Getting out and exploring the outdoors is an integral part of our Western lifestyle, and for many of us living in the West, camping is a favorite part of summer. Witnessing the power of the wilderness—from ancestral forests to retreating glaciers to iconic grizzly bears—connects us to ourselves, to each other, and to the land.
Some like to make plans in advance—gathering with family at the same lakeside spot every year—while others prefer to wing it, throwing a sleeping bag down under the stars after a daylong hike into our nation’s roadless areas.
In between these two extremes there are unlimited ways to camp and enjoy public lands, but one thing is for sure: more people than ever are heading out to camp in 2020, and not everyone knows the best practices for doing so.
There are one million square miles of public lands in the United States, and as Americans we are all part owners of this property. The less populated western states always see an influx in tourism during the summer months, but because of COVID-19 there’s been a marked uptick in travel from the more densely populated areas.
The easily accessible campgrounds and trails are beyond crowded, and the strain on the land is significant. A campground-search app called The Dyrt reported a 500 percent increase in users during the month of June.
A lot of campers haven’t been educated in how to enjoy the outdoors without leaving a mark, and the consequences can be serious for wildlife like grizzly bears, black bears, and more. As good stewards of the land, it’s our responsibility to control what we can, namely our behavior. Rick Sanger worked as a backcountry ranger in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park for two decades, and he wants people to realize that some of their actions can change the wilderness for decades.
Rick believes that education is key, and more often than not people make decisions that affect the wilderness simply because they don’t know better. He gives this example, “Having a fire can produce scars that can last 70 or 80 years. And once a fire ring is created, the rocks won’t move themselves back to their natural position!”
It’s critical that we protect the land not only for the land itself, but also for the next visitors and especially for the animals whose homes we are spending time in. Our effect on wildlife is more impactful than we think.
Here are four strategies for an outdoor experience that’s better for humans and animals alike.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
During COVID-19 times, one of the most important things to consider is where you’re sleeping. In the past it was easy to leave after work on a summer evening and find a secluded place to camp, but now even the once-empty places are packed both with both locals and tourists.
Know before you go means:
- Find out in advance about closures. Some National Park campgrounds planned to open for the summer, but then reversed course to open later or remain closed for the season. Just because the park is open doesn’t mean everything within it is open. Check and double check.
- Have a plan and a backup plan. This is not the time to squeeze in. If you arrive at a place where you expected to find space and it’s crowded, move on to your next option. Social distancing is essential, even in the wilderness.
- This also applies to day trips. If you arrive and the trailhead parking lot is full, you can assume the trails and waterways will be busy as well. There’s a lot of space to explore—use this as an opportunity to get creative.
- Always let someone know what your plans (and backup plans) are, and when to expect you back. Leaving this info in a note on your car dashboard can be a smart safety measure.
KEEP IT SIMPLE—YOU DON’T NEED ALL THAT STUFF
Beginner campers often think they need more than they do. There are some terrific guides available for beginners, including this one from Nici Holt Cline, a Missoula, Mont. mom who’s been camping her entire life.
Here are a few tips from the guide:
- Because camping relies on your instincts, curiosity, guts, awareness and scrappy drive, you already know how to camp. And you don’t need much to make it happen. Don’t stress about the perfect setup. Start with what you’ve got and what you need to purchase. (Hint: Bear Spray is a must have.) You’ll work out what works for you and what doesn’t and then you can make investments.
- Prep one-pot dinners or breakfast that can just be thrown on the camp stove or over hot coals. Meals that are made ahead and frozen in Ziploc bags will thaw in your cooler while also keeping the cooler cold.
- When camping, we have everything we need: shelter, warm, sustenance, and each other. There’s endless connection and discovery in the bare, basic needs of humans and boundless offering of nature.
- Keep your toolbox and first-aid kits packed in bins for the season so you don’t have to scramble to remember everything. This ensures you won’t forget the essentials, including bear spray.
AFTER PACKING LIGHT, PACK IT OUT
Packing light means you can leave home on a whim, set up camp quickly, and you’re less likely to leave things behind. It also means that you’re making less of an impact on the wild places. Knowing what you do need and what you don’t makes for a better experience for you and everyone around you, including wildlife.
- You don’t need to wash your hair while camping (yes, not even with the biodegradable soaps) and you probably don’t need those portable speakers, which alter the wilderness experience for you as well as for your human and animal neighbors.
- While there’s a lot you don’t need, depending on where you go you might need bear-resistant food storage. The result of humans not properly storing food can be devastating to bears, and The Interagency Grizzly Bear Council certifies products and provides a great resource for up-to-date information.
- Keep in mind that garbage cans might be full, so instead of piling on top of or around them, make sure you have sturdy bags and can pack out all of your trash. Sure, it might stink, but that odor is a wildlife attractant. As a guest in the backcountry it’s your responsibility to remove everything you brought in.
- Don’t even leave behind a banana peel or apple core—these things aren’t part of the natural diet for wildlife. On one end of the spectrum your food scraps might disrupt the digestion of an animal like a chipmunk, but on the other end it could be deadly for a grizzly bear who comes to a campsite to sniff out the scraps that humans weren’t meticulous about removing from their habitat.
REMEMBER THAT YOU ARE A VISITOR
The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics has been training people in outdoor stewardship for 25 years and in addition to their timeless content, they’ve also shared resources for how to mindfully travel in the outdoors during a pandemic. There’s no such thing as being too gentle on the earth.
Jill Wheeler of Boulder, Colo. is a self-described “Leave No Trace Freak.” Jill has adventured between British Columbia and Peru, and has guided many travelers on their first outdoor experiences. Jill recognizes that “We get out to nature to connect with our more wild selves and to some people LNT might feel like ‘another set of rules,’ but I think of it in a completely different way.”
Jill frames individual and collective stewardship so the extra effort isn’t seen as an inconvenience but rather as an opportunity to “engage in natural places as an empowering way to make a difference.”
The management of public lands is controversial, but one thing that can’t be disputed is that our wild places are at risk from overuse. So much of the world feels out of control right now, but to treat the land and its inhabitants with the deepest respect is not only within reach, but the brass ring we should be aiming for.