Reducing Your Impact: Tips for Treading Softly on Mother Earth

by Kathy Henchey and Michelle Carvajal

As summer is closing, you’ve probably spent at least some time at a park, forest, recreational area, and of course, camp. No matter how much time you spent in these outdoor areas, you may have noticed traces of human activity, such as garbage on the ground, lost articles of clothing or equipment, a stream with soap suds, an area of earth that looks burnt, freshly cut wildflowers and plants, the infamous initials carved into a tree, or maybe some new trails made through a wilderness area. Whatever trace, small or large, there was impact to the natural environment.


According to the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), in just the ten-year span from 1984 to 1994 there was an increase of 6 million people using designated wilderness areas. Unfortunately, this increase in usage has also caused an increase in human impact on wilderness areas.



Teaching Minimum-impact Techniques
Within the last several years, a significant increase has been made in minimum-impact education. Programs, such as Leave No Trace (LNT), Tread Lightly, and Conservation USA, have been developed to teach the general public skills that encourage a better relationship with the earth and an understanding of its carrying capacities. A portion of ACA’s Outdoor Living Skills program educates people about minimum-impact camping. In addition, at the national parks and forests, many of the visitor stations offer free publications that detail simple low-impact camping skills.

Many of these parks and forests are practicing another tactic aimed a reducing trash. The parks are removing trash cans from the facility and having park users take their trash with them when they leave. In many sports and camping stores, you can find "Leave No Trace" T-shirts and other apparel. It’s becoming "cool" to support the low impact of wilderness areas.

      “Minimum Impact” Defined
Minimum-impact camping means using outdoor living skills that have little affect on the soil, water, plants, and animals in an area. This practice is sometimes called “no trace” or “low impact.” The ACA Outdoor Living Skills program uses the term “minimum impact” because it is more realistic; it is impossible for camps not to show wear after a summer of activities. Therefore, ACA promotes responsible use of the outdoors. By practicing minimum-impact skills in camp and out of camp, you can limit your impact.

Backcountry permits as education
The National Park Service is using park agreements as a form of education. When you receive a backcountry permit, it is an agreement to be a responsible user of the wilderness and to practice LNT techniques. The National Park Service has hopes that if visitors can begin making sound judgments during their visits, then fewer future regulations will need to be placed on wilderness use.

Already many regulations have been placed on the usage of certain parks. These regulations can include anything from limiting the number of people per group to high entrance fees. Many areas must now be closed part of the year to allow for re-growth and ecosystem repair.

According to John Hart’s book Walking Softly in the Wilderness, wilderness permits for trips were established to limit use in popular areas and to be sure that the number of visitors each day did not go over daily quotas. Two examples of this are at Yellowstone National Park and at the National Wildlife Refuge, the Okefenoke Swamp. Yellowstone National Park requires permits for all backcountry use and requires reservations in most areas. The park will close its gates to visitors once a quota for a particular day is reached. The Okefenoke Swamp restricts the number of tours that go in and out of the park each day. Each overnight stay must be in a designated area and there is a limit to two nights stay during the months of March and April. Restrictions placed on both of these wilderness areas try to meet the needs of the physical, biological, and psychological carrying capacities of their areas.

How to Minimize Your Impact
Although federal and state agencies regulate populations and regulate conservation efforts in wilderness areas, there is still a great deal that all people can do to minimize impact on the great outdoors. Following are some low-impact techniques to follow when planning a trip to the backcountry.

The first practical tip to follow is to plan your trip in advance. The better you plan ahead, the more likely you will be able to handle any surprises. Begin by learning all about the area you will be visiting. Make sure that you know all the rules of the wilderness area, for example, permits needed, group size, fire capabilities. Check on the availability of water sources, the average weather at that time of year, the type of surfaces you will be traveling, and use of fires (many backcountry areas prohibit fires).


What to Pack
Once you have made a good assessment of the area, assess what you are packing. It is always good to pack extra food and extra warm clothing. Also consider bringing an extra pair of shoes, such as sneakers or sandals, that do not damage plant life like a heavy boot does. They also feel much better after a long day of hiking!

In considering your equipment, remember that a camp stove has no impact on the earth unlike a campfire. Fire will leave a scar wherever it is lit and kills the plants and insects that are just below it. Also, fires are prohibited in some areas. Unless, there is an established fire ring, do use fires for cooking or entertainment. Instead, cook your meals on a compact camp stove and gather around the glow of a candle lantern!

When considering your equipment, also consider the food you are bringing. Always repack your food in reusable bags and containers. This will cut down on weight and room in your backpack and enable you to repackage the food you don’t eat. You never want to leave behind garbage. Follow the motto: "Pack it in, pack it out." This means that anything foreign to the area should be taken with you. Check your campsites carefully, and use proper hygiene at all times.

      How Much Impact Is Too Much
In her book Take a New Bearing, Phyllis M. Ford asks readers to consider three things when looking at their relationship with the earth:

physical carrying capacity
: “how much use the land can stand before its quality is permanently diminished”

biological carrying capacity: “the amount of use that plants and animals can stand before they are permanently diminished”

psychological carrying capacity: “the effect of humans on other humans”; when is an area too crowded and noisy and, therefore, unappealing


By properly preparing yourself and your group for a wilderness trip, you will reduce the possibilities of emergency situations. You will also reduce your need to use the wilderness as an emergency tool.

Leave no trace of your presence
Once you have reached your wilderness destination, keep in mind the fragile ecosystem you are entering. You will want to leave the area as you entered it. If an area is green and has various flora and fauna, don’t walk there, sleep there, or sit there. Some grasses and plants are more durable than others; a pocket guide to the local plants is helpful.

Also, when traveling, think about where you are walking. When experiencing the wonders of off-trail hiking or bushwhacking, remember to disperse your impact. If all members of the group concentrate their efforts in one area, then a new trail will quickly be created, which is exactly the opposite of your intended off-trail hike. Anytime movement is concentrated in one area, there is a greater impact than in areas of low concentration.

Another minimum-impact ethic to remember is to leave what you find. A familiar motto says, "Leave only footprints, take only pictures." Avoid picking wildflowers, plants, or disturbing animals. Most of these ecosystems can be jolted easily. If you were to pick too many plants, you would be removing an animal’s food source and also depriving another person of enjoying the same experience you did. Remember, you are not the last person to visit the wilderness; many will follow you.

Setting up camp
Choose your campsite carefully. Begin by deciding if you want to use a well-established or pristine site. If you choose a well-established site, no further damage can really be done to it. But if you choose a pristine site, you will want to leave no trace of your inhabitance when you depart. Consider what kind of plant life is growing in the area, and remember, areas with fallen pine needles or dirt tend to make better campsites, both for their comfort and for their lack of damage to the natural environment.

When choosing your site, be sure that there is enough room for your group. A large group in a small area does a lot more concentrated damage than when the same size group is spread out. The total size of the area should include a kitchen area as well as a sleeping area. Make sure that no activity, including cooking, washing, bathroom utilities, or sleeping, occurs within 200 feet of a water source and at least 100 feet from a trail.

In some wilderness areas, the threat of wild animals is higher than in others. To minimize your disturbance, correctly pack and hang your food at night. Animals normally do not eat the same food as humans. It is important that they do not become dependent on camp food.

Finally, remember the joy of solitude and the psychological carrying capacity of the woods. Many people come to the wilderness to escape the crowds and noise of the city. Do not disturb other visitors; leave them with the quiet that they came for.

There are many more outdoor ethics to practice. Read about all the minimum-impact techniques available before heading out on a trip. It is important to be as knowledgeable as possible when beginning your journey into the great outdoors.

Minimizing Your Impact at Camp
Many of these same minimum-impact skills can be used in school fields, in camps that are set into the countryside, and in camps that are set in deeper wilderness areas. Just the trash from one camp can have an impact. Remember not to leave unattended garbage around for local raccoons or opossums. Cut up six-pack can holders so animals do not get their heads caught in them. Besides the aesthetics of a clean camp, it impresses parents and keeps animals from becoming dependent on humans.

If you have surrounding woods, there are many edge animals that live right on the edges of the woods. Maintaining the flora and fauna here increases the possibilities of campers seeing a deer for the first time. It also increases the possibilities of seeing nesting birds and other wildlife. If you maintain you trails, you can help maintain natural flood zones and decrease erosion, and therefore, make trails last longer. Keep your lake, river, stream, and pool cleaner by not eating or cooking within a certain distance of it; if you do, be careful not to lose trash or clean dishes in the water.

"Minimum-impact camping is a way of life, a philosophy of caring," says Phyllis M. Ford in Take a New Bearing. All camps should develop a "land ethic." Simply decide how you want your camp and wilderness to be preserved. Camp is the best place to begin minimum-impact skills and to demonstrate to everyone how they can practice these principles wherever they go.

Related Article
Building Environmental Awareness
: Teaching campers to minimize their impact

Web Sites of Interest
Tread Lightly

Leave No Trace
National Park Service, Leave No Trace

Kathy Henchey is program director for Camp Ondessonk in Ozark, Illinois. She is the former manager of professional development for the American Camping Association.

Michelle Carvajal has coordinated and taught outdoor education programs for children and adults. She is meetings coordinator for the American Camping Association.


Originally published in the 2000 September/November issue of Camping Magazine.