In the course of leading backpacking trips for Yosemite Mountaineering and Sonoma State College, we get to see a lot of wilderness country. Unfortunately, we also often see such areas abused ... by hikers, who probably have the best intentions in the world. Too many folks are repaying our beautiful forests for the inspiration and personal renewal that the outdoors can provide by leaving these areas somewhat the worse for wear.
The great increase over the past few years in the numbers of people who use our state and national forests has made this problem all the more serious. It's very important that hikers and campers learn the techniques of "low impact camping"... methods that help us backpacking folk leave the outdoors as "wild" as it was when we entered it.
Any wilderness, you see, is an extremely delicate ecosystem. And, unless all hikers learn to "walk lightly on the earth," it will probably become necessary to regiment and/or deny the use of such areas. Therefore, to protect our freedom to enjoy nature at its best, we'd like to show you the right way to conduct some of the camping activities we most often see done wrong.
Try to locate your camp in a spot that won't be easily damaged. For instance, stop at an already-used site if one exists in your chosen location. And if you can't find an established camp to occupy, at least choose an area that's free of vegetation. A soft meadow may look inviting, but—aside from finding yourself soaked in the morning—you'll probably crush a number of delicate wild plants. Moreover, don't camp on the edge of a stream or lake (as some scenic posters show). The banks of such bodies of water break down easily . . . and that can result in the disruption of natural currents and channels.
The Camp Kitchen
If you pack in a stove and fuel, you'll eliminate the need to make a campfire that would leave an ugly black stain on the earth for years. Furthermore, regulations prohibit fires in many wild lands where wood grows slowly or dry weather raises the risk of a forest-wide conflagration. Be sure to check the rules before you set out.
And always pack out all your garbage, plus any other litter you find. After all, should you accidentally leave some trash behind, another hiker may have to do the same for you.
Protect The Water
Some campers have the idea (which we've labeled the "biodegradable myth") that food, dirty clothes and bodies, and other "organic" items can be safely washed in rivers or streams ... especially if biodegradable soap is used. However—although such "clean cakes" (like Ivory) do decompose fairly rapidly in the soil—any soap will cause pollution when used in a lake, stream, or river.
Food leftovers also contaminate water sources to some extent. Of course, the mess that you scrape off your plates will eventually decompose, but in cold mountain climates it can take quite a while for even a few grains of rice to disappear.
In addition, sweaty people—and their clothes—leave impurities in their wash water, too. So clean up before you dive in ... especially if you and others depend upon the swimmin' hole for cooking and drinking liquid! It's easy enough to wash in a pot or bucket—at least 150 feet from the lake or stream—and to disperse the contents of that container by dumping them in a wide arc. Dark soil (such as that found under trees) can best handle this kind of waste, whereas swampy or rocky areas will probably drain back into the water supply.
Most hikers don't take adequate precautions when choosing the location for their "restrooms." For your own safety—and for the good of the wilderness— always position such "facilities" more than 200 feet from the nearest body of water.
Remember, too, that the top 10 inches of dirt are the most active in creating biological decay, so dig a little "cat hole" at the base of a tree with the heel of your boot or carry a trowel for that purpose). But don't bury tampons, sanitary napkins, or disposable diapers. Such items should be packed out or burned in an existing fire ring.
When you practice these easy, minimum-impact techniques on your backpacking trips, you really will help protect the wilderness ... and besides, they're good reminders of the more ecological lifestyles we all could (and should!) live at home.