As national parks and other public outdoor spaces continue to rise in popularity, so does the number of campers vying to experience a slice of nature. This is fantastic, but sometimes it's easy to forget that while they might be "our" national parks, they don't really belong to us. We are merely stewards who are lucky enough to enjoy such beauty.
Sadly, this misguided attitude of "ownership" coupled with a lack of outdoor education means that sometimes our natural treasures are on the receiving end of a lot of abuse.
Most recently, a campground on Slaughterhouse Island in Lake Shasta was trashed after enduring a weekend of partying by about 1,000 fraternity and sorority members from the University of Oregon. The students left behind a staggering half-mile swath of abandoned tents, coolers, empty bottles, biohazardous waste and other trash along the island's beach and campground. It took several days for workers employed by the U.S. Forest Service to clean up the mess.
Don't be like them.
This should go without saying, but you don't have to transform a campsite into a superfund site to have fun in nature. What you do need to do is come prepared and well-researched. If you've never really gone camping before, the first thing you need to know is that camping takes practice. You're not going to know everything the first time you go, and that's okay. Half the joy of the activity is learning from your mistakes and developing a system that works for you.
That said, it helps to start off your trip with a little insight into what you're getting into. Here are 12 things you need to think about before planning a camping trip.
Carry in, carry out
When you begin planning a camping or backpacking trip, keep in mind that many parks have a strict "carry in, carry out" rule. This means that whatever you bring with you must also go home with you. Essentially, the goal is to leave your campsite exactly how you found it (or in some cases, in better condition if you come across the litter of past campers).
Sure, lugging around and taking your trash home isn't pleasant, but it's even less pleasant when it's left strewn across a campsite. This principle may seem daunting at first, but it's pretty easy to accomplish with some forethought. One of the easiest things you can do to cut down on unnecessary packaging is to portion out your foods into ziplock bags or reusable tupperware containers and bring along spare ziplock bags and trash bags for any waste you produce.
Don't set up camp outside of your designated campsite.
Ever gone hiking and noticed signs that say "stay on the trails"? This rule is meant to protect fragile ecosystems from constant trampling — and it will also keep you from getting lost! The same sentiment applies to campsites.
To protect the integrity of the environment you're enjoying, concentrate your camp within the established, pre-blazed clearings provided by the campground or park. If you're hiking in the backcountry, scout for a clearing with as little vegetation as possible and keep your camp's footprint as small as possible.
As stated in the Leave No Trace Seven Principles, "good campsites are found, not made."
Use hammocks responsibly
Hammocks are an excellent way to minimize your footprint while camping in a natural environment — but you can't just sling them up anywhere.
When you arrive at your campsite, you should look for living, thick-trunked trees within an area that has little to no ground cover. To prevent bark damage, make sure your hammock is strung up using a "tree saver" strap, which is a loop of sturdy nylon-polyester fabric that distributes the weighted stress more evenly. If you're away from your campsite for several hours, you might also consider taking down one side of the hammock to prevent wildlife from getting tangled up in it.
The final thing you should keep in mind is that some parks prohibit hammocks outright, so do your research and have a backup plan just in case.
Respect the wildlife
One of the greatest parts about hiking and camping is getting the chance to observe wild animals in their natural habitats, but the number one thing to remember is that this is their home — not yours. When encountering a wild animal on the trail or within your campsite, keep your distance and never follow, approach or feed them.
As evidenced in the tragic case of the baby bison who was "rescued" by clueless tourists in Yellowstone, these guidelines are meant to ensure the safety of both you and the wildlife.
Protect your food and trash
One of the easiest ways you can help wildlife is by preventing them from getting to your food (or anything with a smell, such as toothpaste). Animals are put in a dangerous position when they start relying on handouts from campers, whether intentionally or accidentally. You'd be surprised at how sneaky and smart the local wildlife can be.
Securing your odorous belongings is usually easy to accomplish if you're car camping. Simply stow away your cooler, food box, toiletries and trash bags in your car while you're sleeping or away from your campsite. If you're camping with limited access to a vehicle in a semi-developed site, store your toiletries and non-perishable food in any lockable food caches that are provided for your campsite. Many large, heavy coolers can be wedged snugly underneath the bench seating of a picnic table while you're sleeping or away from the campsite.
While these strategies will work just fine in places where the only threat to your food is raccoons and rodents, camping in bear country is a different ball game.
With a sense of smell that is 100 times stronger than a dog's, a bear can easily sniff out food locked in your car and has no qualms about smashing windows to get to it. As a result, many campgrounds with robust bear populations, such as in Yosemite National Park, forbid visitors from storing food and toiletries overnight in parked vehicles.
So what's a bear country camper to do? Many campsites are now equipped with extra sturdy metal caches called "bear boxes" that are impenetrable by even the most intelligent and determined foragers. If you're backpacking in the wilderness and don't have access to any protective food storage options, you can also string up your belongings and trash in the trees — a trick known as bear bagging.
Whatever you do, never keep food or toiletries in your tent or else you might have an unwelcome visitor in the night!
For cooking, use camp stoves instead of campfires
As fun and rewarding as it is to cook meals over a roaring fire, you're generally better off preparing hot meals with a camp stove. These portable, low-impact cooking contraptions are not only gentler and safer for the environment, they're also quicker and cleaner to cook with. This is especially true for backcountry campsites that do not allow fires, or environments that don't offer much in the way of kindling (such as deserts, beaches and snowy alpine areas).
Tend your campfire with care
Camp stoves may be more efficient than campfires when it comes to cooking, but there's no substitute for hanging out around a fire pit at the end of the day. There are a few things to remember when building fires.
First and foremost, never bring your own firewood from out of town because it puts local trees at risk from the spread of invasive plant diseases and pests. Instead, collect fallen sticks and twigs from the area around you or buy bundles of local fire wood from a nearby ranger station or campground host.
Now that you've collected your fuel, build the fire within established fire rings or pits to prevent the chance of a wildfire. And for the sake of the environment — the smaller, the better! When you're finished using the fire, be sure to extinguish the flames completely with water or sand.
Want to bring Fido?
Pets can make great camping companions, but their presence requires special preparation and constant supervision. The first step is to determine whether your dog ( or cat!) is a good fit for such an activity.
"Being outdoors is highly stimulating, and for a dog that is used to being indoors, it can be sensory overload and even frightening," explains MNN's resident dog expert Jaymi Heimbuch. "If your dog is very excitable, a barker, afraid of strangers, or likely to get overly wound-up around wildlife, you might consider a different kind of outdoor activity more suited to your dog."
However, if you think your four-legged best friend meets all these qualifications, check out Heimbuch's guide for camping with dogs for tips on how to keep him happy, healthy and safe while enjoying the great outdoors.
Go easy on the soaps and detergents
If you're not a fan of washing dishes in the "real" world, you're probably going to dislike it even more while camping. Still, this chore needs to be done. (That is, unless you'd rather a grizzly come by and lick them clean for you later in the evening?) While it can seem like a tedious logistical challenge at first, if you have the right tools and techniques at your disposal, dish washing in the wild can be surprisingly painless.
The method you use depends on what type of camping you're doing (the three-tub method works well for most campsites, but the camp stove method is best for backcountry camping). The most important things you should remember are 1) bring along a bottle of biodegradable soap, and 2) dump your grey water in a designated drain or at least 200 feet away from bodies of water.
Although many campgrounds are equipped with designated bathrooms and comfort stations, less developed outposts often require you to literally go back to nature.
There are two ways you can deal with this. First, there's the option of bringing along a portable latrine and packing out your waste. If this doesn't appeal to you, you can bring along a small shovel and bury your waste in a 6-8 inch hole that is at least 200 feet away from a body of water. In either case, remember to bring your own toilet paper and pack it out when you leave.
For more information about safely dealing with black and gray waste while camping in the backcountry, check out REI's expert guide to sanitation and hygiene.
Respect quiet times.
For many folks, camping is a time to stay up late and laugh around the campfire with family and friends. For others, camping means going to sleep shortly after sunset and waking up refreshed with the sunrise and ready to hit the trails.
Regardless of your style of camping, courtesy and thoughtfulness go a long way in making the experience a good one. That means piping down during the campground's established quiet hours, which typically run from 9 or 10 p.m. until 6 or 7 a.m.
Leave only footprints, take only pictures.
It's not just a catchy saying. Although you're welcome to examine your surroundings, leave natural objects where you found them and avoid touching structures and artifacts with cultural or historical value. In addition, avoid introducing non-native species to an environment or building structures or trenches in the land.
There are a few exceptions to this rule, though! Some protected areas, like Cumberland Island National Seashore, do allow visitors to collect shells and sharks teeth along the beach, though wildlife (including bones) remain off limits.
'Bear Country' photo: Kelly vanDellen/Shutterstock