How To

    What You Can Do to Be an Ethical and Responsible Camper

    Outdoor recreation is an ever-increasing hobby for more Americans each year. In the United States, national and state parks get a combined visitor rate of more than one billion people annually. That’s a lot of people for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics to educate how to curb their impact on wildlife.

    Ben Lawhon, Education Director for Leave No Trace (LNT), says that’s the goal of the organization.

    “Much of the impact we’ve seen on the landscape are not malicious acts,” Lawhon says. “It’s people who are ignorant about the proper practices. They just don’t know that if they leave food or trash out, it’s going to attract wildlife to their campsite. They don’t know that urinating too close to a water source is not a good thing. They don’t know that camping on fragile vegetation could potentially kill that vegetation in one night.”

    Lawhon outlined just a few of the common mistakes campers make and how they can consciously become more ethical outdoorsmen and women:

    • Preparation and Planning Ahead. Planning ahead aids the environment and you as a camper. If you prepare, you will have all the necessary camping equipment for your unique situation. For example, not every campsite offers a toilet and you will need to prepare how you will dispose of your waste so that the environment and you remain clean. To properly plan ahead, Lawhon advises to “get on the internet, look at where you want to go. Are you going to a state park, national park, national forest land, other land? What are the regulations? What are the amenities provided? Do they have sinks? Do they have water available on site, do you need to bring your own water? Are there any wildlife considerations? Are there bears in the area? What are the food storage techniques they recommend?” While this might take the sense of discovery out of the equation, Lawhon says you can plan ahead and still retain that exploratory feeling upon your arrival.
    • Properly Plan Your Meals. Minimize your left-overs and trash by properly planning meals. If you do have left-overs, plan how you will properly store them, whether they need refrigeration and how you will dispose of any trash.
    • Protect the Water Sources. Improperly disposing of waste and cleaning supplies can negatively affect the water source near your campsite. “You will see people who wash their dishes in a lake or stream and not realize that the pasta water or eggs they just cooked would have never been in the lake or stream had you not put it there,” Lawhon says. LNT recommends that you collect water from whatever available water source, whether that be a faucet or creek, and wash those dishes 200 feet away from the water source. First, scrape the dishes clean so that you’re only dealing with residuals. Use as little soap as necessary and strain soapy water through a mesh kitchen strainer and throw the strained food particles in the trash. Then scatter the dishwater 200 feet from any water source, your campsite or trails.
    • Practice Proper Campfire Usage. Leave No Trace is not anti-fire, but rather pro-responsible fire. Prevent forest fires and nutritional depletion of resources by asking yourself “is fire really necessary?” Consider the environmental conditions. “Is it windy, is it dry, is there a high fire danger? If there is, maybe it’s not the best time to have a campfire,” advises Lawhon. “Are you going to ‘mine’ an area of all its wood and thereby leave nothing for the nutrient cycle? If it’s safe, if it’s responsible, if it’s legal, and you have the skills necessary and there’s lots of wood, we encourage people to use an existing fire ring rather than create a new one.” Try not to use wood that’s larger than your wrist, and burn your fire down to ash. Leave a clean fire ring to entice other people to use the fire ring.
      Never burn your trash. “A lot of people think it’s okay just to burn your trash and there are a couple of reasons against that – it takes a very hot fire to adequately burn trash to the point where it is unattractive for wildlife. Partially burned paper plates after dinner encourage wildlife to go straight to the fire ring in the middle of the night. You’ll teach animals to look at fire rings as a potential food source.”
    • Choose Your Recreational Site Wisely. “If people don’t have a sense of the basic ecosystem in which they’re relaxing, they might put a tent on a bunch of broad-leafed plants, or even flowers or moss, or any other species susceptible to trampling impacts. Imagine you put your tent pads down, sleeping bags and you sleep on that; you could easily crush those plants in one night. Research has shown that significant impact can occur to an area in just 15 nights of use. And what happens after 15 nights of use is the impact levels off to a point where it can take decades to recover.” Consider two areas of land, one is bare ground the other is a nice soft field of flowers. “The bare ground is the obvious choice to put your tent because you’ve got a previously impacted site. Your presence there, your tent, your feet scuffling in and out of the tent all night, won’t cause any additional impact to that bare ground like it will lush vegetation.”

    The accumulative efforts of educated campers is the biggest gain in terms of protecting the recreation resources we all share for future generations. LNT would like to see all the people who spend time outdoors practicing LNT’s principle guidelines, even if it’s a small effort. LNT is not rules or mandates, but a framework for making good decisions about how to enjoy the outdoors responsibly.

    This year, Leave No Trace focused on three key areas that it continues to move forward with.

    1. PEAK – Promoting Environmental Awareness in Kids. It’s an outreach program to youth. About 130,000 youth go through PEAK per year. LNT is trying to double that number.
    2. LNT has an enhanced awareness program for front country usage. Front country is any area of nature easily accessible by car. It is typically used by day users. About 90 percent of all recreation in United States takes place in the front country.
    3. Their last main key area is increasing the education at the local level. While their teachings focus on the wilderness, they can be applied at the micro-level in local parks.

    About Leave No Trace

    The Leave No Trace organization was founded as a non-profit in 1994. It spawned from the efforts of the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service to manage the human impact on wildlife after the passing of the 1964 Wilderness Act. Their educational efforts reach about 10 million people annually in all 50 states and they also have members active in New Zealand, Australia and Canada.

    Find more information about Leave No Trace and its programs at

    Photo: (Guitar Lake) Steve Dunleavy

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