In the last year the number of people participating in outdoor activities spiked as seasoned and new adventurers alike looked to break the monotony of life in quarantine. More people camping and experiencing the beauty of wild spaces is wonderful, but it comes at the cost of increased human impact. Which is why eco-camping is more important than ever.

Let’s start with a quick story:

The sun tingled against my skin as I enjoyed lunch beside the lake. Rising mountains stood stoically outlined by lush trees while a kayaker navigated the bright blue water in the distance. It could have been a post card. I was impressed that the paddler hauled up heavy equipment to what is arguably a small and not very kayak-friendly lake. Eventually, he paddled ashore and I noticed several items he surely did not haul in himself.

“Quite the haul you have there,” I said by way of greeting.

“It’s everyone’s trash,” the man casually responded. (“Trash” is a nicer word for what he called it.) Tent poles; fuel canisters; an empty glass bottle of tequila; four—yes, four—machetes. It was an appalling sight.

Here was a good Samaritan cleaning up this sublime place, but it shouldn’t have come to that. There or anywhere. We must hold ourselves accountable as individuals and take the necessary steps to mitigate our environmental impact in order to lead an eco-friendly outdoor lifestyle. One key step toward this is to embrace the act of eco-camping.

setting up camp for eco camping

What Is Eco Camping?

At its core, eco camping is a mindset. It’s a love of the natural world turned into the compelling desire to keep nature as wild as possible by leaving little to no impact on the landscape. It means being conscious of your ecological footprint and taking actions to protect the area you choose to recreate in. Eco-camping as a personal act happens from the moment you start planning your trip and continues until after you have packed up your campsite and are headed home.

Why Is Eco-Camping Important?

Eco-camping is so critical, because just about everything we do outdoors has some level of impact. Many typical camp habits we have grown accustom to adversely affect the environment we love. The troubling thing is that we often don’t realize the harm of these actions.

Take, for example, organic waste. While orange peels, apple cores and banana skins are natural and eventually decompose, the keyword is “eventually.” Orange peels can take up to two years to fully biodegrade and even longer in desert environments. In that time, it can alter the ecology of the land by encouraging species to appear where they normally wouldn’t, cause unnatural feeding habits, and incur a lost ability to naturally forage. Plus, it’s an eyesore to fellow campers.

Furthermore, in 2018, plastic containers and packaging accounted for 82.2 million tons of waste in the U.S., 37% of which ended up in a landfill. If you think outdoor recreation doesn’t generate a lot of waste, think again. Camping’s trash contribution is usually in the form of food packaging, hygiene containers and snack wrappers. Not to mention gear and equipment that is packaged in plastic and shipped (and that is to say nothing of the emissions costs along the supply chain.)

But there’s good news: we can make a difference through small, thoughtful actions. Eco-camping may take more planning at the outset but these practices soon become second-nature. Beyond giving you the warm and fuzzies for being a good citizen, eco-camping can even save you money in the long run.

How to Get Started?

Whether you’re heading to the backcountry or the front, try these five simple steps to become an eco-camping pro.

packing out trash on backpacking trip

1. Pack Out Trash

While you can leave trash in a bin provided at the trailhead or park disposal site, it’s just as easily packed out. This is especially important in winter when forest service slows and rangers visit trailheads less often, leading to overfilled bins.

When hiking, I bring a small and easily-tucked-away doggie bag to pick up litter. This also allows me to separate recyclables, compostables and trash once I get home since it’s rarely an option when outdoors.

blowing up sleeping pad on backpacking trip

2. Know Your Gear

Your camp gear is integral to the whole operation so make sure to thoughtfully invest in quality equipment that fits your outdoor style and is built to last. For example, do you plan to camp year-round? Go for a 3- or 4-season tent right off the bat which will save you money in the long run and help reduce the environmental costs of manufacturing. The same goes for choosing a sleeping bag and backpack.

Before replacing old or broken gear, consider making use of warranties or repairing it first. If that’s not available, try donating or creatively repurposing it. When upgrading, buy locally to reduce transportation pollution and support your community!

hanging gravity purifier dirty bag

3. Mindfully Pack Food and Water

As a backcountry camper, I opt for dehydrated meals and, for a while, would use the empty package as a garbage. When I learned that most meal packaging is recyclable, I began re-packing my meals in reusable Stasher bags (which can withstand up to 400° F!) before leaving home. This allowed me to recycle the meal package while it’s clean. Rather than pre-wrapped meals and snacks, you can even try your hand at preparing your own delicious alternatives. As for water, opt for a gravity filter or purifier rather than lugging it in plastic jugs.

MSR gravity water purifier

For the most eco-friendly cooking option, go for a liquid fuel stove that uses refillable fuel bottles. If using a canister stove, it’s important to know how to recycle your empty canisters properly. Few curbside recycling programs will do it, so it may come down to finding a recycling center that handles mixed metal. If you’re in the Seattle area, head to MSR’s Repair Shop where they properly recycle empty IsoPro canisters!

fire for eco camping trip

4. Your Campsite

Be mindful when choosing your campsite and select established areas when possible. As a bonus, these often have a fire ring already made! Speaking of which, there are few things as quintessential to the camping experience as enjoying a campfire. That said, it is vital to do so properly. Use wood and sticks found on the ground rather than cutting or snapping branches as this alters the natural landscape and impacts wildlife. And, of course, make sure the fire is completely out before hitting the hay.

brushing teeth while camping

5. Hygiene

From travel toothbrushes to cleaning wipes, plastic and single-use waste from camping piles up. Instead, invest in environmentally-friendly hygiene alternatives such as biodegradable soap, bamboo toothbrushes and tubeless toothpaste.

With up to 6,000 tons of sunscreen finding its way into oceans and streams each year, consider nature-friendly options for summer adventures. Lotion sunscreen is also the superior choice over spray-on which disperses chemicals into the air. To ward off pesky bugs, try natural bug sprays over chemical-based ones, which are harmful to the environment and your gear (and ourselves too!).

Be a Proud Eco-Camping Advocate

We must all advocate for the land we live and play in, and hopefully these steps make it easier to reduce our impact while enjoying our world in its most natural state. Our personal actions may feel small but we must remember that they are small ripples that have the power to create waves of positive impact.

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Updated. Originally Published April 22, 2021.