Implementing Leave No Trace at Camps

by Jeffrey L. Marion, Ph.D., and David Bates

Leaving your mark is overrated, especially at camp. As those who clean and maintain camp facilities can attest, picking up litter, removing graffiti, and restoring worn-out trails, campsites, and grass cover is a thankless waste of resources that have better uses. Wouldn't camp look better if your groups left facilities as clean as they found them, if they stuck to trails and other durable surfaces, and if they truly cared about protecting natural resources and camp facilities? Wouldn't camp and outdoor experiences be improved if participants were more considerate of other groups? LNT skills and ethics apply to both in-camp and trip-and-travel programs.

Camps and public recreation lands are showing the ill effects from their visitation. User-created trails and campsites proliferate, unsightly trash reappears on a daily basis, vegetation is trampled underfoot, and soils erode into creeks and lakes. Disturbance of wildlife can displace them from critical foraging or nesting habitats while animals that obtain human food become pesky beggars or safety threats that must be relocated or killed. These and many other resource impacts can degrade the quality of outdoor experiences because they are most evident along trails and at recreation sites where visitors spend the majority of their time. Crowding and conflicts with other groups interfere with our activities and degrade the quality of our experiences. While these impacts are numerous and widespread, the solution is simple: change behavior through education, one person at a time! The LNT challenge is to preserve the quality of resources and experiences by eliminating avoidable impacts, such as littering or noisy/rude behavior, and minimizing unavoidable impacts, such as trampling vegetation on trails or recreation sites.

When outdoor enthusiasts hear about the program, many think they already know how to practice LNT. While much of the educational basis is founded on common sense, the practices have also been peer-reviewed for consistency with research findings. LNT practices differ depending on differences in geography and environments and in type of outdoor activity. An appropriate environmental practice in a forest environment may not be appropriate for a desert, lake, alpine, tundra, or cave environment. LNT principles and practices are described in a series of booklets called Outdoor Skills & Ethics, which are applicable to various camp environments and recreational activities, including backpacking climbing, biking, horses, caving, and watercraft.

Teaching Camp Leaders Environmental Ethics

The Skills & Ethics series specifically serves as a resource for youth group leaders and for leaders of camp trip-and-travel programs where the outdoor activities occur on public lands. While group sizes are a concern, research has shown that group size is much less important than group behavior when it comes to impacting the environment. To achieve a high standard, group leaders should be well versed in outdoor skills, teaching novices, and the environmental principles like those presented in the LNT program.

Leave No Trace Expands to Meet Frontcountry Needs
LNT skills and ethics are rapidly becoming a standard code of conduct that promotes the stewardship practices necessary to protect the ecological and experiential health of outdoor environments. While LNT began as primarily a backcountry program, it is expanding to include a new focus on frontcountry environments with a new set of guidelines and practices. The frontcountry includes city, county, and state parks, open space, and areas that are easily accessible by vehicle and mostly visited during the day.

The frontcountry guidelines and practices are likely to be more applicable to activities that occur within camp. Frontcountry practices must also be tailored to match different environments, activities, and organizational needs. As LNT and the American Camp Association (ACA) continue to partner, possibilities exist to develop educational pieces directly for leaders in frontcountry or camp settings and to incorporate LNT skills and ethics within ACA's Outdoor Living Skills literature.

How Does Leave No Trace Apply to In-Camp and Trip-and-Travel Programs?
Camp directors might consider the following questions to help them determine the need for environmental education throughout their camp environment:

  • Is camp staff teaching LNT skills and ethics to all campers? Are they adequately targeting in-camp and trip-and-travel activities that would benefit from such teaching?
  • Are all campsites, trails, and program sites located on the most durable surfaces?
  • Are human waste, garbage, and trash being disposed of in a way that is not harmful to the environment, water supplies, wildlife, and the health of other campers?
  • Are campers taught to "leave what they find," including wildflowers, rocks, artifacts, and wildlife?
  • Does the camp minimize campfire impacts by emphasizing the use of lightweight stoves and avoiding large campfires?
  • Is wildlife being disturbed by camp activities or attracted by human food sources?
  • Are campers taught to respect other campers, outdoor visitors, and staff by reducing the noise level and respecting private property in the vicinity of camp?

These are just a sample of questions to consider. Your camp staff could be encouraged to develop their own questions and seek appropriate environmental responses.

Implementing LNT at Your Camp
Implementing LNT at your camp can be accomplished in three steps:

  1. Start by creating a camp LNT Library. Inform staff of the availability of these materials and that you are encouraging them to use and incorporate them into their curriculums and outdoor activities.
  2. Make it a priority to hire staff with outdoor skills and environmental awareness training and consider offering a program like LNT training in your camp's pre-season program. Have a permanent staff member trained as a Master Educator so that he/she can conduct Trainer Courses and Awareness Workshops for other staff (see the January/February Camping Magazine article for course details). Incorporate LNT training in all aspects of seasonal staff training. Include LNT instruction in performance evaluations and remind staff of the need to "lead by example."
  3. Implement LNT instruction and practices throughout your camp. Address issues related to both camp and trip-and-travel activities identified by the previously listed questions. Camp staff can respond to some issues based on changes to facilities and management, others require the education of campers and changes in their behavior.

There are many resources and options available to you to assist with implementing LNT at your camp. Include a query about LNT training on your camp application form, and hire staff that already have LNT training and/or experience. Check the LNT Web site ( to see if there is a State Advocate who can facilitate training at your camp or if there is a Master Educator near you who could visit your camp during seasonal staff training. Otherwise call a local federal land management agency office or the LNT Center for Outdoor Ethics for assistance. The Subaru/LNT Traveling Trainers (see the January/February Camping Magazine article) may also be available to conduct training, particularly for national or regional ACA conferences and workshops.

Consider your objectives for incorporating LNT instruction at your camp. Your first objective would be to resolve existing or potential environmental problems within your camp, such as the proliferation of trails, vegetation trampling at activity sites, attraction of nuisance animals, littering, and noise that interferes with the educational programs of other groups. Another objective for programs away from camp is the need to protect the environment on the private or public lands you use and minimize the intrusion your group makes on the experience of other groups. A failure to be "good stewards" can and has resulted in the loss of access for camps to special features such as caves and cliffs. Finally, and most importantly, camps have an ethical responsibility to not just introduce youth to the natural world but to instill an abiding respect and caring attitude toward nature.

Jeffrey L. Marion, Ph.D., is a recreation ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who studies visitor impacts and impact management in national parks and wilderness areas. He is a former Leave No Trace Board member and chair of the LNT Educational Review Committee.

David Bates is the national director of camping and conservation for the Boy Scouts of America, including responsibility for the BSA's High Adventure camps. He is a member of the Leave No Trace Board of Directors, the Educational Review Committee, and a long-time ACA member.

Originally published in the 2005 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.