A Camper’s Guide to Leaving No Trace

After a fantastic hike among the skyscraper trees of Sequoia National Park, you pull into a popular campground, set up your hammock and begin building a cozy fire. As dusk falls, you prepare your meal in a forest that’s still and quiet, save for the murmur of nearby campers, the crackle of the fire, the burble of boiling water…and sawing. Wait. What? Sawing?

Thirty yards away in a neighboring campsite a young man is fiercely cutting into the trunk of a live sapling with a pruning saw. If trees could talk, you’re pretty sure the sapling—and the nearby Sequoia trees—would be screaming bloody murder. Within minutes, park rangers in three SUVs swoop in with lights flashing and surround the offender. Suddenly, your peaceful campsite resembles an episode of Cops.

Unfortunately, this scenario really happened. Whether or not he knew better, the dude shouldn’t have been cutting down a live tree. When you think about it, that’s a pretty good rule. If everybody were allowed to hack down the forest, there wouldn’t be much to look at within a pretty short time—and we certainly wouldn’t have ancient, 200-foot-tall Sequoias to inspire us. The kid’s lumberjack routine not only robbed the forest, but also turned the campground into a busy crime scene for a couple of hours, which was a bummer for anyone camping nearby.

Fortunately, this type of scene is becoming more rare thanks to the growing trend of Leave No Trace camping. Leave No Trace is really just a set of guidelines that people can follow to reduce their impact on the environment. It’s not really that hard to follow the guidelines, and when people make a little effort to tread lightly, two great things happen—our favorite wild areas remain healthy, and we leave campsites in good condition so future visitors won’t be grossed out.

Before you head out on your next trip, take a look at the following tips on ways to reduce your impact while camping.

Begin with Good Planning

In the 1980s, the U.S. Forest Service began promoting “No Trace” camping, and since the 1990s the nonprofit Leave No Trace has led the way in educating people on ways to camp more responsibly. If you’re ever in doubt about whether or not you should do something in camp, you can check out these excellent resources. After all, questions do come up—should I or shouldn’t I fling my orange peel into the forest? More on that in a few minutes…

One of the first things you should know is that your efforts to leave no trace should begin long before you arrive in camp. As you’re prepping for your trip, put together a camping kit with some essential supplies. Invest in a plastic tote and toss in large trash bags, a piece of scrim to catch crumbs under a picnic table, and a couple of large bowls for washing dishes. (Collapsible bowls don’t take up much room.)

If you have the dough, get a durable cooler that’s rated as being bear proof so you can store food and prevent all kinds of critters from feeding on it. If you leave a cheap cooler on the picnic table, a raccoon might turn your campsite into an Allstate “Mayhem” commercial.

Choose a Proper Campsite

When you’re picking out a campsite, follow the wise words of the experts at Leave No Trace: “Good campsites are found, not made.” Basically, you should only stay in designated campsites, and you shouldn’t cut down trees or alter the landscape to clear out a spot.

In a well-developed campground, sites are clearly marked and picking an appropriate spot is a no-brainer. But, some parks have “primitive” areas where you can park your car and walk into a nearby, unimproved camping area to pitch tents or hammocks. Also, you can drive into places designated as “Wilderness” and camp anywhere you’d like as long as you’re well away from trails and water sources. In these cases, you need to be more careful when you’re picking out a site.

Look for an open area of durable ground—it can be packed dirt, grass, gravel, rock, or snow. If it’s possible, camp at least 200 feet away from any water so that food, dishwashing soap, and trash won’t get into the water and affect fish, surrounding plants, and any animals that drink from that source.

Remember when your Scout leader advised you to dig a trench around your tent to divert rainwater? Well, that’s a bad idea. To prevent erosion, it’s best not to alter the ground too much. A good rule of thumb is to leave everything as you found it, whether it’s the dirt, a tree, or a rock.

Dispose of Waste Properly

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Be sure to pack sealable plastic bags and trash bags for your backcountry adventure. John Strother

Ever caught yourself staring out into space, wondering just how long it takes an orange peel to disintegrate in the wild? Well, we have, and the answer is crazy—in a desert environment, it could take two years. Sure, the peelings from your one little orange won’t be that noticeable, but consider the fact that billions of people visit our public lands each year. That’s like a truckload of orange peels.

It’s not just that the peels junk up the forest; if an animal gets hold of one, it can wreck the creature’s ability to forage. Plus, when people toss their scraps near roads, the food can attract creatures that become road kill.

Wherever you’re camping, it’s super important to pack out all of your trash, including leftover food, packaging, and waste from toiletries. In a developed campground, you’ll probably have access to animal-proof trashcans, especially if it’s bear territory. Definitely use them. If nothing is available, use the trash bags in your camping kit and a cooler or some other container to store your waste. If needed, you can keep the trash container in your car.

Remember those bowls you stashed in your camping kit? Pull those out when it’s time to wash the dishes. By using a two-bowl system—one to wash and one to rinse—you can avoid cleaning dishes in a stream. According to experts, soap—including biodegradable soap—can affect a river system for many years, change the pH balance, and affect wildlife. As you’re washing dishes with small amounts of soap, use a strainer (another item to toss into your kit) to remove bits of food from the water in the washing bowl. When you’ve removed the food, you can carry the remaining water a few yards from camp and scatter it.

If you have leftovers, put them in the trash, rather than dumping food in the fire. Most campfires aren’t hot enough to incinerate things, and your uneaten beans might attract everything from mice to bears.

When it comes to waste, the number one thing to consider is going number two. In a developed site, toilets are usually available, but in some remote spots, that’s not the case. If you’re headed to a place without a privy, put together a toilet kit that includes a trowel, toilet paper, wipes, hand sanitizer, and small plastic bags. Using your trowel, create a small hole that’s six to eight inches deep, deposit waste in the hole, and then cover it up. Rather than burn your toilet paper, place it in a plastic bag designated for soiled paper. While it’s preferable to pack out your toilet paper, it will decompose if you bury it deep in the hole you dug.

Take Only Photos

When things get slow at work, do you peek at Facebook or Instagram to see shots from your friend who’s always going to killer places? A good photo has inspired many a camping trip, and you should absolutely take pictures during your adventures. In fact, that’s all you should take.

As the saying goes, “Take only photos, leave only footprints.” When you depart your campsite, you shouldn’t carry out any plants, rocks, or artifacts. It might not seem like a big deal for you to take one little object, but imagine the impact if thousands of others did the same. Plus, you could rob someone else’s chance to discover that cool fossil or beautiful wildflower.

Manage Campfires Carefully

Everybody loves campfires. They brighten the mood, keep us warm on chilly nights, and bring us together to toast an awesome day outdoors. But, campfires are also responsible for wildfires, and you don’t want to be any part of that.

First and foremost, check to see if fires are permitted where you’re camping. If campfires aren’t allowed due to a high risk of wildfires, don’t risk it. Instead, make sure you have a stove and fuel to prepare meals, or charcoal if your campsite has a grill. Also, if there is no existing fire ring, it’s not a good idea to construct one. Chances are that no ring has been built because the conditions aren’t right for fires.

If you do build a fire, use only wood that’s allowed in the area. Some campgrounds require you to use the wood they supply so you won’t introduce unwanted pests. If it’s OK to use wood from the surrounding landscape, use only dead wood that’s already on the ground. Also, keep fires relatively small, because bonfires waste wood and are more likely to start a wildfire. Before you leave camp, make sure your fire is completely extinguished. If you’re not sure exactly how to do this, U.S. Forest Service has great info on their website.

Respect the Animals

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Look, but don’t even think about feeding (or touching) the wildlife. Kevin Stewart Photography

You may have seen crazy videos of Darwin Award candidates trying to feed bears in the wild. This behavior is not only hazardous to the health of humans but also harmful for the bear. If you feed wild animals, you can disrupt their natural behavior, make them sick and vulnerable to other animals, and possibly make them dependent on human food. If you manage to get eaten by the bear, it’s a bummer for you, but also a bad deal for bear, which is likely to be put down.

In general, it’s wise to keep your distance from animals in the wild, avoid feeding them and prevent them from getting to your food. If you’re in bear territory, it’s critical to follow the prescribed procedures for securing food and other fragrant objects, whether you’re supposed to hang items or store them in a locker.

Be a Good Neighbor

Most of us go camping to escape noisy, stressful everyday lives. So, it’s no fun to realize you’ve pitched your tent near noisy neighbors. Sure, it’s great to laugh and sing around the campfire, but just be aware that when the hour grows late, you should respect others and keep it down.

Also, many people prefer some privacy while camping. So you avoid crowding others by pitching your tent a reasonable distance away.

Like being a good neighbor, the principles of leaving no trace mostly come down to common sense and being thoughtful. It helps to know specific techniques to reduce your impact, but it’s most important to be mindful of the way your actions will affect the landscape, animals, and people around you. With a proper perspective and a little bit of knowledge, we can all make a difference and preserve the places we love so much.