Getting out into nature and going hiking or camping is really, really good for you. It can literally make us happier, for example. And it can make us more creative. But as good as it is for us, it can be pretty bad for the environment.
"It's not so much that there's one specific activity people are doing that are damaging the parks," says Kristen Kubina, the Leave No Trace Colorado state educator. It's little things—like people creating new trails or depositing waste where they're not supposed to—that add up and create a huge, irreversible problem.
Basically, if you went out and trashed a campsite, the Earth would recover. The issue is it's not just you. It's you, plus the people after you, plus the people after them, plus the people after them. The Earth never gets a chance to heal. "It's not that the problem is individual impacts by individual people," Kubina explains. "It's cumulative impacts."
That's why Leave No Trace was created. The idea behind the national program is that the more people who know basic eco-friendly etiquette, the less combined impact we'll have on campsites and wilderness.
You can (and should) study up on all seven principles of Leave No Trace, but in the meantime, here are nine basic things you can do to be a more conscientious visitor in nature—or, in other words, less of an as*hole.
1. Prep your snacks.
The idea here is to avoid bringing in waste so you don't have to worry about accidentally leaving it behind. That means unwrapping your snack bars at home, taking the stickers off produce, and pre-coring and pre-peeling what you can. Anything not native to the environment can hurt it—even biodegradable waste like grape stems and banana peels.
2. Travel in small groups.
We know, we know: You and all 17 of your closest friends want to go hiking together. But smaller groups leave smaller footprints both on trails and in campsites, so if you can, ditch a few friends. If you really can't, split into smaller groups while hiking and building campsites, then rendezvous at preplanned times in open areas.
3. Be smart about your transportation.
If you and your entire group each take individual Hummers to the campground, you and nature are already starting off on the wrong foot. Consider carpooling or taking public transportation to your destination instead. Or, if you can swing it, travel by electric car—it's your most environmentally friendly option. And since newer cars like Chevrolet's Bolt EV can go a few hundred miles on one charge, you don't have to worry about being stranded with a dead car on a campground.
4. Don't stray from the trail.
The goal here is to avoid walking over (and camping on top off) natural vegetation as much as possible—the fewer crushed plants, the better. That means hiking in single file so you don't widen preestablished trails, taking off your shoes and wading straight through puddles and streams that block your path, and keeping all tent stakes safely within the campsite's boundaries.
5. Look, don't touch.
You know that saying "leave no stone unturned"? Don't do that. Try to disturb the environment as little as possible—every overturned rock, broken plant, and hole dug negatively affects the ecosystem you're visiting. Same goes for wildlife. Feeding animals messes with their health, habitat, and natural instinct to hunt.
6. Don't play with fire.
Keep campfires small. Like, SMALL small. You shouldn't burn any stick you can't break by hand—any bigger than that and you're going to be doing damage to trees, animal habitats, or both. Really, though, you shouldn't make a fire at all unless you absolutely have to—cook on a lightweight stove if you can and use a portable lantern for light. If you do make a fire, keep an eye on it until it goes out completely, then scatter the cool ashes.
7. Poop wisely.
If you've gotta go No. 2, your best option is to use a something like a Biffy Bag and take your waste with you. Your second-best option is to make sure you're at least 200 feet (about 70 steps) from water, camps, and trails, then dig a cathole that's 6 to 8 inches deep. When you're done, fill in your hole and disguise it with leaves and branches. Are these options a little gross? Sure. But when you're in the wild, it's the most hygienic way to do it.
8. Watch what you do with water.
Whenever you have to dispose of a bunch of water at once—say, emptying a water bottle or washing your hands or dishes—you should scatter the water instead of dumping it. It will evaporate faster and the less-concentrated smells from your food/body/whatever won't attract animals to the trail or campsite.
9. Pack everything out.
If you're away from park-supplied waste containers, you're bringing it with you. That means used TP, waste (human and otherwise), banana peels, wrappers, food scraps, everything. You should never burn trash, and you don't want to leave it in the environment, so wrap it up and put it back in your backpack. It's coming home with you.