Leave No Trace Wilderness Outdoor Skills and Ethics

SUWA’s Service Program partners with the Leave No Trace (LNT) Center for Outdoor Ethics to ensure emphasis on practical application of outdoor living skills and wilderness ethics. Leaders should be knowledge­able about Leave No Trace skills for the bio-region in which they are working, and they must review them with participants at the beginning and during the trip. Don’t assume that your participants are aware of LNT. Even on front country trips, you want to reduce your impacts where possible, especially when away from camp. Make sure participants know to leave wildflowers and artifacts in place.

SUWA is committed to going beyond the ideas, ethics and principles of Leave No Trace (LNT). Many of the projects we put in the field are there to repair damage from over use or careless use. As stewards of public land, do everything in our power to reduce further damage while visiting and working in remote areas.

The backcountry areas we visit are used by a variety of recreational users including hikers, hunters, birders, fisherman, geocachers, bikers, ORV users, boaters, firewood harvesters, etc… The impact of a few of us might be minimal, but the collective impact of hun­dreds of people a year can be devastating to fragile environments if we aren’t careful in the way that we use the land. It is vital that SUWA’s Crew Leaders practice and teach LNT skills to their groups. This is not optional.

[Applying LNT to SUWA Service Projects]

A general knowledge of why we use low impact practices on SUWA projects is essential for Crew Leaders. Below you will find several guidelines for how to apply LNT principles while in the field with SUWA.

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare:

Why? Organized planning and pre-trip preparation are essential to a successful project. Being prepared is a critical part of safety/risk management and will help you make sound choices when presented with obstacles to your original plan.


  • Find out all you can about the area your project is in. Obtain current maps, upload your Avenza Project Map, and know anticipated weather conditions before you depart.
  • Plan your menu to avoid bringing excessive food. Repackage all food to reduce garbage in the field.
  • Use proper equipment such as backpacking stoves to reduce the need for fires. Understand how using equipment improperly can be detrimental to the area (e.g. damaging trees when hanging food incorrectly).

  1. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces:

Why? Leaders must recognize that certain land surfaces are durable (rock, duff, sand, etc.) and therefore more resistant to impact. Other surfaces such as meadows, marshy areas, areas with small seedlings, microbiotic soils, etc., are fragile and will be damaged quickly with a group’s impact. Trampling these areas will cause erosion.


  • Good campsites are found, not made. Spend some time looking for a relatively flat, clear site instead of moving into a pristine area.
  • Make sure that your group members set up their tents on previously used campsites, or durable surfaces at least 200-ft away from water sources and 100-ft away from established trails.
  • Concentrate impact in popular areas and disperse impact in pristine areas (follow established trails where possible, or spread out in areas where there are no trails so you don’t create new trails).
  • Walk in the trail even in muddy or water-filled sections. While it is human nature to avoid mud and wet feet, as a leader, you must demonstrate your commitment to not damaging the edges of trails by staying in the trail despite its condition. This is one reason we wear rugged hiking boots!
  • If a tree has fallen across a trail, go over or under it instead of creating a new trail around it.
  • Make sure that no one in your group cuts switchbacks; this is very destructive to trails.
  • When you break camp, make sure that everyone naturalizes the camp areas.

  1. Dispose of Waste Properly:

Why? Waste left in the backcountry is unsightly and can change the habits of the wildlife and subsequent human visitors. It simply doesn’t belong. Pack it in, pack it out!


  • Carry out everything that you bring in, and pick up litter that others have left behind. This includes even trash that you might deem biodegradeable like apple cores or food scraps. They simply don’t belong in the backcountry and must be carried out. Even on front country trips where you are providing apples to participants, remind them to bring the cores back to the garbage.
  • Use a strainer to strain all dish washing water so that small particulates aren’t left all over the ground to encourage rodents to invade your camp. These food bits are trash and must be placed in the garbage.
  • Don’t use campfire to dispose of excess food — it doesn’t work well and the smell and scraps will still attract wildlife.

  1. Leave What You Find

Why? We can understand more about the wildlands we visit when items that naturally occur there are left there. This includes plants, rocks, feathers, antlers, and historical artifacts.


  • Take only photos, leave only footprints. Pictures can be as good as any souvenir you could have collected to remind you of your visit.
  • It’s against the law to remove items from national parks and forests.
  • Do not build cairns or mark trees without explicit instructions from your land agency.

  1. Minimize Campfire Impacts

Why? Humans have caused so much impact with fires, especially in the wilderness. Campfires are unnecessary, and the downsides are many: sparks cause holes in clothing, the heat they put out is spotty, the smoke is bad for lungs and gear, collecting firewood denudes natural areas of needed cover and scars trees. Campfires are the cause of too many wildfires!


  • Always carry appropriate clothing and equipment (stoves, fuel) so that building a fire isn’t necessary.
  • If you are going to build a fire, carry in your own wood, firepan and fire-proof blanket.
  • Find out what the fire restrictions are before you go in to an area.
  • Make sure a fire is totally out (cold to touch) and carry out or scatter ashes away from the campsite.

  1. Respect Wildlife

Why? One of the great joys of visiting wild places is the opportunity to view wildlife. As you know, much of the habitat for wild crea­tures has been destroyed and they have ever shrinking spaces in which to live. Public land offers them some of the last respite in our increasingly encroaching world. Our very presence can interfere with their daily routines and cause them to change their behavior. We all know the adage, “A fed bear is a dead bear.” It is vital that we do all we can to keep wildlife wild.


  • Never feed wildlife. Store all trip food/toiletries responsibly to ensure wildlife isn’t attracted to food or has access to it.
  • Stay alert when traveling on trails; large mammals often use trails to travel through the forest.
  • Avoid quick movement or eye contact with animals nearby.
  • Make noise when moving down the trail to alert wildlife to your presence in bear country.
  • Avoid sensitive times (mating, nesting) when possible. Never pick up or threaten wildlife.
  • Cook and store food downwind of tent sites.

  1. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

Why? We share our public land with many other users. Much of the work we do is to facilitate the fun that others will experience as they hike the trails and camp in areas we’ve restored. We all seek solitude in wilderness, and we need to respect this desire in our fellow recreators. Treat others the way that you want to be treated so we can all benefit from time spent in the outback.


  • Be friendly to everyone you encounter. If working on a trail, stand aside and let folks pass.
  • Move to the side to let faster hikers pass you. Move to the downhill side of the trail when you encounter horses on a trail and talk softly so they recognize you as humans and not a threat.
  • Keep voices low; sound carries outdoors.

  1. Respect the Heritage, Health and Sanctity of Found Resources

There are always more principles we can follow while working on public lands. The following are additional strategies for remaining aware of your own and your crew’s impacts while serving with SUWA in the field:


  • Pay attention to the work that’s being done and make sure that it is serving a purpose and not needlessly impacting the area. Most agency folks know what they are doing and make wise choices but this isn’t always the case. Take them aside and talk to them if you don’t agree with the task given.
  • Strive to understand local indigenous perspectives and practices relevant to where you are working. Do not perform tasks that disregard or neglect these worldviews.
  • Ask your group to avoid trampling the sides of the trails where you are working, and to naturalize the work area when you are finished.
  • When blocking unneeded trails, roads and switchbacks, use rocks and downed logs to block these areas through line of sight but don’t denude new areas while trying to disguise the old.
  • These are only a few examples of how you can use LNT principles at the work site. What would you add to this list?