Leave No Trace for Kids
Our world’s ecosystems are struggling. The climate is changing, and plant and animal species all over this earth are having to adapt at record rates to survive. This news isn’t new, and you may even be sick of hearing about it. You may be wondering what you could possibly do that would make any sort of difference in this global issue. After all, you’re busy trying to raise kids and stay sane, right?
Before you write it off as a problem to deal with later when life is a little less crazy, let’s talk about the little steps you can take today to lower your impact while doing the things you love. Specifically, visiting and recreating in natural places. The best part? It’s totally doable with kids in tow thanks to the Leave No Trace Movement.
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- Leave No Trace for Kids
- What is the Leave No Trace Organization?
- Why is “Leaving No Trace” So Important?
- The Leave No Trace Principles
- Leave No Trace Resources
- Book Recommendations
- Minimizing Our Impact on Outdoor Spaces Through Leave No Trace
- Leave No Trace for Kids
What is the Leave No Trace Organization?
Leave No Trace started almost 30 years ago when environmental advocates from the land management community, outdoor industry, and the public teamed up to find ways to protect our natural lands. Rather than chastising the public for degrading the environment, their goal is to educate people on how they can recreate safely and lower their impact on the environment.
They realized that costly restoration projects aren’t effective long-term if the public doesn’t have the knowledge needed to prevent further degradation. Using science and research-based solutions, Leave No Trace provides education and skills to help people care for the outdoors.
Through educational outreach (such as courses and workshops) and action, Leave No Trace aims to solve various problems we face in nature. These include trashed natural areas, polluted waterways, wildlife at risk, destructive fires, damaged trails, crowded parks, lack of inclusivity in the outdoors, and educating youth about outdoor stewardship.
They have broken it down into seven easy-to-follow principles to keep in mind and follow while recreating outdoors. However, before we get into each principle, let’s talk about why this initiative is so important.
Why is “Leaving No Trace” So Important?
First things first, the Leave No Trace initiative isn’t necessarily about leaving absolutely no trace every time you step outside. That’s virtually impossible, especially when you have little ones along for the adventure. It’s about minimizing your impact on the environment by being aware of the effect your actions have on nature.
Every time you travel off the trail, leave behind some trash, feed wildlife, leave your campfire unattended, or take a bucket of cool rocks you find, you are causing an impact. When numerous people also perform these actions, the effects add up, causing possibly irreparable damage to the ecosystem.
You may have seen this when you find a beautiful park littered with trash or a flock of geese who rely solely on human handouts for food. You hear about massive wildfires caused by a campfire or sea life found with pounds of plastic in their stomachs. These are devastating effects of carelessness, and they are completely avoidable with a little education.
The Leave No Trace Principles
By reducing our environmental impacts whenever and however possible, you not only protect the nature you travel through, but you also inspire others (including your children) to do the same. These seven principles cover every aspect of enjoying the outdoors while minimizing your negative impacts on it.
We have broken down each principle and offer tips and ideas for helping each member of your family follow each principle. With a little practice, following these principles will become routine, and your kids will grow up to become natural stewards of their environment!
Whether you head out for a quick hike at a local trail or a weeklong backpacking trip along variable terrain, planning and preparation are essential. This could mean checking the weather and packing a picnic for a visit to a local park. It could also mean planning a week’s worth of meals, calculating elevation, planning how far to hike each day and where to camp, etc. for a backpacking trip.
Why It’s Important
When you fail to properly plan and prepare, there are so many things that can go wrong. It could be something as little as forgetting snacks and dealing with a hangry, screaming toddler on the trail. Or something as big as failing to check local regulations beforehand only to discover that there is a fire ban, and you didn’t bring a stove to cook your food while camping.
These oversights can lead to rash decisions that cause further damage to the environment. I’ve seen parents cut through the forest to make it back to the car quicker with their angry child, causing damage to the vegetation. It could lead to ignoring a fire ban, and potentially causing a wildfire in a high-risk area. You could get caught in a thunderstorm, or be without a first-aid kit when one of your kids takes a nasty fall. Planning and preparation are key to an enjoyable outdoor adventure for the whole family.
Following Principle 1 With Your Family
Before You Go
- Consider the abilities of each person in your group as you plan for the distance and difficulty of your trip. I generally recommend basing it on how far your youngest walker can hike without needing to be constantly reminded to keep going.
- Check local regulations and amenities so you know what to expect beforehand. For example, check to see if there is a bathroom at the trailhead, or check the local fire restrictions before heading out on a camping trip.
- Discuss the expectations of trail safety with your kids ahead of time. Check out this article on Hiking Safety for Kids for our 7 best tips for keeping your kids safe while hiking, including establishing ground rules for your hike.
Involve the Kids
- Have kids help you pack the 10 essentials before your hike and talk about why you would need each item. It’s a good idea to have these essentials packed and ready to go, regardless of where you plan to hike or camp. You can also have kids pack their personal adventure pack to take along, including things like a snack, water, and adventure tools. For more information, check out this post on what to pack for hiking with kids.
- Check the weather forecast together and use that information to decide what clothing everyone should wear to stay comfortable.
- Find the trail map for your intended area (whether on paper or online) and decide as a family which route you want to take, how far you want to go, or where to camp for the night. The All Trails app and website is a great resource for finding information on specific trail routes, difficulty levels, and recent trail conditions from other hikers.
- Let kids pick out their snacks for the trail (with guidance if needed) or help plan the meals for a picnic or camping trip.
When adventuring outdoors, it’s important to stick to marked trails and campsites whenever possible. While it may sound counterintuitive, these trail routes and sites were created by land management agencies to prevent excessive damage to ecosystems while still allowing people to enjoy nature. Hikers, bikers, campers, etc. are expected to use those trails and sites rather than skip through the underbrush of a natural area.
Why It’s Important
You may be thinking, “Is this really that important? My kids just want to explore!”. The answer is yes, it is. When people constantly travel and camp on non-durable surfaces, it damages the surface vegetation and communities of organisms. This leads to habitat loss and barren areas that lead to soil erosion.
When areas are trampled consistently over time (like “shortcuts” leading to an overlook), the soil loses porosity and becomes hardened. This hardened soil is less ideal for growing vegetation, so it stays bare or becomes home to less ideal vegetation that can adapt to harsher soil conditions (such as non-native and invasive plant species).
Following Principle 2 With Your Family
Before You Go
- Discuss with your family what is considered a “durable surface”. When exploring nature, well-established trails and campsites are the most durable surfaces. If you must travel off-trail (like for potty breaks that just can’t wait) try to stick to rock, gravel, sand, dry grass, or snow-covered terrain. These areas are less likely to degrade vegetation and erode soil. Do your best to avoid walking on vegetation as much as possible.
- If available, make it a habit to use the bathroom facilities at the trailhead before starting your hike. This will limit the number of off-trail potty breaks along the way. If a bathroom is not available, consider stopping at a nearby gas station or carrying a portable potty (like this one) in your car for little ones to use.
- When choosing a campsite, look for developed or existing sites that are large enough for your group. Trampling the boundaries of campsites that are too small for your group can cause site creep over time, which expands the campsite and degrades the vegetation and soil surrounding it.
Involve the Kids
- While hiking, ask your kids what may happen if too many people travel off-trail. What might the trail look like in a decade or two if people constantly camp and hike on non-durable surfaces? Point out any evidence you see of erosion or vegetation trampling, and have your kids do the same. Check out this article for more information on teaching your kids about hiking etiquette and why it’s important.
- It can be difficult to keep little kids on the trail. They are natural explorers, after all! To get their attention, try making it a game to stay in the middle of the trail. My boys love to pretend to be ninjas, walking as lightly and quietly as possible to avoid being “detected” by the forest life. Another fun option is to pretend that the trail is a bridge across a volcano and the vegetation on either side of the trail is hot lava.
Whether you have a baby with a blowout diaper, a kiddo with an affinity for mud, or an absent-minded teenager who can’t seem to keep track of their wrappers, caring for kids is a messy job. However, disposing of waste properly when recreating in nature is crucial for environmental health.
A good rule to follow is “Pack it in, pack it out”. In other words, anything that wasn’t found in nature (like the mud your toddler bathed in) should be packed out of nature. This rule also applies to human waste. If the urge arises to relieve your bowels on the trail, minimize negative environmental impacts by either packing it out or burying it in a cathole that is 6-8 inches deep.
Why It’s Important
The majority of the trash we see in natural spaces takes a remarkable amount of time to break down (if it does at all). Plastic bags take 10-20 years to break down. An aluminum can will take 80-100 years. A disposable diaper will take around 450 years to decompose. Even “natural” items, such as orange and banana peels, can take up to 2 years to break down.
Meanwhile, these items continue to pile up, clogging waterways and endangering wildlife. Even those seemingly “harmless” spilled crackers and snacks on the trail pose a threat to animal life. Not only can they cause illness once consumed, but when this occurs frequently (like on popular trails), wild animals can lose their fear of humans, which can be dangerous for both them and us.
Disposing of human waste properly on the trail is important for several reasons. There are an incredible number of protozoans, bacterium, and viruses that have been identified in human waste. These microbes can spread disease and pollute waterways for both humans and wild animals. It’s also just plain nasty to come across another person’s feces on the trail. However, burying feces in a cathole greatly increases the rate of decomposition while also helping to prevent the spread of disease.
Following Principle 3 With Your Family
Before You Go
- Discuss the proper way to poop on the trail with your kids before the issue ever arises. You can practice digging the hole and refilling it while discussing the purpose of the hole. For more information, check out this post on pooping outside.
- Be sure to include a bag for trash in your hiking or camping pack. This could be a reusable trash bag (like this one from Sea to Summit) that you use specifically for outdoor adventures or a shopping bag from the grocery store. Keep it handy to dispose of snack wrappers, soiled diapers, and even trash you find along the way.
Involve the Kids
- Have kids help with the clean-up process following a snack or meal outdoors. Depending on their age, you can have them use their “owl eyes” or hand goggles to spot trash and pick it up.
- Make it a game or competition to pick up any trash you find. You could have the person who finds the most trash win a treat or pick the route you follow next. Whatever works for your family! Here’s a fun (and educational) option from TMM Team Member Sarah:
- “I came up with this game a few weeks ago after I saw my 9-year-old casually toss a chicken drumstick into the river. The kids each have a Ziplock sandwich baggie in their life jacket pocket and the challenge is to see who can pack out the most micro trash! Chip and snack pieces, fishing line, little pieces of wrappers that get torn off, gum… Of course, the big trash stuff goes into a different (bigger) bag, but it’s helped make them aware of micro trash and packing it out.”
- Participate in or lead a trail clean-up. Having kids put on gloves and walk around with a trash bag collecting trash along the trail can be a real eye-opener for them. It forces them to notice just how detrimental trash can be to the environment, not to mention how it can diminish the beauty of nature.
This is possibly the hardest principle to follow if you have little kids. There’s something special about finding a really cool rock or the perfect walking stick. However, items found in nature, whether it’s a rock, a leaf, or a pretty flower, have a role to play in the environment. Leaving what we find helps preserve both the ecosystem and the story of the landscape.
Why It’s Important
Everything you find in nature has a part to play in the balance of the ecosystem it’s found in. The flowers serve as food for pollinators. The rocks serve as habitats for smaller insects. The sticks serve as building blocks for bird nests. The leaves break down and give nutrients back to the soil. The list goes on.
While taking one or two items likely won’t throw off the balance, if everyone takes one or two natural items every time they explore, those habitats, nutrients, food sources, etc. can become depleted. If you are foraging for berries, mushrooms, or other edibles, be careful not to deplete the surviving vegetation, and follow local guidelines to avoid destroying the vegetation.
This principle also includes leaving an area as you found it. Avoid nailing, carving, or otherwise damaging trees. This includes using thin hammock straps that dig into tree bark. These actions make the tree more susceptible to disease and cause lasting damage.
How to Follow Principle 4 With Your Family
Before You Go
- If you plan to use a hammock measure the straps before you go or use a hammock stand. Look for straps that are around 1 inch or wider to avoid digging into the tree bark.
- Pack items that encourage kids to record their adventures without the need for collecting natural items. These could include an old camera (or an old phone or disposable camera), some blank paper or a notebook, writing utensils, etc.
Involve the Kids
- Hand your kiddos a camera (or your phone) and ask them to photograph your adventure. Even young kids can take some surprising photos along the way. I always find it interesting to see what catches the attention of my boys, and with their attention on getting the perfect shot, they are less likely to take what they find in nature. Check out this post for tips on taking great outdoor photos with your smartphone.
- Nature journaling is a great way to help kids appreciate nature without disturbing it too much. My older child brings along his nature journal and preferred writing utensils (erasable colored pencils) in his backpack. I generally pack some paper and crayons for my younger son so he can do leaf or bark rubbings or draw what he sees. Check out this post for tips on getting started with nature journaling with kids.
- If you need to clear an area of pinecones, rocks, and other debris while making camp, have the kids help replace these items before you leave the area to restore the landscape.
- Outdoor adventures are a great time to practice using the senses (other than the sense of taste). Rather than collecting all the cool things they find, have them describe them using their senses. What texture do they feel on that cool rock? Does that flower smell sweet or bitter? Get down to their level to demonstrate and have fun with it!
- Remind yourself that the goal is to limit your impact on the environment, not necessarily to perfectly leave no trace. You don’t want to completely deter the curiosity of a budding geologist or a future botanist! If the only thing that will avoid an epic meltdown is allowing your kiddo to take a souvenir from their adventure, allow them to choose one or two small nature finds to take home while leaving the rest where they found them.
Learning the proper and safe way to build a campfire is an essential skill for any camper. Whether you’re using it for warmth or food, following the proper procedures for how to (and where to) build a campfire can help minimize the impacts on the environment. This is especially important in the many natural spaces that are becoming degraded by the overuse of fires and the demand for firewood. Alternatives should be considered whenever possible (such as a camp stove for cooking or a lantern for light).
Why It’s Important
Aside from natural sources (such as lightning), improper handling of campfires is one of the leading causes of wildfires today. That could be from a failure to completely put out the fire, failure to use a fire ring, building the fire too large, etc. Regardless of the reason for ignition, wildfires are easy to start and extremely difficult to put out. In the process, the flames spread rapidly, consuming much of the vegetation and structures in their path and destroying the lives and homes of animals and people alike.
They are devastating, and in many cases, preventable. By following local regulations and following the proper safety guidelines for starting and handling a campfire, you greatly minimize the risk of starting a wildfire or endangering the animals and people around you. Check out this post for more information on how to mitigate wildfire risk.
How to Follow Principle 5 With Your Family
Before You Go
- Check local guidelines right before you go. The fire risk can change quickly, which can lead to fire bans and quick regulation changes.
- Consider using a stove to cook food and a lantern for light instead of a campfire. If you want a fire for the traditional s’mores and campfire stories, keep it small and short-lived to reduce your impact on the environment.
- Be sure to pack the items needed to easily ignite and put out your campfire. This could include a Firestarter (such as Lightening Nugget Firestarters), a lighter or waterproof matches, and a bucket to fill with water to put out your fire. You can also bring along some firewood but be sure that it was purchased at a place that is local to your campfire to avoid spreading invasive species.
Involve the Kids
- Educate yourself and your family on the proper and safest way to build your campfire. Check out this video from REI on How to Build a Fire.
- Have children help collect firewood around camp. Send them in opposite directions and instruct them to use their wrist as a guide for wood diameter. Remind them to only choose dry and downed wood, never stripping branches from standing or fallen trees. If your kids are competitive, offer the first s’more roasting to the one who can find 5 good pieces first.
Spotting wildlife is one of the best parts of adventuring in nature. There’s nothing quite like observing a bird feed her young or spying on a family of deer grazing near the trail. It’s a fascinating experience, no matter your age! However, it’s important to respect wildlife if we want to keep having these encounters safely. That means keeping a safe distance, never feeding a wild animal, storing food (and other odorous materials) safely while camping, and keeping pets under control.
Why It’s Important
As more people take advantage of the outdoors, human-wildlife encounters are steadily increasing. Add in the ignorance of some well-meaning people and the trend of selfies and close-up photos of animals, and you have a combination that has the potential for disastrous effects. Wild animals need to stay wild for their safety and our own.
When humans feed wild animals, either intentionally or unintentionally, animals start associating humans with food sources. They can then lose their caution around people, which can lead to dangerous situations for both them and us. In addition, human food can make animals sick or lose interest in their native diets.
Giving wild animals plenty of space (and teaching our kids and pets to do the same) ensures that everyone can enjoy nature together. When we get too close to wildlife, we can cause unnecessary stress on them as they try to flee or cause their fight instinct to kick in. An angry mother bear charging at you is not worth the close-up photo you were aiming for!
How to Follow Principle 6 With Your Family
Before You Go
- Invest in a quality bear vault for use while camping or when hiking/backpacking on backcountry trails. Check out this post on Storing Food in Bear Country for more information.
- If you plan to travel or camp during sensitive times, such as mating, nesting, raising young, or winter, be sure to warn everyone in your party to stay alert and keep extra distance if possible. These seasons can cause animals to be more aggressive or more vulnerable.
Involve the Kids
- The term “safe distance” can be hard to understand, especially for younger kids. To help them understand, try this technique. Have them stand with their arm raised to shoulder height and their thumb pointing upwards. Then have your child close one eye while looking at an animal and try to cover the animal with their thumb. If their thumb completely blocks sight of the animal, they are a safe distance away from the animal. If not, they should increase their distance.
- You’ll often see signs warning against feeding wild animals near water sources and trailheads. If they don’t notice them, point out these signs to your kids (and read them if needed). Then ask if they know why feeding these animals is a bad idea (such as “Why is it dangerous for the ducks if humans feed them?”).
- Have your kids help you secure your food while camping. It can be fun to try their hand at hanging a bear bag or filling a bear vault, and it makes for a great discussion on why it’s important to go through all the effort.
- Have your kids pack some tools to help them observe wildlife safely. This could be binoculars to search for birds or deer, or a pocket microscope or magnifying glass to observe insects. Just remind them that insects are wildlife too, so they should treat them with respect as well.
You’ve likely experienced an inconsiderate fellow hiker or camper if you frequent the outdoors. Whether it’s the hiker who is having a loud argument on their phone, the neighboring campers who are playing explicit music at ear-splitting volume, or the person with the out-of-control off-leash pet on the trail, it can detract from the experience.
Encouraging and modeling good trail etiquette goes a long way to preserving the experience for other visitors and teaches your kids to do the same. Respecting others who are visiting the outdoors helps ensure that nature can be enjoyed by all.
Why it’s Important
Everyone should feel comfortable visiting outdoor spaces, regardless of their background or ability. To create a more inclusive, accepting outdoor culture, we must be kind and considerate of others and teach our kids to do the same. This includes yielding to others when appropriate and reducing our noise levels when possible.
This also involves controlling our four-legged adventure buddies whenever recreating outdoors. My older son was very nearly attacked by an anxious off-leash dog while hiking as a toddler. Had I not stepped in, the large dog could have severely injured my son. The dog’s owner used the excuse “He must have seen a squirrel or something, he’s usually very friendly!” and tried to laugh it off.
We weren’t laughing. In fact, it traumatized my son to the point where it took months for him to become comfortable on the trail without being in a carrier on my back, and he’s still wary of large dogs off-leash on trails. In addition, pet waste can contaminate waterways and pose a danger to wildlife (and the unsuspecting hiker who may step in it) if not disposed of properly.
How to Follow Principle 7 With Your Family
Before You Go
- Put your phone on vibrate before you hit the trail or campsite to avoid loud ringers going off. In addition, if you plan to listen to music, consider using a single earbud on the trail or limiting your volume at the campsite. This ensures you won’t disturb others and it keeps you aware of your surroundings.
- If you’re bringing your pup, be sure to include their leash, bags to pick up waste, and a bowl for them to drink from to stay hydrated.
- If you plan to visit the land of indigenous communities, be sure to take note of tribal boundaries and requirements or rules for access. Respect any voluntary public land closures during Native American ceremonies and activities.
Involve the Kids
- When traveling on multi-use trails, practice “moving to the right” with your kids from an early age. Have them pick rest spots on durable surfaces or safe spots to move over when other people need to pass. This helps them know what to do and where to go quickly when they hear a bell from a cyclist or a call from a horseback rider. For more tips on teaching our kids to respect others on the trail, check out this post on trail etiquette for kids.
- Kids can be noisy creatures, and they tend to have big imaginations. If they are like mine, they like to pretend to be animals while hiking. Encourage them to leave the howling wolf noises at home and pretend to be quieter animals instead, such as a stealthy deer or a sneaky cheetah.
Leave No Trace Resources
There are numerous resources available to learn more about how to follow the Leave No Trace Principles for both adults and kids. Here are a few of the options we recommend to help your family become better stewards of the environment.
Leave No Trace offers multiple different online course options, most of which are free to take and require minimal time to complete. For Adults, the Leave No Trace: Take Action to Protect the Outdoors course provides a better understanding of the seven principles along with how Leave No Trace skills and ethics can help protect our outdoor spaces.
They also offer a course for kids between the ages of around 7-12 called PEAK Online. This course includes videos and activities to help kids remember the 7 principles and how Leave No Trace skills and ethics can help protect the outdoor spaces they love. Upon completion, they will be able to download a digital certificate of completion.
The Leave No Trace Website has a multitude of videos that cover a wide range of environmental protection topics. These include topics such as the proper way to poop outside, how to collect firewood, how to safely camp in bear country, etc. My kids especially love their video that teaches the hand signals for the 7 principles, and they now teach those signals to their friends as a reminder to lower their impact in the outdoors.
You can find activities for all ages on the Leave No Trace website. These include group activities, such as the “What Principle Am I?” challenge, along with individual activities such as Lego building prompts. They even have a free Leave No Trace Bigfoot and Friends activity booklet available that kids can take along on their next outdoor outing.
In addition to activity printouts, the Leave No Trace organization has put together K-8 curriculum activities and lessons. These lessons include printable, easy-to-follow instructions and they align with the U.S. Common Core State Standards to aid in achieving teaching goals while enhancing Leave No Trace education.
Looking for more information or more resources for your kiddos? Check out these book recommendations for diving deeper into the topics covered here and helping kids connect to the concept of taking better care of Mother Nature.
For the Adults:
Leave No Trace in the Outdoors By: Jeffrey Marion PhD – Straight from the Leave No Trace organization, this book gives practical tips for protecting the nature found both close to home and in the backcountry.
How to Shit in the Woods By: Kathleen Meyer – If you’re looking to be wiser about your waste in the woods (and elsewhere), this is the book for you. This 4th edition includes updated health statistics, outdoor laws, and gear recommendations.
Backwoods Ethics: A Guide to Low-Impact Camping and Hiking By: Laura and Guy Waterman – This backpacking literature classic has been expanded to bring the basics of low-impact camping, hiking, outdoor cooking, and alpine management into the 21st century.
Great for Older Kids:
Hiking Activity Book for Kids By: Amelia Mayer – Filled with 35 hands-on hiking projects, this book encourages kids to get outside, gain important skills, and discover all the awesome lessons nature can teach them (including how to Leave No Trace). It also happens to be written by our very own Amelia Mayer!
Outdoor School: Hiking and Camping By: Jennifer Pharr Davis and Haley Blevin – This interactive field guide on hiking and camping was written with young explorers in mind. It includes activities to promote exploration, write-in journaling sections, and adventure challenges to test the skills learned from the book.
Can You Hear the Trees Talking? By: Peter Wohlleben – Kids can discover the secret life of trees through this interactive book. It includes outdoor activities, fun facts, quizzes, photographs, and more as it introduces kids to the science of the forest.
Loved by Little Ones:
A Stone Sat Still By: Brendan Wenzel – This book is a wonderful introduction to the concept of leaving what you find (LNT Principle 4) for little kids. Through gorgeous illustrations, kids witness the passage of time through the perspective of a rock and the seemingly endless roles it can play in nature.
Hiking Day By: Anne Rockwell – Bring the joys of an afternoon outdoors to life by following a young girl as she hikes a nearby mountain for the first time. Read along as she and her family prepare for their hike and enjoy the wonders they find in nature.
My Friend Earth By: Patricia MacLachlan – Celebrate all the earth does for us with this gorgeous ode to all her wonders. The pages of this book feature clever flaps, cutouts, and contours to interest young children, and the poetic text encourages everyone to treat nature as a friend.
Minimizing Our Impact on Outdoor Spaces Through Leave No Trace
Our outdoor spaces need help. By making the effort to follow these seven Leave No Trace Principles, we are teaching our kids to make responsible decisions that will help minimize our impact on the environment. It may not be possible to leave absolutely no trace every time we explore nature, but with these tips and resources, we can learn to respect and preserve the wonders of nature as much as possible.
Leave No Trace for Kids
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