When You Camp Out, What Happens to the Environment?

Americans love camping. In 2020, 48.2 million people camped at least once, and 3.9 million new households were added to an already enormous population of campers at 86.1 million. Not only are there more campers in recent years; they’re also camping more frequently. Although experiencing the great outdoors is a good thing for any person, the explosive growth in camping is affecting the environment is terrible ways.

Is Camping Bad for the Environment?

The benefits of camping go beyond the physical, from improved fitness to better cardiovascular health. It also improves memory, boosting serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that regulates cognitive functions. When you go camping with family and friends, you enhance relationships because you build a campsite together, prep food and look after one another. And camping is also an effective way to reduce stress as you immerse yourself in quiet, natural surroundings.

But the personal benefits of camping come with a big cost to the environment.

When many campers pitch their tents near a river (or any body of water, really), the impact is quick. Areas that turn into megasites are vulnerable to soil erosion and pollutants in waterways, which create algae bloom that threaten fish reproduction.

In highly popular campsites, vegetation is flattened and trees are chopped off for firewood. When the U.S. Geological Survey studied Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the organization found the destruction of half of all the trees in the area, creating 36,000 tree stumps. The overcrowding and destruction of natural resources affects wildlife habitat, which creates a domino effect that degrades the surrounding area.

Some effects can be instantaneous, as in leaving a fire pit that sparks a devastating forest fire. Campfires help you teach one another a little about survival skill, but that roaring bonfire you worked hard on could still burn long after you’ve put it out. And the embers that still hiss are likely to ignite a spark that creates a conflagration, destroying the forest, its wildlife and potentially, nearby communities.

So yes, camping carelessly is bad for the environment.

How Do You Protect the Environment While Camping?

Camping carelessly is bad, which means you must do things differently when enjoying the great outdoors. Learn sustainable recreation practices so that what you enjoy doesn’t end up hurting wildlife and habitats.

outdoor camping
Photo by Tatiana Syrikova from Pexels

Low-impact Camping Tips

  • Choose sloped areas over flat areas for campsites because the latter causes more water runoff and pollutants with campers expanding their site.
  • When pitching your tent, choose compacted soil or sand; if camping near a water source, set up camp 200 feet away from that source. Any area that lacks plant cover would do.
  • When you’ve booked in a campsite for several days, move your tent every day some 25 to 50 yards away from other campers to another durable surface.
  • When hiking, stay on trails and leave the patch of grass be. Your adventurous spirit for choosing off-trail hiking may threaten rare plants as well.
  • Leave the wildflowers be as well and resist the urge to pluck them.
  • For bonfires, pick up deadwood instead of chopping off branches from trees.
  • Don’t feed wildlife. Animals that have been used to hikers and campers throwing them food are more susceptible to predators and suffer from nutritional imbalance.
  • Don’t disturb wildlife with your boombox. Loud music (or any noise) affects nocturnal animals who forage and hunt.
  • Educate loved ones. Before packing off the entire family in your trailer and spending the summer outdoors, talk about how each one’s actions in the wilderness create a negative impact on the environment.
  • Pack everything out when you leave — including organic matter. Food waste will not break down when thrown in the bushes as easily as it would in a compost bin. It’ll end up as trash, endangering wildlife

Leave No Trace as a Camper

The outdoor sites you visit, from national parks with campsites to remote areas, must be protected. Otherwise, their degradation will leave you with nowhere to sleep under the stars, look out into the pristine lake and appreciate an epic sunset or sunrise. And the only way to make sure your favorite spots stay as Mother Nature intended is to behave like a good visitor.

Because as campers, we are all just visitors to the great outdoors.

Think of yourself as a short-term houseguest, visiting family or a friend. What host wouldn’t be turned off by a visitor who leaves a mess, damages furniture and disturbs everyone else in the home?

Our time in the wilderness is short-lived. But those who occupy them — from the small animals to the big predators — live off the land. If our behavior and transitory time in the campsite creates an imbalance in their habitat, it’ll take years to correct.

So be considerate of the place you’re visiting. And leave no trace when you camp.

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