For Daniel Larkin, hiking along wooded trails, fishing in shallow streams, relaxing around a campfire and listening to the sounds of nature are part of the appeal of camping.
But Larkin, who visits state parks and national forests as often as he can, knows camping is about more than having fun. He believes that campers have a responsibility to minimize the environmental impact of their activities.
“It’s a matter of preservation,” explains Larkin, 32, a technical writer in Knoxville, Tennessee. “We are guests in these parks and it’s up to us to keep them pristine so that other people can enjoy them.”
The sheer number of campers—38 million Americans went camping in 2012, according to the Outdoor Foundation, a Washington DC group that promotes outdoor activity—means that the popular pastime has the potential to take a huge toll on the environment.
If you’re planning to pitch a tent outdoors this summer, here are some ways to reduce your environmental impact.
Camp Close to Home
Unless you camp in the backyard, driving to a site is inevitable. But driving a car filled with gear, hauling a travel trailer or getting behind the wheel of an RV is hard on the environment, especially considering the average camper travels 200 miles to a campsite, according to the Outdoor Foundation.
Choosing a campsite close to home helps minimize vehicle emissions and burns fewer fossil fuels. As a bonus, it lets you spend more time outdoors and less time cooped up in the car.
“It’s easy for someone to look online and see a million beautiful places to camp that are three states away without ever realizing what parks and shelters are in their immediate area,” says Larkin. “A little bit of research can save you hours of travel time and a tank of gas but it’s also a great way to discover parts of your area that you may not have known existed.”
Follow the Rules
Before driving to a reserved campsite or hiking into the wilderness to find a secluded spot, Sharon McCarthy goes online for a list of park rules.
“Different parks have different rules for minimal impact” camping, explains McCarthy, 56, a database administrator in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Depending on the park and season, campers might face specific rules about campsite selection, disposing of trash or building campfires. Check park websites or stop at the campground office
or ranger station for a list of current regulations.
At some state and national parks, permits are required for overnight visits. By signing the permits, campers agree to act responsibly in the wilderness. The fees charged for backcountry permits help fund protection and repair of the ecosystem.
“The rules are meant to protect campers, animals and the environment,” explains Kathy Kupper, a spokesperson for the National Park Service. “We have to balance the enjoyment of visitors with the need for preservation.”
Green Your Gear
From tents and sleeping bags to camping stoves and flashlights, there is no shortage of gear to tempt campers. Before spending big bucks on gear, remember that it takes a lot of resources to manufacture new equipment.
When Larkin started hiking into the backwoods overnight, he used a backpack that his parents bought at a garage sale in the 1970s. He’s since upgraded but still looks for opportunities to borrow or trade for needed gear.
In addition to “shopping” for equipment during an annual gear swap held by her hiking club, McCarthy looks for equipment that can do double duty. Her hiking poles double as tent poles, letting her carry less gear and minimize her environmental impact.
“I only replace gear when it wears out or breaks,” she says.
You can find used hiking gear at garage sales or on sites such as Craigslist.org. Several outdoor retailers rent equipment, a good option for equipment that might only get used a few times a year.
Pick the Right Campsite
Most campgrounds have designated campsites with spaces to pitch tents and build campfires. In the backwoods, it’s important to choose a campsite that has a minimal impact on the environment.
Michael Hodgson, author of Camping for Dummies (For Dummies) suggests looking for sites that are away from trails, streams and other bodies of water, and away from meadows and other places where there is a lot of flora and fauna. A gravel surface or area of packed dirt is a great place to set up a tent.
“Never ‘redecorate’ [a campsite] by moving or breaking tree branches, rocks, plants, shrubbery or any other natural materials,” Hodgson says. “Try to blend into the surroundings.”
Stay on the Trail
It might be tempting to venture off of marked trails to explore the backcountry—but it’s a bad idea. In addition to minimizing the likelihood that you’ll get lost in the woods, staying on marked trails helps protect against erosion while keeping native plants and wildlife safe.
“The trails were carved out to inspire people to get out into nature; the damage [from their construction] is already done,” Andrews says. “If you venture beyond the trails, you can have an impact on the natural order of things.”
Your dog should stay on the trail, too. Dogs are not wild animals; letting dogs run through the woods can disturb or endanger wildlife and wreak havoc on tender plants. Andrews suggests keeping dogs on a leash and carrying bags to pick up their waste.
When it comes to choosing camping gear, reusable dishes are worth the investment. Instead of tossing paper plates into the campfire or hauling trash bags out of the wilderness, lightweight plates, bowls and cookware can be washed and stashed in a backpack until your next meal.
Biodegradable soaps and toiletries are the most eco-friendly options for washing dishes and cleaning up sweaty campers. Unlike conventional products with ingredients that can end up in streams, leach into soil and be harmful to wildlife, biodegradables have minimal impact on the environment.
“A lot of mainstream soaps have [ingredients] in them that don’t belong in nature,” says Avital Andrews, lifestyle editor for Sierra magazine, published by the Sierra Club. “Biodegradable products keep the natural environment as pure as possible.”
Build a Safe Campfire
For some campers, sitting around the campfire is an essential part of the wilderness experience. Before gathering twigs and lighting a match, remember to use established fire pits and approved firewood (either wood purchased from the concession at the campground or dead limbs that have fallen on the ground).
Build your fire far from flammables, including trees, bushes and tents, and keep the fire contained. A small campfire is easier to control than a roaring bonfire.
Hodgson notes that you should never cut or break branches from trees and never leave a campfire unattended. It’s also essential to adhere to campfire bans to minimize the risk of starting a wildfire that causes irreparable damage in the park.
Don’t Leave a Trace
The age-old idea of taking nothing but photographs and leaving nothing but footprints applies to camping.
“We all need to do our part to be good stewards of the land,” says Kupper.
There is more to leaving no trace than using marked trails and designated campsites and picking up trash.
As a volunteer for the Girl Scouts, McCarthy teaches girls how to minimize their environmental impact on annual camping trips. In the woods, she has to remind the girls not to pick flowers, collect rocks or kill spiders.
“We have a generation of kids that isn’t used to spending a lot of time outside,” she says. “Part of teaching them to respect the outdoors is reminding them to leave things undisturbed so other people can enjoy nature, too.”
Depending on how far off-road you go, camping can be strenuous. And nothing can ruin a backwoods trip faster than the minor injuries that can befall the active camper—which makes carrying some basic first-aid supplies a must.
Start your kit with bandages, medical tape, a compression wrap and hydrogen peroxide in a leakproof bottle. Tea tree, in either oil or antiseptic cream form, can ease burns, irritations and sunburn. The essential oil ledum can soothe itching, while a paste of baking soda and water can help ease plant-based rashes.
To treat turned ankles, apply ice for 10 to 20 minutes every one to two hours, or soak in a cold stream. Topically applied herbs can help. Comfrey and plantain facilitate tissue repair, arnica helps break up tiny clots that form at an injury site and witch hazel promotes flexibility. White willow bark and peppermint help relieve pain; thyme and rosemary increase circulation.
Trash Free Parks
To keep the garbage from piling up at parks, the National Park System has removed trashcans from several parks around the country. As part of the Trash Free Park program, NPS started offering trash bags at designated access points so campers can pack out their waste.
“Instead of picking up garbage, we’re asking park users to pack out their trash and we’re utilizing the [financial] resources for trail repair or building shelters instead of hauling trash,” explains Kathy Kupper.
To date, about a half-dozen parks have implemented the program, including George Washington Memorial Parkway in Virginia and Fort Necessity National Battlefield in Pennsylvania. Additional national parks are expected to adopt the program; Kupper says several state park systems have also chosen to go trash-free. What’s more, she notes that even in parks that haven’t banished their trashcans “there’s a definite emphasis on reduce, reuse and recycle.”
In addition to freeing up resources to focus on park maintenance and ecosystem preservation, removing trashcans helps deter scavenging pests and encourages visitors to adopt more eco-friendly behaviors and take an active role in preserving national parks.
“National parks have been set aside as examples of the best [natural resources] we have,” says Kupper. “We want to encourage everyone to do their part to keep the parks pristine, and preserve and protect them for future generations.”