The population of the United States is growing dramatically, by about 1.6 million people per year.
At the same time, interest in getting outside is evolving beyond just Rainbow Gatherings and those who want to wear Spandex in the never-ending pursuit of an Avenger’s level physique. As we all, wonderfully, learn to reconnect with nature, it’s more important than ever–like Luke Skywalker defeating Vader important–that we take our responsibility to the places we call home under the stars for a night seriously.
If you’ve done any research on what it means to camp responsibly, you’ve no doubt heard of the Leave No Trace principles.
That’s a great start, and the way that the non-profit organization presents that information is done pretty well. We think we can make it even more clear (though at the same time, in no way trying to diminish the good work they’re doing.)
1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
It may seem like, especially if you grew up camping in the Eastern United States, that camping involves a drive into the woods, a tent and a desire to smell the pines. As the climate changes, the nation changes, and across the country we’re seeing major disasters and major accidents for individuals occur as more and more people convene with the natural world but do so unprepared.
Some things you may have not considered before starting your next camping trip?
- Having a campfire, especially while boondocking, is becoming less and less common in Western states. Wildfires are raging, and even when they aren’t, the potential to start one is great enough that you’ll find–if you check with the the US Forest Service and local ordinances–that fire bans are in place anyway. While a campfire certainly seems like the mainstay of any night spent in the woods, it’s simply just not possible everywhere. This means you should have a backup plan for cooking your food–a portable camp stove–and that you may want to think about the reality that gazing at the stars may have to serve as your night time entertainment when burning wood isn’t a possibility.
- There aren’t always places available. When you choose to camp in the forest, whether you do so in a designated campground or in dispersed camping areas–that is, where you’re more or less camping in the wild with no amenities at all, including a picnic table and any type of toilet–there may be no space to do so. Once upon a time, a drive up a forest road meant you’d find a spot to camp, but with the recent boom in folks looking to do exactly what you are, the number of places to set up a tent or park an RV are dwindling. You can’t just knock down trees, or even small plant life (including shrubs and grass) to make a new spot. There are only so many places to camp, and that’s that. If you want a better shot at finding a place to camp for the night, you might show up on a weekday instead of Friday & Saturday. You can also seek out places that are less popular. Finding a spot in the Sequoia National Forest, for example, is much more likely than scoring one in Yosemite proper.
- All of that said, you should also plan ahead and prepare for how you’ll take care of your trash and your shit (literally, your feces.) With the trash, it’s simple, take every last little thing you brought in with you back out. This includes bottle caps and cigarette butts, and all of those little plastic wrappers on candy bars and straws. Every single little thing, even what was there when you showed up.. When it comes to pooping, well, that’s about the same situation. Once upon a time, we could dig catholes–a hole 8 inches deep and 6 inches wide–and do our business there, then cover it back up. In most places you’ll easily find a wild camping spot these days though, just about every square inch of underground is now full of someone else’s excrement. And few of those people will have bothered to dig a sufficiently deep hole, if they dug one at all. Toilet paper litters the landscape, ruining classic campsites across the continent. A better practice is to do your business in a bag–this is where plastic grocery bags come in handy–and then pack it back out with you. Disgusting? A bummer? Sure, probably. But it’s now part of the camping experience.
If you can’t abide by those pieces of etiquette, you shouldn’t go camping. You wouldn’t walk into the middle of a baseball game and set your chair up on 2nd base. You wouldn’t go into a jewelry store and poop on the counter. You wouldn’t throw your cigarette butt on the floor of a bar. So please don’t do it in nature, either.
Gear Checklist for Responsible Camping
We believe every traveler should bring at least the following to make sure they “leave no trace.”
- Garbage bags. At least a couple of large ones per weekend, and plenty of little plastic grocery bags. This is where you can take those blights of the ocean and put them to use, by bagging up trash both yours and your predecessors. They’re also great for using as a toilet. We actually use this toilet camping seat, combined with plastic grocery bags, to make a miniature black tank system like you’d find in an RV. Twist it all up, stick it in one of those bigger garbage bags, and take it to the first dumpster or gas station garbage can you can find. Gross, maybe. Part of your responsibility, absolutely.
- A small shovel. If you aren’t going to bag your own shit out, you definitely have to dig a very real cathole. This is a literal hole in the ground 8″ deep and then 6″ wide in diameter. You have to get your business done down in the hole, and cover it as well. But please at least take your toilet paper with you. One reason catholes aren’t great, aside from the fact that nobody seems to understand how deep 8″ really is, is that animals can still smell and dig this literal shit up. Don’t leave toilet paper buried in the ground for them to pull out of the hole and scatter around before they lose interest in search of a 2 year old Snickers wrapper.
- Rubber gloves. Because, you’re not going to want to pick up other people’s trash with your bare hands when you don’t even have a place to really thoroughly wash your own hands with hot water and all. Bring some gloves to make the job less disgusting and increase your chances of actually doing this task that, no, should not be your responsibility, but if you love the places you camp, we all have to pitch in, even when that means some of us are just acting like everyone else’s mom.
- One of those garbage collecting sticks. If you really don’t want to pick up, say, a moldy banana peel or 2′ high pile of condoms. You can also whittle a stick you find in the woods if you have a handlebar mustache and appreciate a cappella bluegrass.
- Bear proof containers. This is one I doubt many — including myself — will do, but if you’re camping in brown bear country in particular, you really should get a bear proof container. They sell them on REI and a bunch of other places, but the concept is a jar or jug that will prevent the odors of your food and personal hygiene items from attracting bears. If you’re camping in the backcountry, some parks–including Yosemite, Grand Teton, Olympic and others–now require you to bring these along. If you’re just car camping, though, having a larger one that can accommodate your food and another that can keep the smell down to a minimum on your trash may prevent your car from being torn apart at best, and at the very least keep disgusting trash digging raccoons out of your campsite.
- Beer cans. If you’re planning on drinking, drink out of a can. As an avid owner of a beer belly myself, I can attest that cans not only make beer taste ridiculously more crisp and delicious, but they’re just easier to smash and carry back out with you. The more trash you have, the harder it is to store it somewhere secure (not just tossed up onto the roof of your van) and bottles take up a lot of room. Plus, when they shatter, nobody is interested in picking up all of those little pieces other than possum bellies.
- 5 gallons of water per night. If you’re planning on having a campfire that is. If campfires are allowed, you need to have a way to extinguish yours. The best course of action is to keep a fire small. Sitting close to a small fire provides all the ambience and warmth as sitting 5′ away from a larger fire. If you have a fire that is too large, or managed so that it isn’t nearly out when you want to go to sleep, you’ll need to thoroughly extinguish it with water. Maybe you can do this with a gallon, but if you aren’t positive that is the case, you should have ample water–aside from just that which you’re planning to drink–on hand to make sure it is flat cold, dead out. Even if you are good at putting a fire out, it never hurts to have extra water around in case something goes wrong.
Not planning accurately can result in you being majorly hurt. Didn’t realize it was going to be snowing and freezing cold at 9000′ when the town below was 80 degrees? You could die. Didn’t realize that hiking into the desert without enough water (most people don’t) might leave you lost and dangerously dehydrated? Didn’t realize that if a helicopter needs to fly in and save you and your broken leg that puts other people at risk and takes resources away from folks who might need more significant help? That may seem a bit over the top, but it’s also reality. No one can plan on being mortally wounded in the wilderness, but everyone can plan a little.
2. Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces
The gist of this rule is that if you’re leaving footprints, you may be okay. If you’re leaving giant tire ruts in untouched forests, you’re definitely not.
You may be familiar with the story from inspiration posters in your grandma’s house that read, “I dreamt I was walking with Jesus on the beach, seeing flashes of my life in the sky, leaving our two sets of footprints in the sand. When I looked back, it was during the hardest and lowest times of my life that I saw only one set of footprints. I asked the Lord why, at the hardest times of my life, did he leave me to walk alone. He told me that was when he got sick of all the trash I was leaving on the beach and flew back to God to drop a hurricane on our asses.”
The concept is “Leave No Trace.” If you leave footprints in the snow, that’s a trace that will disappear with a few days or weeks of time. If you’re stuck in the mud, tearing up vegetation and knocking limbs off of trees as you careen down some dirt road, you’re essentially trashing the place. I know, I know, why be so serious? Trees will grow back. Flowers show up every year! But if everyone takes a pine cone, if everyone builds a new spot, if everyone leaves one piece of candy wrapper corner behind, it all adds up to one times one million equals nothing left to lose. Millions of people are camping, which can easily equate to billions of pieces of trash, trashed acreage and an end to not only the natural experiences we love, but quite literally the end of our access to these areas.
The federal government has been closing access to camping areas and public lands like never before, and it’s almost always due to people abusing the land.
You can usually tell if a place is cool to camp by whether or not there’s an existing fire ring. If someone, at some point, built one in the past, it’s probably cool to camp there. If it looks like someone just created it–and you can tell by whether or not there is immediately trampled vegetation–then it’s probably a place to skip. At the same time, if you see a spot, park and walk into it and start leaving footprints just from your feet, it’s probably not a durable surface. Skip it and find somewhere that is.
You’ll know when you’ve found a spot when it meets these criteria:
- There is no vegetation on the ground, typically because plenty of other people have been there before.
- There is an existing fire ring in areas where fires aren’t prohibited year-round.
If you aren’t sure, it’s probably not a good spot. Move on and find a better one. The place you wanted to camp may seem perfect, but that’s what’s so great about it–it’s there for everyone to enjoy, not destroy.
3. Dispose of Waste Properly
While the Leave No Trace principles do state that in many cases it is appropriate to bury your shit, that is–frankly–bullshit.
If you are brave enough to hike into the wilderness, yes, this is appropriate. If you found a place to camp on some website and you can drive there, no, it’s not. That’s the bottom line. If you can drive to a campsite, you can put your poop in a bag and pack it out. Period. There’s no leeway here, because in just a decade of people camping in certain locations, they’ve been overwrought with toilet paper, too much crap in the ground and too often both just sitting around on the surface. If you can car camp (or RV, or tent, or motorcycle), then you can carry it back out.
Admittedly, I too once felt differently. And then everybody started camping. Please pack your poo out.
It seems harsh, but if you can’t, go to a campground with a toilet and all problems are solved.
4. Leave What You Find
So you collect a pinecone from every state, eh? Look how pretty those flowers are! Mom would love a bouquet.
While these concepts seem innocent enough, they’re actually not innocent at all. Taking things from nature is often illegal in some places, like national parks, and is just a bad habit anywhere else.
Consider this: You visit the vast boondocking available outside of Crested Butte, Colorado in the spring. There are a hundred thousand flowers in bloom. But thousands of people camp there every spring. One hundred thousand divided by one thousand is one hundred. If everyone picked even 10, divided by you and carry the one, that would destroy the ecology before April showers could even think about May flowers (well, April is still full on snow season in Crested Butte, but you get the math.)
The insects and birds that rely on those flowers would find themselves searching for sustenance like humans looking for toilet paper in April of 2020. The creatures that depend on those birds and insects would also die, the forest would die, and nobody would return to Crested Butte, leaving the residents unemployed. With all the residents unemployed, Big Pharma will seize the opportunity to pump an unrealistic amount of opioids into town, and little Jenny will become a smack whore instead of a snobby rich girl from a mountain town.
It sounds like a far off reality, but again: we as Americans are camping in record numbers, but the country’s wilderness isn’t expanding, quite the opposite.
Don’t take a single pinecone. Don’t pick flowers. Don’t take rocks and seashells. Enjoy them while you can see them, and leave with a thousand photos on that smartphone, so you can see them forever and so can the next guy.
5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
Having a fire is to camping as Starbucks is to many a soccer mom’s coffee. That is, it seems integral, but doesn’t have to be.
Every camper’s attitude toward a campfire should be one of extreme caution, if not fear. At the paramount of your concerns should be, “Am I absolutely sure that campfires are permitted here?” They’re often not, and just because a particular place doesn’t have a sign stating that a fire ban exists, that doesn’t mean that one doesn’t.
This goes back to planning and preparing. Call the local county or forest service district to see what the current fire conditions are, even if you saw a sign miles back down the road.
If fires are allowed, don’t have your first camping trip be your first experience with starting one. You should have ample experience making a fire in your own back yard, and more importantly putting fires out.
You should plan to bring at least a 5 gallon jug of water per night in areas where forest fires are prone. This gives you plenty to work with in an emergency, and if your fire has been going for hours it can be very tough to put it completely out with any less water.
A seemingly extinguished fire can spark up again hours or even days later. Dry conditions can exacerbate this scenario. If you’ve come to the woods with little water, you probably can’t have a campfire. Or, you need to sit up with it all night until it’s significantly dead, and then put it out with the water you do have. Planning on getting drunk and leaving a fire? Terrible idea.
If you aren’t 100% positive that you can safely create, maintain and extinguish a fire, you should look at the stars instead.
6. Respect Wildlife
Feeding squirrels is for weird old ladies who live in condos in Florida.
Don’t do it.
It’s like giving a baby a bottle for a day and then leaving it in a hotel room alone for the rest of its life. If animals are taught to rely on humans for food, how are they supposed to know how to forage for berries and all of that animal shit they do?
Even worse, when it comes to more dangerous animals, it can mean their death. “A fed bear is a dead bear,” they say. While most of us wouldn’t actually try and feed a bear, leaving your food outside, or having excessive smells in your tent or car, is essentially the same thing. They look for food, they smell it in your tent or crappy Walmart cooler while you’re out for the day, and suddenly they’re assuming that they’re “foraging.”
But it’s not just bears and coyotes that we have to worry about. The day you end up with raccoons circling your campsite at night, their yellow eyes glistening in your headlamp, the possibility of rabies quite real, you’ll wish you hadn’t been so glib with the locals.
7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Ah, what a rule. Does it help nature? I don’t know. But does it help us all appreciate the experience and maybe make following the rest of the rules easier?
In general, if you can see someone clearly from your campsite, you’re too close. If you want to have a neighbor who can reach out and spit on you, then go to an RV park or a designated campground. The safety in numbers thing, the neighbor to chat with, that can all be found there. In the wild, though, most people are looking for solace and escape. Don’t try and crowd in on their space because it’s the best. If they were there first, try again next week and earlier in the week.
Too many people in one spot can also negatively affect wildlife, campsite durability and create more trash that people will overlook.
So spread out, for god’s sake.