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Leave No Trace Principles – Our Full Guide for Car Camping

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Last updated on August 30, 2023

Man and girl going on a walk

The Leave No Trace principles were established to provide us with a set of ethics that promote conservation in the outdoors by encouraging people to leave the environment as they found it.

Is it would be for many of you, this is an area pretty close to our hearts, and sits as priority number one in our Camping Code and a key part of our eco-friendly camping principles.

The Leave No Trace movement really grew from the hiking and bushwalking community to reduce the potential negative impact of outdoor recreation activities on the environment, but car campers can also learn much from its principles.

This article is essentially our take on LNT:

1. Plan ahead and prepare

The first and probably most important of the principles is to plan ahead and prepare. This helps people to focus on their goals and skill level and those of the group, and choose an appropriate destination and program of activities.

Good planning involves familiarising yourself with the area from the information supplied by the land owner or manager, including sensitive or off limit sites. It also means being properly equipped with the right local information, camping gear, technical skills, food and drinks, first aid kit and allowing plenty of time to travel and to set up camp. If you plan and are well prepared, your camping experience will be more enjoyable, and you are less likely to abandon your LNT principles in the name of safety and comfort.

2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces

The 2nd principle focusses on the impact that we as campers and trekkers have on surfaces during the course of our outdoor pursuits, and the damage we can cause. Here are some of the things we can do, or avoid doing, to LNT:

When establishing a campsite

  • Use existing or designated sites where possible and stay within the boundary of your site.
  • Camp on durable surfaces, such as rock, sand, dry grass, snow or compacted dirt.
  • Keep clear of existing trails when camping in areas without designated campsites.
  • Camp clear of water courses to allow access for the wildlife.
  • Avoid sensitive and fragile ground and areas that will not recover quickly, such as soft plants, muddy sites and fragile soil layers.
  • Avoid damage to surrounding vegetation when organising your activities.
  • Drive or walk on if you can't find a suitable location.
  • Leave as you found at the end of your stay, if not better.

When hiking and trekking

  • Use established trails rather than creating your own, even if it means trekking through mud and water, and don’t cut corners.
  • Trek on durable surfaces such as rock, sand, dry grass, snow or compacted dirt, and not where there are soft plants, muddy sites and fragile soil layers.
  • Travel in smaller groups to reduce the pressure and impact on the area.

3. Dispose of waste properly

The 3rd principle focuses on another significant issue for the environment, and that is how we as campers and trekkers deal with our waste - both human and general waste as well as waste water.

Human waste

Dealing with human waste is a pretty vexing question, especially if you are in the middle of a beautiful pristine wilderness and the message is to leave no trace. Most of us want to do the “right thing” but often times the right course of action and the appropriate equipment is not always self evident.

Many local areas and campgrounds will have specific rules regarding the treatment of human waste, which may be imposed by your host and / or the land management authority, and in some cases you may be required to transport or pack out ALL human waste for later disposal.

With that in mind, when the urge arises, here are our suggestions for dealing with human waste:

Don't pass up toilet facilities

Don’t pass up a toilet when you see one on your travels, even if you and yours don’t immediately have the urge. Plan your trips around a toilet stop, and if a long drop or local toilet is available, use it. If you are heading into town for supplies, take the opportunity to use the facilities. If you prefer to dig a hole, or worse still, leave it behind a bush rather than use the available facilities, even if they aren’t all that enticing, then sorry but maybe camping isn’t for you.

Carry it out

Without provided toilet facilities, the most ideal way to LNT is to carry it out. For car campers, if you have one and can transport it, a portable toilet is the most convenient (and comfortable) option which can then be emptied into a designated dump point. Unfortunately, many of us won't be so well equipped, and will therefore need to avoid campsites and areas designated only for "self-contained" campers.

Solid human waste can also be carried out in a bag as you would collect dog poop. Place the collection into a second bag and then into something like a dedicated dry sack to make sure nothing escapes! Disposal of the bag will depend on the type of bags you have used. Compostable bags may be accepted at a human waste dump point or drop toilet, but you will need to check the fine print. They should not be flushed down a standard toilet. When in doubt, place in a secure bag and then into the general waste.

 Bury it

The land manager or your host may require solid or all human waste to be carried out (see above). If permitted, here are our tips for burying solid human waste:

  • Suitable locations include those with deep organic soil, and in the sunlight to maximise the rate of decomposition. You should not go within 100 metres (or 100 adult steps) of a water course, campsites, trails and areas frequented by others. You should also avoid areas containing sensitive vegetation.
  • “Single use” holes should be dug to a depth of 20 cm / 8” and 15 cm / 6” square. Afterwards, the deposit should be covered with the removed soil and disguised with natural ground materials.
  • “Multi-use” holes or latrines are used for larger groups and overnight stays. If permitted, they should be dug in the shape of a trench to a depth of 20-30 cm / 8-12”, 15 cm / 6” wide and up to 100 cm / 40” long. Afterwards, individual deposits should be covered with some removed soil. On a daily basis the latrine should be filled in, disguised with natural ground materials and a new location selected.
Toilet paper

Toilet paper does not break down as quickly as we might think. It should either be buried or preferably placed in a bag or container together with other sanitary products and packed out for disposal in the general waste.

General waste / rubbish

No matter whether the rubbish appears to be compostable, biodegradable or of a natural material, it should be carried out and placed in an approved waste bin rather than burned or buried. That goes for food scraps as well. Everyone should take out any other rubbish they come across along the way as well if possible. 

For more information on how you can reduce your camping waste, you can go to our series of waste strategy articles:

Waste water

We as campers will generate graywater from dish washing, clothes washing, showering, bathing and brushing teeth. We will also discard water and cooking liquids, sometimes at boiling point, from the camp kitchen. Here are our LNT suggestions for dealing with waste or grey water:

Use existing facilities

We should use existing facilities wherever possible and ensure waste water goes into the existing drainage system rather than dispersed over the ground. Again, if you are going into town for provisions, take the opportunity to wash as well as use the toilets.

Consider your need to shower

Consider your need for a shower at all. If you are out camping and hiking for a short period, you may be able to get by with just a basin, some warm water and a washer.

Carry it out

Carrying out your greywater waste is the most ideal way to LNT, but that won't be practical for anyone other than those equipped with a greywater tank as part of their trailer (RV, motorhome, caravan etc). Indeed, some property owners and land managers require their guests to be fully "self-contained' and to carry out all waste, including greywater.

Disperse onto the ground

If you are permitted to disperse your greywater onto the ground, you should strain and spread all liquids over a wide area at least 50 metres (50 adult steps) away from a water source. Avoid sensitive vegetation and muddy areas and be mindful of the wildlife, such as ants and small lizards, especially when dispersing hot liquids. The contents of the strainer should be placed with other food scraps and into the waste bin. Soaps, detergents and other related products should not be used in creeks, rivers and wetlands.

Use biodegradable products

Ideally, products used should be biodegradable and, if possible, scent free, especially if dispersed onto the ground. That includes soap, hair care products, dishwashing liquid, washing powder, toothpaste, sunscreen and insect repellent.

You should use as little (if at all) of the product as is necessary, and especially in sensitive areas, consider rinsing off any lotions at a distance of at least 50 metres (50 adult steps) before entering the water, to minimise contamination of the water course.


Maybe not the most unpleasant example of waste you will see on your travels but, nevertheless, someone else’s toothpaste remains are not a sight we want to see. To be truly LNT when cleaning your teeth you could either:

  • Just use a tooth brush and maybe even floss but no toothpaste
  • Rather than onto the ground, spit onto a tissue or a piece of newspaper or directly into your waste bag / bin
  • Swallow it! Bi-carb soda or a toothpaste designed for children would be easier to swallow

Actually, when you think about it, some of these options seem pretty palatable, as they say. In any case, most importantly, you should use minimal amounts of toothpaste.

Spitting it onto the ground is not preferred, but if you must (and if it is permitted), firstly dilute the toothpaste by swirling some water in your mouth before spitting it out, and then follow that with some more water. According to our research, a common practice is, rather unpleasantly, to broadcast the contents of your mouth in spray form over a wider area. I’m not sure how I would manage that without getting it all over me as well.

4. Leave the environment as you found it

The 4th principle relates to leaving the environment as you found it. Avoid site alterations, such as digging trenches for tents, hammering nails in trees and tying tent guy lines to trunks, to avoid ring barking or otherwise damaging the tree. Rubbish should be removed and any clearings made to areas should be covered over and returned to their original state.

You should also avoid damaging natural vegetation and also the temptation to take home souvenirs, such as flowers, seeds, interesting rocks, bark and leaves, artefacts and natural objects.


5. Minimise campfire impacts

The 5th LNT principle relates to minimising the impact of a fire, including deciding whether you actually need one. They are popular for camping but they leave unsightly fire pits, they can strip the surrounding area of fuel and natural vegetation, disturb the wildlife and inadvertently (and too often do) start bush and wild fires.

Check the local rules / regs

Firstly, it is important to determine if you are actually permitted to have a campfire by checking any restrictions imposed by your host and / or the local land management or fire authority. Obviously, total fire ban days are out as well as hot or windy days, especially if you do not have access to current weather reports and fire authority announcements. If you have any doubts, play it safe and forego a fire.

Cook on a stove

To minimise the impact on the surrounding area in relation to the collection of firewood, you should cook with a fuel stove if you have one rather than on a campfire.

Manage the fire

You should also ensure that at least one person in your group is capable of, and responsible for, starting and managing a fire that will LNT. The fire should be kept small and burn only for the time you are using it. It should never be left unattended and also should not be allowed to burn overnight.

Use existing fire pit

Existing fire pits should be used for campfires. The pit should be clear of flammable material (leaves, sticks etc) by at least three metres, including the uppermost point of the flames.

Use approved firewood

Many parks will prohibit the collection of wood for a fire because of the associated effect on the area and the habitat of the local wildlife. Some parks will also not permit firewood to be brought into the area.

If the collection of firewood is permitted, it should consist of solid already fallen timber, and should be gathered over a wide area such that its removal will not be noticeable. Avoid using hollow logs and living trees, and damaging plants in any way.  You may also be able to purchase specifically provided wood, or bring your own with you.

Bin or take out waste

Your rubbish should not be a source of fuel for your campfire. Plastic, foil, tins, food scraps and many seemingly burnable materials all leave varying degrees of residue, and release pollutants into the air. They should not be burned in a campfire but disposed of in bins or taken with you when you leave. If you want to reduce your waste volume to minimise the amount you need to pack out, check out our reducing general camping waste article.

Put out the campfire

Extinguishing embers is much easier than a raging fire, and is much less wasteful on firewood.  The last log should therefore be timed such that the fire is allowed to burn down before being extinguished. To extinguish a fire, add water and stir around the embers with a stick to expose the hotspots. Add more water to extinguish existing hotspots and repeat the process until the hissing stops. Ensure the ashes are cold before leaving the campsite - you should be able to run your hand through the remains of the fire.

If you have limited water, cover the embers with dirt and take extra care to ensure the fire is fully extinguished before you depart, and move any fuel (leaves, sticks, branches) to a safe distance from the fire pit.

6. Respect wildlife

The 6th LNT principle relates to minimising the impacts on wildlife as a result of our encounters with them. Encounters with wildlife should quiet and at a distance and they should not be fed. Large groups should split into manageable smaller groups and everyone should move free of loud noises and quick movements. Campsites should also be situated at a safe distance from water courses to allow access for the wildlife.

Feeding wildlife can be harmful to their health and it can also create a dependency. Feeding unpredictable wild animals can also expose you (and your children) to a potentially dangerous situation if you get too close, or if the wildlife decides it wants more than you are prepared to give it. Camp food and food scraps should also be stored securely and out of reach, especially at night.  

Playing of loud music and the use of noisy equipment such as generators and chainsaws should also be avoided.

7. Be conscious of hosts and visitors

Camping in the great outdoors by its very nature means we may be living, sleeping and trekking in close proximity to people we don’t know. People come in all shapes and sizes and from all walks of life. They pursue many different interests and follow different timetables.

The 7th and final principle of LNT relates to our behaviour towards others, including our hosts. This principle encourages us to be respectful to others and hopefully they will show us the same courtesy. Essentially we are encouraged to lead by example, abide by the applicable rules and regulations, be patient, keep the noise down, especially at night, be polite and considerate to others and try not to stand out.

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