Most camps are located in relatively remote areas. So one might expect they'd be designed for self-reliance. They'd run on locally-sourced energy, water, food, and material, and they'd manage their wastes on-site. But few do. Instead, most depend on distant supply lines that stretch over thousands of miles, which makes some sense if:

  • Energy and resources are abundant, cheap, and inexhaustible;
  • No cost is charged for greenhouse gas output or environmental impact; and/ or
  • "Civilization," in the form of expanding towns and suburbs, has over the years come to meet or surround what was once their isolated location(s).

But distant supply lines make less sense as prices rise, resources become finite, and environmental impact costs are assessed — through carbon taxes and damage-mitigation fees. Even for camps located near population centers, costs are rising as municipal and private suppliers pass on increases they're paying for the resources and services they buy from thousands of miles away.

How can you balance the advantages and challenges of remoteness? You don't need to transform your operation into a Controlled Ecological Life Support System (CELSS) like NASA's BioHome, Biosphere 2, or Biotron — although, that would make for some great programming opportunities. Nor do you need to take your facility "off the grid." But you'll enjoy three big advantages if you build your facility's self-reliance and improve how efficiently it uses its resources:

  1. As operational efficiencies increase, environmental impacts decrease.
  2. Long-term costs will decline and margins will improve as your control and management of resources, supplies, material, transport, and wastes improves.
  3. You'll join the broadening discussions and actions across North America aimed at strengthening local economies and building food security.

Can Your Camp Pass Through the Funnel?

A look at The Natural Step (a nonprofit organization with the vision of creating a sustainable society) funnel summarizes this: In the future, the businesses that succeed will be the ones that run most efficiently and innovatively, with the least negative environmental impact (see Figure 1).

For our pioneer ancestors, survival depended on self-reliance — once they'd left "civilization," they were on their own. Today, that value is mostly held by camp programs built around independent, open-air activities — outdoor leadership schools, cross-country bicycle tours, outback hiking, and river rafting. Most other overnight programs are connected directly to resources and services provided by municipal and private suppliers.

It's logical that the further a camp is located from a population center, the more it would benefit from operating self-sufficiently. Any camp that makes self-reliance investments — in efficiency and local resource development — can potentially realize returns on investments (ROI) within three-to-five-year time frames. And these investments can help reduce the disadvantages of physical distance: vulnerabilities of extended supply lines; rising costs for resources, supplies, services, transport, and waste management; and growing concerns about carbon and ecological footprints. So, what might look financially impractical now could do the following in the future:

  • Create long-term cost reductions and improved margins.
  • Provide new revenue and tax advantages (e.g., 30 percent federal subsidy for renewable energy, and deep collection discounts for recycling and composting).
  • Create site enhancements and educational, training, and marketing opportunities.
  • Reduce negative environmental impacts.
  • Attract donors, clients, and steady streams of environmentally- aware campers.
  • Build long-term viability.
  • Enhance resale value.

While most camp owners and directors have heard of "sustainability" and "green camp development" (the American Camp Association [ACA] reports nearly 90 percent of camps now do some type of environmental activities and/or studies), few reported considering self-reliance as an option — unless they ran demonstration sites or environmental education programs. But reducing environmental impacts will increasingly pay off as prices rise, and values and costs are placed on ecosystem services* and carbon footprints.

Three main factors may slow progress toward "greener" camp operations:

  1. Costs and availability of funding.
  2. Need for clarity around calculating savings and ROI.
  3. Lack of systematic ways to understand and tally accomplishments.

Every option carries costs. This is where it may help to view every "cost" as "an investment in your camp's future." The challenge is to pick "investments" that will create the widest range of positive effects. How? View every item as part of a system.

Camp Is a System

Most owners and operators think of camps as collections of parts. While each part can feed a system's success, each can contribute to its failure, too. For example: When an old air conditioning (A/C) unit burns out, most managers will just buy a new one to replace it. But wait: Where is that A/C unit located? Unless its building is insulated and weatherized, the replacement A/C unit will work harder, demand more energy, cost more to operate, and burn out as fast as the old one, and then require another costly A/C unit purchase.

From a "systems perspective," the A/C unit is one in a set of building elements. Upgrading the full set's energy efficiency will achieve:

  • Overall, long-term comfort for building occupants.
  • Cost reductions for energy, new equipment, and labor (three-to-five-year ROI).
  • More productive occupants, and possibly, improved retention.

The systems approach requires budgeting and planning ahead, and a process of continuous retrofitting over time. Don't expect to create a self-reliant camp overnight, or in one camp season. Just concentrate on leveraging each investment into long-term savings and benefits for your entire operation.

The principles William McDonough and Michael Braungart set forth in their book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, can be used as a blueprint for self-reliance. A wide range of enterprises have worked with McDonough and Braungart to implement Cradle to Cradle principles — Nike, FedEx, PepsiCo, Ford Motor Co., the City of Chicago, the United States Air Force, and the United States Postal Service, America's only shipping company with Cradle to Cradle Certified(CM) products. This is what they do that you can try as well:

  1. Make waste = food. Humans are the only species on Earth who make waste that's unusable to any other species (including themselves). The first goal in self-sufficiency is to eliminate the very concept of "waste," not just reduce waste throughout your facilities and operations. This can be achieved through smart ordering, recycling, composting, on-site sewage management, sustainable design, and lean operations.
  2. Use current solar income. Fossil fuels embody ancient solar income, from long-decomposed plants and animals. Their "gift" to us is finite. On the other hand, geothermal, wind, active and passive solar, macro- and micro-hydro, compost methane, and actual horse power provide energy through current solar income. They're sustainable and (except for the horse) inexhaustible. Likewise, the companies use local water income, such as rainwater or well water drawn at less than re-charge rate, rather than water income drawn from far-away sources. Use both energy and water efficiently.
  3. Celebrate diversity. Your facility exists in an ecological niche, where nature's diversity provides models and materials to inspire and inform your design. So, are you using "one size fits all" designs because they're cheaper in the short run? Or do your facility designs draw on local energy and material flows, "fit" within the local landscape, and maximize their positive effects on nature?

Backcasting with Stakeholders to Achieve the Five Levels of Self-Reliance

The Natural Step uses a technique called "backcasting," in which they work backward from a desired endpoint through the approach steps, to realize where a client's trajectory must start. The technique works best when all stakeholders in the process are engaged — owners, operators, donors, managers, staff, counselors, even campers — from conceptual input to implementation. This gives all participants a vision of where each of their efforts will lead and fills them with excitement at achieving their goals.

What is a goal for you, how far is your camp from achieving it, and what steps must you take to get there?

Levels of Efficiency and Resource Building

Presently, we see wide variations in levels of self-reliance among camps, because of differences in their individual resources and purposes. So rather than present a long list of options, let's instead sort out five levels of efficiency and resource building that camps can achieve. The first two contain relatively easy and inexpensive steps, and pay back within short time frames. They start with picking "low hanging fruit" and tapping widely available, low-cost, or often free advice, supplies, and assets. The next three steps become increasingly challenging and expensive, with longer ROI periods. They involve larger, more challenging tasks, where consultants and specialized equipment may be required to take the big steps.

Each step requires planning and funding, and can be completed with others on the camp's schedule, according to priorities it sets. This article offers only an outline of the process, to give readers some ideas about how it works. At a minimum, however, all camps should be able achieve Level 2 operation.

Level 1

Characteristics: Easy to implement, low costs, 1–2 year ROI
Basic energy and water efficiency, basic recycling (cardboard and paper)
Support Resources:
Suppliers (water, energy, material, waste management), government agencies, ACA, library, and online sources
Items to Complete:

  • Fix water leaks, install low-flow plumbing in bathrooms, kitchens, and yards.
  • Set minimum temperatures on thermostats, water heaters, and refrigerators.
  • Use low-energy lighting and timers on all exhaust fans except kitchen.
  • Recycle office paper and cardboard; favor e-mail over printing.
  • Eliminate toxic materials — for washing, cleaning, building, etc.
  • Collect campers by bus from central locations; no parental drive-ins.

Level 2

Complete Level 1; then move on to Level 2.

Characteristics: Low/moderate cost, 1–3 year ROI
Deeper efficiency; full recycling, basic composting
Support Resources:
Same as Level 1
Items to Complete:

  • Install low-flow or composting toilets and flush-less urinals; moisture sensors to indicate landscape watering needs.
  • Post signs, posters, Web entries on eco-accomplishments; invite campers and staff to create eco-ideas, activities, programs, and recognize the best ones with awards.
  • Initiate reduced food waste (ort) dining hall competitions, basic composting (worm bin), and recycling of all materials (paper, glass, metal, plastic).
  • Install motion sensor switches for public rooms and outdoor lights, and shade south-facing windows.

Level 3

Complete Levels 1 and 2; then move on to Level 3.

Characteristics: Moderate to high cost, 2–4 year ROI
Advanced efficiency and composting; local sourcing
Support Resources:
Same as Level 1, plus subject experts and consultants
Items to Complete:

  • Track equipment maintenance; replace electric equipment eight or more years old with more efficient units; clean all HVAC and dryer ducts; insulate water pipes.
  • Announce no-waste camp policy; engage suppliers in packaging reduction and take-back of non-recyclable materials.
  • Equip kitchen and dining hall for food waste collection; arrange on- site organic materials collection and on-site processing or removal by contractor.
  • Begin sourcing food from a camp garden and/or local farms and food producers.

Level 4

Complete Levels 1–3; then move on to Level 4.

Characteristics: Moderate to high cost, 3–5 year ROI
Advanced efficiency, initial resource development
Support Resources:
Same as Level 3
Items to Complete:

  • Perform thermal imaging on all enclosed buildings, freezer(s), refrigerator(s) to detect leaks; do leak detection and efficiency evaluation for all HVAC components and ducting.
  • Start building weatherization/insulation program; seal kitchen refrigerator and freezer openings if needed; seal leaky HVAC ducts; install solar attic fans.
  • Install solar-assisted and on-demand water heaters.
  • Begin rainwater catchment with downspout rain barrels.

Level 5

Complete Levels 1–4; then move on to Level 5.

Characteristics: High cost, 5 year ROI
Self-sufficient, C2C operation
Support Resources:
Same as Level 3
Items to Complete:

  • Assess ecosystem services, carbon- or eco-footprints for program development, vegetation and habitat identification, future building development, etc.
  • Complete water catchment-recovery and grey-water systems to supply camp needs.
  •  Complete on-site energy generation, composting, and sewage processing.
  • Weatherize/insulate all buildings for zero-net energy; new buildings built "green."
  • Partner with localities to minimize light pollution, ambient noise, etc.
  • Organic, locally-sourced kitchen, with field to table food component.

Every camp will create its own balance between what it does for itself, and what it depends upon from outside. But whatever learning process it uses to get there, the objective is always the same: Design the camp so its effects are uniformly positive, and the results help restore its environment.

*Author's Note: Ecosystem services are "services" nature provides at no cost, such as oxygen, carbon sink, habitat, water filtration, erosion control, weather mitigation, food, medicinal plants, recreation areas, and so on.

A consultant on sustainable business, building and lifestyles, Martin Westerman is author of Easy Green, A Handbook of Earth-Smart Activities and Operating Procedures for Youth Programs (ACA, 1993), The Business Environmental Handbook (Oasis, 1993), and numerous articles, and has served as Lecturer on Sustainable Business for U. of Washington Foster Business School and others. He lives in Seattle. Contact the author at

Originally published in the 2011 September/October Camping Magazine.