Reducing Your Campsite Footprint

By Suzanne Wiley

About 40 million Americans go camping every year. Since 2014, there has been a 60% increase in new campers. This new interest is perhaps because camping gives us a break from our all-encompassing digital world. For a few days or weeks, we’re able to unplug. Sure, you’ll have plenty of Instagram-worthy moments, but camping is about relaxing and reconnecting with nature providing us a great excuse to ignore the constant notifications from our Smartphones. You might not even have cell service or a reliable Wi-Fi connection at your campsite.

And there is nothing wrong with that…

As lovers of all things outdoors, we’d never discourage anyone from getting out and enjoying all the positive benefits that spending time outside affords us. However, there is a downside to more people hiking, backpacking and camping. More people venturing to the great outdoors creates a greater negative ecological impact. Damage caused by campers, backpackers and hikers pollutes our water, hurts wildlife, stunts and stops vegetation and plant growth, damages trees, increases erosion, reduces seed production and even kills plants and animals.

Abandoned campsite with left over trash and burned area
Don’t be these people.

There are 640 million federally-owned acres of land in the U.S.A., managed by four different groups—the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service and the National Park Service. Visitors, including hikers and campers, produce tens of thousands of pounds of trash a year. Some dispose of it properly. Some do not. The Grand Canyon alone spends $820,000 a year on the removal and maintenance of waste. Altogether, litter costs the United States $11.5 billion annually.

Combined, these agencies have an annual budget of $8.1 billion per fiscal year, which goes toward protection, preservation and conservation of federal lands and the wildlife that live there. Protecting our land is essential to our survival. It keeps our drinking water clean and safe, it helps provide food, prevents our cities and towns from devastating floods, and so many other important life-sustaining effects. But with constant threats from population growth, development and pollution, the BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service and National Park Service can’t depend on their federal budget alone. A lot of conservation depends on us—outdoor sportsmen and women who fish, hunt, hike and camp on public lands.

Of course, we can’t completely eliminate our impact when we participate in outdoor activities, but we can certainly minimize it by enjoying nature responsibly. You can reduce your ecological footprint by following the philosophies of the Leave No Trace Seven Principles and Tread Lightly.

The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace

  • Plan ahead and prepare
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  • Dispose of waste properly
  • Leave what you find
  • Minimize campfire impacts
  • Respect wildlife
  • Be considerate of other visitors

© 1999 by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics

The Tread Lightly Principles

  • Travel responsibly
  • Respect the rights of others
  • Educate yourself
  • Avoid sensitive areas
  • Do your part

How can you maximize these rules for low-impact camping? Let’s go through them in greater detail:

  1. Pre-Plan Your Trip

 Planning your camping trip involves knowing exactly where you are going and when, what type of camping you will be doing (disperse/primitive or car,) what the weather is going to be, if your gear is appropriate and preparing meals and packing.

A primitive campsite in the mountains with a tent pitched on the dirt.
Pitch your tent on a flat surface with no vegetation.
  • Only pack what you are going to use.
  • Reusable food containers help create less trash.
  • Make reservations if possible so you know what to expect at your campsite.
  • Check park restrictions and rules.
  • Stay abreast of local fire bans.
  • Research the area—how far away will you be from water, does the park have facilities?
  • Study maps and avoid sensitive areas such as meadows and wetlands.
  • Be prepared for emergencies and the unexpected—pack rain gear, a first aid kit and emergency survival supplies.

The best time to go camping or hiking is during the off-season or on weekdays when the park is least-populated.

  1. Establishing a Campsite and Pitching a Tent

Finding an appropriate and low-impact campsite when walk-in or primitive camping might be challenging. If car camping at a national park, you most likely will be assigned an established campsite. Established campsites usually have fire rings, tent pads, a picnic table and some even have running water. Disperse or primitive camping, like hikers do, will not have any facilities or amenities. Along the trail, you will find campsites that were previously used. Set up camp on these places first before establishing a new site. If it looks like it has been recently used, move on to the next one. It takes just a few days of camping in one spot to see the impact and much longer for an area to recover after trampling.

Set up camp at least 200 feet from the trail and any body of water. This will help prevent contamination from gray water (water mixed with soap) and human or pet waste.

If hiking in a group, walk single file and if walking off the trail is necessary, spread out and don’t follow each other’s footsteps.

Where to Pitch Your Tent

Man in a hiking hammock suspended in the trees in the woods
Sleeping in a hammock is better for the environment than pitching a tent.

Pitch your tent on dry, flat, firm and durable ground with no vegetation. Do not disturb plants with your guylines and tent stakes.

You can avoid the footprint of a tent altogether by sleeping in a hammock. Not only does it do less damage, it is good for you. To avoid tree damage, hang your hammock using least one-inch webbing straps and don’t hang them from dead trees.

  1. Pack in, Pack Out—Dealing with Trash and Waste

This is one of the most basic rules of camping—whatever you brought in with you, must be taken back out. Do not leave any trash behind, even if it is biodegradable.

In fact, leave your campsite cleaner than you found it. Pick up others’ trash even if it is in the firepit.

Food Waste

You might think food is okay to leave on the ground or in the fire, but it isn’t. Most of the food we take camping is considered a non-native species and could possibly result in serious ecological repercussions.

Consider all food as trash. Food scraps need to be put into the trash or baggies to throw away later. Don’t leave dropped food on the ground or in the fire pit—including orange and banana peels and watermelon seeds. Clean up after dinner, wipe down the camp stove and table to avoid attracting bugs and other animals.

If you are in bear country, hang food from trees or use a bearproof container to store food and trash. Alternatively, keep your food in the car. Bungee cord or tie-down the lids to your coolers. You’d be surprised how ingenious raccoons can be when curiosity gets the best of them.

Human Waste

It’s not pleasant, but when trekking in the backwoods, at some point you’ll have to deal with doing your business. For a latrine, dig a shallow hole about six inches deep. Pack all non-biodegradable tissue in baggies and throw them in the trash, do not bury or leave tissue behind. Once finished, fill the hole with dirt and then disguise it by covering it with rocks, branches and other foliage.

  1. Campfires

Campfires, though a huge part of camping, can be problematic. Some parks don’t allow fires at all. Always bring a gas camping stove. Camp stoves and portable grills are more a responsible way for you to cook meals than using a campfire.

Family sitting around a campfire and two green 12 Survivors tents pitched in the foreground
Keep campfires small and don’t use them for cooking.

If you want a campfire for warmth, comfort and S’mores when night falls, only make a fire in an established fire ring. If there isn’t one, pick a 10-foot diameter clear area free of overhang, plants and other flammable material. Use the mound method of fire building and keep it small. Restore the fire pit when you are done using it.

Do not ever chop down trees for firewood. If you are going to gather wood, pick only dead, downed and detached from a few different locations. Even small twigs aid in nature’s cycle of decomposition. Preferably, you should purchase pre-cut firewood locally. This is especially easy when car camping.

Never burn anything in the fire but wood.

After you are done with the fire, extinguish it completely using a mixture of water, dirt or sand. Disperse the ashes throughout the vegetation before leaving.

  1. Respect Wildlife

It is fun to observe wildlife, but you don’t want to do anything to bring them closer. This is dangerous. Do not feed the animals, touch them or invite them to your campsite. Use binoculars or night vision to view them.

Feeding wildlife makes them no longer afraid of humans, they can become aggressive and will stop foraging for themselves. Bears especially become habituated quickly if they gain access to human food. Usually, there is no other choice in these cases but to put the bear down.

  1. Leave What You Find

Camping meme: Picture of a raccoon with the words, "Family Camping Trip? I'll be there."
Don’t invite animals to your campsite by leaving food out.

You will see a lot of cool things on your hike—animals, plants, flowers, rock structures, caves, waterfalls, archeological sites, but look only, don’t touch. Even at established campsites, we must be conscientious of how we treat them. Don’t alter, extend or expand the campsite in any way. In fact, leave it better than you found it.

  1. Be Considerate of Others

One of the best things about nature is a sky full of stars, moonlight and peace and quiet. Night noises from crickets, frogs and cicadids are all the soundtrack lots of campers need; however, if you are going to rock out to your favorite tunes, be respectful and keep music appropriate and quiet, so it can only be heard at your campsite. Avoid using too bright lights around camp.

If you love the outdoors, you already more than likely are conscious of your impact. These steps will take your dedication to conservation to the next level and provide a positive influence on others.

How do you make sure you’re making as little impact as possible when camping or hiking? Leave your tips in the comment section.