Tips for Eco-Friendly Hiking and Camping

Tent spots are found not made. Photo: © Kokhanchikov -

Camp at least 200 feet from a water source. Photo: © Kokhanchikov -

There is perhaps no better way to enjoy the warm weather than taking to the woods. Whether you enjoy day hiking, camping, or more extended and remote backpacking trips, the following guidelines will help you protect the outdoors you love so much. Most of these tips apply to parks, forests, and wilderness areas, both locally and nationwide. This list just scratches the surface, though; additional resources are provided at the end of this article. — Julia Wasson, Publisher

Trekking into the great unknown may seem exciting and adventurous, but it is always best to learn a few things about the area in which you will be traveling. Those who don’t prepare often end up compensating for poor planning by making decisions that compromise the environment.

How long is the trail? What is the difficulty level? What rules and regulations govern the area? Are dogs allowed? Are reservations or trail passes required? What dangers should you be aware of? What types of animals frequent the area? Check the weather forecast, and plan for emergencies. Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return, and don’t leave home without The Ten Essentials:

The Ten Essentials (Okay, Actually 14)

This list was compiled in the 1930s by a Seattle-based organization called the Mountaineers.

A compass is an essential piece of gear for hiking. Photo: © Patrick Lee -

A compass is an essential piece of gear for hiking. Photo: © Patrick Lee -

  1. Map
  2. Compass
  3. First-aid kit
  4. Matches and fire starter
  5. Pocket knife
  6. Extra food
  7. Water and water purification
  8. Sun protection (sunscreen and sunglasses)
  9. Rain gear and extra clothing
  10. Flashlight/headlamp

Many hikers and backpackers today add the following: whistle, mirror, insect repellent, and emergency blanket.

Take Only Pictures, Leave Only Footprints — and Other Tips

When you hike or camp, always leave the area at least as good as — or better than — you found it. Though you might want to take home a flower, rock, or arrowhead as a reminder of your trip, think about the results if everyone followed that impulse. Also, removing natural objects or artifacts from public lands is forbidden by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and National Historic Preservation Act.

Small Is Better

Keep group sizes small, ideally six people or less. This will minimize the impact on the area and also help keep noise levels low so that you don’t disturb others seeking the solace of the wilderness.

Stay on durable surfaces


Stay on trails to prevent damage to plant life. Photo: Joe Hennager

Examples include rocks, gravel, sand, firmly packed dirt, dry grasses, pine needles, and snow. Stick to established trails, even when muddy, and walk single file. Park managers design trails to restrict traffic and control erosion. By walking side-by-side, going around puddles, or cutting across switchbacks, you break down the soil at the edges of the trail and possibly also redirect rainwater flows.

If you decide to venture off-trail, spread out rather than walk in line, to disperse your footsteps and decrease your impact on a single area. Avoid creating new trails. If you see footsteps or other early signs of impact, avoid those areas to allow them to “heal.”

At your campsite, try not to create “social paths,” those early signs of trails-in-the-making. Disperse your footsteps between your campsite, the water source, and your cooking and food-storage areas.

Campsites Are Found, Not Made

Opt for an obviously high-use campsite. If you are in the back country and need to camp in a pristine area, do not set up your tent in a spot displaying signs of recent use. Instead, go for a low-use area, and if you stay there more than one night, move your tent to lessen the impact on the grass underneath. Keep your site small, and don’t create structures, “furniture,” or trenches. Camp at least 200 feet from the trail, to avoid distracting other hikers by your presence.

Protect Water Sources

Set up camp at least 200 feet from water sources. Do not wash dishes or yourself in a lake or creek; take care of these duties at least 200 feet away. Even biodegradable soap can harm the creatures that live in and drink from water sources.

Pack It In, Pack It Out

If you brought it into the wilderness, you are responsible for taking it out. This includes toilet paper and hygiene products. Many parks no longer provide trashcans, forcing visitors to take responsibility for their own garbage. A large resealable plastic bag makes a good, odor-minimizing trash bag. Consider repackaging foods to decrease the amount of waste you’ll need to deal with. Strain dishwater, and put crumbs in your trash bag. Discard the water by scattering it broadly.

Don’t Feed the Animals

Be careful not to leave food residue behind on the trail or at your campsite. When animals become dependent on human visitors for food, they rely less on their natural hunting and foraging behaviors. A loss of self-sufficiency puts them in danger once the recreation season is over. Also, food residue draws animals to high-use areas, possibly endangering future campers. If dangerous animals, such as bears, become a nuisance, returning again and again to campsites and trails, wildlife managers may have to put them down. A fed bear is often a dead bear.

Store food in airtight containers, and never eat or store food in your tent. At night, hang your food bag in a tree well away from your tent and well out of reach of any curious creatures (10 feet from the ground and 4 feet from the tree trunk).

Keep Your Distance

If you encounter an animal on the trail, give it a wide berth. Don’t approach or follow it, and never come between a mother and her offspring. If you bring along a dog, keep it well under control so it does not stress other animals. Avoid water sources at dawn and dusk, when animals often go for water.

Be Responsible with Fire

A small stove is safer than a campfire. Photo: © doug Olson -

A small stove is safer than a campfire. Photo: © Doug Olson -

Many public land use areas no longer allow campfires in the back country; check park regulations. A lightweight, portable stove (they get tinier every year) will cook your dinner faster and cleaner than a campfire and will reduce the impact of firewood foraging, as well as your odds of starting a forest fire. If you must have a campfire, use an established fire ring or pit, and remember the Three D’s when collecting firewood: choose only wood that is dead, downed, and detached. Keep your fire small, and make sure it is thoroughly extinguished before leaving it unattended.

Leave Your Site Better than You Found It

Go over the area, looking for any trash, food, or other signs of human habitation. Pack out any trash, even if it isn’t yours.

Think of Others

Help others have a positive wilderness experience. When newcomers are able to experience the outdoors in as pristine a state as possible, they are more likely to become wilderness lovers and environmental advocates. Consider traveling during low-traffic periods, and keep a low profile by not making too much noise. Avoid creating “visual pollution” by opting for subtle colors in clothing and equipment. Yield to others on the trail; hikers traveling uphill have the right-of-way, as do livestock.

Leave No Trace

These tips are just a few of the ways you can be a better steward of our natural areas. To learn more, including detailed guidelines for specific types of environments, such as deserts and coastal areas, read Soft Paths by The National Outdoor Leadership School, or check out the Leave No Trace website.

Leave no trace of your presence behind. Photo: Joe Hennager

Leave no trace of your presence behind. Photo: Joe Hennager

Many of the tips in this article are based on the Leave No Trace outdoor ethics developed by the National Outdoor Leadership School and the U.S. Forest Service.

  1. Plan ahead and prepare.
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
  3. Dispose of waste properly.
  4. Leave what you find.
  5. Minimize campfire impacts.
  6. Respect wildlife.
  7. Be considerate of other visitors.

By following these guidelines, you’ll not only lessen your impact on the environment, you’ll also encourage others to do likewise. It is much more tempting to be irresponsible in the wilderness when it is obvious that others have been as well.

Karen Nichols

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)


6 Responses to “Tips for Eco-Friendly Hiking and Camping”

  1. Traveling the Green Way » Trail & hiking safety for families on July 22nd, 2009 8:53 pm

    [...] some more tips for safe and eco-friendly hiking and [...]

  2. Anne Russell on July 22nd, 2009 9:32 pm

    Very nice! We were just talking about our “camping” experiences as children. Some loved them, some (me) had a harder time. They are still fond memories. The pictures my eyes took will stay with me forever.
    Never forget, though, that a mountain lion CAN and WILL tear open your Coleman cooler, and eat everything in it, while you are hiding in your tent waiting for it to go away. (Those were some great times!)

    Cheers! and thanks!

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