Scouting magazine Exit Reader Mode

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