Editor’s Note: This article has been updated.
Many of us have learned to associate camping with roaring smoky fires, portable stereos, and a big pile of plastic trash from convenience food and drinks. Fortunately, the Leave No Trace movement has spread the word about easy ways to “take only pictures, leave only footprints” while coming home deeply revitalized and interconnected. Here’s our take on those low-impact camping principles to ensure you walk softly on your next visit to the woods.
1. Transport: low carbon, low stress
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. And don’t forget to employ these fuel efficient driving techniques.
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 hand-crank pocket generator will help you recharge lights, cell phones, and more using a low-tech hand-crank. Solar lights can also help reduce your reliance on non-renewable batteries.
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. As the climate changes and droughts become more prevalent, fireless camping is becoming the norm in many places.
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, utensil set 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 solar oven or cooking pit is the ultimate meal. 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. You can also make your own dehydrated backpacking meals to lighten the load.
7. Water: clean and sustainable
If your campground doesn’t provide potable water, you have two choices: pack it in or filter it on site. Packing in your own water is a good solution if there is no water source nearby. 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.
If there is a water source, such as a stream, river or lake, bringing along a water filtration device is the easiest option and the one with the least amount of waste. A variety of portable water filters now exist, allowing you to filter as you go. For families or larger groups, a jerrycan filter with tap attachment makes filtering water easy.
In addition to drinking water, 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 nutrients 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.
A state of mind
Living sustainably outdoors is 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 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.