7 Ways to Make Your Campsite Greener

Leave only footprints, take only pictures ... and have a good time.

Photo Credit: Max Topchii / Shutterstock

While many of us enjoy getting back to nature through camping, it's fair to say some of us throw our eco-friendly habits out the window when we pitch a tent. If you look at any random campground, it isn't hard to find plants trampled, trash strewn about, loud music playing, impromptu toilets, and the smell of charcoal and lighter fluid. Yes, some campers would be more green if they just had a backyard barbecue.

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Fortunately, more and more campers practice "Leave No Trace Camping,” which is the ideal that no one should know you’ve been at the campsite after you’ve left it. This means no trash, smoldering fires or ripped up foliage. It's also a good idea to leave the berries and other yummies for the wild animals who rely on them.

As the summer months approach, here's a refresher on some do's and don'ts of greener camping.

Leave your electronics at home. While a cell phone may provide some safety in the great outdoors, there's no reason to bring your laptop, tablet or portable gaming system to camp. We've noticed a few things often happen when people bring their electronics to campgrounds. First, when the batteries run low, many can't resist the temptation to return to the car and use the 12 volt charger or AC inverter to charge gadgets. And when we use them after sundown, our plugged-in electronics can deliver a barrage of blue-wavelength light, which disrupts the habits of nocturnal animals and the sleep of diurnal wildlife. And last, music and voices from audio systems travel far when there are few other sounds to compete. As much as you might enjoy your Spotify playlist, it doesn't do a thing for the nearby birds and animals other than to confuse them and disrupt their routines.

Keep to the trail.It can be tempting to wander off the trail and visit areas you believe to be even more exotic. However, wandering around can have a big impact on the local environment, damaging surface vegetation, animal habitats, and fragile soils. Trails are often carefully planned by land-management agencies to give visitors maximum exposure to focal points and highlights with minimal damage to the environment.

Wandering off trail can also be dangerous, especially if you're not familiar with the ground cover or the topography of the area. If you're on a hike and you're not sure if you've wandered of the trail, look for signs, cairns and markers to keep you on the path.

Be smart about campfires. A smoking campfire is not what you'd call “green” to begin with, but what would camping be without one of its most memorable activities? So, while all that soot and gas might not be the best thing for the evening air, there are many things you can do to mitigate its environmental impact.

Most importantly, be aware of any bans or fire restrictions during forest fire season and always use an existing fire pit. If there isn't one at your campsite, you can construct a basic fire ring using large stones.

Never build your fire too large; make sure it's small enough that you can douse it in a few seconds with a small bucket of water and dirt. Also, keep the fire away from flammable items such as tents, backpacks and sleeping bags. And only burn dry wood and kindling, never burn freshly cut wood, green plants, leaves, or sod. And never burn your trash.

We also suggest putting that fire to good use and use it for all your cooking needs, since store-bought charcoal and lighter fluid aren't good for the local ecology. A campfire tripod, dutch oven, cooking grill, skillet, tongs, and spatula are all you need to cook with.

Cover your waste.If you're not at a campground with restrooms or an outhouse, you must be careful to dispose of your...ahem, poop correctly. Make sure to bring an entrenching tool or a small shovel and biodegradable toilet paper. When it's time to make a number two, find a spot far away from campsites and water sources. Dig a hole at least 8 inches deep and cover it up when you've finished your business. It's okay to put biodegradable toilet paper in the hole, but regular TP often contains dyes and perfumes and does not break down easily enough.

Go easy on the soap.Most all household soaps and detergents are not environmentally friendly enough to use at campgrounds, where cleaning water often gets dumped back onto the ground. Fortunately, there is a soap you can use for personal hygiene and washing needs that's campground safe. The soap is typically labeled either biodegradable or “Castile” (from the region of Spain where it was originally produced). This kind of soap decomposes easily and cleans everything: dishes, utensils, clothes, skin and hair. But even biodegradable soaps might be scented, so make sure any soap you use contains no scent to help keep curious critters away from your campsite.

Buy bulk water and use refillable bottles. If you plan on a lot of outdoor activities, you're going to down a lot of water. And one of the worst things you can do is to bring cases of bottled water to camp. If you have to pack out your trash (which is required by most parks), these bottles are going to take up a lot of room in your car. If there are onsite trash receptacles, the bottles can easily overtax them. Instead, buy bulk water in 5-gallon containers and have each member of your party bring a personal canteen. Better yet, you can also fill a large container with tap water, which is much less expensive (and likely cleaner than commercial water). You can use this water for cooking, cleaning and bathing.

Use reusabledinnerware.Like bottled water, the trash we accumulate with plastic or foam plates and cups piles up real quick. And plastic utensils don't help matters if you throw them out after one use. And think of all the paper towels you can go through. Worse yet, if you have to dispose of your waste off site, you may need to use your tent or vehicle to store these items for hours, even days before you get rid of them...and think of all the pests you'll attract. Instead, bring unbreakable but reusable versions of each. Also, bring along a small bucket to clean them with your biodegradable soap after each meal.

Cliff Weathers is a former senior editor of Alternet who also served as deputy editor of Consumer Reports. He was one of the first journalists to sound the alarm over the extreme dangers of fracking and expanded crude-by-rail transportation. His articles on technology, green cars, energy, water and sustainability have appeared in several publications, including Car and Driver, Playboy, Salon and Raw Story. Twitter: @cliffweathers.