Around the Campfire

The Rugged Outdoors Requires Gentle Manners

For centuries, Americans that know how to live close to the land have traveled comfortably in wild country by using the resources of the wilderness. But today there are so many people out tramping around the last tiny areas of isolated, fragmented and injured wilderness that we can’t afford to play mountain man anymore; we have to tread more softly, out of respect and generosity of spirit toward the land and its wild inhabitants.

Many books give helpful detailed instruction on low-impact trekking and camping techniques, but here are a few guidelines:

Stay on designated switchbacks. Shortcutting across switchbacks on a trail causes erosion just as surely as loggers hauling trees upslope.

Think before voiding. Locate designated toilet facilities and use them. On the trail, bag toilet paper and carry it out to a proper disposal site or safely burn it in a campfire. Human feces are a pollutant if not properly buried in a cat hole dug a few inches into the soil and thoroughly covered. Dig and dispose away from temporarily dry watercourses, campsites, trails and other places where hikers may tarry. In the right place, waste can provide food for insects and worms that live in the topsoil.

Use existing fire rings. Also, only use downed and dead wood for campfires; never break limbs or twigs off dead or living trees. Never build a fire in overused or fragile areas like timberline lakeshores or above the tree line. Use a fire pan on raft and canoe trips and pack out the ashes or deposit them in the main current if that is allowed in river-specific rules. Better yet, rely on a backpacker’s camp stove.

Pack it all out. No littering; and pick up trash found along the way.

Follow the rules on float trips. Invisible camping techniques involve the use of fire pans, portable toilets, proper disposal of dishwashing water and the like. A use-appropriate river permit will have clear instructions on minimumimpact techniques that when practiced, become a habit.

The land we now call the United States of America was once a wilderness paradise, vibrant and diverse, cyclical, yet stable, pure and unpolluted, with a diversity and abundance of life that staggers the imagination. Today, the American wilderness is under continual attack by humans and vanishing rapidly. Activists at want to reverse this trend.

Dress dully. The wilderness is no place for fluorescent colors on a tent, backpack or clothing. Wear khaki or light-colored clothing (some say yellow is best) to discourage mosquitoes, which hone in on dark colors (especially blue), color contrast and movement. Avoid hunting areas in designated seasons.

Don’t camp by water in deserts. If we plop down and set up housekeeping at a rare water source, wildlife that counts on drinking from there will be repelled and may die from dehydration. Camp at least a quarter of a mile (farther is better) from isolated water sources.

Keep pollutants away from waterways. Don’t wash dishes, clean fish, take a bath or introduce soap, grease or other pollutants (biodegradable or not) into backcountry streams, lakes, potholes or springs. Swimming (not soaping up) in well-watered areas is usually harmless.

Leave native wildlife and natural objects intact. Many plants and animals are imperiled; in part, because of collection and sales of nature’s artifacts. Leave fossils, crystals and other treasures, including petroglyphs and potsherds, in place.

Finally, drive slowly in wilderness areas to protect wildlife crossing access roads.

Dave Foreman is co-author of The Big Outside Revised Edition and founder of The Rewilding Institute, headquartered in Albuquerque, NM (

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