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08/26/2014 by David Moskowitz and Darcy Ottey Click to Tweet

Leaving 'Leave No Trace' Behind

Towards a Holistic Land Use Ethic

If you asked an ecologist whether a land use ethic based around "leaving no trace" is feasible, he or she would probably chuckle. Nothing lives on this planet without affecting its environment. From subsistence hunter-gatherers to modern western scientists, people have always encountered this truth. Yet contrary to this multicultural, time-tested fact, outdoor educators, land managers, and recreationalists have largely embraced a land use ethic entitled "Leave No Trace" (LNT).

While this movement has many positive benefits, the LNT ethic has several key gaps. First, LNT conflicts with fundamental principles of ecology, and thus serves as a form of miseducation. Second, this miseducation acts as a disconnecting force, encouraging thousands of wilderness visitors and children to view the natural world as something in which humanity does not belong. Finally, LNT does not address larger environmental issues or patterns, instead examining only one's actions and behaviors while in wild areas.

These are critical failures during a critical time in humanity's evolving relationship with the natural world. Instead of LNT, we need a land use teaching tool that is intentionally designed to help students connect with the natural world, and see their actions within the larger ecological context. The principles that are taught with regard to camping and traveling in wild areas should also be directly applicable, and explicitly applied, to their lives in urban and rural environments. From this increased awareness, and with a relevant set of ethical guidelines, students can make educated, responsible decisions, and positively impact the world around them in both a wild and developed environment.

History of LNT

Leave No Trace as a slogan, educational program, and as a land use ethic has developed over the past several decades in response to the deterioration of wildlands commonly visited by recreation users. As more and more recreationalists took to America's wild spaces, increased impact in the form of polluted water sources, visual disturbances, and affected wildlife emerged as a clear concern of land management agencies. Land managers tried a variety of regulation-based approaches in the 1970's and 1980's, eventually coining the term "Leave No Trace" to describe their hopes for the public's visits to wild areas. However, it was clear that regulation efforts would be ineffective without simultaneous educational programming. With the help of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), educational curricula, training courses, and a variety of programs have developed over the last 15 years to support the goal of "leaving no trace" in our wild areas.

LNT, at its core, is a set of seven principles for traveling through and camping in the backcountry.

  • 1) Plan Ahead and Prepare
  • 2) Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  • 3) Dispose of Water Properly ("Pack it in, Pack it out")
  • 4) Leave what you Find
  • 5) Minimize Campfire Impacts
  • 6) Respect Wildlife
  • 7) Be Considerate of Other Visitors

Each of the seven principles of LNT is designed to be simple, flexible, and adaptable to diverse landscapes and methods of land use. Outdoor education institutions, guide services, land managers, and individual wilderness recreationalists have largely embraced these principles (Marion, 2001). Indeed, LNT can be very helpful in maintaining pristine wilderness environments. As instructors for Outward Bound, working in fragile alpine areas, we have seen both the negative effects of poorly managed overuse and the ability of LNT principles to greatly mitigate effects of institutional use of the mountain landscape. For example, certain wilderness areas may see thousands of visitors each summer. If all or most visitors were to leave behind their garbage, as was not uncommon 25 or 50 years ago, the area quickly would be overflowing with signs of waste. But by following "Pack it in, pack it out" LNT principle, each new visitor can often have a "wilderness" experience of feeling alone and undisturbed by signs of humanity.

The Limitations of LNT

However, these benefits of the Leave No Trace ethic are not without cost. As educators, we teach as much about the natural world and environmental ethics by what we do not say as by what we do say (Orr, 1994). Through the omission of basic ecological principles and limitations in scope, LNT breeds an inaccurate, disconnected worldview. The idea that humans can leave no trace on our environment is born out of a culture utterly disconnected from its surroundings. It comes from the same mentality that thinks garbage disappears once the big truck picks it up Wednesday morning, human waste disappears once it is flushed down the toilet, and that milk comes from the dairy section of a supermarket. To perpetuate this myth, no matter what the motivation, is disastrous. Instead, we need a land use teaching tool that allows students to see wildlands from an ecological context, recognizing that everything within the ecosystem leaves a trace on the larger whole.

LNT also perpetuates disconnection between humans and the natural world. As environmental educators, we strive to illuminate the complex relationships between people and their environment, and encourage students to develop personal connections with the landscape. LNT undermines these goals. One researcher actually found that LNT taught on Outward Bound Courses led students to feel disconnected from their environment (Lemburg, 1997). Another educator and instructor for Outward Bound, Greg Weiss, agrees based on his experiences in outdoor education: "The next time you watch someone give a Leave No Trace talk, put yourself in a novice's shoes and see how often it sounds like 'we humans are bad, don't touch that, don't pick that up, and we need to tip-toe around the woods because we don't really belong here'" (Weiss, 2003; p. 5). Students exposed to LNT principles often have a sense that everything they do "out there" is destructive and that it might be better never to go into natural environments. It's as if we ask students that visit the wilderness to live, eat, travel, and play inside a museum, constantly reminding them not to upset any of the fragile displays.

The last key concern with LNT is the silence and blind eye it has in regards to systemic environmental issues. It focuses mainly on the visual and immediate impacts land use behaviors have on the landscape. Dealing with waste properly involves things like prepackaging food items before you go into the wild, and "packing out what you are packing in." While behaviors like these certainly avoid visual effects on the landscape, they perpetuate a throwaway mentality and disconnection between our actions and the long term impacts of those actions. What happens to the dozens of plastic bags that we bring back with us? Have the producers of our powdered milk, beef jerky, and rice been respectful to wildlife and "left no trace" on their landscape? On trips which involve travel at high altitude, on rivers, or in winter, disposing of human waste properly may involve packing it out. But it still has to go somewhere. Are our sewage systems leaving no trace on our rivers and estuaries? How does a plastic bag filled with feces and gelling chemicals break down in a landfill? Often these questions are avoided by educators, landmanagers, and private recreationalists that take to the wilds; they are certainly absent in the seven principles and the written material presented by LNT. Yet right action by people traveling in wild places WILL NOT in and of itself preserve these places. Right action by people in their daily lives can, and that means addressing larger environmental issues.

Beyond LNT: Toward Conscious Impact Living

We agree that we must mitigate our impact on the wildlands through which we travel, and that LNT principles help wilderness travelers do this. However, as educators seeking to draw metaphorical connections and foster transferable learning, there are more effective, comprehensive, and accurate ways to frame how we choose to travel and live in the outdoors. While LNT may positively affect the level of human impact in wilderness areas in direct and immediate ways, it may in fact be detrimental to our connection as humans to the land and our place in it. We believe that an alternate approach, one based in ecological principles of interconnection and interdependence, could teach to all of these goals: keeping wildlands wild and untrammeled, fostering an understanding of the interdependence between humanity and the rest of the natural world, and encouraging a positive impact on urban and rural environments in which the human hand has already had a significant impact.

A clear lesson that people have learned from living on the land from all over the world is that we do affect our environment. We have no choice about this. The natural world is not a museum and humans always have and always will leave a "trace" or impact on their environment as all living beings do. We do have a choice about what our impact will be, however. As educators we can seek to help student become conscious of their impacts, give them tools to mitigate destructive impacts, and help them increase those which tend to support the integrity of the natural landscape. One program in Vermont, Kroka Expeditions, has taken to using the term "Conscious Impact Living". This shift in framing, from "leave no trace" to "conscious impact living," can profoundly impact the ways in which students interact with the land around them. This type of approach allows educators to both manage their immediate impacts (maintaining the integrity of the goals of the leave no trace program) as well as place students' experience within a larger, more holistic context.

"Conscious Impact Living" teaches ecological principles accurately. This orientation also helps to foster interconnection. As we look at how we inevitably affect the natural world, we can begin to explore the interconnections between ourselves (as individuals and as part of humanity), and how we've affected (and would like to affect), the world around us. This naturally connects our lives back home to our behavior in the wilderness. No longer is repackaging prepackaged food so that we're carrying less waste into the backcountry the solution, but rather minimizing waste, and disposing of it properly, throughout our urban and wilderness travels becomes a goal.

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Seven Principles of Concious Impact Living

We propose the following seven principles as an example of a holistic land use ethic that can be used both to teach people to minimize their impacts on wild lands while camping and traveling and also serve as an effective tool for doing the same while living in a developed urban or rural environment:

  • Live Simply: Consider the difference between wants and needs, and minimize unnecessary clutter in your life. Travel in wild places can help clarify these differences.
  • Think Globally And Plan Ahead: Explore possible consequences of your choices on both yourself and the world around you, and make educated choices to maximize positive consequences and minimize negative ones (can include LNT principle Plan Ahead and Prepare).
  • Follow the Precautionary Principle: It is difficult to know the consequences of our actions on other creatures of the world. Assume negative consequences until you have evidence to the contrary.
  • Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Relearn: Minimize waste through reducing what you use, reusing what you can, and recycling what you can no longer use. Relearn time-tested methods to conserve, such as mending and repairing items that are broken rather that replacing (can include LNT principle Dispose of Waste Properly).
  • Follow Nature's Lead and Blend into your Surroundings: Seek to make shelter, travel, and other activities blend into the environment rather then stand out, to work with natural systems rather then fight against them. Consider the sensory impacts that you have on wildlife and other people (can include LNT principles Respect Wildlife, Be Considerate of Other Visitors, and Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces).
  • Use Appropriate Technology, And Use Technology Appropriately: Seek to use situation-appropriate fuel sources for cooking, heating, light, and transportation. Seek technologies which support rather then destroy the integrity of wild places and natural systems (can include LNT principle Minimize Campfire Impacts).
  • Show Respect and Compassion for all Forms of Life: Approach all parts of the world with respect, compassion, gratitude, and awareness of your part within the whole (can include LNT principles Leave what you Find, Respect Wildlife and Be Considerate of Other Visitors).

With over six billion people on the planet, gone are the days when we can afford an unsustainable removal of resources from our planet. Ultimately we do not want students to just minimize their destruction or believe they have no impact at all. Instead, we want our students to make positive impacts on the world around them, in wild and developed places. Let us move towards leaving "LNT" to decompose with the other ideas which have served their purpose- and explore ways to integrate what this ethic has to offer into more holistic ways of teaching about our relationship to the natural world. Future generations are depending on it.

The Beta:

What are your thoughts on the effectiveness of Leave No Trace? What strategies can you use to teach Consious Impact Living? We would love to hear your thoughts and ideas on this issue. Leave us a comment below!

Thank you to David Moskowitz and Darcy Ottey for your analytical perspective on our current land use ethics and how we teach it to the outdoor community.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2008 edition of Green Teacher.

For more information on Leave No Trace visit their website.


Lemburg, Rebecca L. (1997) "The Integration Of Environmental Education And Wilderness-Based Adventure Programs", unpublished Masters Thesis, Prescott College.

Marion, Jeffrey L. and Reid, Scott E. (2001). "Development of the U.S. Leave No Trace Program: An Historical Perspective", retrieved 2/18/04 from

Orr, David W. 1994. Earth In Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Washington D.C.: Island Press.

Weiss, Greg (2003). "Leave No Trace Versus the Environment," Outward Bound International Newsletter. June 2003, Retrieved 8/17/03 from

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