Summer 2020 really was a wild one. Beyond the obvious reasons, Covid-19’s travel limitations made camping the go-to activity for outdoor aficionados and urban travellers alike. Sadly, the amount of careless, disrespectful campers also increased. Due to the amount of emails we got from locals near some of the camping spots listed on our Camping Directory,  we’ve decided to put together this Van Lifer’s Guide to Leave No Trace Camping.

Camping is great. Whether you’re at an established campground with luxurious vault toilets or you’re deep in the backcountry, there’s nothing that spoils a camping trip more than the remnants of a previous camper’s mess. Something we’ve always stood by is a concept that you’ve probably heard of before: Leave No Trace camping. We aim to leave every spot we camp at nicer than it was when we arrived. Sometimes this is just a matter of tidying up rogue branches that have fallen across the road, while other times this has involved removing actual chicken cutlets from an abandoned fire pit — yes, true story.

Anyway, we figured we’d take this opportunity to create a guide to leave no trace camping for van lifers and talk about how not to be an asshole camper so hopefully next year, we can all enjoy the beauty of nature together without having to step in soggy toilet paper everywhere. Onward!

When duty calls, creativity ensues

1. PEE AND POOP PROPERLY

Peeing and pooping are inevitable. Doesn’t matter who you are or where you are, you’re gonna have to relieve yourself eventually (please don’t hold your poop!! Just looking out for your health…). There are many ways that you can go to the bathroom outside that won’t hurt the environment. Here are a few tips:

  • Many established camping areas have outhouses or vault toilets. You can use the bathroom like a regular toilet in these but please don’t put garbage in them. The tanks are meant to hold organic waste only so it’s not the place to throw wrappers or cans into.
  • If you’re in the woods and need to go, tuck away from any paths or open areas and find a spot that’s far away from rivers or streams (200ft or 60m is recommended). We ALWAYS have toilet paper on us for unexpected situations and we keep it in a bag; this way, we can put the used TP in the bag and dispose of it when there’s a trash can around. If you’re pooping, it’s best to dig a small hole about 6” or 15cm deep so you can cover it up with dirt, rocks or leaves after and leave the area seemingly undisturbed. Burying TP is a no-no in our books so coming prepared with a bag is best to carry your TP out with you. Leaves also work if you don’t have any toilet paper but make sure to bury these in your hole. And if you’re a female on your period, pack away any used menstrual items with your used TP because there’s no place for those things in the woods.
  • If you’re in an area where you’re unable to dig a hole to safely bury your poo, it’s not a bad idea to carry a roll of dog poo bags with you so you can remove the solid waste and dispose of it accordingly.
  • Pee funnels are an option for ladies so there’s no squatting required. I’ve never personally used one but it’s a neat idea and you can get one here. If you are squatting, make sure to keep a wide stance with your shoelaces out of the way and look for an area with soft dirt or leaves, if possible, so the pee absorbs and doesn’t spread around.
  • You can get creative with DIY toilets if you’re not comfortable going au naturel. A 5-gallon bucket with a pool noodle on top makes a pretty comfy seat (or you can get a pre-made version if you’re not feeling crafty) or a designated bottle works too. Just make sure that you’re disposing of the contents in an area that’s far away from paths, campsites, and water and that no garbage gets dumped along with it. If you’re in a van or RV, do not dump your entire black water tank in the woods — that’s just gross and not cool.
  • Nowadays this is just a way of life, but carrying hand sanitizer with you is a good idea for post-bathroom hygiene.

Don’t do THIS!!

2. PACK IT IN, PACK IT OUT

Aside from human waste, it is crucial to bring any trash or unwanted items out with you. The only acceptable thing to leave at a campsite is unused firewood (even that is technically not recommended but most people appreciate it) because no one wants to deal with anything else. Don’t leave any garbage; doesn’t matter if it smells or it’s dirty, you’re taking it out with you and you can always ditch it at a gas station trash can on your drive out. Remove any tarps or rope you attached to trees and try to leave the campsite just as it was—or better–than when you arrived. This means dishwater and food scraps too; even though food is biodegradable, it’s not going to decompose before the next campers arrive. Not only is it gross to arrive at a campsite where people have left food and garbage, it’s potentially dangerous too if there are bears and other wildlife around. Another thing to mention here is to take all of your empty cans with you too and stop, I repeat, STOP leaving beer cans in the fire pit. They never fully burn and just end up creating a mess. In most places they’re worth money too — do you like burning money?!?!?

You better believe he’s watching you. Gif by Smokey himself.

3. CHANNEL YOUR INNER SMOKEY BEAR AND PREVENT WILDFIRES

The one and only Smokey Bear said it best: Only You Can Prevent Wildfires. This means that you should be conscious of where you’re having a fire and make sure to ALWAYS fully put out your fire before you take off. Here are a few tips:

  • Use an established fire ring or pit if one is already there. Lots of places have metal rings or rock mounds that folks in the past have used that you can easily use again. The rock border helps to prevent the fire from growing outside of its confines and absorbs heat to protect you from getting too close.
  • Slowly put out your fire carefully by spreading out embers and pouring water on it repeatedly (*Note: I was also going to suggest using sand but I’ve recently learned that this isn’t recommended because it can actually insulate the hot coals so they can potentially ignite later. Now we both learned something!). This takes time and isn’t as simple as pouring a water bottle on a flaming log and walking away. Don’t leave until you are sure that the fire is completely out and the ashes are scattered.
  • Always check to make sure the area you’re in doesn’t have a fire ban or heightened restrictions that may require a permit. And respect fire bans, they’re there for a reason.
  • If the area has lots of dry brush around or it’s quite windy, find another spot or skip the fire altogether. It’s not worth risking a flaming branch being carried away by the wind into a pit of destruction. It’s always good to have a camp stove like this one as a backup to cook a meal without depending on a fire.
  • Avoid burning any garbage that won’t fully disintegrate. I mentioned cans above but even plastic and metal items are common to find in abandoned fire pits.

No need for unexpected visitors. Photo from WildSafe BC

4. BE BEAR AWARE AND MINDFUL OF OTHER WILDLIFE

These animals were here before us. It’s not cool to run them out and take over some of the last places they have left. If you’re collecting firewood, try to only use fallen branches and not mess with any nests in the trees. In terms of bears, don’t leave any garbage or food items outside, and be especially mindful if you’re sleeping in a tent. Non-food items like deodorant or toothpaste also carry a scent so pack these away in your car or hang them in a tree (try one of these cool kits) if you’re in the backcountry. WildSafe BC has some helpful guidelines to follow when camping in bear territory (in other words, most of British Columbia). It goes without saying that preventative action is much better than dealing with a potentially dangerous wildlife encounter. Be smart and keep your distance if you do spot an animal.

5. RESPECT OTHER PEOPLE

This can encompass a lot of things. Overall, don’t treat your campsite like you’re the only person in the world and respect that other people are trying to enjoy their day or weekend too. A few examples might include:

  • Keeping your dog close or on a leash if s/he is not trained well or is not friendly. Even if your dog means no harm, some people are scared of dogs and don’t want to be approached by a strange dog in the middle of the woods. A long lead like this one with a stake in the ground is a good balance when you’re at a campsite.
  • Being mindful of noise. Keeping music at a volume that isn’t interfering with other people’s day is ideal because some people go to the woods to enjoy the tranquility. If you do play loud music, turning it down at night is the right thing to do, along with keeping chainsaws or generators for the daytime.
  • Be nice 😊 We can all enjoy the outdoors together as long as we respect one another.

In addition to this list, The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics has seven principles that are meant to guide both backcountry and frontcountry campers and day-use explorers in enjoying the outdoors with minimal impact. These principles are:

  • Plan Ahead and Prepare
  • Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  • Dispose of Waste Properly
  • Leave What You Find
  • Minimize Campfire Impacts
  • Respect Wildlife
  • Be Considerate of Others

Our Van Lifer’s Guide to Leave No Trace Camping mainly covers tips related to van camping but you can read more about the LNT’s principles here and think about how you can change some of your habits that might not be conducive to protecting the beautiful nature that surrounds us. I’m sure there are things we could improve on as well and it’s never a bad time to make positive changes.

All in all, many of these guidelines are common sense and I’m confident that most, if not all, of our readers and website visitors already do most of these things. I honestly think the best way to pick up on good habits is by experiencing other peoples’ bad habits first hand — any time that we’ve shown up at a spot that’s been a mess, the first thing I think is that I never want to leave a site like that for someone else. Along with the obvious things, we can all afford to learn new things about our impact on the environment and explore what small changes we can make to minimize it. So with that, let’s keep turning down random dirt roads and exploring new places, all while leaving these places just as exciting and beautiful for the next person.