13 Tips for Green Camping
Eco ideas for an Earth-friendly escape
Virginia native Chris Wilkes recalls his camping days as a teenager, when he and his friends enjoyed the great outdoors with the goal of protecting the wilderness at the same time. Now he spends a lot of time picking up trash at the public campground he manages while guiding visitors in safe, sustainable outdoor adventures.
“I spend $4,000 a year just cleaning up after people,” Wilkes says, adding that half aren’t even his customers. “I just don’t understand the guy floating down the river on an inner tube who chucks his beer cans in the water.”
The campsite Wilkes rents out is a primitive one intended to get people in touch with nature, and he advocates a “leave no trace” mentality when out in the woods. “The goal is to leave the forest the way you found it,” he says.
Carl Van Doren, a seasoned camper and supervisor at the Great Outdoor Provision Co. in Charlottesville, Virginia, agrees that “leaving no trace behind” is the essence of green camping. “That’s the ethic taught by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and it’s a good one. It’s really the key.”
Here are tips on green, sustainable camping, courtesy of Wilkes and Van Doren.
Bring reusable plates and utensils. Campers can dramatically reduce their waste by reusing utensils and hauling only the food they need, according to Wilkes. No need to spend a fortune on special camping plates and utensils. Heavy-duty picnic plates are washable and can be used again and again.
At his campsite, Wilkes added an incentive to clean up. “Last year we started asking for a $1,000 trash deposit on certain size groups. This year I doubled that deposit, and now people make sure they hang behind to clean up.”
Camp only in designated camping places or durable areas. This way you won't damage the environment to make room for a campsite. Existing campsites or level areas with gravel or dry grass reduce your footprint. Good campsites are not made, they are found.
Stay on the trail. By hiking in single file along the trail, your group can minimize damage to plants and natural areas.
Bring a compass and a map and know how to use them. This eliminates the need to mark trees with blazes.
Use a camp stove rather than a campfire to make hot meals , at least in the backcountry. Blackened rocks and mounds of charcoal are an eyesore, and open fires can be a fire hazard, especially when there's a drought. “I like campfires, but when I’m camping, it’s in the back country, the wilderness,” Van Doren says. “And I’m not going to leave any trace. I pack out everything. There’s no evidence a human being was ever there.”
If you do make a campfire, keep it small. Unattended campfires can quickly grow into a catastrophe. At minimum, a campfire leaves lasting evidence of its existence, so keep it small and manageable, Van Doren says. Many campsites have a designated area for the campfire, with a fire ring already in place. Use only wood you gather from the ground to make the fire.
Consider solar-powered lanterns for light. This low-impact equipment should pay for itself over time in flashlight battery savings. Plus, there’s less gear to haul and no batteries accidentally left in the woods.
Don’t leave any trash behind. As the rule goes, “Pack it in, pack it out.” This means trash, leftover food and any other supplies brought to camp. Dispose of human waste by digging a cathole at least six inches deep and 200 feet or more away from camp, water and trails. Cover it with dirt.
Wash dishes or yourself at least 200 feet from lakes, streams and rivers. Strict green campers avoid soap and shampoos, but if you have to take some, use just a small amount of biodegradable soap. Bring a small bucket for doing dishes. Pour the dirty water over a wide area, not directly on the ground in one spot.
Take no souvenirs (unless you want to take out someone else's trash). Don’t pull up plants, carve your initials in tree or rearrange the natural environment. The same applies to historic structures and artifacts.
Make way for wildlife. Never approach any wild animal you may encounter in the forest. Enjoy them from a safe distance. Offering food is dangerous both to the animal and yourself, Wilkes says. If you go camping with a pet, keep the animal under your control, Wilkes says. This means dogs should stay on a leash.
Avoid plastic water bottles . Load up on refillable water bottles and water purification pills. “I use water from the stream and a portable water filtration system,” says Wilkes. "These will filter out bacteria and any diseases that could knock you out on the trail. Also, water purification tablets will sterilize water for drinking in 35 minutes."
Be a good neighbor. Chances are, you won’t be alone in the woods or the campground, Wilkes says. Hold down the noise and try to set up camp away from other visitors. The goal is to commune with nature, not drown out the sounds of the wild.
“Some people don’t really know what they’re doing,” says Wilkes. “They don’t know how to handle themselves outdoors. I’ve heard people say straight up, ‘I’ve paid for this spot, I’ll do what I want.’ Well, no. That’s not good for anybody."
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