How to leave no trace during your summer road trip

With the proper planning and gear, you can travel in safety and style—and leave every mile better than you found it

Photo: Shutterstock

The open road beckons, adventure calls, and after a year of living through COVID-19, a nation full of gadabouts is ready to explore. And this summer, I won’t be the only one seduced by the allure of unfettered freedom that only a road trip can offer.

But like most things since the beginning of 2020, road trips have changed. More people are choosing campgrounds over hotels, take-out over dining rooms, and hiking trails over museums. The impact made on natural spaces is greater than ever, which means it’s also more important than ever to do our part to protect the landscapes (and cityscapes) we find ourselves in as we take to the nation’s highways and byways en masse again.

So before you play Tetris with your luggage in the back of your SUV, familiarize yourself with the principles of Leave No Trace—an ethic that applies to every way we interact with the world around us, including on road trips—so you can travel in safety and style and leave every mile better than you found it.

Plan ahead and prepare

A good road trip starts with good planning. As they say, failing to plan is planning to fail. So start by packing all the tools and supplies you’ll need for the trip.

Bring a refillable water bottle to reduce single use plastics, plan your route carefully, download maps for offline use, and bring reusable trash bags so you don’t stuff receipts that can easily blow away in the car door. Check to see if any of the parks or attractions you want to visit are requiring reservations or experiencing a surge in visitors. “Seek out times and places of lower use,” says Subaru/Leave No Trace Team Member Brice Esplin. “We share these outdoor spaces with many people and impacts can have a cumulative effect when so many of us visit at once.” Investigate lesser known trails and natural areas or rise early to disperse usage at popular sites.

Two white people sit in folding chairs looking at a forest next to an rv
Find durable surfaces such as rock, gravel, sand, or dirt to set up camp. | Photo: Shutterstock

Travel and camp on durable surfaces

When driving or enjoying the outdoors—even at rest stops—always stay on designated roads and trails. If there are established campsites, use them. If not (or if you’re backcountry camping), pitch your tent on durable surfaces such as rock, gravel, sand, or dirt instead of on top of delicate grasses or flowers.

When hiking, never cut switchbacks, and in western regions where cryptobiotic or living soil exists, stay off of the crusty, delicate ecosystem at all costs.

Dispose of waste properly

From empty potato chip bags to coffee cups, ensure all garbage is disposed of properly. Never burn it or leave it at a campsite or outside of an overflowing trash can. Bonus points if you separate trash and recyclables into different bags in your car and hang on to both until the corresponding receptacle presents itself.

As for human waste, when nature calls, stick with gas station and rest area bathrooms. If it’s an emergency, you can always keep a container with a water-tight lid under the passenger seat for liquids—but if you must go number two in the woods, do so 200 feet from natural water sources. Dig a hole 6 to 8 inches deep, go in the hole, and bury it when you’re done. Never leave toilet paper under a bush or by the side of the road: Bury it with your waste or pack it out to dispose of later.

a hole in cracked dirt
If you must go outdoors, dig a hole 6 to 8 inches deep and bury it when you’re done. | Photo: Shutterstock

Leave what you find

Road trips are full of novel experiences and things, which can make it tempting to collect items and artifacts along the way that remind you of your travels. But be thoughtful about what you take: A shell could be someone’s home and a pinecone could be someone’s food. Leave natural objects where you found them for wildlife and others to enjoy.

We can also unintentionally relocate living things, according to Esplin. “When we move from location to location, we risk transporting unwanted hitchhikers with us,” he says. “We can transport and introduce [invasive] species of plants and pests to new ecosystems through our gear or transporting firewood between areas.”

Minimize this risk by cleaning your gear (including boots, socks, and tents) in between destinations and don’t transport firewood farther than 50 miles.

Minimize campfire impacts

If you’ll be camping during your road trip, you’ll probably want to sit around a campfire—but take care to prevent wildfires and damage to native landscapes.

Never start a fire where it’s not allowed or in areas where the risk of wildfire (like in drought-prone regions) is high. If fires are allowed, use an existing fire ring or pit if there is one or bring a portable version.

If there’s no pit, pick a spot to build your fire that’s far from any flammable foliage, and don’t forget to look up to check for low tree limbs. Keep plenty of water nearby for extinguishing the fire and before you go to bed or leave the campsite, douse the blaze so thoroughly it’s cool to the touch. If weather allows, consider sitting around a lantern instead of a flame. 

roasting marshmallows over a campfirre
Use an existing fire ring or pit if there is one or bring a portable version. | Photo: Shutterstock

Be respectful of wildlife

It’s always a thrill to see animals in the wild, but keep your distance from wildlife. How far depends on the animal, but a good rule is to hold up a thumb at arm’s length, close one eye, and if your thumb doesn’t cover up the animal in the distance, you’re too close.

Never feed any wild animal—on purpose or otherwise. It can not only make them sick, but can acclimate them to the presence of humans and food and encourage aggression. Keep coolers closed when not in use and make sure all food is stored securely overnight and when you leave the area to prevent curious, determined, and potentially dangerous wildlife from raiding your stash.

That goes for food scraps and waste, too. “Apple cores and orange peels tossed out the car window might seem harmless, but they can bring animals to roadways where they may then be hit by cars,” Esplin says.

Be considerate of others

While on a road trip, treat other drivers with courtesy and respect—but also other campers and hikers when you take a break or camp for the night. If you like to listen to music while you cook dinner or hike, keep the volume—and your voice—low. Share the trail and offer to step aside for others. At the campground, be respectful of posted quiet hours (usually somewhere between 10 p.m. and 9 a.m.) and be aware of any bright lights you’re using and where they are pointed. Keep a face mask handy at all times, too, and be mindful and respectful of others in public spaces.  


“It’s never any single instance of littering or interfering with wildlife, it’s the cumulative effect of millions of us in these areas that can really add up and cause damage,” Esplin says. “However, by putting Leave No Trace practices into action we can minimize these impacts and create more enjoyable and welcoming outdoor spaces for all.” 

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