How To: Lower Your Free Camping Footprint

Sinead Reilly — 12 July 2022
It is essential to learn how to minimise our impact on the environment with its ecologically delicate natural features.

The TREAD concept

Not many experiences can beat waking up early, unzipping the tent, and stepping out into the brisk morning air at a quiet and beautiful campsite, and it’s no great secret that camping facilitates priceless insights and experiences of the unspoilt natural world. The choices we make as campers, though, directly affect whether or not the landscape is being harmed — and this is where the concept of treading lightly comes into play. As COVID-19 restrictions continue to lessen, the number of travellers deciding to enjoy the outdoors is set to increase, and the onus is on every individual to minimise their impact. The TREAD concept has been popularised by Tread Lightly!, an organisation that grew from a public awareness program founded by the United States Forest Service in 1985 to a non-profit organisation in 1985, with the mission of promoting responsible recreation via awareness and education, communication, and stewardship.

The key aim of treading lightly is to leave the smallest possible ecological footprint and, by adhering to a handful of fundamental principles, we can camp knowing that we’re doing the most we can to harmonise our relationship with the land and reduce negative environmental consequences. 

Travel Responsibly

  • Stick to clearly marked roads and trails en route to your campsite, and always practice minimum impact travel techniques for your mode of transport. 

  • Don’t create new routes or expand existing ones — utilise what’s already there. 

  • Cross rivers only where a road or a trail crosses the river.

  • Walk single-file on a hiking trail to avoid widening the trail and impinging on the ecosystem unnecessarily.

  • If hiking in an area without any trails, spread out rather than walking single-file in each other’s footsteps to mitigate impact and avoid creating a new trail. Where possible, walk on hardened surfaces such as gravel or rock. 

  • Comply with all signs.

Respect the Rights of Others

  • Minimise all noise, particularly in the early morning and evening hours. As well as showing respect towards other travellers, you’ll also be ensuring that any local fauna is less likely to be disturbed by your activities.

  • Be considerate of other campers’ privacy — keep your distance and avoid travelling in close proximity to their campsite, unless of course you’re welcomed over. 

  • Camping supplies in natural colours blend with natural surroundings and are less intrusive to other campers’ experiences.

  • Leave gates as you find them — if crossing private property, be sure to ask permission from the landowner. 

  • Proceed with caution around horses. Sudden unfamiliar activity is likely to scare animals — possibly causing injury to animals, handlers, and others on the trail. If you encounter horses on a trail, stop, move to the side of the trail, and ask the rider about the best way to proceed.

  • Keep your pets under control at campsites and on trails — this not only protects your pet, but also protects other campers and local wildlife.

Educate Yourself

  • Obtain a map of your destination and determine which areas are open to your type of travel. Mark out your route, campsites, and points of interest along the way. 

  • Contact local government agencies — or, in the case of a national park, the organisation managing the park — for area restrictions, permit requirements, and closures.

  • Check the weather forecast for your destination and plan all of your supplies accordingly.

  • Carry a compass, Global Positioning System (GPS), and EPIRB, and know how to use them. Prepare for the unexpected by packing a kit of emergency items.

Avoid Sensitive Areas

  • Stay on designated routes and avoid sensitive areas such as meadows, wetlands, lake shores, streams, and seasonal nesting or breeding areas. 

  • Do not disturb historical, archaeological, or paleontological sites. If you come across a site of Indigenous significance, heed any and all signposted information and be as respectful as possible.

  • Avoid disturbing any wildlife you encounter and keep your distance — do not attempt to feed or touch any wild fauna.

  • Pay close attention to any regulations and restrictions at sites managed by local Indigenous peoples. If camping at an Indigenous free camp, do some research on how you can help out and give back. Be aware that you’re not allowed to light campfires or camp overnight on Indigenous land, and some sites instruct that alcohol is not permitted. Visiting some campsites — for example, Camp 2 on the Madigan Line in the Northern Territory — is not permitted for cultural reasons. If you’re unsure, contact a relevant local agency to check. 

  • Motorised and mechanised vehicles are not permitted in designated Wilderness Areas.

Do Your Part

  • Take away exactly what you bring in — aim to leave zero traces of your presence at the campsite.

  • Carry a rubbish bag and pick up rubbish left by others.

  • Repackage snacks and food before you leave — this reduces weight and the amount of garbage to carry out. Consider food options that require very minimal packaging/storage.

  • Wherever possible, use existing campsites. Camp on durable surfaces and place tents on a non-vegetated area. Camp at least 50m from water and other campsites.

  • In backcountry areas not open to vehicles, camp at least 50m from trails.

  • Instead of indulging in activities such as boating or jet skiing, which can be harmful to aquatic wildlife and waterways, consider paddling lakes and rivers in a canoe, kayak, stand-up paddleboard, or raft.

  • For cooking, use a camp stove — these are always less impacting on the environment than campfires.

  • Closely observe all fire restrictions.

  • For campfires, use only fallen branches. Gather kindling well away from your camp and do not cut limbs from surrounding trees.

  • Let any campfires burn down to a fine ash and ensure it’s completely extinguished.

  • Do not wash in rivers and lakes, as man-made detergents, toothpaste, and soaps are harmful to aquatic life. It’s best to take along biodegradable, plant-based soap for washing dishes so the leftover grey water won’t harm the surrounding environment (unscented options are best).

  • Wash at least 50m from rivers and lakes, scattering grey water so it disperses through the soil.

  • In areas without toilets, use a portable toilet if possible and pack out your waste, otherwise it’s necessary to bury your waste. Human waste should be disposed of in a shallow hole at least 50m from water sources, campsites, and trails. Cover and disguise the hole with natural materials. Take any toilet paper with you and take your pet’s waste with you. High-use areas may have other restrictions, so it’s always best to check with the organisation managing the area. 

  • Before and after a trip, wash your gear and vehicle to reduce the spread of invasive species.

  • Before you leave the campsite, do a thorough check of the site to ensure you haven’t left anything behind. 

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