It’s easy to feel unencumbered in wide-open spaces, away from the supervision of campground hosts and posted rules. Unfortunately, that can lead to a burgeoning problem of thrashed wilderness, which not only endangers wildlife and ecosystems but leads to public lands being shut down to boondockers.
Some problems are obvious, like garbage and human waste being left behind, but most damage is less conspicuous. Here are some ways to minimize your impact and be a kind companion to nature.
Choosing Where to Park
In general, it’s considered decent behavior to stick to places where people have camped before. Existing roads, parking spots bare of vegetation, and rock fire rings are good clues to whether it’s already an established boondocking site. This is especially important in arid areas, where treading on cryptobiotic and other sensitive soils can cause lasting damage.
Parking close to streams and lakes scares animals away from getting a drink, plus risks contaminating the water with soap, oil, food, and human waste. The widely-held standard by Leave No Trace (and most public land advocates) is to set up camp at least 200 feet away from any water source, though some places require 300 feet or more.
Also, avoid parking close to tree roots and driving on meadows and wet dirt roads—the road is a courtesy for humans, and a rutted out road isn’t any fun for anyone.
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Being a Good Wildlife Neighbor
You may be camping only for a few days, but after you leave, there will likely be another set of campers, and another after them. The local wildlife, in the meantime, lives there permanently and is busy trying to gather food and raise their young.
The presence of humans causes disruptions and anxiety for wildlife, so the less invasive you can be, the better chance they have of survival. And it’s not just the wildlife you can see—there’s a whole community and food chain that we’re not aware of, from mycelium’s underground soil networks to caterpillars to large mammals.
Birds, Pollinators, and Plants
Set up camp away from nesting birds as they’re liable to abandon their nest, which could kill the chicks. If you’re watching them and they look like they might want to fly away, that means you’re too close. Also, refrain from picking wildflowers, which bees, hummingbirds, and many insects rely on for food and other lifecycle needs.
No matter how cute they are, feeding wildlife is often a death sentence for them. For some, like deer, human ingredients can kill them outright (for example, salt is bad for rodents preparing for winter, like chipmunks, because it bloats them, giving them a false sense of their fat stores). Feeding also gets wildlife used to humans, which puts them in danger of getting hit by cars or being killed by wildlife officials when they become a nuisance.
Garbage and Animals
Animals getting into human garbage is akin to feeding them outright. A lot of wild creatures are adept at gnawing and clawing their way into any container without hard sides on it. It’s especially important to use bear-proof food and garbage storage when in bear country.
Light and Noise Pollution
Wildlife rely heavily on their senses to communicate, sense danger, and find prey. Excessive generator use and lighting disrupts these activities. These sources can also be damaging to trees and insects—not to mention agitating to human campers in the area as well.
Hunting and target shooting are legal on some public lands, and it’s doubtful that any wildlife will be content with the sound of rounds being fired; let alone other people within earshot.
Don’t Forget the Trees
Discarded twine and wire wrapped around trees can cause long-term damage. Damage to tree bark, especially carvings on aspens and birch trees, exposes them to disease. So, don’t forget your tree-safe hammock straps.
Campfires and Wood
Bringing in cut wood from another geographical area can spread diseases and infestations, such as ash borers and pine beetles, which can devastate entire regional forests. Make sure to buy your wood as close to where you’re camping as possible.
Gathering downed wood or cutting down dead-standing trees can also do harm, depending on your location, as it provides shelter and food for many life forms. If downed wood is scarce near camp, or if you’re in a desert or alpine environment, it’s best to bring your own. Never cut down living trees or cut branches or roots from them.
Starting a forest fire is the ultimate disaster, so pay special attention to the height and placement of your fire ring, and read up on how to extinguish campfires properly. Where campfires are permitted, try to build a fire where there has been one already, as well as away from under a tree, as the smoke and heat might harm those nesting above.
A portable fire pit can solve these issues, plus it burns wood more efficiently. You can purchase one, or make your own with an enamel canning pot (drill air holes around the perimeter near the bottom). Also, if you burn trash in the fire (no plastics, please; it’s terrible for your health as well), pick up any remnants and properly dispose of them later.
Garbage and Human Waste
Trash has become a massive problem on public lands. Pack it out, whether it’s a large water bottle, small beer cap, dog waste, onion skins, or the rib bones from dinner. You’ll be a habitat hero if you go one step further and pick up garbage left by others as well (remember, you’re boondocking, so there aren’t employees to clean up after campers).
Also, buried toilet paper and human waste add up quickly, and for car campers, a portable toilet is an easy solution. It can be as simple as a bucket with a plastic bag or as deluxe as a cassette toilet. If you’re RVing, save the gray and black water for a designated dump site, as it can travel through the soil into aquifers and contaminate water down the line.
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When boondocking or camping, be courteous to other humans and the natural world on which we depend and grateful for the gift of public lands. For more tips, check out Leave No Trace and Tread Lightly!.