The camper’s guide to leaving no trace

By Meg McIntire

The pandemic has required those of us with wanderlust to reevaluate the way we think about travelling and how to satisfy the desire for adventure.

With destinations like concerts and sporting events postponed, and international travel closed off, many families, mine included, have gone back to basics and turned to the great outdoors. Many camping destinations have experienced their busiest seasons. From Jan. 1 through Aug. 31, the Lewis and Clark Recreation Area near Yankton, South Dakota recorded a record 883,144 visitors, an increase of 59 percent from the same period in 2019, according to USA Today. For the same period, the park’s camping unit numbers (one night’s stay in a camper, tent, or camping cabin) jumped 12 percent from 2019, reaching a record 39,384 stays.

Admittedly, I have not always been a fan of “roughing it” in the woods. As a child, my mother decided one summer to fully immerse herself in camping culture, so my siblings and I became reluctant (and probably very unhelpful) participants in her well-intentioned experiment.

Most of my memories from this time consist of rain-drenched tents collapsing, horsefly swarms, capsized canoes, and me insisting on sleeping in the car one night, only to immediately regret it when I realized the full moon made it disturbingly easy to view from the car’s windows the silhouettes of wildlife prowling in the forest.

However, as an adult, I have found a new appreciation for camping, particularly in the last two years, and so has my mother, who now owns a pop-up Aliner camper, which means she never has to set up a tent again. As I write this, we are planning a camping trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains.

I am looking forward to the rewards that an escape to the natural world brings, especially during such challenging times. One of the most powerful things about camping is that it forces you to slow down and really appreciate the small things—like the simple act of making a cup of coffee over a fire or observing the antics of a curious squirrel near your tent.

While some people like me might be reigniting a love of camping, many are experiencing the wonders of the outdoors for the first time.

One-fourth of North American campers indicated that their first camping experience occurred since the start of the pandemic, according to the “Growth of Camping Amid COVID-19: A Fall 2020 Update” report by Kampgrounds of America. The report also revealed that 42 percent of campers say that they will continue to take camping trips throughout 2021.

I am thrilled to see so many people appreciating nature. However, since Friends of Animals places wildlife and critical habitat protection at the core of our advocacy, I know how important it is to make sure an increase in camping does not have a negative impact on ecosystems.

Unfortunately, some states have reported an increase in trash left in and around campsites. This is unacceptable. We all must camp as respectfully as we possibly can. So, I have put together some tips for creating an enjoyable camping experience that leaves no trace. Happy trails!

DON’T BE TRASHY

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to pick up all trash around your campsite before leaving. Bring at least two reusable trash bags, one for trash and one for recycling, and consider bringing another for compost. If your campground or trailhead does not have compost or recycling, take waste home. For human waste, in a developed site, toilets are usually available, but in some remote spots, that’s not the case. So put together a kit that includes a trowel, toilet paper, wipes, hand sanitizer, and small plastic bags. Using your trowel, create a small hole that’s six to eight inches deep and 200 feet from water and trails, deposit waste in the hole, and then cover it up. Rather than burn your toilet paper, place it in a plastic bag designated for soiled paper and take it with you when you leave.

BE AWARE AND RESPECTFUL OF WILDLIFE

Read up on the wildlife species living where you will be camping so you know what to do if you encounter a venomous snake, bear, mountain lion, or even an alligator, depending on where you are. You are entering the home of the local wildlife, so you need to modify your behavior appropriately.

LOOK LOCAL

The perfect destination does not have to be a headliner national park like Yellowstone or Yosemite. During the last year, I have limited my trips to places that are only a few hours from my home in Raleigh, North Carolina, which has fostered a new appreciation for what I have right in my backyard. Consider using a site like HipCamp.com to find unique and often overlooked camping opportunities near you.

AVOID CONTAMINATING WATER SOURCES

Things like soap, sunscreen and bug spray can have a negative impact on the environment. Rub-in mineral-based sunscreens with active ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium oxide, both of which are biodegradable, are best. (Avoid ones that contain oxybenzone.) Always make sure you are 200 feet away from any water source when you are using soap or toothpaste. Natural insect repellents that include essential oils such as Citronella, as well as lemon, eucalyptus, peppermint, and lemongrass essential oils, are all effective at keeping bugs away.

BE MINDFUL OF YOUR EQUIPMENT

You only need a few, high-quality supplies to have a good time. And it’s easy to find equipment that is long-lasting and eco-friendly. For example, many sleeping bags use feathers for insulation; leave the geese in their habitats and opt for a vegan, cruelty-free sleeping bag that uses synthetic insulation, like the North Face Eco Trail Synthetic 20 Sleeping Bag, which is made from 100 percent recycled materials.

USE, RENT, REPAIR

If you are just getting started with camping and are unsure if you are going to stick with it long-term, consider buying used gear or renting your gear before purchasing a new item. I recommend checking out ArriveOutdoors.com, which is a service that delivers equipment directly to your door and makes it very easy to send it back after your trip.

Digital Content Director Meg McIntire joined Friends of Animals in 2013. Meg is the creative force behind FoA’s and Primarily Primates’ social media and websites. Meg is a news junkie and loves writing about politics, tech trends, rescue stories and pet parenthood. She lives with her rescued cats, Cecilia and Stevie, and rescue dog Harvey.