Sustainable Camping 101: 8 Ways to Be a Responsible Camper

A group of people camping

TripSavvy / Ivey Redding

More than 91 million households in North America went camping in 2019, and with the physical and mental benefits of getting outside becoming clearer each year, that number is expected to grow. As many travelers opt for more domestic vacations that highlight the environment, it pays to keep sustainable camping guidelines in mind while planning a trip into the great outdoors (after all, we want to keep these natural places protected for future generations to enjoy).

It doesn't take much to do your part; an extra 10 minutes spent picking up after yourself before hitting the road, for example, can have a huge impact. Being a responsible camper is about more than just respecting your neighbors and observing the boundaries set by campsites; it’s about having the lowest impact possible on the surrounding environment while taking the time to appreciate everything the natural world has to offer.

Leave No Trace

Let’s start with what is arguably the cardinal rule of sustainable camping etiquette: Always leave your campsite the same (or better!) than you found it. This is where the adage “take only pictures, leave only footprints” comes in by leaving natural items where you found them, avoiding the introduction of invasive species, and overall, just prioritizing nature.

Most “leave no trace” principles will go hand in hand with your best judgment, focusing on reducing our impact on the natural environment. Still, others might not be so obvious (for example, something as simple as a banana peel can take years to decompose, resulting in non-native plant growth or even harming wildlife). You’re a guest in your campsite, sharing it not only with other flora and fauna but also with your fellow campers. Think of what condition you would want to find your campsite when you arrive, and start there. Following the same rules for hiking and other outdoor recreational activities is one of the best ways to show your respect for a natural destination.

Pay Attention to Location

Taking your campsite off the beaten path may sound adventurous, but there are a few reasons why it could be causing more environmental harm than you’d expect. National parks, state parks, and protected areas choose designated campgrounds for a reason, usually based on safety and environmental durability factors. If a destination allows wilderness camping or “backcountry” camping, there may be permits or regulations required, as well.

On the same page, choosing a camping spot close to home may reduce your carbon footprint as it saves resources and fossil fuels. Plus, you may even discover some new opportunities in your home state that you didn’t know about before.

Choose Reusable

Yes, tossing a paper plate or plastic cup into a plastic garbage bag has become somewhat synonymous with camping, but it doesn’t have to be that way. 

Ditch those plastic water bottles and reach for a reusable one instead; there are even specially-made reusable camping bladders and water tanks that hold several liters of water at a time for longer trips. For your morning coffee or tea around the campfire, grab a reusable travel mug instead of a styrofoam cup. For sandwiches, snacks, or trail mix, pack a few reusable silicone bags, Tupperware, or reusable beeswax wraps instead of plastic bags. Even better, you’ll probably save some money in the long run.

Also, consider rechargeable batteries instead of single-use ones for your flashlights, lanterns, or headlamps. If you camp often, it may be worth it to invest in solar-powered products or a portable power station that can charge several items at once.

Keeping Waterways Clean

Biodegradable sunscreen isn’t just for keeping coral reefs safe; harmful sunscreen chemicals can negatively affect dry land as well. They can pollute bodies of water and may take many years to break down in the natural environment, so be mindful of what you put on your bodies before jumping into that lake. Aerosol sunscreen and bug sprays can also be problematic as they end up getting more product in the surrounding environment than on your skin. Bringing biodegradable and natural sunscreen, soap, and toothpaste can avoid all this, and there are even some pretty powerful natural bug repellents out there. We love zero-waste and biodegradable products from Lush and Bite Toothpaste Bits, which were also two of the winners from our Sustainable Travel Awards collaboration with Treehugger. As a rule of thumb, always stay at least 200 feet away from any water source while using soap or toothpaste.

Respect the Wildlife

Especially if you’re camping in a popular area with plenty of people around, it’s easy to forget that you’re actually sharing space with wild animal habitats. Animals that get too used to humans can get reliant, which disrupts the natural balance of things within their ecosystems. Sometimes, too much interaction with people can make animals more aggressive or lead to more human-wildlife conflicts. Try to keep all of your food out of reach from wildlife, and most importantly, remember to never, ever feed wild animals. 

Be sure to check out the bear situation at your campsite, both for your protection and theirs. If a site recommends using a bear-proof cooler or sticking your food in a bear-resistant box or locker for your food storage, heed their warnings.

Practice Fire Safety

While this is especially relevant on the west coast of the United States, where wildfire season is most threatening, fire safety should always be a top priority while camping. Research any fire restrictions or fire bans in the area before you go (info is typically available at the local ranger station or your state websites), and only build fires in designated fire pits or rings. In areas known for having greater fire danger, it pays to have a shovel or a bucket of water handy to take care of any runaway flames.

Firewood should come from local sources, ideally no further than 50 miles from the campsite; this ensures that no invasive species or diseases are hitching a ride on the wood. In most places, purchasing firewood from the campground camp store or the nearest possible location is best. To extinguish your campfire properly, dump water on the fire, stir the ashes with a shovel, and then dump even more water. A good rule is to wait at least 45 minutes after extinguishing, ensuring that the campfire is completely cold before leaving it unattended.

Bring Used or Rented Gear

Not a regular camper? Rather than spending money on new equipment that you’ll only use a handful of times, see if your campground offers gear (such as tents) for rent. If that’s not possible, see if you can borrow gear from a buddy instead.

You can always buy second-hand or used, but make sure that it is in good enough shape to ensure comfort and safety. If a friend or family member already has an old tent or camping chair they’re willing to let go of, see if you can get away with repairing it instead of shelling out for a brand new one. That way, it will keep unwanted things out of landfills while saving money at the same time. 

Aim For Zero Waste—or Dispose of Waste Properly

Going full zero-waste while camping is no easy feat, so there’s a good chance you’ll have racked up at least a small amount of trash by the end of your trip. Keep your waste separated into recycling, compost, and trash, and don’t be afraid to ask your campground hosts for the best way to dispose of each—they’ll be much happier taking the time to give directions than to be stuck picking up after you.

Individually pre-wrapped granola bars are convenient, but they are often costly and contribute to excess trash. A good way to aim for zero waste is by planning your meals ahead of time and bringing only what you need. Plus, that’s more time spent enjoying the outdoors and less time wondering where your next meal is coming from. Better yet, see what’s already in your pantry or fridge and bring small portions along in reusable containers instead, especially bulkier items like condiments, peanut butter, and coffee grounds.

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