Each year, millions of visitors flock to national parks to take advantage of our nation's natural resources. People drive there, camp along the way, or find recreational opportunities in state parks, national forests, or lands operated by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Spending time in nature is good for our mental and physical health, but how good are people at getting back out into nature? The truth is that when it comes to land stewardship, our efforts are often considered inadequate.
In the spirit of a smaller footprint, we've created a guide to sustainable camping. Whether you apply one, three or all five tips on your next outdoor adventure, we believe this list will make your next trip better for you and the planet. Here's how to truly leave no trace behind.
Avoid Creating New Campsites
While it's tempting to pitch a tent on that secluded lake, the one surrounded by wildflowers, please don't get the urge. Temporary campsites can eventually merge into "mega sites" that can lead to erosion, destruction of vegetation, altered waterways, algae blooms, and even destruction of fragile ecosystems such as cryptogenic soils.
If you choose to camp in the backcountry or spread out, keep your campsites small and minimize your footprint. Try to find pre-established sites. (Often, as an added bonus, there is already a fire pit.) Leave rocks, trees and logs alone; dig only when burying human waste. Use your personal campground furniture to leave a smaller impact on the environment as well.
At designated campgrounds, only use National Park Service (NPS) sites or Forest Service (FS) sites that have been put in place to leave minimal impact. These sites sometimes require advance permits or reservations, so plan your trip well in advance.
Build Low-Risk Fires
Check with the NPS or FSB for campfire bans and current regulations - especially when camping in dry areas. Where fires are allowed, always use existing and designated fire rings/fire pits. Fires in the wilderness may not be necessary and may do more harm than good.
Pests and pathogens live in store-bought wood, so choose to find your own wood in the wilderness. However, be sure to collect small, non-intact pieces of wood from the forest floor. Even dead logs can be a refuge for small wildlife and insects. However, if you know you will be camping where fallen logs are scarce, bring your own wood or consider skipping the fire.
Choose Sustainable Gear
While outdoor gear may be necessary for comfort and safety, it's important to choose eco-friendly outdoor brands and camping gear that will last. This may mean spending a little more money up front, but you'll save money in the long run. If you have to replace your tent every time you want to camp, then a cheaper tent isn't as cheap and creates more waste in the end. Do a little extra research and choose a quality option.
Opt For A Zero-Waste Trip
Plastic is popular and is used everywhere, from packaging to household items to healthcare. While its use is unavoidable in some cases, remember that almost every piece of plastic produced is still somewhere on the planet.
You can do your part by reducing the amount of single-use plastic you use while camping. Pack reusable cups, bottles, plates, eco-friendly food containers and biodegradable garbage bags.
If you put it in, put it out. When you leave the campground, be sure to take the trash you generate with you. And to avoid conflicts with wildlife, keep trash and food in a bear-proof food container (common in most campgrounds where bears will roam).
If there's one simple takeaway to remember from this section, it's this: any form of interaction between humans and wild animals is not normal and should be avoided.
Things that look cute, furry or huggable are still wild animals, and they may feel the need to defend themselves against you. Please observe from a distance, and if you take pictures, make sure your flash is off. Also, please do not feed the animals. Feeding wild animals encourages them to seek further interaction with humans, which can result in injury to either party. Sometimes - especially in the case of bears - this can lead to them being rehomed or euthanized. While your snacks may be tasty, they are not natural to anyone but other campers.
Keep unnecessary interactions, noise and lights to a minimum so the animals can be on their way.
Take Care When Cleaning Up
Fresh water is a precious and limited resource that is vital to the plants and animals around us. Because sunscreen, insect repellent, and lotions can contaminate water, we need to reduce our contact with rivers and streams. Avoid swimming, bathing, and washing dishes in rivers and lakes where you are camping.
If you absolutely need to wash something, collect water in a bucket or jug and stay at least 200 feet from the shore. When using soap, choose a biodegradable brand and dig a sump pit for discarding suds. Using and packing out unscented wipes is also an environmentally friendly bathing option.