supposed to freeze to death, I guess,” Nate snaps.

What should the PLC decide to do?

For Discussion
To help Scouts or Venturers explore this dilemma, discuss these questions together:

Is Jon correctly interpreting the fifth principle of Leave No Trace, which says to “minimize campfire impacts”? If not, how is he wrong?

Does Nate have a valid argument about the need to build a big campfire? Why or why not?

Does the fact that Nate was violating other Leave No Trace principles earlier in the day weaken his argument? Why or why not?

The troop’s campsite is in a national forest. Does that setting make a difference in what the PLC decides? Why or why not?

What if the setting were a Scout camp? A state park? Private property (used with permission)?

The first principle of Leave No Trace is “Plan ahead and prepare.” Could the troop have avoided this situation if they’d been better prepared? Explain.

When you have to choose between two positive values (in this case, Leave No Trace or the comfort of the troop members), how do you choose?

Next Steps
Now, take the situation further. Invite your Scouts or Venturers to role-play the PLC’s discussion and come to a decision about building the campfire. When they’ve reached a decision, discuss these questions:

How does your decision support Jon’s concern about Leave No Trace?

How does your decision support Nate’s concern about the Scouts’ well-being?

What did you learn from this dilemma?

Leave No Trace Guidelines

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 impact.
6. Respect wildlife.
7. Be considerate of other visitors.

To find more discussion topics encouraging ethical conversations among Scouts, visit scoutingmagazine.org/ethics.


  1. Wet Scouts, sun setting, dropping temperatures, not enough protective gear, this is not an ethical dilemma, this is a safety issue. Nate has it right (“freeze to death”), if I were the scoutmaster in charge of this trek, I’d be thinking hypothermia, not Leave No Trace. I would also be thinking about keeping moral up to face the adversity with good spirits. Since they are in shorts and t-shirts, they probably have lighter sleeping bags than the temps warrant too. When it comes to the safety of my scouts and in a situation where to follow Leave No Trace I have to put wet scouts to bed in unexpected falling temperatures, i.e., at risk, Leave No Trace takes a back seat. A large fire is necessary to dry the scouts and their clothes out before they get into their sleeping bags for the night. In addition a big fire will lift their spirits and turn a poor situation into an adventure to work their way through.
    In your discussion you frame the issues as being an ethical decision between comfort vs. Leave no trace, it is not. It’s a safety issue. However, you re leading the audience to feel guilty for feeling comfortable vice feeling good about following leave no trace in an uncomfortable situation. IMHO, this politically correct version of Leave No Trace “takes priority over all” could lead to bad decisions that puts Scouts at risk. As for me I view Leave No Trace kinda like the Pirates of the Caribbean Capt Barbossa view the “Code”, the code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules, aarrrrrggg.

    • obviously your scouts and leaders broke the 1st leave no trace principal- plan ahead and prepare, that includes checking the weather forcast for your trip, and bringing the proper clothes and equipment, if you follow the 1st principal you will be able to do the rest of the Leave no trace principals!! Before your troop leaves on another trip, you need to do a shakedown-have all scouts pull out their gear and clothes, and see what they need to bring for the trip, before even leaving!! Boys scouts are trying to clean up their act by learning Leave No Trace, and you and other people who continue to do whatever you feel like doing while outdoors need to wake up! Leave No Trace is a great learning tool and I am glad Boy Scouts of America are supporting this great program!!!

  2. Julie, First, this is not my situation, and as a responsible ASM, I do properly plan with my scouts when I go out in the great out doors. Second, I do not do “what ever I please” in the outdoors, but I will do what it takes to survive, and I will teach those skills to my Scouts. Third, thank you for providing me the opportunity to continue my point of view, by responding to your comment.

    We are presented with a troop that is in a bad situation, so chastising them for poor prior planning will not help them make the correct decisions to minimize the risks and salvage their trek. There will be plenty of time upon their return to discuss what they could have done better, however, they have to deal with their present situation.

    In my vision of scouting, we teach the boys to use good judgment rather than blindly following a trend when those trends could put the scout or his companions at risk. Such an example of this is also found in this story when the scouts were encouraged to stick to a trail of ankle deep mud rather than taking a safer route. They are lucky none of the scouts twisted an ankle or worse broke one in a fall.

    Hopefully their scoutmaster has taught them to correctly assess the risks of the situation and make the right decision, not to blindly follow LNT, but to take the action necessary to keep themselves safe.

    Now please do not misunderstand, I love a clean forest and respect nature. Trash on the trail and left at campsites makes me furious at the callous individuals who spoil the outdoors for everyone else. So, under normal circumstances I have no problem with Leave No Trace. However, when the situation warrants, such as the one described above there is no substitute for good judgment. Also, remember these are scouts and they have presumably been taught the rules of fire safety. If this was an existing campsite, with an existing fire ring, there should be no hesitation about building a big fire. Even if an existing fire ring does not exist, the situation warrants building a proper fire ring for a proper fire for drying things out.

    Finally, The Scouts have a clean act, and have for quite some time. So, I do resent you implying that they have not respected the outdoors in the past.

    So, as I wear a pirate emblem for my Council Patch, I leave you with another quote from the Pirates of the Caribbean relative to decision making in a extremis situation:

    Will Turner: You didn’t beat me. You ignored the rules of engagement. In a fair fight, I’d kill you.
    Jack Sparrow: That’s not much incentive for me to fight fair, then, is it?

    • Right on! The “situation” was flawed at the onset. The precepts were created to push a particular agenda. In my OLS training, the idea was put forth that Campfires be removed entirely from scouting outings. With the proper precautions and equipment i.e. a fire bucket and shovel under the supervision of a scout who has been trained in how to handle a fire, there is no reason that a larger fire cannot be built and still keep in line with Item 5 of the LNT principams. Our outdoor code requires that we as scouts and scouters “be careful with fire, and considerate in the outdoors.” As to the trails, I would not consider a few steps to avoid ankle deep mud a violation of the stay on trails part of LNT. By walking through the mud, more damage is done to the trail than walking around it plus there is a higher likelihood of tracking around unwanted non native seeds and spores to other locations where they may do damage to native flora and fauna. a good alternative would be to repair the condition that allowed the mud to form in the first place, like adding rock or more durable materials to the trail.

  3. “There is an old Indian saying I learned back in my Boy Scout days that goes, “White man build big fire, sit way back…Indian build little fire, sit up close.” Think for a moment, why would a little fire be better than a big fire?

    For young scouts, this saying helped teach a valuable lesson in conserving resources. In Scouting today, we teach low impact camping that actually discourages building campfires altogether. ”

    courtesy of Mr. Wroblewski

    P.S. don’t get leather boots too close to the fire

    • I always remember the saying as, “”Indian builds small fire and stays warm, white man builds huge fire and stays warm collecting firewood”…

      Either way, great discussion everyone, good food for thought.

  4. So, without actually being there, it’s hard to make a truely fair and accurate assesment of the situation.
    But we have ton start somewhere, so lets start with Nate:

    He didn’t want to stay on the trail. Can’t say that anybody would. But the question here is this: Are they slogging through the mud to the point that they are destroying the trail and making it unusable for the next group of folks who come along. Are they in thick woods with no other passable areas or is it wide open so that spreading a little wide will soften the impact and spread the weight, so to speak.

    SEcondly, Nate tossing orange peels is a distraction. Yeah, that is against and violate LNT, but has no signifigance to the campfire or the present situation. “Hey remember that time when you were 5 years old and threw a Twinkie in the lake?”

    No relevance at all.

    Looking at the illustration, I am led to believe that Nate is still building within the boundries of an existing fire ring, so at that point, size does not matter. Heat dispersement is more important, so the question is this: will the heat singe or cause other harm to the surrounding brush and foilage? Wet foilage, that is.

    And as said above, we do not plan or try to go out and destruy the environment, but sometimes, certain sitautions arise where we do have to consider life and safety over LNT.

    NOw, what really maters here is if the troop learns anything at all from this or puts themselves right back in the same situation the next time they go out.

    If so, that is the real traggedy here.

  5. I disagree with you, Julie – safety ALWAYS trumps anything else. Anything. Attitudes such are the one you present are one reason my sons won’t ever be in a troop with female leadership.

    • What?!? Is this 1953?!? “Attitudes such are the one you present are one reason my sons won’t ever be in a troop with female leadership”! I am a Troop leader, a BSA lifeguard and I’m about to take the LNT Master Course in Minnesota…If anything, the scenario would not have even happened because the weather would have been checked (and which is why most Tour Plans require a leader to be Weather Hazard certified). I do agree that SAFETY comes first. But it’s attitudes like the above and parents who drop their scouts off unprepared – despite the emails and eBlasts – that makes the leader’s job (and we are volunteers!) difficult. No matter what sex, the leader’s job is to provide a safe environment to lead a quality program…

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