There is nothing better than pitching your tent below towering pine trees, filling up your water bottle in a sparkling lake and falling asleep under the stars. Camping is by far my favourite thing to do, and I’ve spent the last six years helping other people learn how to camp. Something I always try to emphasize though is “eco camping”, that is, camping in an environmentally sustainable way.
In this guide, I will cover three things:
- The Benefits of Eco Camping – Why it matters and how it helps the environment.
- Eco Camping in a Tent – How to be camp in the wild in an environmentally sustainable way.
- Sustainable Camping Gear – Gear that has minimal impact on the environment.
I won’t go into detail on camping at eco-lodges in this post. That’s a meaty topic and will be saved for another post!
What is “Eco Camping”?
Basically, eco camping is a term used to describe environmentally friendly camping. Anyone can pitch a tent and say they’re camping. But are they camping with environmental stewardship top of mind? Are they making smart decisions that minimize the impact they have on the environment around them?
Realistically, all camping should be eco camping. But some people aren’t aware of how they’re actions impact the environment around them and may still do things that are harmful – without even knowing it.
Eco Camping is a journey. No one is perfect and we all make mistakes. Don’t beat yourself up because one time you buried toilet paper or picked leaves off of a tree. Commit to doing better and continuously improving your eco camping skills.
The Benefits of Eco Camping
Minimize Impact on the Environment
Camping is excellent and it’s something I recommend everyone do. But it’s so important that we do so through sustainable camping. We want to protect and conserve these wild spaces for years to come.
Through eco camping, we engage in specific practices that minimize our impact on the environment. We strive to Leave No Trace – or possibly, leave a place better than we found it.
Promote Environmental Conservation
There are some environment activists that don’t think people should be getting out into nature at all. The best way to have no impact, they argue, is not to be there at all.
While there is obviously some truth in this, by avoiding wild spaces entirely we lose out on an amazing opportunity. In addition to being beneficial to mental and physical health, time spent in wilderness contributes to environmental conservation. Here is an example:
One of my favourite places in Ontario is Wolf Lake in Temagami. The area has been underpressure by forestry companies who want to log the surrounding area. I’m not alone in my love of Wolf Lake though; hundreds if not thousands of people have experienced the beauty and majgic of this place and continue to show their support for Wolf Lake. “Save Wolf Lake” posts are scattered across social media; government officials get bombarded by petitions and calls from concerned citizens. Do you think this type of conservation effort would be possible if people haven’t experience Wolf Lake themselves?
People protect what they care about. And they care about what they know.
So by practising eco camping, you are contributing to environmental conservation!
Reduce Greenhouse Gases
One benefit to camping that isn’t discussed enough is how it is a low-emissions alternative to other vacation options. I think vacations are wonderful, especially for de-stressing, improving mental health and learning new things. But vacations that involve short- or long-haul flights or road trip itineraries result in a lot of greenhouse gas emissions.
Then consider a vacation where you are mostly moving by human power, whether hiking, paddling, biking or another activity. Sure, there are the emissions involved in getting to your destination, but that pales in comparison to a flight to Europe.
Find Wildlife Spotting Opportunities
Whether you’re staying at an ecolodge in the middle of the rain forest or you’re pitching a tent in the mountains, staying in the wilderness offer amazing wildlife opportunities. Because animals tend to avoid busy and loud environments, you’re unlikely to see them in their natural environment.
Non-Environmental Benefits to Eco Camping
Saving Money (sometimes)
Another benefit to camping is that it’s often cheaper than alternative vacation options (though this depends on where it is you’re camping). Campsite reservations typically range from $8 to $40 per night, which is considerably cheaper than a hotel stay or Airbnb. Likewise, there are not restaurants in the woods.
Promote Mental and Physical Health
Camping is an amazing activity for improving both mental and physical health. There are easily hundreds of studies that have shown how being in nature promotes mental well-being, and how the amount of activity inherent in camping promotes physical well-being.
Eco Camping in a Tent: Tips for Sustainable Camping
Here is a comprehensive list of actions you can take to minimize your impact when camping. By following these actions, you will be practising eco-friendly camping and doing your part to respect and conserve our wild spaces.
Location: Choosing a Destination
Avoid crowded parks. Through a combination of greater accessibility and information, more and more people are learning how to camp. This is great! But it has resulting in some destinations get more visitors than they can sustainably support. Meanwhile, there are plenty of wonderful destinations that haven’t gotten Instagram-famous yet and don’t get many visitors at all. Do your research and seek out destinations that are less visited.
Camp in the off-season. If there is a destination you really want to go to but it’s very popular, consider travelling there in the off-season or on weekdays.
Transportation: Getting to Your Campsite
Carpool to your destination: If you’re camping with other people, carpool to the destination.
Consider taking public / private transport if available: For example, some parks offer shuttle services from downtown hubs to the park office. I’ve taken ParkBus from downtown to Toronto to Algonquin Provincial Park and this not only saves on emissions, but also saves me from having to drive 3.5 hours myself.
Reduce flights: I’m not going to say “don’t take flights” because some amazing destinations can only be accessed by bush planes and float planes (i.e. Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories). Instead, strive for a balance between driving destinations and flying destinations. If you book one trip that involves a flight, make your next one a drive-in destination.
Packing: Minimize Packaging
This is something I still struggle with personally. It’s so hard to avoid disposable packaging, and this is especially true when eco camping.
Avoid single use plastic where possible. Pack food in bulk sizes. Rather than having an individual bag for every item for each day, pack all ingredients in a single bag. In addition, consider using non-plastic packaging (like resusable silicone bags, see below). And finally, if you do bring plastic bags, bring them home to wash and reuse.
Use reusable containers where possible. If you can spare the weight and bulk, bring ingredients in reusable containers. Nalgene makes some great containers that are secure but not too, too bulky.
Here are some plastic-free packaging options:
- Beeswax Paper: I haven’t tried this on trip yet, but a few of my friends have. If you try it out, let me know how it goes!
- Silicone Bags: I’ve only had this on one or two of my trips, but I really liked it. They do take up more space and weight, but it isn’t as substantial as a reuseable container. Plus, they can go in the dishwasher when you’re home and be reused.
And bring a reusable water bottle, of course.
If you only go out camping 1 – 2 times per year, you probably don’t need all of your own gear. Consider borrowing gear from friends or renting gear from a place like REI or MEC. This is especially true if you’re new to camping: save money while trying out different products. Once you start camping more regularly, you can invest in gear knowing exactly what you want.
If any of your gear breaks, don’t throw it away. Many outdoor gear companies have programs to repair broken gear. For example, Patagonia will repair rips and tears in clothing. MSR will send you replacement parts for your tent or stove. This makes gear last longer and keeps it out of landfills.
And once you are ready to retire gear, see if you can donate it (assuming it’s in reasonable quality). When I worked at a camping summer camp, we loved it when people would donate their old gear. Many kids who come to camp don’t have appropriate gear – that rain jacket might be dirty and a little too small for you, but it’ll keep a kid dry on their first camping trip.
Packing: Avoid Products with Toxic Chemicals
This is a super important point for sustainable camping, but an often overlooked one. Many of the sunscreens, bug sprays and other products we use contain chemicals that are harmful to the environment. This is especially true for fragile environments, such as small lakes, wetlands, alpine and arctic environments.
To avoid accidentally contaminating these environments, use only all-natural, non-toxic products. Here are some options for common products you’d use for camping:
- All Natural Toothpaste: Tom’s Natural Toothpaste
- All Natural Sunscreen: All-Natural Reef-Safe Sunscreen
Waste: Correctly Dispose of Human Waste
Unless you follow a strict all-natural diet, the food we eat contains lots of chemicals. As such, human waste (that is, urine and poop) contains trace amount of these chemicals and they can be harmful to the environment. In addition, human poop contains bacteria and other microorganisms that can be harmful. All this to say, an extremely important component of eco camping is ensuring we deal with human waste in a responsible way.
If there is an outhouse / pit toilet available at your campsite, please use it. The hole that the poop goes into is deep and study, and has been built in such a way to prevent it from escaping and contaminating the surroundings.
If there are no outhouse / pit toilet facilities, you must either bury your poop (if you are camping in a forest) or pack it out with you (if you are camping in the mountains or arctic). To bury your poop, bring a trowel and dig a hole 6 inches deep and fill the hole when you are done and pack out your toilet paper. Do not bury toilet paper. To pack out your poop, bring a WAG Bag and know how to use it.
Read more: How to Poop in the Woods
Waste: Correctly Dispose of Dish Water
Depending on the environment where you’re eco camping, you can either dispose of dish water in an environmentally friendly way (see below) or you must pack out your dish water. Check what the park rules say for your destination specifically.
If you can dispose of your dish water, follow these guidelines:
- Scrape excess food into a garbage bag before washing your dishes
- Use a very small amount of biodegradable soap
- Once you’re done with your dish water, walk it 200 ft from your campsite and any water source
- Dig a hole 6 inches deep
- Pour the dish water into the hole, being careful not to let any food particles in
- Fill the hole with soil
- Dispose excess food particles in your garbage bag
Waste: Pack Out All Garbage
Pack out everything you pack in. Everything you bring to the campsite should come back with you. This includes packaging (plastic, cans, wrappers, bottles) and food scraps. If you choose to smoke on camping trips, you should pack out cigarette butts – do not leave them in the campfire. Likewise, do not burn cans and leave them in the fire pit.
Minimizing Impact: Build Responsible Campfires
If there is a regional fire ban, or a particular park does not permit campfires, please respect this. Fire bans can exist for a few reasons. A particularly dry season increases the risk of devastating forest fires. Or there might not be a lot of dead wood avoidable to build a campfire, causing some people to break branches off of live trees. This is often the case in mountainous or coastal environmental. Whatever the rules are, please follow them.
If you can build a fire, use the fire pit provided. When you build a new fire pit, the ash and soot from the fire scars the rock below and this can be damaging to certain geographies. For example, on the Precambrian Shielf, fire permentantly scars the rock, making it difficult for moss and lichen to grow.
Keep the fire contained within the fire pit. Bonfires are fun, but not if they result in a forest fire. Ensure the fire is always of a size that you can control.
Minimizing Impact: Respect Wildlife
Respecting wildlife involves two things.
Don’t intentionally attract wildlife. This mainly comes down to leaving food out and around your campsite, especially overnight. If you do this, you’ll likely end up with little critters (chipmunks, squirrels and raccoons) getting into and eating your food. However, you may also attract something bigger – like a bear. Not only is that safety hazard for you, but it introduces unnatural food into the animals’ diets.
Ensure you always give wildlife plenty of space. Seeing a moose or a bear or another animal in the wild is awesome and is one of the best parts about eco camping. But we need to ensure we give the animals plenty of space, for their safety and ours.
Minimizing Impact: Stay on Trails and Camp at Campsites
Always stay on hiking trails and camp on established campsites. I know it doesn’t seem like one person going off trail for a better view matters; but when everyone has this mentality bad things happen.
When trails get widened and side trails develop, the soil compacts and makes it harder for certain plants to grow and insects to move through the soil. Not to mention that the organisms that were on the surface get killed – and some, like mosses, lichen and fungi, are slow growing; repeated damage and they won’t grow back. Finally, all this can contribute to increased erosion. Establishing makeshift campsites can cause similar damage.
So unless your safety depends on it, you can be a champion for eco camping simply by staying where you’re supposed to be!
Note: Be especially mindful of camping on island sites. I know island sites are gorgeous and everyone loves them, but they tend to get a ton of use and, as a result, have way more garbage, human waste, trampling and general human impact.
Minimizing Impact: Sweep Your Campsite
After you’ve packed up but before you leave, sweep through your campsite for trash. Once everything is packed up, it’ll be easy to spot a stray sock or a food wrapper. Pack everything you find (even if it isn’t yours). One of the most important tenents of eco camping is to always leave the campsite better than you found it.
Education: Teach Others About Eco Camping
As you get better at eco camping, teach others about the ways they too can minimize their impact and practice sustainable camping.
If you see someone burning cans in the fire or going off trail say something. It can be uncomfortable telling people about the negative impacts of their actions, so here are a few things I’ve been trying:
- Ask questions: “I’m sure there’s a great viewpoint from there, but have you considered the impact walking off the trail will have on the lichen and mosses below your feet? They are very sensitive to disturbances.”
- Be humble and demonstrate how you’re still learning too: “Something I learned recently was that chemicals in human food can be harmful to organisms in the water. Let’s try disposing dish water in a hole, rather than in the lake.”
- Offer to help and share: “Your sunscreen actually contains chemicals that can be deadly to microorganisms in the water, and then can effect the entire eco-system. Here, I have some all natural sunscreen you can use.”
Sustainable Camping Gear
Here are some environmentally friendly camping gear options. One thing I want to stress though – if you already have perfectly good camping gear, do not throw it out just to buy an eco-friendly alternative. It’s so important that we use our gear for as long as we can – replacing gear less often means we buy less gear, and as a result, use fewer resources.
Environmentally Friendly Clothing Brands
I’m going to do a full post on this topic, because there are so many excellent, environmentally friendly companies I want to talk about. A few of my favourites are:
Sustainable Sleeping Bag
Marmot Trestles Elite Eco 20 – This is a great sleeping bag with a nice environmental track record. The liner is made from 100% recycled fibres and the filling is made with synthetic down.
North Face Eco Trail Synthetic 20 – Both the lining and the fill in this sleeping bag are made from recycled synthetic materials, so no new petroleum went into creating it. For added warmth, the mummy-style sleeping bag features a draw cord and draft collar to prevent heat loss.
Sustainable Sleeping Pad
I have yet to come across a high quality sleeping pad made from natural or recycled materials, so I’m not going to recommend one of those. Instead, I’m going to recommend this one for a different set of reasons.
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite: Therm-a-Rest using new, petroleum-derived materials to make its sleeping pads – as does just about every other company. But there are three reasons I like this one. For starters, it is extremely high quality and will last you ages, preventing you from buying another sleeping pad anytime soon. Second, if it does break, it is easy to repair. Punctures can be patched up easily and you can buy a replacement valve if that breaks. Finally, this sleeping bag uses less material than comparable sleeping pads. The Regular uses just 12.5 oz of materials, whereas comparable sleeping bags often use more than 1 lb.
Eco Friendly Camping Stoves
MSR DragonFly Stove: Although compressed gas stoves are much more popular, liquid fuel stoves like this one are much more environmentally friendly. Unlike with compressed gas, these fuel canisters can be refilled and reused. Compressed gas canisters cannot be reused and are actually very difficult to recycle.
Sustainable Hygiene Products
Biodegradable Soap: Natural soap you can use for washing dishes.
All-Natural Reef-Safe Sunscreen: This sunscreen in free of chemicals, making it safe to use while swimming. (Though if you’re in a very fragile marine environment, avoid using any sunscreen at all.)
Toms All Natural Toothpaste: Environmentally friendly toothpaste you can spit out on camping trips. Just use a small amount with a lot of water and try to spray everything out over a large surface area, rather than spitting in one spot.
Think Period Proof Underwear: Ladies, this is an excellent environmentally friendly option for dealing with your period on camping trips. Totally eliminates waste products.
WAG Bag: Allows you to pack out your poop in fragile ecosystems, like alpine, desert and arctic environments.
Eco Camping: Final Thoughts
I hope you’ve enjoyed The Ultimate Guide to Eco Camping and have learned a few new things. I want to emphasize that the most important part of eco camping and sustainable camping is making smart, intentional decisions whenever outside. It’s about respecting nature, leaving no trace, making smart purchases and spreading the word. If you have additional tips to add or have questions, please leave a comment.
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