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Unfortunately, many of us have learned to associate camping with roaring smoky fires, loud portable stereos, and a big pile of plastic trash from convenience food and drinks. Fortunately, the Leave No Trace movement is gaining popularity, spreading the word about easy ways to “take only pictures, leave only footprints”… and come home feeling more deeply revitalized and interconnected.

1. Transport: low carbon, low stress

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2014 and has been updated.

Environmental consciousness starts with planning: consider choosing a destination close to home. Save the fossil fuels for truly necessary travel, and discover a new park or wilderness area nearby. Almost every American city has a state park just a short drive outside the city limits; National Forest areas often offer primitive campgrounds that can be less populated but offer scenic tranquility. Camping close equals less frustrating highway hours (particularly valuable if you’re traveling with kids) and more time to relax and connect with the beauty around you. For the adventurous, cycle touring may be more approachable than you think: check out this motivating article to learn more about how you can enjoy the thrill of long-distance bicycle camping.

2. Gadgets: unplug and relax

Leave anything with a cord at home. Okay, bring your cell phone, but make a pact to use it only for truly necessary communication, and don’t forget to set your “out of the office” voicemail and email responder! If you’ve chosen a camping getaway, you are likely seeking a rustic natural experience, and you can facilitate that by foregoing the boombox, high-wattage electric lantern, tablet computer and camping fridge. You’ll thank yourself for keeping it simple. Yes, it will limit your choices, and sometimes that’s wonderfully freeing! There are, however, a few pieces of technology designed to add convenience without a hefty carbon footprint. This nifty battery-free space-saver will light your way to the outhouse, charge your cell phone, and even let you listen to the radio using a low-tech hand-crank.

3. Wildlife: respectful co-existence

Witnessing birds and animals going about their business is one of the thrills of camping, and it’s tempting to try to get closer. Unfortunately, gaining familiarity with humans can mean death for many wild creatures, due to inappropriate food, loss of crucial caution instincts, or developing a reputation as a “problem” animal. Keep your distance from wildlife, and do whatever you can to minimize their awareness of you by keeping your noise, smells, and habitat disturbance to a minimum. In any wilderness area, keep in mind that you are a guest in their home. Your own safety, as well as the safety of local creatures, depends on exercising care in food storage and cleanup. A bear’s sense of smell is 100 times more powerful than a dog’s, and in bear-frequented areas, even toothpaste can draw them dangerously close: talk to rangers about special bear-protecting precautions. Remember all animals depend on water access: stay away from streams and lakes in early morning and evening, so they can drink in peace. Prevent your dog from harassing wildlife; better yet, leave the dog home in someone else’s care to avoid the intense and often fatal stress of extended chase.

4. Fire: burn clean

Bring your own dry seasoned wood. Wood sold at or near campgrounds can be unseasoned, resulting in a smoky, polluting fire that takes forever to get hot enough to cook your dinner. Learn how to make safe small hot fires. Once your fire is crackling briskly, almost no smoke should be visible. Gathering wood, even dead and down wood, impacts the forest ecosystem and is likely to be damp and particulate-producing. Know and follow fire-safety guidelines, including fully extinguishing your fire with repeated buckets of water before leaving the campsite or going to bed — not only can this prevent a forest fire, but it stops the fire from continuing to pollute when no one is enjoying it. In drought-ridden or poor air-quality areas, plan to camp fire-free: mandatory fire-bans can come into effect at any time. Illuminate your evening reading with a cord-free solar-powered lamp. For backpackers, the super-light LuminAID is the way to go.

5. Trash: lighten your load

In remote sites, the rule is clear: pack it in, pack it out. Some well-staffed campgrounds provide trash cans, but whether you’re taking your garbage home or not, be waste-aware. If camping near a vehicle, take a bucket with a tight lid for compost, and leave it in your car at night to avoid attracting critters. Never mix compostables with landfill trash — organic matter in landfills produces methane, a particularly harmful greenhouse gas. In the bush, bury your compost the same way you bury human waste: 8 inches deep and at least 200 feet from any campsite or body of water. To further reduce, leave the paper plates and disposable plastic utensils at the store. The pile of needless garbage this creates can be staggering. A single non-breakable dish or plate per person can be easily washed and dried after each meal. Choose a fragrance-free biodegradable dish soap or castile soap that won’t attract critters. Challenge your group: how small can you make your outgoing garbage container?

6. Meals: simple and wholesome

A stew slow-cooked in a Sun Oven is the ultimate meal, and with experience, you can even leave it simmering while you hike. If you choose a campfire, maximize your fire’s usefulness by making it a cook fire, even pre-cooking tomorrow’s meal to be quickly reheated on the camp stove when needed. Bring a cast-iron dutch oven and a grill if you’re car camping. Off the beaten path, a lightweight set of nesting camping pots will work fine. Girl Scout tip: coat the outside of your stainless steel pot in biodegradable dish soap before putting it on a campfire to prevent smoke-staining! What to cook? Write up a basic meal plan, trying to keep the ingredients and packaging to a minimum. Most root vegetables keep well for a few days without refrigeration, as do eggs and uncooked grains and legumes. Foodies can cook ahead and freeze at home: the frozen containers will help your cooler stay cold while they slowly thaw. For serious camp cooks, the Solo Stove is one of the most efficient ways to use wood to cook away from home, and at only 9 ounces, it won’t weigh you down.

7. Water: clean and sustainable

If your campground doesn’t provide potable water, bring it in 5-gallon reusable containers, with one refillable canteen for each camper. Single-serving bottled water has been outlawed in San Francisco, and you can take another stride in the fight against plastic pollution by outlawing them in your family.

In addition, keep the water around your campsite clean by washing and rinsing away from lakes, rivers, and streams. Even biodegradable soaps contain ingredients that reduce water oxygen levels, making them harmful to fish and other aquatic life. They also promote algae growth by increasing nitrogen in the water. To prevent this, dispose of soapy water at least 200 feet from the shoreline in a shallow hole 6 to 9 inches deep. Here soil bacteria can tackle the suds and prevent any toxic ingredients from harming nearby fish and wildlife.

It’s more of a state of mind than a list of rules. When enjoyment of the natural world is the goal, we make life easier by leaving behind the clutter that distracts and detracts from the beauty of the forest, beach, or mountains. A deep breath of piney air, a brisk walk up an inviting trail, loons calling eerily over the lake, the brilliance of the night sky far from city lights: these gifts are even richer when we feel in harmony with our environment.

Useful Reading:

Guide to Camping with Kids

The Leave No Trace Seven Principles 

Campfire Cooking: Recipes and techniques for cooking on an open fire

Hiking Trails, Mountain Bike Trails, and Trail Maps 

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