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Practice Leave No Trace camping

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The amount of new environmental damage created while camping can be greatly reduced with a little knowledge and care. The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) developed the Leave No Trace (LNT) program to educate campers about the eco-effects of their outdoor pursuits. The following low-impact camping guidelines will help you plan your next vacation in the great outdoors with green principles in mind.

How to leave no trace while camping

Are you a backcountry-style camper who needs little in the way of creature comforts? A car-camper, always staying a short distance from your vehicle, yet relatively rustic in your preferences? Or a resort camper, requiring toilets, showers, and running water?[1] Regardless of your approach to camping you’ll want to literally tread lightly, keeping your human impact to a minimum to preserve wild areas for other creatures and future campers alike.

The basic Leave No Trace principles are summarized below; check the site for more detailed guidelines.

  1. Is that a raincloud I see?: Plan your trip in advance to avoid unnecessary environmental damage due to hurried preparation. Tired, rushed backpackers are more likely to set up camp on fragile vegetation, dig catholes too close to the water, or improperly anchor tents to living trees. By being totally prepared, you’ll get the most out of your trip, while exercising sensitivity toward the natural world.
    • Assess the weather forecast and surrounding terrain, as well as your food, clothing, and equipment needs.
    • Give yourself enough time to find a camping spot—choose a campground ahead of time, arrive early, and don’t be hasty.
    • Perhaps most importantly, get to know any special rules, permit requirements, and regulations for your chosen camping area, such as closures, stay limits, bans, fishing or hunting restrictions, and plant handling principles.
  2. Rock-solid surfaces: Be choosy when looking for a location to plunk down your pack or go out for a hike. You’ll want to choose durable surfaces for all of your activities, surfaces like rocks, sand, or gravel, ice and snow, and hardy, sparse, or dry vegetation. Staying on these less-vulnerable surfaces prevents erosion and long-term damage to sensitive wilderness areas and leaves it pristine for other adventurers and animals. Surfaces to carefully avoid include cryptobiotic crusts (black, irregular, raised crust on the sand in desert environments), wet meadows and fragile vegetation, and desert puddles and mud holes (water’s scarce in deserts—leave it undisturbed for the animals).
    • Resort- and car-camping outings generally take place in areas that already experience high levels of human traffic. A general rule of thumb in these high-use areas is to concentrate your activities where vegetation is already absent. Minimize resource damage by selecting designated or existing campsites, keeping your radius of activity small by arranging tents in close proximity.
    • Backcountry camping follows rules that are nearly opposite to that noted above. When camping in remote, less-traveled areas, you should spread out. Disperse your tents and cooking activities, placing them on durable surfaces whenever possible. In the most frequented parts of your campsite (kitchen areas, for instance) minimize your movement and wear soft shoes. Move camp frequently, even daily, to avoid creating permanent-looking campsites. When it’s time to break camp, do a little work to cover your tracks: brush out footprints, cover scuffed areas with littered leaves or needles, and rake matted grass.
    • Exploration—walking, hiking, or campfire dancing—should take place on existing trails or exposed rock. However, if you’re on the look-out for a private toilet spot walk on durable surfaces as noted above and avoid creating lasting paths by steering clear of repetitive trails and single-file movement.
    • Remote campsites should be located in spots that are at least 200 feet (or 70-80 adult steps) away from any water sources to avoid contaminating them.
  3. Pack in, pack out: That’s right, if you bring it in, you need to carry it back out with you. Modern garbage takes a long time to biodegrade in the wild (paper = two to four weeks; cigarette butt = two to five years; disposable diaper = 10-20 years; aluminum can = 200-400 years)[2] and can pose hazards to wildlife. Since leaving it in the pristine backcountry isn’t an option, you should be careful to come prepared to practice safe disposal methods, especially when it comes to human waste and wash-up water.
  4. Leave what you find: “Hands off” is a good policy to enforce while in the wild, since you should be leaving the area as you originally found it. What does this mean for you?
    • Don’t scrape away organic litter (leaves, pine needles, sticks, rocks) when setting up camp. This litter provides a cushion to the soil beneath, protecting it from over-compaction and reducing the erosive forces of rainfall.
    • Look, but don’t touch. There are many actions you should avoid when camping. For instance, don’t harm trees—generally you shouldn’t carve your initials or put nails in them, hack them with a saw or cut off their branches for firewood or bedding, or tie guy lines to them. Avoid picking plants and flowers, and be sure to leave natural objects such as animal skeletons and petrified wood where they are so that others can enjoy them.
    • Naturalize the site by putting things back the way you found them, especially if you’ve moved things unlawfully. Replace twigs or pine cones that you’ve moved, dismantle inappropriate user-built structures (like benches or multiple fire pits), and freshen-up the site so that it’s in good condition for the next visitors.
  5. Squelch the flames: Not surprisingly, campfires can cause serious, long-lasting damage to natural ecosystems, so careful campfire methods are imperative.
  6. This isn’t your home: Appreciate wildlife from a distance and give them space to live peacefully. Keep in mind while moving about in the wild that you’re intruding on the homes of many animals, birds, and insects.
    • Be sensitive to them by avoiding loud noises as they find audible disturbances stressful (exception: when encountering bears).
    • Keep your hands off of wildlife, since touching, feeding, or picking them up can negatively affect a creature’s ability to protect itself and may disrupt sensitive familial relationships.
    • Give animals lots of space to access local water sources, especially at night.
    • When in bear country, be sure to store food 100 feet from the tent and kitchen site, and hang it 10 feet off the ground and four feet away from tree trunks. This’ll make it inaccessible to hungry bears in search of a snack.
  7. Share the wild: Many of the principles above involve the final LNT guideline to be considerate of other visitors. Clean up after yourself, avoid loud noise and music, and preserve natural habitat to make it possible for those that follow to have a good outdoor experience. NOLS offers these additional low-impact camping suggestions.
    • Attempt to travel during low-traffic seasons to give yourself and others breathing space to truly enjoy the wild world.
    • Avoid bright colors for equipment and clothing as this detracts from the natural vista.
    • Leave gates as you find them.
    • Stay in control of your pets and equipment (like mountain bikes) to avoid injury to you and others, as well as to wildlife.

Find it! Leave No Trace guides

Wanna find out more about minimum impact camping guidelines and recommendations? Check out these expert guidebooks:

Practicing Leave No Trace camping methods helps you go green because…

  • Proper preparation prevents negative environmental impacts.
  • Disposing of garbage properly keeps wild spaces truly wild.
  • Being sensitive to the needs of wildlife protects their health and wellbeing.
  • Treading lightly protects soil, plants, and water for future generations.

Every year, over 270 million people visit national parks throughout the US.[3] Of that number, 73.3 million are hikers, 43.1 million are single-track mountain bikers, and 4.3 million are horseback riders.[4] America’s 25,000 campgrounds (commercial, public, and private combined),[5] are visited by over 45 million people every year.[6] As the most popular vacation activity in the US (more people camp than play basketball!), it’s no surprise that a full one-third of all US adults say they’ve been camping in the past five years.[7]

Many people enjoy the outdoors every year, and yet the average number of rural acres lost to city expansion is about 1 million annually.[8][9] The result is that many popular areas are increasingly overcrowded with evidence of people, horses, tents, and campfires. Consider the combined effects of millions of outdoor visitors. One poorly located campsite or campfire may have little significance, but thousands of such instances seriously degrade the outdoor experience for all.[10]

One person going off trail creates an opening that encourages others to follow. Venturing off the trail causes erosion[11] and threatens fragile plants, animals, and microorganisms.[12] Feeding and handling wildlife can make them unhealthy and expose them to predators, as well as encourage them to depend on humans for sustenance.[13] Human waste can pollute fresh water streams and lakes, spreading disease and harming native wildlife and other humans.[14] Most soap, including personal care and dish soaps, contain phosphates which cause the algae population to grow in waterways, turning the water green, denying it oxygen, and causing the death of other aquatic plants and fish.[15]

Those educated in the Leave No Trace principles tend to be more observant of eco-friendly camping practices, being careful to properly dispose of waste, stay on trails, and respect wildlife.[16]

Related health issues

Exposing children to activities in nature before the age of 11 is also strongly correlated to both stronger environmental attitudes and behaviors in adulthood, according to a recent Cornell University study.[17] Spending time outdoors has even been shown to reduce ADHD symptoms,[18] increase academic performance, and improve health.[19]

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