Matt Johnson

Sustainable Camping: Leave No Trace and Enjoy It

Author: Matt JohnsonPhotos/Graphics: Mike HawthornePublished: Jan 19, 2024

In the heart of nature, surrounded by the tranquil embrace of a lush green forest, lies the essence of sustainable camping – a practice not just beneficial but necessary for preserving the delicate balance of our environment. That’s why we should strive to “leave no trace” that we were there when we’re out camping.

Why sustainable camping matters.

When we go out camping, we’re excited to get outdoors and take in everything Mother Nature has to offer. This is great, but we need to take a moment and think about how our actions can affect the environment.

There are three primary reasons we should be concerned about this—

  • Environmental preservation. Sustainable camping practices protect ecosystems from damage caused by human activities.
  • Wildlife protection. Minimizing our impact helps maintain the natural behaviors and habitats of wildlife.
  • Future Enjoyment. Preserving natural spaces ensures that future generations of campers and nature enthusiasts can enjoy them.

Of course, there may be more reasons, but everything generally falls into one of those three ideas.

Best practices for sustainable camping.

So how do we do this? What’s the best way to leave no trace after we’ve left the area?

Campsite selection.

Existing Campsites with Parking and Picnic Tables

Selecting the right campsite is essential in sustainable camping. You can find the perfect spot while minimizing your footprint in a couple of ways.

  • Find existing campsites. Use designated areas to minimize the impact on untouched land. Don’t worry; there’s more than enough to go around.
  • Durable surfaces. Set up on surfaces that are less likely to be damaged, such as rock or gravel. When you set up camp on sand or loose dirt, you can disturb the earth, which can affect how water naturally flows through.

Tent etiquette.

Once you find the ideal camping location, you’re going to want to set up your tent. If you’re trying to be as sustainable as possible, there are a few things you might like to consider.

  • Small tents. Opt for smaller tents that require less clearing and have a minimal footprint. On top of that, smaller tents are easier to carry around, so your body will thank you later.
  • Natural light. Use natural light instead of artificial lighting to reduce energy consumption and light pollution. Once the sun goes down, hit the hay. Other campers will appreciate this as well.

Waste management.

Trash Can at Campground with Bear Resistant Door

Effective waste management is a cornerstone of sustainable camping. Here’s how to ensure your camping activities leave minimal impact—

  • Pack it in, pack it out.: Ensure all trash, including small litter like cigarette butts and food wrappers, is taken out when you leave. This helps in maintaining natural beauty and prevents harm to wildlife.
  • Biodegradable products. Use products that break down naturally. For instance, biodegradable soap and toiletries are less harmful to the environment if accidentally spilled or left behind. After all, accidents can happen.
  • Separate and recycle. If possible, separate recyclables from trash. Many campsites offer recycling facilities. This reduces landfill waste and conserves resources.
  • Avoid single-use items. Minimize the use of disposable plates, cups, and utensils. Reusable items are more environmentally friendly and reduce waste. 

Water usage.

Mountain River with Trees

Conserving water is good for the environment and ensures sustainability for future campers. We all have to use this precious resource, so here are some tips to preserve the local waters.

  • Stream protection. When washing or cleaning, do so at least 200 feet away from streams or lakes to prevent soap and waste from entering the water.
  • Water conservation. Collect water in a container for washing or cooking rather than letting the spigot run. This minimizes wastage.
  • Eco-friendly products. Use phosphate-free soaps and biodegradable cleaning products. These are less harmful to aquatic life.
  • Avoid bathing in natural sources. Bathe away from natural water sources. Soaps, even biodegradable ones, can affect water quality, which will, in turn, affect the fish and other creatures.

Fire safety.

Handling fires with care is paramount in preventing forest fires and preserving the natural area.

  • Controlled fires. Keep fires small to reduce their impact and make them easier to manage and extinguish. Larger fires can quickly become uncontrollable.
  • No trace left behind. Make sure all coals and ashes are cold to the touch before leaving. Scatter cool ashes over a large area away from the campsite.
  • Use fire alternatives. Consider using a camp stove for cooking. They are safer than open fires and leave no trace. Many places will still allow you to use gas or propane stoves even if there is a burn ban because there are no embers.
  • Firewood source. Use only firewood sourced near your campsite. Bringing wood from other areas can introduce pests and diseases to the ecosystem. Many states have laws prohibiting out-of-state firewood.

Wildlife interaction.

One of the best things about camping in the wilderness is seeing the various life enjoying their habitats. However, interacting responsibly with wildlife is essential for their well-being and your safety. 

  • Respect boundaries. Observe wildlife from a safe distance. Approaching too closely can stress animals, potentially leading to aggressive behavior. For example, the National Park Service recommends staying at least 100 yards away from bears and wolves and 25 yards from other wildlife.
  • No feeding. Feeding wildlife disrupts their natural diet and can lead to health problems. For instance, human food can cause malnutrition in animals and make them dependent on human food sources.
  • Quiet observation. Keep noise to a minimum. Loud sounds can frighten wildlife, causing them to flee their habitat, which can disrupt their feeding and nesting activities.
  • No chasing or touching. Never chase, touch, or attempt to move wildlife. This can be stressful and harmful to them, and in some cases, it can also be dangerous for humans.
  • Educate others. Share these principles with fellow campers. Promoting awareness helps protect wildlife and preserve natural ecosystems.

Trail ethics.

Following trail ethics is essential for environmental conservation and ensuring trails remain beautiful and accessible for years to come. 

  • Stay on paths. Sticking to marked trails helps protect fragile ecosystems. Straying off the path can lead to soil erosion and plant damage and disrupt the habitats of ground-nesting animals.
  • Leave what you find. Preserve natural beauty and heritage. Removing rocks, plants, or cultural artifacts is not only disrespectful but can also be illegal. For instance, taking items from national parks is against federal law.
  • Pack out trash. Even biodegradable items like fruit peels or nut shells can take years to decompose. Pack out all trash and dispose of it properly.
  • Respect trail closures. Obey trail closure signs. They’re often placed for environmental protection, such as during nesting seasons or for safety reasons.
  • Share the trail. Be courteous to other trail users. This includes yielding to hikers going uphill and keeping pets on a leash.

5 Tips for a successful sustainable camping trip.

Before you head out on your trip, we put together a few tips to help you get started with sustainable camping.

Plan ahead.

Thorough planning is key for a successful trip. 

Start by researching your destination to understand its unique environment. This should include studying the weather patterns, identifying the wildlife in the area, and being aware of any specific regulations or restrictions, like fire bans or waste disposal guidelines. 

Also, it’s important to be aware of the visitor capacity of your chosen site. Overcrowding not only hampers your experience but can lead to significant environmental degradation. 

Equally essential is emergency preparedness. Familiarize yourself with the local emergency contacts and procedures. This step is critical not just for your safety but also to minimize potential harm to the environment in case of an unforeseen event.

Minimalist packing.

One of the fundamental aspects of sustainable camping is to pack minimally. 

Ensure you carry only the essentials to avoid unnecessary waste and reduce your environmental footprint. 

Multi-use items can be incredibly useful. For example, a scarf can serve various purposes, such as a head cover, a towel, or even a makeshift bag. 

Efficient packing is about what you pack and how you pack. It helps in minimizing space usage and can reduce the need for multiple trips or excessive fuel consumption.

Eco-friendly gear.

When it comes to gear, opt for sustainable options. Look for equipment made from recycled materials or sourced from sustainable methods. 

For instance, consider tents made from recycled polyester or sleeping bags with ethically sourced down. Investing in durable, long-lasting products might seem costlier initially, but it reduces the need for frequent replacements, thus being more environmentally friendly in the long run. 

Additionally, consider renting or borrowing gear, especially for items that you don’t use often. 

This practice saves money and reduces the demand for new products, thereby lessening environmental impact.

Education and awareness.

Being informed is so important for sustainable camping. 

Educate yourself about the seven principles of Leave No Trace. These guidelines are instrumental in making informed decisions that help in preserving the natural environment. 

Also, take the time to learn about the local flora and fauna. Understanding the native species and their habitats can significantly enhance your camping experience and help you avoid disrupting the environment. 

If your camping destination has cultural significance, it’s important to be culturally sensitive. Respecting local customs and heritage is a part of being a responsible camper.

Food management.

Efficient food management is an often overlooked aspect of sustainable camping. 

Planning your meals in advance helps in avoiding food waste. Pack meals that are easy to cook and require minimal water for preparation. 

Opting for locally sourced, organic food items not only supports local economies but also reduces the carbon footprint associated with the transportation of food items. 

This food approach benefits the environment and can lead to a healthier and more immersive camping experience.

Don’t leave a trace!

Sustainable camping is more than a set of practices; it’s a commitment to preserving our wild spaces’ natural beauty and integrity. 

By adhering to these guidelines, we ensure that the splendor of the outdoors remains undisturbed and accessible for all who seek its refuge.


Matt Johnson

Senior Content Writer

Matt is an experienced camper and glamping enthusiast with a Master's degree in Wildlife Science from Texas A&M University. Authoring posts for GlamperGear, he shares his wealth of knowledge on picturesque campsites, luxurious accommodations, and the best gear for outdoor adventures. His passion for nature and knack for comfort in the wilderness make him an expert guide for your next camping endeavor.

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