Responsible Camping: What’s Cool and What’s Definitely Not


One of the biggest challenges facing many state and national parks these days is the sheer volume of visitors they see. When you have that many people coming in and out of your parks, it only takes a small percentage of folks that aren’t practicing responsible camping to make a significant negative impact. Even if everyone else is following park rules and practicing Leave No Trace principles, those that don’t tend to give the rest of the visitors a bad rap.

When it comes to responsible camping, there are certainly some definitive do’s and don’ts that we can discuss. Some of them might seem obvious, but it’s always worth repeating the best practices so that we can all get closer to being on the same page in terms of the way we respect the environment and other campers when we’re recreating in the outdoors. In this article, we’re going to talk about what’s cool and what’s definitely not as it pertains to responsible camping.

Want to be a responsible camper? Here are a few things to consider:

Food Safety


Being “food safe” really isn’t that hard these days. Bears are one of the primary animals we’re concerned about when it comes to getting in our food, but squirrels, marmots, and other small mammals are just as active when you leave something out around your campsite. If you attract animals into a shared campground, it’s likely that you won’t be the only site that experiences the presence of those animals.

Fortunately, practicing food safety these days isn’t all that difficult. Many campgrounds in bear country have bear boxes that keep food contained and reduce the number of attractive smells that are floating around in the environment at a given campsite. If you’re camping where there aren’t established bear boxes, however, you should definitely consider purchasing your own bear canister or bringing a cooler that you’re certain keeps smells sealed inside.

Trash Disposal


There’s nothing worse than getting to a new campsite and finding it a mess. There’s a general rule of thumb that suggests it’s best to leave campsites better than you found them when recreating outdoors. As outdoor enthusiasts, we have an implied duty to take care of the places we recreate, because Mom is rarely going to be there to pick up after us.

If you’re camping in an established campground, there’s really no suitable excuse for leaving trash behind. These sites will have dedicated dumpsters or trash collection areas where you can dispose of both trash and recycling before you leave. If you’re camping in a more remote location, you’re going to have to practice the “pack it in, pack it out” rule of outdoor ethics. And just to be clear, the fire ring is NOT an acceptable place to leave trash behind. In fact, I highly encourage readers to take a look at what can and can’t be safely burnt in your campfire.

Wildlife Viewing


We love seeing wildlife when we’re out camping. There are just certain species that you can’t observe around your city or town. But as the number of people that like to recreate outside only grows, our impact on that wildlife grows as well. Well, that’s at least true if we aren’t practicing responsible wildlife viewing practices. Wildlife should be viewed from a respectful distance. Purchasing a good pair of binoculars is a great way to view wildlife without infringing upon their natural environment.

One of my biggest pet peeves is seeing people feed wildlife when camping. There are really good reasons why this is frowned upon and one of those reasons comes back to food safety. When we feed wildlife, we are essentially training them to rely on human activity as a consistent and reliable food source. This increases the likelihood of unfavorable human-wildlife encounters and lessens that wildlife’s reliance on their own innate foraging or hunting instincts.

When you’re out there, you’ll definitely see some not-so-responsible campers doing these things:

Improper Waste Management


Okay. I know earlier I said there’s nothing worse than finding a campsite filled with trash, but I might have to retract that statement. The only thing that I can think of being worse is finding soiled toilet paper all around the woods surrounding a campsite. Improper waste management practices are sure to negatively impact the environment and aggravate your fellow campers. Whenever you plan a trip, be sure to consult the local management recommendations for proper waste disposal.

The Center for Outdoor Ethics recommends digging a “cat hole” 6-8 inches deep and 4-6 inches diameter to bury human feces. This hole should be at least 200 feet away from any water source, trails, and camps. You should avoid any areas where other people might walk or camp. When finished your cat hole should be fully filled in and “disguised” with natural materials, such as leaves, twigs, and branches.

The Irresponsible “Fire Marshall”


As a California resident, the impacts of human-caused wildfires have hit a little too close to home over the last few years. According to the National Park Service, humans are responsible for nearly 85 percent of wildland fires in the United States. Leaving fires unattended or improperly dousing fires at the end of the night are two of the leading reasons for these human-caused fires.

If anyone has ever seen any of the “Fire Marshall Bill” skits from Saturday Night Live, you’re already familiar with what NOTto do. In terms of proper campfire management, it might shock you just how much water it takes to effectively douse a campfire. Fortunately, today’s camping stoves all but eliminate the need for a campfire every time you go out. If you do build a fire, however, consider these best practices before doing so.

Disregard for Quiet Hours


Our last point on responsible camping has more to do with respect for your fellow campers than it does respect for the surrounding environment. A blatant disregard for quiet hours in a full campground is especially bothersome. Consider that many of the people you’re sharing a campground with are most likely camping so that they can spend as many of their daylight hours exploring the surrounding natural areas. Being too loud too late into the night will impact their ability to get a quality night’s rest.

There’s certainly a healthy balance between crawling into bed at 7 pm and continuing your drum circle until 2 in the morning. Our campgrounds are shared public spaces and everyone should have the ability to enjoy themselves. But awareness of the folks you’re sharing your campground with will go a long way towards making everyone’s stay an enjoyable one.

The Center for Outdoor Ethics is an excellent resource for anyone interested in minimizing their impacts and leaving the places we recreate better than when we found them. These tips are helpful if we want the beautiful natural areas we love to be in pristine shape for our children and their children.

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