Family Camping - Learn to Leave No Trace

By Marlin Stum

Memorial Day weekend traditionally marks the beginning of the summer outdoor recreation season when people pack up their camping gear and get away from it all. But for the indigenous plants and wildlife of the countryside, there is no escape from litter and campfires, the noise and pollution of gasoline powered vehicles, and the trampling of fragile soils and plants by millions of human feet.

Unfortunately, the answer to how we can minimize our camping impacts on the earth sometimes comes in the form of forced land-use restrictions. Well-meaning stewards of recreational lands, like the U.S. Forest Service, would have a much easier job if they could effectively change not just the numbers of campers using a particular area, but the very attitudes of those users.

A good college friend, working on his outdoor recreation degree, once reminded me of the root meaning of our word for outdoor fun: "Recreation." Impacts would be sharply minimized if we could keep in mind the premise of leaving an area as we find it in order to help "re-create" a quality experience for the next person to come along.

Here are a few simple ideas to help you lessen your impact.

First, always follow the guidelines set forth by the appropriate land managers for the area you are visiting. Useful tips are available from federal officials, state parks rangers and public safety officers. Their rules governing group size, fires, mechanized vehicles, etc. are designed to protect the land and insure a quality experience for all.

Many of us dream of walking into an untrammeled meadow and pitching our tent where no one has been before. In reality, using an existing site for your tent or trailer is kinder to the soil and vegetation. When pitching a tent, pick a level, well-drained spot and use a waterproof ground cover to stay dry without the need to dig a drainage ditch. Make sure the ground cover is just slightly smaller than the tent and that the tent completely covers it or it will catch all the water running off the tent and funnel it directly under the tent.

Water sources are particularly hard hit by adverse human use. Be careful to pick a campsite at least 100 feet away from natural water sources, and construct your fires and cat-holes at least that far away.

Always dig a cat-hole when there are no established latrines in the area. Gently remove the surface duff and soil, then dig a hole about six inches into the dirt; put your human wastes and toilet paper in the hole, and if soil conditions are moist, burn your paper until the flame is out. Then replace the soil and surface duff.

Most people these days are environmentally aware enough to carry out their cans and bottles, but other seemingly harmless trash like orange peels, cigarette filters and fish entrails, also should be removed to an appropriate garbage disposal. Burying your trash is not good enough; it won't stay buried long and often it can be harmful to small animals. It's a satisfying feeling to organize an impromptu cleanup of your campground. All that is needed are a couple garbage bags, and this is a good activity for teaching children the value of keeping a clean camp.

People often camp out to enjoy the peace and quiet of the woods, streams and fields, so try to keep your rowdiness to a minimum. Racing around on any sort of motorized vehicle when others are camped nearby is unacceptable behavior.

Taking time to learn something of the plant and animal life in a particular area offers its own rewards. One way to better atune yourself to the natural world is to forgo building a fire for a night. While all of us love the warmth, light and companionship offered by a fire circle, the scorched surfaces and ashes that are left behind are unsightly and a further source of human pollution. Seeing a spectacular shooting star or hearing an owl in the woods behind your camp are unexpected pleasures almost surely missed by people laughing around a campfire.

REI carries many items to help you minimize your impact on the land, from small trowels to groundcloths to light footwear. Ask an REI salesperson for the free brochure, "Minimum-Impact Camping," and make the new wilderness ethic part of your outdoor ration routine.