Communication Counts

How we share the Leave No Trace principles with others is just as important as setting the right example.

Leave No Trace and its seven guiding principles—can you name them right now?—have been around since the boom of outdoor recreation in the 1960s and ’70s. Sure, we take for granted that these ethics are normal, accepted behavior. But the number of trash-strewn campgrounds out there suggests otherwise. The relevance of Leave No Trace ( has only increased with the number of hikers and campers and the ethic is still one of the best bridges to this newer, often-less-aware crowd. But how do those in the know best convey those principles?
If seven principles feels like too many to teach, there’s a shorter version too, called the “Leave No Trace Basics,” published in English and Spanish. These need-to-knows are: Know Before You Go / Vaya Preparado, Don’t Be a Party Pooper / ¿Qué hacer con los desechos?, Trash Talk / Hablando de Basura, and Better Together / Juntos Somos Mejores.
But once you have these principles down, how do you relay them? Whether you’re in-person on the trail, in the comment section of a hiking/camping Facebook group, or delivering Leave No Trace tidbits of wisdom on your other social media feeds, everyone agrees that you can’t just go shouting and preaching about “rules.” You need to be more suave than that if you want folks to listen and follow through.
First of all, teaching the seven principles begins with modeling. Creating a shared culture of picking up trash, leaving campsites cleaner than we found them, being prepared and courteous, not cutting across switchbacks—that all comes from doing it in front of your kids (and in front of students, friends, and strangers).
When it comes to actually explaining, teaching, or reminding folks about Leave No Trace, there are a few important ideas to keep in mind. “I find that people really need to understand the ‘why’ before they can get to ‘why I should care,’” says Mary O’Malley, a peak steward volunteer with the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative who has frequent opportunities to educate hikers. “When you invite them to care by actually educating them as to why the principles are even needed, I feel like people then realize they’re part of a bigger picture.”
Steven Reinhold, owner of The Appalachian Adventure Company in North Carolina, agrees.
“Instead of warning someone that they may get fined or ticketed for stepping off trail in Yellowstone or in a high alpine environment,” Reinhold says in an email interview, “explain how fragile those ecosystems are. Instead of yelling at someone for having their dog off leash, explain how dog waste can contaminate water sources and that many people have had traumatic experiences with dogs and do not wish to be approached by them while in nature.”
This is called the “authority of the resource,” as opposed to the “authority of the agency,” and was developed by Dr. George N. Wallace. It is an empathy-based approach, the first step of which is to give people the benefit of the doubt in all situations.

Cover Photo: National park rangers participate in a Leave No Trace Effective Communication workshop.

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