Leave No Trace

So many John Muir quotes, so little time – how do you even begin to express the exquisite allure that the mountains hold for so many of us? If there’s one thing connecting all climbers, it’s a deep love for the earth and a calling to protect our home. Stepping out into the world brings a responsibility to be mindful of your impact on it and the creatures you encounter along the way. This can all be neatly summed up in one simple doctrine: Leave No Trace

Simply put, Leave No Trace is a set of guidelines, developed by the Leave No Trace Centre for Outdoor Ethics, that seeks to promote ethical adventuring and encourage environmental conservation. LNT does a whole bunch of fantastic work in the world, first and foremost being raising awareness for the importance of minimising human impact on the environment. Although this may seem simple enough at first glance, there’s far more to it than just picking up your trash and burying your poop.

Below is a quick guide to the 7 founding principles of Leave No Trace.

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 Impacts
6. Respect Wildlife
7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors
1. Plan Ahead and Prepare

The only way to know that you’ll be leaving no trace is to plan specifically for that goal. Take the time to figure out everything you and your group will need to stay warm, safe and fed without compromising natural resources, and make sure that you are fully aware of any guidelines or regulations for the area that you will be visiting. Elements to consider include food prep, ablutions, trails and fires. Here are a few tips for erasing your tracks before you set out the door:


  • Eliminate excess waste by taking food out of its original packaging and placing it into resealable bags that you can wash and reuse once you’re home (remember to recycle what you can!). These can also double as rubbish bags once empty.
  • Consider bringing along a compact camping stove or two for quick, one-pot meals that have no need for a campfire.
  • Pack fresh food mindfully – anything that becomes stale or stinky will still need to travel home with you.
  • Consider packing a pair of gloves so that you can safely dispose of any trash you find along the trail. 
  • Bring a small trowel or spade. You don’t want to be digging poop holes with your hands. 
  • Know exactly where you will be walking and camping so that you can avoid any bundu-bashing and stick to designated camping areas.
  • Research the area’s rules about pets if you want to bring your furry friend along, and be prepared to handle any illness or injury.

2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

As exciting as it is to explore untamed areas, it is exceptionally important that you avoid trampling or disturbing the delicate ecosystems and vegetation that you encounter. Whether you are following decades-old trail or venturing down the path less travelled, it is possible to leave no trace with these principles: 

On-Trail Travel:

The number one rule here is to stick to the trail. When you step off-course you not only risk damaging vegetation, but you may also unintentionally encourage other people to follow your steps, which can leave lasting scars on the landscape. When you do need to move off the path to take a break or make way for other adventurers, apply the below principles of off-trail travel.

Off-Trail Travel:

There are two primary factors to consider here – frequency of use and durability. The first concerns the impact that frequent travelling – particularly by large groups – has on an area, while the second refers to the ability of surfaces and vegetation to withstand wear and remain stable.

Different surfaces respond differently to human disturbance. Sand, rocks and gravel are good choices for travel, although you should be conscious of any lichen or other lithophytic plants that could be scuffed. Snow and ice are also good options, give the snow is thick enough to protect vegetation from damage. If you must walk through vegetation, your group should spread out to avoid the creation of new trails. You should also opt for dry grasses, as these tend to be on the more durable side. 

Travel on ‘living soil’ should be avoided if at all possible; scientifically known as cryptobiotic crust or biocrust, this appears as an irregular, raised area of dirt that is often blackish in colour. This delicate ecosystem is comprised of micro-organisms and fragile plants such as lichen, and works to retain moisture and protect against erosion. If trampling living soil is unavoidable, your group should follow in each other’s to minimise the affected area. As for desert puddles and mudholes, avoid them at all costs – these are invaluable for the survival of wildlife. 


Choosing the right camping spot is essential in the leave no trace mission; you should make a decision based on factors such as group size, the chances of disturbance to wildlife, and the fragility of the area’s soil and vegetation. 

If you are camping in a highly impacted areas, such as an established campsite, you should:

          1. Establish camp at least 60m away from any water sources; this prevents contamination by waste and allows animals generous access routes.
          2. Leave enough time to pick a good campsite and properly investigate and clear it of any trash and/or natural materials (if you do move pinecones, branches, rocks or the like, make sure to replace them when you break camp).
          3. Establish tents, traffic routes and kitchen areas in highly impacted areas so that human disturbance won’t spread further. If possible, try to find a pre-established location like a designated campsite.
          4. Leave your camp clean and as close to how you found it as possible.

You should only venture to undisturbed, remote areas If you are experienced and skilled in leave no trace practices. If you do head out into the wilds:

        1. Establish camp on durable surfaces such as those as listed above; cooking areas, tents and backpacks in particular need to be placed carefully and never on any vegetation.
        2. Spread out tents, avoid repetitive traffic and move camp each night to minimise concentrated damage to a single area over a long period of time. 
        3. Wear soft shoes.
        4. Try to find a large rock slab to use as a kitchen area.
        5. Bring along water containers to decrease the number of water trips you have to make.
        6. Naturalise the site when you break camp; this includes covering scuffed areas with native materials, brush away footprints and rake matted grasses with a stick to promote recovery and make the area look obvious with a campsite (you don’t want other people camping there because they see your tracks).
        7. Vary routes to minimise impact on the same path.
        8. Travel on durable surfaces and don’t make new trails.
        9. Cooking areas, tents and backpacks should be placed on durable surfaces
        10. Leave areas of “organic litter” (such as dead leaves or pine needles) as is and avoid moving rocks and gravel; this all contributes to the ecosystem and protects soil from erosion.

3. Dispose of Waste Properly

We have arrived – it’s time to talk about poop. You knew it was coming.


Proper disposal of human waste helps to minimise the chances of spreading disease, avoids the pollution of water sources, promotes decomposition, and saves other explorers the trauma of happening on your gifts. To correctly handle human waste:


      1. Consider commercial pack-out systems such as waste bags. If you will be packing out your poop, make sure that you have an appropriate container for the job.
      2. Used catholes for solid waste:
              1. Use a small space to dig a hole that is at least 15–20cm deep and 10–15 cm wide. 
              2. Try to locate catholes where they will receive maximum sunlight to speed up decomposition. If you are in a desert area, make your hole only 10–15 cm to aid this process.
              3. Keep catholes at least 60m away from camp, trails and water.
              4. Choose an inconspicuous site that other people are unlikely to visit, such as thick undergrowth. 
              5. Fill the hole with the same dirt you dug out of it and cover the site with natural materials.
              6. Disperse cathole sites widely; if you have a large group and decide to build a latrine, make sure to choose your location very carefully.
      3. Choose an elevated area that water is unlikely to run through in case of rainfall or flooding.
      4. Try to find an area of organic soil – this is usually rich and dark in colour, and is likely to have more microorganisms which drive decomposition.
      5. You can bury your toilet paper if absolutely necessary, but it is preferred that you pack it out, along with any sanitary items (If you have a uterus and want to further minimise waste, consider getting yourself a menstrual cup – it also saves a TON of money).
      6. Stick to plain white, non-scented toilet paper, and never burn it to dispose of it.
      7. Be conscious that urine can sometimes attract animals, so try to choose areas that will disperse or mask it, such as pine needles or gravel. You can also dilute it with water.


Waste Water

      1. Dispose of washing water (for both dishes and humans) at least 60m away from any water sources.
      2. Strain dishwater with a fine sieve and pack the solids in a rubbish bag before scattering the dishwater over a wide area.
      3. Consider using hand sanitisers and/or biodegradable, phosphate-free soaps; if you use the latter, make sure it’s still disposed of far away from water sources and help in decomposition by digging a hole, pouring the water in and covering it up. If possible, avoid using soaps at all while out in the bush.
      4. Research the best practices for the area you will be visiting.
      5. Rinse yourself with water carried in containers and always 60m away from water sources (you know the drill by now).


Other Waste:

      1. Don’t leave spilled food, cooking grease or leftovers. You also should not try to burn these.  
      2. Carry a jar to use as an ashtray if you smoke anything.
      3. Plan meals carefully to avoid making messy, stinky trash. 
      4. Bring ample plastic bags to carry out your trash, and any that you find along the way.
      5. Before moving from an area, do a final sweep; in particular, look for micro trash such as cigarette buts and pistachio shells.

4. Leave What You Find

As much as you don’t want to introduce any foreign matter to the environment, it is equally important that you avoid making any alterations or removing natural items. It doesn’t matter how cool a rock is or how gorgeous an autumn leaf may be – other visitors want to enjoy the unique features of the landscape, and you don’t want to risk upsetting the area’s delicate ecosystem. 

Avoid creating any makeshift furniture or structures and make sure to replace any pine cones, rocks or twigs that you clear from an area. When you break camp, dismantle any extra fire rings or structures you may have made. If there are any legal, established structures or fire rings, leave these as is, otherwise the land will need to be disrupted again to build new ones. Incredibly important is leaving all live trees and plants alone, which includes not tying your guy ropes to vegetation. If you find any interesting cultural objects, leave them as is and tell the land owner about them; if you do disturb or remove these items, you may be liable for prosecution according to the National Heritage Act. 

5. Minimize Campfire Impacts

There’s nothing quite like a crackling fire under the stars, but campfires leave lasting scars on the environment and they should be lit sparingly. Not only can fire itself damage or mark the area, but the collection of firewood can have severe consequences for the space if not done responsibly. You should never bring firewood from home, but rather purchase it from a local source or collect it from the area. Before you start preparing your fire, ask yourself:

      1. What impact will this have on the area?

      2. What is the fire danger level at the time of your visit? 

(You can check this here.)

      1. Are there any fire regulations you need to obey?

      2. Is there enough wood that removing some would not be noticeable?

      3. Do you know how to build a leave no trace fire? I.e Do you know how to make it look like you never had a fire in the first place?


You should also be aware of any alien vegetation in the area, as this can increase the risk of a wildfire starting and spreading, as explained in this article by Professor Brain van Wilgen of Stellenbosch University.

If possible, eliminate the need for a fire by taking along a compact camping stove or two; this allows you to enjoy wholesome one-pot meals for less mess and a lower impact. If you must light a fire, follow these guidelines:

      1. Camp in areas where wood is abundant
      2. Only keep the fire burning while you’re using it and try to use an established fire ring if available
      3. Allow wood to burn completely to ash and put it out with water – covering it with dirt may not completely extinguish the embers. 
      4. Avoid building fires next to rocky outcrops that could be marked and scarred. 
      5. Consider building a mound fire, as demonstrated in this video, or bring along a fire pan
      6. Leave all standing trees alone, even dead ones. These play an important role in the immediate environment and could be housing small animals.
      7. Use only small pieces of wood that you can break with your hands. 
      8. Collect wood over a wide area far away from the campsite; if you are ear a water source, look for dry driftwood.
      9. When you are done using the fire, burn all the wood to white ash and soak the area thoroughly with water. Then, using gloved hands, scatter the soaked ashes over a wide area away from camp, crushing any larger pieces between your fingers. 
      10. Scatter any unused wood to keep the area looking more natural.
      11. Never burn trash or toilet paper. 

6. Respect Wildlife

We love all creatures big and small, and it’s essential that we avoid disturbing them in any way for the sake of their wellbeing. This is pretty straightforward, but here are a few ideas for minimising your impact on wildlife: 


      1. Observe animals quietly, from a distance; pack some binoculars if you think you will have some interesting sightings.
      2. Keep your group small.
      3. Never follow, feed or get close to wild animals.
      4. If you are concerned about a young or wounded animal, leave it alone and inform the relevant authority.
      5. Store food securely and keep any scraps or leftovers out of reach.
      6. Give animals a wide berth, and be conscious of any spoor or other tracks that may be on your path.
      7. Allow animals easy access to water and avoid water holes at night.
      8. Make sure to practice proper waste disposal so as not to pollute the water source.
      9. Swimming in lakes, rick pools and rivers is generally okay; just be aware of what animals may be around and don’t swim in arid areas.

7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

While the primarily goal of LNT is to minimse environmental impact, it also serves to improve the experience of our fellow adventurers. So many of us find our haven in nature, and we don’t really want to see tracks of other people in the area. To keep a community of happy campers:

      1. Keep your noise levels down, especially late at night and in the early mornings.
      2. If you have any pets with you, keep them on a leash if possible and make sure they are quiet and under your control at all times. Pack out or properly bury any pet waste.
      3. Keep your group size relatively small
      4. Consider how your use of technology may affect other visitors. For example, don’t clog the trail taking snaps for Instagram, and be aware of your surroundings if you are wearing earphones.
      5. When meeting others on the trail, step aside to allow them to pass. Right of way goes to those travelling uphill.
      6. If you are on a bike and need to pass people, politely make your presence known and pass carefully.
      7. When resting, opt for durable surfaces well off the trail.
      8. Try to choose a campsite that is screened from view by rocks or vegetation. 
      9. Opt for clothing and equipment in natural colours to lessen the visual impact on the environment.


Climbing-Specific Leave No Trace Tips:

          1. Be mindful not to crush any vegetation with rope mats, boulder pads, backpacks or other equipment.
          2. Remove any tick marks or excess chalk when you leave.
          3. Keep volume levels low and give everyone ample space.
          4. Only leave draws up on a route if you will be visiting the area soon.
          5. Enjoy the psych and cheer on your buddies without causing too much of a disturbance – we don’t all need to scream like Ondra.
          6. Pack out any snack scraps and do a final sweep of the area for micro trash before you depart. 
          7. Keep your gear neat and together, out of everyone’s way.
          8. If you are taking a pet with you,make sure they are properly trained for the crag and keep them close.


To read more about crag etiquette, check out this blog post.

This may seem like a lot to take in, but once you get into the swing of things it will come naturally. Nature is home to all of us – let’s keep a clean house.

For more LNT advice and tricks, take a look at the Leave No Trace Centre’s YouTube channel.



  1. […] 200m from any water source. You should also know how to dig a proper cathode, as explained in our Leave No Trace article. There is some contention around the issue of toilet paper; some say that it’s 100% fine to bury […]

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