Wilderness Ethics: How to Minimize Your Impact

We can see, feel, and measure the scope of damage resulting from loving places to death.
— NOLS Wilderness Ethics: Valuing and Managing Wild Places

Okay, so you finally persuaded your best friend to go climbing with you or maybe your parents agreed to join you for a hike. The more the merrier! (Literally… a study from the University of Essex shows that being outside makes you happier). However, as Uncle Ben from Spiderman would urge us, “With great power comes great responsibility.” As more people get stoked on the outdoors, the impact that we make collectively becomes greater.

Inevitably, when we spend any amount of time in the wilderness, we will create an impact. The question that each outdoorsperson should ponder is, “What types of impact am I willing to make in order to recreate in the outdoors?” For example, human waste, animal habituation, etc.

The next question that should be asked is, “How can I minimize my impact?”

To consider this question, it is helpful to know the seven Leave No Trace Principles. Leave No Trace (LNT) is an organization that encourages responsible recreation by teaching outdoor ethics. I encourage you to read through each principle and jot down a list of impacts that you can identify from your own recreation, and to the side, brainstorm a tangible way that you can minimize each impact.

I have found that a pneumonic is helpful for remembering all seven in order:

Pretend The Dalai Lama Makes Root Beer.

The desert is a harsh, yet, fragile environment. Certain LNT considerations should be made depending on what type of environment you are recreating in. Click here for a list of different environments and the LNT principles to keep in mind. (PC: Kate Collins)

The desert is a harsh, yet, fragile environment. Certain LNT considerations should be made depending on what type of environment you are recreating in. Click here for a list of different environments and the LNT principles to keep in mind. (PC: Kate Collins)


Plan Ahead and Prepare (Pretend)


  • Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you'll visit.
  • Prepare for extreme weather, hazards, and 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 compass to eliminate the use of marking paint, rock cairns or flagging.

Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces (The)


  • 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.

Dispose of Waste Properly (Dalai)


  • 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 cat-holes dug 6 to 8 inches deep, at least 200 feet from water, camp and trails. Cover and disguise the cat-hole 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.
A groover is a great way to minimize the human impact in an area. This photo was taken on a recent climbing trip to Cochise Stronghold, Arizona. Without use of the groover, consider the impact our group of eleven would have made if each person pooped once a day for 15 days!! I’ll do the math for you, that is at least 165 six inch holes full of poop dotting the perimeter of our camp! (PC: Kate Collins)

A groover is a great way to minimize the human impact in an area. This photo was taken on a recent climbing trip to Cochise Stronghold, Arizona. Without use of the groover, consider the impact our group of eleven would have made if each person pooped once a day for 15 days!! I’ll do the math for you, that is at least 165 six inch holes full of poop dotting the perimeter of our camp! (PC: Kate Collins)


Leave What You Find (Lama)


  • 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

Minimize Campfire Impacts (Makes)


  • Campfires can cause lasting impacts to the backcountry. 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.

Respect Wildlife (Root)


  •  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.

Be Considerate of Other Visitors (Beer)


  • 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.