Low-Impact Camping Principles
Leave No Trace Camping Ethics
There are a plethora of reasons to explore the great outdoors, so just choose a reason and get out there—but please don’t leave any evidence that you were there. Over time, even small impacts can add up to a great deal of damage to the natural environment. Leave No Trace has identified seven principles for minimizing your impact on the wilderness:
Plan ahead and prepare
Every Boy Scout is supposed to be prepared. This motto means more than just having the right gear. Personally, I like to study maps. Finding a good topo map of the area is a key ingredient to educating yourself about the area and preparing for an outing. Be sure to research regulations and special concerns for the area. Certain land managers have specific rules governing the use of their land. Check weather reports regularly as the trip nears. Repack food and consolidate items to help reduce waste to pack out.
Last summer a friend invited me to join him and his brothers for a trip to Granite Peak, Montana’s highest point. I hadn’t met many of the people in the group, but I was itching for a great backpacking trip, and I wasn’t going to say no. I studied a map of the area, read forums, and watched YouTube to prepare myself. I mapped the way I had studied and headed to Montana.
On the morning of the summit day, I found myself heading in a direction I hadn’t anticipated. The others had planned to hike a different route than I had. The trail was seldom used and overgrown in places. We slowly crossed boulder fields as the sun climbed high in the sky. The scenery of the rugged Beartooth Mountains was breathtaking, but the slow rate disturbed me. I convinced the group to change course to a speedier route. We climbed a chute, traversed a plateau, and navigated a talus slope to a saddle where we would begin our final ascent to the peak. Two in our group didn’t summit, but we all made it back to camp in the dark.
In hindsight, I should have asked which route we would take and studied it. I wouldn’t have voiced my concern, and I think we would have made an earlier summit. My impromptu detour turned out to be longer and had more elevation gain than the course we were traveling.
Dispose of waste properly
You know the drill: pack it in, pack it out. Leaving trash behind can have a negative impact on the environment and other campers. Dig a hole 6 to 8 inches deep to dispose of human waste. Don’t forget to cover it up, and try to disguise the area. When finished, pack out toilet paper and hygiene products.
I was camping on the shore of Lake Powell with 60 other people a couple of years ago. Lake Powell requires human waste to be disposed ¼ mile away from the water. We would hike up a large hill and into a small basin to do our business. It was basically a human litter box. Human feces and toilet paper were scattered across the sand. We guessed that past campers must have proud of what they’d produced, because they didn’t bury it. It doesn’t matter what color, shape, or size your poop is: bury it!
Minimize campfire impacts
Nightlife in the backcountry is centered around the campfire. There’s something primitive about gathering around the flames with friends and sharing stories, theories, and tall tales. But fires need to be well kept in order to minimize their impacts on the landscape. It’s best to use pre-existing fire rings for your fire. Keep the campfire small and in control. Be sure to burn all the wood and coal to ash, and do the next camper a solid and spread the ash in the vegetation before you leave camp—it makes a great fertilizer. Also make sure you check to see if campfires are prohibited in the area. If they’re prohibited, respect the rules and light the camp with a lantern.
Pro tip for the campfire: Sometimes you need a little extra late night snack after a long day. My favorite campfire snack is simpler than a s’more and, in my opinion, much more delicious. The the campfire éclair:
- Find a stick that’s about the diameter of a broom handle.
- Place Pillsbury biscuit dough around one end
- Cook the dough over the fire
- Place chocolate or vanilla pudding inside the cooked dough and voile: a delicious campfire snack.
Leave what you find
It’s best to leave what you find where you found it. Mother Nature’s rocks, flowers, plants, and wildlife are carefully placed. Leaving a natural object where it’s found will reduce the introduction of non-native species. Removing artifacts, defacing petroglyphs, and damaging natural structures will get you in legal trouble (and probably bring you some bad mojo). Avoid being destructive by refraining from building structures or digging trenches.
On January, 17, 1912, five British explorers reached the South Pole. They were 33 days shy of being the first team to reach the Pole; a Norwegian team had reached the Pole first. The British team’s main focus was to conduct scientific experiments, record observations, and gather specimens. This scientific research slowed the team’s travel. All the men on the expedition died before returning to the ship, and some believe the catastrophe happened because of the extra effort needed for the research. The men were laden down with extra gear and dozens of pounds of collected items. Perhaps if they had left the rocks and other items they’d collected, they would have survived the trip.
You and I probably won’t die if we collect an extra rock or two, but you’ll always be better off leaving nature as it is.
Be considerate of other visitors
People head to the wilderness for many reasons, and one of the most common is to enjoy a level of solitude and quiet that’s not available in urban areas. In the wilderness, however, there are no property lines or city ordinances, so everyone out enjoying these places is responsible for respecting others’ right to enjoy them as well. Don’t be unnecessarily loud, give other groups space on trails and in camping areas, and don’t put others in danger.
I attended a family reunion in Idaho last summer. Next to our campsite was a group of people who stayed up late drinking, smoking, and trying to make some sort of music with a guitar. They were approached multiple times to quiet down and each time they responded with an effusive apology. No one slept much that night because of some careless campers.
Travel and camp on durable surfaces
Always travel and camp on hard surfaces. Hard surfaces are durable and can withstand a lot of use. Staying on established campsites, trails, or areas with rock and gravel helps minimize impact on the area. Try to keep your campsite small and concentrated. Avoid camping and walking on vegetation. If the area is unfrequented or pristine, spread out your camp and try to avoid creating trails.
Last summer, I started a hike at 4 a.m. in Yosemite National Park. I watched the sun rise over the granite walls as I ascended a trail above the valley floor. I reached a lookout and enjoyed the solitude and beauty. A ranger came down the trail and we had a conversation about the park. She asked if I had seen any campers, and I responded that I had. I pointed to the area on a map where I’d seen a pitched tent and asked why it was a problem. She said, “We ask campers to stay out of the view of the trail. It gives the other visitors a better experience.” This story might relate more to the previous principle, but the moral is that nobody wants to be woken up by a ranger, so be thoughtful about where you pitch your tent.
It’s exciting to see wildlife while adventuring outside, but it’s best to keep a distance from the animals. Don’t follow or approach them. Feeding wild animals can damage their health, change their behavior, and expose them to predators. Keep wildlife out of your personal rations by properly storing food and trash.
Yellowstone National Park officials posted a video to their site last year. In the video, taken be a park visitor, some parents allow their children to get dangerously close to a bison. The bison suddenly turns and runs toward the children. The children scatter and the bison singles one out to follow. The child runs around a small tree as the bison pursues. The bison gives up the chase and the child runs back to his father, who is laughing excitedly at the sight. Yellowstone officials use this video (as well as many others) to teach about the dangers of approaching wildlife.
At the end of the day, most people follow these principles and leave nature clean and unspoiled, and I’m grateful for the people who practice low-impact camping and outdoor I’m even more grateful for the ones who clean up more than their share and help educate others about low-impact ethics. Keep it up, and future generations will be able to enjoy all of the nature we have.
To learn more and get involved with the Leave No Trace program, visit lnt.org.