Minimal Impact Camping

Your Footprint

The term ‘footprint’ is a multi-scaled concept with many applications.  In regard to camping, it refers to the area that you, your rig, and any other gear you deploy at a campspot occupy.  Minimizing your footprint will ultimately reduce your impact to surrounding vegetation and wildlife.   Here are a few general concepts for being a responsible camper, land user, and minimizing your footprint.

Find an appropriate camp site.  We’ve listed a good intro as to where its appropriate (legal) to camp on  public lands in MtB Nomads article (Where to park your mountain condo).    Here are a few things you should consider when looking for a camp spot.

    • Choose your campsite at least 100m from rivers or lakes
    • Stay at an existing campsite if you can. If there is no existing option, find an open space where you don’t have to clear vegetation
    • Stick to the site’s existing access and area of disturbance
      • If a camp site or access is inadequate for your rig, setup, or group, move on and find a site that better meets your needs.
      • Expanding your camp beyond the existing footprint to seek out a more level option, shade, or turf will lead to an endless expansion of camp sites and access routes. These are red flags for land managers and plenty good fodder for closing down a camp spot or area due to irresponsible resource damage.

Trees – Damaging trees by throw axes, shooting, debarking, or delimbing the trees weakens the tree and can lead to their demise.  This is particularly important for trees adjacent to or within your camp spot.  Weakened trees become highly susceptible to the effects of drought and disease.  Dead trees in or adjacent to a camp site can pose a significant safety hazard (think falling trees or limbs during a wind storm).  And, dead or dying trees cast no shade.

Campfire – who doesn’t like an evening sesh with the wilderness TV??!!  Campfires are a great way to extend your time outside in cooler temps or after dark and are a pretty good catalyst for social gathering.  However, fire rings can be one of the biggest messes in a camp site.  Here are a few ways to reduce the mess.

    • Use existing fire rings.
    • If there is no fire ring, build it out of the way of the rest of the camp footprint and away from vegetation (both on the ground and overhead) that may catch fire during use.
    • Keep your campfire ring and burn as small as possible, it will remain and become the next person’s mess to deal with.
    • Do not burn stuff that is not completely consumed by the fire. This includes metals, glass, tinfoil, or wood with hardware, etc.
    • Fires permanently scar soil and vegetation, ideally, you should have a self-contained fire pan or propane fueled fire pit to prevent this. Alternatives to this would include packing out charcoal, ash, and burned materials from environmentally sensitive camp zones or removing and burying the stuff away from camp.
    • ALWAYS – ensure that your fire is OUT before cutting out for the night and NEVER leave a campsite with warm coals. Leave your fire pit cold as a corpse.
    • Keep a jug of water and shovel handy to get after any fire escapes or to help put out the fire at the end of the night.

Last, and most importantly, fire is amazing but can be incredibly destructive. Every year, vast tracts of land and in some cases 1000’s of homes are burned in fires that are human caused.  Agencies often implement a number of fire management measures dependent on the severity of risk for damaging wildfire.  These generally include seasonal fire closures (no open flame allowed), mandatory use of fire pans, etc..   Know what the fire danger and restrictions are for the area that you’re camping in and traveling through.

Wood gathering – while its easy to harvest all of the reachable tree limbs in or close to your campsite, leave them be, for the reasons mentioned above.  Here is a better and less impactive way to fuel the fire.

    • Its good practice to leave standing dead trees (called ‘snags’ alone. Forest critters often use for perching and nest building.
    • The best source of firewood can be found by hacking away on ‘dead and down’ as it’ll likely be drier and easier to cut up and carry.
    • If you bring wood, ensure it does not have hardware (nails, brackets, staples, etc) that won’t burn and will remain on site. Hardware is extremely difficult to remove from a campsite.  Leave the friggin’ pallets, furniture, and cabinetry at home, please.

Sh!t Happens – It’s a dream crusher (and disgusting) to pull up to an ultra-sweet camp spot only to peek off into the woods or down the hillslope to find a TP Garden in full bloom.   In the last few years, many federal agencies started implementing a requirement for campers to have along and use portable toilets in areas of high use (example -some areas near Moab, UT).  As it turns out, many heavily used areas were turning into desert cat boxes.  Seems like a good idea to have some kind of toilet along, as camping among the TP flowers and stanky mounds is not the experience many are searching for.  The best and least impactive option is a toilet, packing out waste, and disposing of properly.

If you are far in the backcountry, maybe grab the shovel and dig out a cat-hole.  Just make sure it is not in an active drainage or gully and at least 100m from your (or any other…) campsite and any water source (lake, stream, wetland, etc).

Trash  – Think ahead and minimize the amount of glass and other waste generating packaging that you bring along and have to deal with.  Whether are camping with your mom or not, being self-sufficient includes picking up after yourself packing out what you pack in.  And, while you’re at it, leave your camp spot cleaner than you found it.  You’ll be doing the vanlife and local communities a solid.

As with seeking adventure, and life in general, its good to be prepared.  Be adequately prepared for your location, weather, and planned duration of stay or travel.  A bit of learning and development of good minimal impact camping and travel practices will ensure that the nomadic lifestyle is not discouraged, more heavily regulated, or made illegal in the places we love to travel to and through.

For more reading on Leave No Trace, minimal impact camping, and overlanding, check out these additional resources:

Happy Travels.