“To experience sublime natural beauty is to confront the total inadequacy of language to describe what you see. Words cannot convey the scale of a view that is so stunning it is felt.” -Eleanor Catton
“Nature just is, and yet it always gives” -Natalia Beshqoy
Nothing dampens a camping trip like finding a natural space full of trash and damaged vegetation, except maybe being eaten by wildlife.
The good news is you can protect nature and avoid being eaten by learning about and practicing a set of behaviors designed to make outdoor excursions safe and sustainable. But
where to start?
The best place to begin learning eco-friendliness is Leave No Trace, which most of us have heard of, but which, according to the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics website, 9 out of 10 people lack enough information to effectively practice. This doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be allowed in nature, or that people aren’t a part of nature–just that most people can and should do better, and all it takes is a little information and a commitment to practicing
Leave No Trace is a set of principles that builds on the efforts and research of the U.S. Forest and National Park Services, and the Bureau of Land Management. These principles are designed to help everyone protect the environment so that nature can thrive for all to enjoy. Like any system, Leave No Trace isn’t perfect–we can’t leave absolutely no trace, but what we can do is use the guidelines and impact-focused judgment to make conscientious choices.
Plan Ahead and Prepare
Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
Dispose of Waste Properly
Leave What You Find
Minimize Fire Impacts
Be Considerate of Others
These principles and the science supporting them are explained on the LNT website, which has detailed articles on each, as well as an interactive map(!) and links to published research.
Here’s a short breakdown of each Leave No Trace principle with a few tips and questions you can ask to take your impact awareness to the next level:
Minimizing your impact begins before your trip starts, with deciding where you’re going, and how.
- Can you take a human-powered excursion? Reducing flying and driving by making bicycling, walking, and hiking a part of your itinerary where possible is a great way to reduce impact while extending the time you have outdoors.
- Can you split a large group into smaller groups?
- Is there an established campground where you’re going?
Try to avoid crowded areas. One easy way is avoiding popular sites during camping season (roughly May-September).
Many locations have specific regulations you won’t want to wait to find out about on a physical sign.
- Is it fire season? Are campfires permitted where you’re going?
- What’s the weather forecast? Do you have the right gear for those conditions?
State Parks and National Forests have websites you can look at to find local guidelines and other information to help you plan your trip. If you’re not sure where to look, you can call your State Parks Information Center.
Repackage food to consolidate and eliminate waste. A lot of foods come in plastic packaging that can easily fall out of pockets or end up in a burn pile. Damage can be prevented by packing food ahead of time in sealable, washable containers you can re-use to pack out waste at the end of your trip.
- Can you re-use any of your containers or reduce the amount of single-use plastics you’re packing out?
It’s hard for most things to stay alive if they’re being walked on frequently. Walking single file and sticking to maintained trails and designated trails whenever possible minimizes your impact.
- Is there an established trail or durable surface to walk on? If not, do you need to be walking here?
Rock, gravel, sand, dry grasses and snow count as durable surfaces, but watch your step! Sometimes rocks have vulnerable lichens growing on them, and sometimes snow covers uneven ground.
As much as a bummer as a bag full of garbage and human waste may seem, a campsite overrun with it is much worse. Pack out anything you pack in.
- Is there a bathroom or outhouse on the campground you can use instead of a cathole?
- Is there waste/litter you didn’t bring it that you could still take out? Every bit of stewardship helps.
If you have to go in a hole, make sure it’s at least 6 inches deep and more than 200 feet from water, camps, or trails, and be sure to cover it with dirt when finished. Pack out toilet paper and hygiene products, as even if they seem biodegradable, wildlife can be poisoned from eating these.
Rather than bringing disposable dishes, you can wash reusable ones with biodegradable soap. When doing this, make sure you stay 200 feet away from waterways and scatter the dishwater to avoid contamination.
Even small disturbances can cause ripples that have lasting effects. Leave objects and plants where you find them. Avoid introducing or transporting non-native species–these can be tracked in on your boots or dirty gear, or even inside firewood you brought from another region.
- Can you enjoy that flower from the trail with a picture rather than walking into the underbrush to touch it or pick it? Not only do local plants need to stick around so everyone can enjoy them, but they also provide essential nutrients to wildlife.
Many areas, such as those at high elevation, prohibit campfires because of wildfire risk. Where campfires are allowed, it’s still important to build them properly to avoid contributing to lasting impacts to the environment.
- Can you cook with a stove instead of a fire?
- Does the campground offer local wood for use?
When gathering wood to burn yourself, try to find small pieces that can be broken by hand rather than large logs. Look for pieces of down and dead wood no wider than your wrist.
- Is there an existing fire ring?
- Is the forest dense enough to replace the wood you plan to burn? From sierrawild.gov’s page on fires: “Though specific fire regulations vary drastically between areas, one
basic universal rule is that fires are not allowed above tree line (roughly 10,000 feet in the Sierra). In these alpine environments plants and animals need what few nutrients exist, and burning dead wood takes these nutrients out of the fragile ecosystem”
Burn your wood all the way down to ash, make sure the campfire is out completely and scatter ashes once cooled.
If you’re keeping your food in sealed containers and packing out waste, there shouldn’t be much risk of you being eaten by wildlife unless you’re the one doing the approaching.
Give animals space to live naturally. As much as it may be hard to see an animal that looks hungry, feeding wild animals puts them at greater risk by impacting their digestion and
habituating them to humans.
It’s similarly important to keep pets under control or leave them at home, and give animals extra space when they are mating, nesting, raising young, or surviving winter.
Most people don’t take outdoor excursions to hear other people’s favorite music playing from their car, or other groups’ loud conversations on the trail. Part of being environmentally friendly is being friendly toward others who are trying to enjoy nature.
- Are these people approaching on the trail going uphill or leading animals?
- Can your voice be heard by more than just the people you’re talking to? Our voices tend to carry outdoors, and it’s important to be aware of how loud we’re being.
Leave No Trace principles are a great guide for how to minimize your impact while you’re out on your adventure, but there are other ways to be more eco-friendly too!
Participating in conservation groups, buying used gear and clothing, and shopping for brands that use sustainable practices are all great ways to protect nature.
The LNT website has resources for getting involved in nature conservation.
Getting the right gear is a huge part of having a successful adventure, but the demand for new gear puts a strain on the environment through resource extraction, production energy
costs, and waste from the disposal of old gear. There’s a better way!
For your old gear that may not be up for another trip, there are ways to repurpose it. Share a photo of your busted gear with us and we will help you brainstorm ideas. Tag @rerouted.co on Instagram or Facebook with the #reroutedgear. Or check out our Second-Hand September article to learn more about the circular economy.
To connect with nature is something everyone deserves to experience regularly, an ancient and essential practice that affirms our context in a living world, both as recipients of nature’s gifts, and as the stewards of our environment. In other words, nature is nice, and it is important, and we should take care of it.