Assume the Best: An outdoor enthusiast’s guide to talking with people who drop trash on the ground, blast music on the trail, and leave their dog’s poop behind.

Phoenix, Arizona

A writer for Sunset magazine recently asked me how I “really” felt about people who throw their trash in the bushes. The subtext was something like, “I know what you’re supposed to say, but surely there are just jerks and idiots out there in the world, amirite?” Well, yes, maybe there are jerks and idiots out there in the world, but I couldn’t do what I do if I believed that people were all incorrigible. The question she raised is a common one. While most people are sympathetic to a newbie who doesn’t know what to do with his or her, um, human waste when they’re just too far from a bathroom to use familiar facilities, most people we meet are bewildered that folks still litter. It’s even a meme. Surely, they know better!

My initial response is somewhat sardonic: evidently, they don’t know better, or they wouldn’t do it.[1] However, this view this assumes that when properly informed, we always act in accordance with our best judgments. There are two challenges here – one is that we are not always well informed, and this is where Leave No Trace’s mission is most evidently needed, to give people the information they need to make good decisions. But it’s also false that we always choose to act according to our best judgments, even when we’re well-informed. We’re lazy; we’re fatigued; we are distracted; we are intoxicated; we are overwhelmed by what Mother Nature throws our way; we are parents. In short, we’re people, and we’re flawed. So, there are perfectly decent explanations for why people litter, or leave their dog’s poop behind, or engage in any of the other sometimes enraging activities that we encounter when we’re outside. What’s more, there are many “less than Leave No Trace” things that we have all done that we no longer do as the result of education, practice, and being held accountable by our punctilious adventure partners. Knowing that we, ourselves have changed our conduct and habits means that given the right mix of information and motivation, others can as well.


Notice that there are two parts here: information and motivation: if everyone were a programmable robot, then simply telling them how to behave (or at least giving them parameters) would suffice. For better or worse (for better, I think), we don’t go outside without pre-judgments, habits, or other human foibles, and so this is why Leave No Trace isn’t just a bunch of information or rules, but an ethic – a way of thinking and acting that can makes us more virtuous stewards of our shared public spaces. So, when communicating Leave No Trace, our goal is two-fold: convey information, but also change motivation, since information alone doesn’t always do the job.


Advertisements do this well – they inform (this is the name of the product, what it does, and where you can buy it) – but they also motivate (this makes your life easier, you’ll be better liked by your peers, this enhances your self-worth). But, unlike in the advertising world, we needn’t engage in false flattery or deception when offering motivation for protecting the environment. The natural world has a power to draw us to it. Everyone who goes outside does so for predictable and overlapping reasons – fresh air, freedom, spiritual or mental respite, physical challenge, peace and tranquility, adventure, natural beauty. Knowing this, when you converse with your friends, clients, or fellow travelers about Leave No Trace, you can rely on the power of the natural world to motivate changes in behavior, just as it motivated you and others to step outside and into the wild. We call this using the Authority of the Resource. The resource here is wild nature, and its authority comes from its aesthetic beauty and unyielding lawfulness – we cannot take a step in the world without our actions having consequences. Below are some effective tactics in communicating the why of Leave No Trace principles and practices:

1.     It’s easier the Leave No Trace way: From planning ahead and preparing to proper food storage, to being careful with fire, often leaving less of an impact is lighter, easier and more efficient than doing it the way your grandpa taught you. Camp stoves are lighter, easier and more predictable sources of cooking heat than fires (though there are times and methods appropriate for the latter). Having the right footwear not only allows you to stick to trails but makes your hike more comfortable, safe and enjoyable.

2.     Pay it forward: We are drawn to wild places because of their natural beauty. Like it or not, we are no longer a permanent part of this natural world, but visitors to it, and our impacts can be detrimental to this beauty. If you come outside and are blown away by the beauty, leave it that way so others can have the same transcendent experience.


3.     Do it for the animals, man: Not surprisingly, we have an innate interest in and love for wild animals of all sorts, from majestic megafauna like elk and bison, to little crawly salamanders underneath rocks. Harness the instinct most people have to marvel and appreciate these creatures and use that as a lever when educating them about safe observation distances, leaving habitats in place (e.g. no permanent rock stacking), feeding wildlife (whether intentionally or otherwise), etc.

4.     Make it about virtue: Too often, I think, we’re drawn into utilitarian calculations about how much we can ‘get away with’ or some other cost-benefit analysis of our conduct outdoors. A better way of looking at the ethics or our actions is to ask, “what sort of outdoors person do I want to be?” We have an image of ourselves and we can and should engage in reflection as to how far off our conduct places us from our self-ideal.

5.     Gradual change over time: Remember that your conversation may not be sufficient to change someone’s behavior. However, if you go about it in a positive way, then it is certainly a necessary part of changing behavior. You may be the first person to suggest another (better) way, and we all need to hear messages several times before they sink in. However, you may also be the last pebble in a mound that tips a person’s thought and practice over toward sustainability and protection – you won’t know until you speak up and have that conversation.


Get out there and speak up for our share public spaces! #EnjoyYourWorld and #LeaveNoTrace


Jessie and Matt

Leave No Trace's Jessie Johnson  and Matt Schneider are part of the 2017 Subaru/Leave No Trace Traveling Trainer Program that provides free, mobile education to communities across the country. Proud partners of this program include Subaru of America, REI, Eagles Nest Outfitters, Deuter, Thule, Klean Kanteen, and Smartwool.

[1] Plato believed that if a person really knew what was right, then he or she would be like the winged goddess, Nike, and just do it. In some ways this makes sense – you wouldn’t do something wrong (i.e. ultimately harmful to your health, your reputation, your community, your virtue, or your eternal soul) if you knew that it was harmful, would you? The answer here is, “of course not!” But this says more about Plato’s view of knowledge – what it means to know something, rather than about human psychology, which is what we’re interested in here.