Scouting’s Leave No Trace Principles: Facts, History, and Meaning

If you’ve been a BSA Scout for even a little while, you’ve probably already heard the phrase, “Leave No Trace.” Still, you may not know all there is to it! Leave No Trace is a nuanced subject, and it’s an important one for all Scouts to explore. You’ll learn all about it in this article as we examine the history, ideas, and importance behind “Leave No Trace!” 😀

The phrase “Leave No Trace” can refer to the Leave No Trace principles, the BSA Leave No Trace program, or even the Leave No Trace organization. But at its core, Leave No Trace is something that lives in your heart and mind! It’s a simple code of ethics that exists to protect the outdoors and preserve nature for everyone to enjoy.

P.S. This article is a guest post collaboration with Eagle Scout and AOL recipient, Michael M🙂

Here’s how Scouts BSA defines Leave No Trace: “Leave No Trace is an awareness and an attitude rather than a set of rules. It applies in your backyard or local park as much as in the backcountry. We should all practice Leave No Trace in our thinking and actions — wherever we go.”

Of course, there are specific things we can do to put a Leave No Trace attitude into practice. Let’s take a quick look at the principles of Leave No Trace! These Leave No Trace principles are the guidelines that should inform a Scout’s behaviors on any trip or outing:

The Leave No Trace Principles For Scouts BSA

  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 others.

If you’d like to hear a little summary of these principles, check out this short video (1:14)! It’s an official piece of Leave No Trace content, so you can be confident that everything inside it is accurate. The video is targeted at kids, but it’s still a useful source of information for all ages!

Each of these principles serves its own unique purpose, and each one is just as important as the last. That’s why I plan to guide you through them all in this article! But before that, we’re going to take a little dive into the history and background of Leave No Trace. It’s time to get started! 🙂

The History of Leave No Trace

It’s tough to pin down when exactly Leave No Trace was born. However, it’s safe to say that it happened hundreds of years ago! Back in the 1700s, people were starting to notice and acknowledge human impacts on the environment. As the popularity of outdoor recreation increased, awareness of its negative effects also spread.

By the mid-1900s, these harmful human impacts had become so widespread that they could no longer be ignored. Efforts to protect the outdoors from recreation began with strict regulations, which were ultimately met with backlash. Not long after, environmental supporters shifted their message to a more educational tone.

A variety of approaches were taken to inform and educate the public about the issue of sustainability. Here are some ways that early Leave No Trace guidelines were distributed to people spending time in the outdoors:

  • Messages were placed on bulletin boards, as well as in brochures and pamphlets.
  • Rangers gave recommendations to people they met on the trail.
  • Articles with useful tips and tricks were written.

These efforts, while helpful, were not well organized. People got contradictory information and missed important details. For that reason, it was decided that a more direct and institutionalized approach was the necessary path forward. With that, the Leave No Trace program was born!

The Original Leave No Trace Principles

It’s worth noting that the principles of Leave No Trace have evolved a lot over the years. In fact, there were originally 75 practices and 173 book pages that had to be condensed into a succinct set of principles for the general public! This is what the 6 Leave No Trace principles looked like when they were first conceived in 1990:

  1. In popular places, concentrate use and impact.
  2. In pristine places, disperse use and impact.
  3. Stay off places that are lightly impacted or just beginning to show effects.
  4. Pack out everything brought into the wilderness.
  5. Properly dispose of anything that can’t be packed out.
  6. Leave things as they were or in better conditions.
  7. Shortly thereafter, a seventh principle was added: Minimize noise and intrusion.

Pretty neat, right? As you can see, the principles have evolved over time. Still, the goal and message behind the two sets of guidelines are exactly the same! Just like the ones from decades ago, today’s principles exist to guide the behavior of outdoor recreationists toward a better future for our planet.

Scouts BSA has been dedicated to promoting Leave No Trace for many years now. In fact, the organization was making efforts to educate people on the subject as early as the 1970s! And of course, the BSA remains committed to the seven principles of Leave No Trace to this day. 😀

Why Is Leave No Trace Important?

With the human population at an all-time high, it’s more important than ever to minimize our impacts on the environment. By closely and carefully following these guidelines, you can preserve the beauty of the wilderness for generations to come!

It may seem that bending or breaking these rules won’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but those incidents quickly add up. While one person’s carelessness might not be noticed, a thousand people making the same bad choice certainly will! That’s why it’s so important to take these principles to heart.

The Principles of Leave No Trace

Now, let’s take a look at the 7 principles of Leave No Trace! These official guidelines were thoughtfully crafted based on science, so they’re the perfect guide to minimizing your outdoor impact. I’m going to go through them one by one, taking you through the most effective ways to put each into action!

Plan Ahead and Prepare

Like the rest of the principles, this first one is aimed at minimizing disruption to the outdoors. It also has the added benefit of maximizing safety and enjoyment for adventurers like you! Proper planning helps everyone have more fun, and its benefits will extend well into the future. 🙂

When you’re preparing to journey into the outdoors, there are certain precautions to take and topics to consider. Here are just a few:

  • Pay attention to limits on group size. If your party exceeds the recommended limit, it’s best to split your group into parts. Group size will depend on the area of a campsite. In some locations like parks, you may be able to hold 30+ Scouts easily. Camping on tight forest trails, anything over 12 individuals may be too many,
  • Take note of other location-specific rules and concerns. By knowing the area where you’ll be staying, you can better adapt to its particular circumstances and needs.
  • Rely on a map and compass to navigate the area. Using these tools will eliminate the need for marking practices that disturb the environment, such as stacking rocks or applying paint.

Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

Durable surfaces are those that contain little to no vegetation. These can include rock, sand, dry grasses, and snow. By concentrating your activity on surfaces like these, you minimize your impact on natural habitats and the wildlife communities that live in them.

All of that said, camping at a popular site with well-beaten paths has different rules than venturing into a remote area! Here are the key things to remember for each case:

  • High-use areas: Spend as little time as possible in vegetated spots. It’s best to stay on trails and campsites that are already present! Pitching your tents close to each other will help to keep your campsites small.
  • Low-use areas: When camping in environments like these, spreading out is the name of the game! Steer clear of places where human impact is beginning to appear. It’s important to do all you can to stay on durable surfaces.

Dispose of Waste Properly

Correctly disposing of waste is an important responsibility for every backcountry adventurer! In this context, “waste” refers to trash, food remnants, and human waste. Failing to remove waste properly does severe damage to the environment, so this principle can’t afford to be overlooked!

Here are the correct methods for disposing of waste outdoors. It’s important to remember every part of these rules — even the specific details like distance and depth — add up to make a difference! 😉

  • Search your campsite for any trace of litter. This includes both leftover food and miscellaneous trash. These items should be brought with you rather than left behind!
  • Bury human waste beneath the ground. Digging a cathole six to eight inches deep is the correct method for disposing of human waste. Make sure that the pit is at least 200 feet from any water, trails, or camps. The Leave No Trace organization has a helpful video (1:32) on this that you can check out below!
  • Dispose of dishwater far away from any lakes or streams. Just like with human waste, dishwater should be disposed of at least 200 feet from a body of water. When it comes to using biodegradable soap, the same distance rule applies!

Back when I was a Scout, my troop had a special method for disposing of litter: we all stood side by side and formed a line, then carefully walked forward, inspecting the site from one end to the other. If we ran into any food or garbage, we picked it up and took it with us. It really helped reduce our impact on the environment!

Leave What You Find

Every plant and animal in the great outdoors has a role to play! For the good of the environment they reside in, it’s important not to move or disturb them. Even rocks and twigs are best left where they are! Leaving outdoor items undisturbed also helps to preserve their beauty for the next visitor.

Here are a couple of handy methods for putting this principle into action! There are lots of others as well, so please listen to your intuition and use your best judgment out there.

  • Avoid doing damage to any trees in the area. Harmful actions include hammering nails into the bark and hacking at the trunk or branches. Even hanging a hammock should be done with care, as high-tension ropes can strip the bark off easily. Trees are a vital part of the forest ecosystem, so it’s very important to leave them as you found them!
  • Do not dig trenches or build structures unless you’ll take them down. This is a surefire way to damage the natural environment you’re camping in, so it’s very important to refrain from doing so!

Minimize Campfire Impacts

When the average person thinks of camping, a campfire is one of the very first things that comes to mind! Still, when making a campfire, it’s essential to act with caution and care. Irresponsible use of fire can have drastic consequences on the surrounding area, and may even pose risks of a forest fire.

There are lots of things to keep in mind when it comes to campfires! Here are a few of the most important ones:

  • Rely on man-made tools as a substitute for campfires whenever possible. These items include stoves for cooking food and lanterns for casting light. As campfires can have negative impacts on the environment, it’s wise not to use them when you can avoid it.
  • Take advantage of existing campfire rings. If a site already has a campfire ring, there’s no need to create a second. Use what’s already there to minimize the impact you have on your surroundings!
  • Be thoughtful when putting out campfires. It’s very important that you burn all the wood and coals to ash. Also, make sure that you extinguish the fire completely!

Respect Wildlife

Every ecosystem has a proper balance, and animals are key to maintaining it. For that reason, it can be very harmful when human visitors impact animals’ presence and behavior. Check out this video (5:19) to find out how a single species impacts every part of the environment.

There’s good news: if you show caution and respect when encountering wildlife, you help protect the ecosystem’s natural balance! Want some tips to avoid disturbing animals? Here are some great ways to put this principle into action:

  • Do not give food to wildlife. Doing so encourages them to rely on humans for food, disrupting their natural behaviors and bringing damage to the ecosystem.
  • Give animals lots of space. The further away you are, the less likely that they will be affected by your presence. This rule is especially important during certain points of the year, such as mating and nesting seasons.
  • Keep food secure and far away from wildlife. Like the first tip, this will keep their natural behavior from being disrupted by abnormal sources of food.

Be Considerate of Other Visitors

When you’re out in the backcountry, animals aren’t the only ones you should avoid disturbing! The same goes for other people who’ve come to enjoy the great outdoors. By showing consideration for the experiences of your fellow recreationists, you help everyone have a memorable and pleasant time. 😀

Here are a few ways to ensure an enjoyable time for the people in your vicinity. Notice that most have an emphasis on maintaining an authentic outdoor experience!

  • Keep your group size small. You may remember that this tip was also part of the first principle, “Plan Ahead and Prepare.” Putting a hard limit on the number of people in your party helps keep noise levels down, an important responsibility for every backcountry adventurer!
  • Keep a healthy distance from others. Every outdoor recreationist deserves the space to take in the sights and sounds of the backcountry.
  • Don’t drown out the sounds of nature. As I mentioned above, it’s vital to keep your group’s noise levels from getting out of hand. Don’t play your music loudly, especially if there are other people around. Everyone around you has come to enjoy the outdoors, and being able to hear the sounds of the wildlife is a key part of that experience!


Leave No Trace is pretty amazing, don’t you think? It’s a very important mindset when you’re out in nature, and it benefits everyone in the long run – especially our children and the next generation whom we’ll pass the world on to. Plants, animals, and even people have a lot to gain from the principles of Leave No Trace!

When people follow Leave No Trace principles, they stay safer, have more fun, and make the world a better place. Be sure to follow Leave No Trace carefully so that Scouts a hundred years from now can enjoy nature as much as you do! 🙂

Also, if you enjoyed what we covered here, I’d also recommend checking out any of the following articles:

Thanks for stopping by ScoutSmarts! Remember, to follow Leave No Trace on all of your outings, and support your troop in sticking by these important principles. Until next time, I’m wishing you an exciting, safe, and memorable journey in Scouting!


I'm constantly writing new content because I believe in Scouts like you! Thanks so much for reading, and for making our world a better place. Until next time, I'm wishing you all the best on your journey to Eagle and beyond!

Recent Content