Camp Responsibly With the 7 Principles of Leave No Trace

Do you go outside? Then you should know (and practice!) the 7 Principles of Leave No Trace.

Hipcamp’s mission is to get more people outside and with that comes great responsibility to make sure the places that we unlock access to remain as they were found, or, as one of our core company values states, we #LeaveItBetter.

Whether you’re camping, visiting a superbloom, or if you’re simply exploring your backyard, this guide is for you. Newbies should read this guide thoroughly and reference it often, seasoned explorers should spread the seven principles far and wide, and if you book a trip on Hipcamp, we’ll send you a link to review this list every time!

Let’s dive into each principle, what they entail, and examples of how to practice them on a daily basis.

Photo by Nic Castellanos

Principle 1: Plan Ahead and Prepare

Before setting out for your fresh-air adventure, it’s crucial to plan ahead and prepare. Lackluster planning not only puts your safety at risk, but also increases the odds that you, and those you may be outdoors-ing with, could harm the environment.

For example, not knowing where you can pitch a tent could potentially leave you driving tent poles through a protected plot of land. If you plan on having a campfire, know if you can bring wood from an outside source or if you can/need to source wood from the local area. Lack of preparation could introduce unwanted pests through timber brought in from alien, unapproved forest areas.

So, a word to the wise: Prep, prepare and plan ahead—for you and Mother Nature’s sake.

Leave No Trace recommends:

  • Know the regulations of and special concerns of for the area you’ll visit.
  • Prepare for extreme weather, hazards or emergencies.
  • Schedule your trip to avoid times of high use.
  • Visit in small groups when possible. Consider splitting larger groups into smaller groups.
  • Repackage food to minimize waste.
  • Use a map and a compass to eliminate the use of marking paint, rock cairns or flagging.

Hipcamp Pro Tip: Always double-, triple-check host or park websites to make sure there aren’t any closures or updates that could affect your stay; consider getting in touch with a Hipcamp host or park employee to ask about any specific questions or concerns.

Photo by Olivia Marie P., Hammock in the Pines

Principle 2: Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

When walking about and camping, especially in the backcountry or designated dispersed camping areas, it’s imperative you tread and set-up camp atop durable surfaces. Areas that are level and somewhat stripped of vegetation are ideal for rustic camping and hiking.

Conversely, swaths of land that have thick vegetation, loose soils, and/or boast obvious signs of animal activity should be left alone.

Leave No Trace recommends:

  • Durable surfaces include established trails and campsites, rock, gravel, dry grasses or snow.
  • Protect riparian areas by camping at least 200 feet from lakes and streams.
  • Good campsites are found, not made. Altering a site is not necessary.
    • In popular areas:
      • Concentrate use on existing trails and campsites.
      • Walk single file in the middle of the trail, even when wet or muddy.
      • Keep campsites small. Focus activity in areas where vegetation is absent.
      • In pristine areas:
      • Disperse use to prevent the creation of campsites and trails.
      • Avoid places where impacts are just beginning.

Hipcamp Pro Tip: To avoid disrupting the floral and faunal life around you, aim to travel along designated trails and camp at high-use areas.

Photo by Kelly Luu at Jessie M. Honeyman Campground, OR

Principle 3: Dispose of Waste Properly

Of the seven principles of Leave No Trace, odds are you’re most familiar with number three…because we practice it every day. When engaging with the great outdoors, remain conscious and proactive with how you dispose of waste. Sort items into recyclables, compostables, and things that are destined for landfills, and dispose of them accordingly when the opportunities present themselves. Make sure you pack out anything that you pack in, and when you see something out of place like litter please pick it up, and #LeaveItBetter!

Now, for human waste: Dig cathole sites, and use them accordingly. See our Ultimate Guide to Pooping in the Outdoors for the full scoop. 😉

Leave No Trace recommends:

  • Pack it in, pack it out. Inspect your campsite and rest areas for trash or spilled foods. Pack out all trash, leftover food and litter.
  • Deposit solid human waste in catholes dug 6 to 8 inches deep, at least 200 feet from water, camp and trails. Cover and disguise the cathole when finished.
  • Pack out toilet paper and hygiene products.
  • To wash yourself or your dishes, carry water 200 feet away from streams or lakes and use small amounts of biodegradable soap. Scatter strained dishwater.

Hipcamp Pro Tip: When packing your mess kit, think about bringing three separate containers or bags that you can organize your waste into those three aforementioned categories.

Photo by Madison Kotack, Lone Pine Campground, CA

Principle 4: Leave What You Find

This one’s pretty straightforward: Leave what you find alone, or, at the very least, put it back exactly the way you found it. Biologists, conservationists, field scientists and the like are masters at this practice. If you turn over rocks in order to unearth hidden treasures make sure to return them to their natural state.

The same practice, applies to cultural and historical artifacts; still-living plant life should be moved only when necessary and with the utmost care.

Leave No Trace recommends:

  • Preserve the past: examine, but do not touch cultural or historic structures and artifacts.
  • Leave rocks, plants and other natural objects as you find them.
  • Avoid introducing or transporting non-native species.
  • Do not build structures, furniture, or dig trenches.

Hipcamp Pro Tip: If you need to temporarily relocate a bit of nature along a trail or at your campsite, take a good, clear mental image beforehand (or with your phone!), so that you can put it back correctly.

Photo by Shayna Frankenfield, 5D Ranch, TX

Principle 5: Minimize Campfire Impacts

These past few years, particularly in Northern and Southern California, we’ve all become acutely aware of just how an innocent campfire (or spark) can go rogue and cause utter chaos. Leave No Trace’s fifth principle aims to cull future chaos by, first and foremost, asking yourself this: Do you need a campfire, in the first place? Ideally, if you’re just looking to cook and prepare food, a gas-powered or electric stove will do; there’s no need to erect an enormous bonfire to heat-up a can of black beans.

But, if you’re looking to keep warm or stay up late sharing stories over s’mores and a fire-lit glow, then go ahead and (responsibly) build a campfire. Opt to use existing fire rings or learn how to properly construct a mound fire or pan fire to minimize campfire mishaps.

Leave No Trace recommends:

  • Campfires can cause lasting impacts to the environment. Use a lightweight stove for cooking and enjoy a candle lantern for light.
  • Where fires are permitted, use established fire rings, fire pans, or mound fires.
  • Keep fires small. Only use sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand.
  • Burn all wood and coals to ash, put out campfires completely, then scatter cool ashes.

Hipcamp Pro Tip: For those who own their land and are eager to construct a safe, practice fire pit, read our guide on how to create 10 Types of DIY Fire Pits.

Photo by Anna Claire Beasley, Secluded Working Alpaca Ranch

Principle 6: Respect Wildlife

The sixth Leave No Trace Principle falls in line with the fourth—to a capital “T.” While we all love wildlife watching, it’s best to do so from afar, never interfering with the warm- or cold-blooded critters we share this planet with. And even though, say, picking up a listless toad or slow-moving turtle might seem innocent, you’re causing that animal an ample amount of stress. That, and you could—again, unintentionally—harm them.

Gaggles of local, state, and national parks offer guided wilderness tours, many of which limelight helping those in tow spot wildlife. These aided excursions are the best of both worlds, allowing onlookers to see fauna they might otherwise not encounter, all while keeping those animals safe and protected from curious hands.

Leave No Trace recommends:

  • Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow or approach them.
  • Never feed animals. Feeding wildlife damages their health, alters natural behaviors, and exposes them to predators and other dangers.
  • Protect wildlife and your food by storing rations and trash securely.
  • Control pets at all times, or leave them at home.
  • Avoid wildlife during sensitive times: mating, nesting, raising young, or winter.

Hipcamp Pro Tip: More than a few Hipcamp hosts have pet-able, huge-able animals (goats, sheep, horses, oh my!) on their land, should you want to get up-close-and-personal with friendly critters.

Photo by Maddy Minnis, San Antonio Campground, NM

Principle 7: Be Considerate of Other Visitors

The final Leave No Trace Principle is basically the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Which, from an outdoorsman or woman’s perspective means a roster of things.

See a bit of trash splayed on a hiking trail? Collect it, and dispose of that piece of garbage properly. Notice someone who appears lost? Let them glance at your field map. Close gates you open; use high-use areas that already have staking points for tents; keep your pets under control for the safety of others you share on the trail.

At the end of the day, simply respect your fellow nature lovers, and everyone—including Mother Nature—will be grinning, ear to ear.

Leave No Trace recommends:

  • Respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience.
  • Be courteous. Yield to other users on the trail.
  • Step to the downhill side of the trail when encountering pack stock.
  • Take breaks and camp away from trails and other visitors.
  • Let nature’s sounds prevail. Avoid loud voices and noises.

Hipcamp Pro Tip: Most parks and some Hipcamp hosts have designated “quiet times” after a certain hour, usually around 10pm. Make sure to abide by any-and-all community rules that coincide with where you’re camping.

Campsites are already being booked. Stay up to date on the latest Hipcamp happenings on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Go forth and (responsibly) frolic, gang!

Matt Charnock

"We find ourselves, and our shared humanity, through stories." SF transplant, Starbucks gypsy. Outdoorsman by heart, barefoot by choice.

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