How do I prioritize teaching about the concept of Leave No Trace to someone who is unfamiliar with it, without coming across as off-putting because there are so many rules?

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    Related: What are the principles of Leave no Trace?
    – ShemSeger
    Commented Sep 1, 2015 at 21:19
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    The biggest barrier I run into when talking to people about this is that they want to bury their toilet paper. They don't want to believe that it's not biodegradable. They don't want to pack it out. They pretend that burning it is sufficient, when in reality burning always fails to get some of the paper. They don't want to use wipes such as rocks -- which in my experience are just as comfortable as paper, but people don't believe that and aren't willing to try it.
    – user2169
    Commented Sep 1, 2015 at 23:01
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    @Ben: Burying toilet paper is perfectly reasonable in most wild settings. As with any good idea, there are always people that try to take it to the ridiculous extreme. If you truly want to leave no trace, then you can't go there at all. It's therefore a matter of degree. As with most "zero tolerance" rules, this one is silly and counterproductive. Everyone knows the tolerance isn't ever exactly zero, so stating it as such leaves no option but to ignore the rule. Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 20:25
  • @OlinLathrop: If you obtain a wilderness permit in the Sierra Nevada in California, you have to sign that you understand that you have to cary your toilet paper out. These areas get hammered with people, and animals dig up cat holes, which results in "white flowers" all over the place. Meaning: there are areas where it absolutely makes sense.
    – DudeOnRock
    Commented Sep 4, 2015 at 0:23
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    Going over the main points is a good starter. But I've found it's much more effective to teach the WHY it's important. And to be a very good role model of LNT living while in the outdoors. Commented Sep 9, 2015 at 2:07

4 Answers 4


Doctrine and strict rules create resentment. Children are a prime example of this, but most adults are sadly not immune either.

The importance of Leave No Trace is coupled to a place. Yes, ideally we would all try to minimize our impact on this planet, but some places are more fragile than others and one individual can have a much more lasting impact on an ecosystem. An example are alpine meadows, where growth cycles are short, food is scarce, and living for the local fauna is harsh.

Your options also heavily depend on the situation. If you are teaching your children you can have a different approach as if you walk up to a stranger camping on fragile vegetation 10 feet away from an alpine lake who is enjoying a camp fire in a no-fire zone.

What it takes for people to take care of wild places is for them to see the importance of preserving wilderness in the first place. Someone who doesn't understand why a certain rule is in place is not likely to adhere to it. A good first place to take someone who is new to the wilderness is a place that is more resilient so they can begin to feel a connection with nature. A trip to Yosemite National Park for example could spark an interest in exploring the backcountry, and the impact that humans have had on the place can lead to a discussion about why it is important to protect certain places from human impact as much as possible. A sense of awe often goes hand in hand with wanting to preserve what one is in awe of. If you are in the presence of one of the rare human beings who just don't get it, don't take them to places that need our protection.


Don't talk about "The Rules" rules are made to control people, they create resentment and tend to be broken.... Don't try to teach 'rules', teach the concepts behind the rules. Get the person to buy into the concept and need for leaving no trace, then introduce them to things gradually. Don't give them rules, give them solutions to problems, then show them the problem.

One thing I use is "See this - someone has been here before us - imagine if everyone did this, or there were 100 times more visitors, what would this place be like? Another favourite trick of mine is I say, "We are less than 5 minutes from the camp site" - I usually get asked how I know and say "Look - no undergrowth, no dead trees (or "large logs that are stripped bare"), rubbish over their, lots of tracks going in all directions, overturned rocks.....". Even the most remote places it's possible to find traces of people where there should not be.

I my experience, a vast majority of people already accept the concept, you just need to help them verbalise it in words and on terms they understand accept. Once that is done, its easy to introduce big picture items for discussion - e.g. rubbish in general, then plastic, then organic rubbish that might not degrade in some environments, then introduce the idea human waste is just rubbish, so why should it be treated treated differently. Never go straight to "You have to carry out your poo".


As others have commented, I would focus on practicality and then start bringing up the LNT doctrine.

I have two little kids I go backpacking with. The last time out I explained that if we walked ~50 steps from the trail to take a whizz that it created a much bigger area of potential whizz sites than if we only walked ~20 steps.

For trash, I just point out how gross it is and how it's important that we pack out more than we packed in.

The LNT principles are just that: principles. They're not hard and fast guidelines. In some places concepts like packing out toilet paper is honestly ridiculous, and in other places you really do need to crap in a bag and carry it out.

As important as LNT is, I approach it like this:

  • Pointing to the negative impact of humans on the environment, since this largely what LNT and environmental concern is meant to address.
  • Talking about where to find specific rules and practices for the area you're in (ranger websites, the back of your permit, etc).
  • How LNT fits into the above.

Being dogmatic about it turns everyone off. Using LNT as a practical means of addressing real issues in a reasonable way is hard to argue against.


First, don't be holier than though. People resent that. Be realistic. Push for what matters in the area you're in. Hard and strict rules without regard to the situation are just religion. People will see them as such, think the whole thing is silly, and tune out anything else you say.

Realize that the only true way to leave no trace is to not go there at all. Just being somewhere wild will have some affect, so it'a matter of degree. This again goes back to not preaching inflexible rules. For example, if you're in a desert with mostly bare ground and few people visit, then it's OK to walk around a bit to explore. The same thing above treeline in a alpine tundra can cause harm that will take decades to recover.

Carrying out poop is extreme for most places. In most places it's fine to just minimize toilet paper by using natural objects as much as possible and bury everything afterwards. After all, the moose, bear, coyote, etc, do the same thing. When there's 2 moose for every human, the extra human waste doesn't make much difference.

So the answer is, use common sense to push for the things that matter, don't preach rules, but explain the problem and show ways to deal with it. Let them be part of the solution rather than be preached at like sinners.

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