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How to Have a Sustainable Camping Trip, from Waste to Eco-Friendly Gear

Here's everything you need to know about green camping so you can decrease your environmental footprint and enjoy nature.

Written by
Sam Bowman

Is there anything better than sleeping under the stars, waking up in the fresh air, spending the weekend hiking, cooking over fires, or playing campground games with your loved ones? 

Camping is the second most sustainable type of getaway you can take—especially if you participate in green camping. Aside from connecting you with nature, it's also a great way to reset your mental state. Recent research suggests that “nature-based” activities like camping can have a positive effect on your cognition, alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety, and improve physical well-being. 

However, camping isn’t always great for the local environment. Some campgrounds are notorious for their negative impact as campers produce trash, disturb wildlife, and leave behind dangerous human waste. If you're planning a camping trip, this is your guide to green camping, including how to reduce waste and decrease your impact on the environment.

Following Leave No Trace Principles

If you're an avid camper, you may already know the Leave No Trace (LNT) principles by heart. LNT principles protect outdoor areas and allow future campers to enjoy a pristine campground just as you did.

There are seven LNT principles that campers should follow: 

  1. Plan ahead and prepare.
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
  3. Dispose of waste properly.
  4. Leave what you find.
  5. Minimize campfire impacts.
  6. Respect wildlife.
  7. Be considerate of other visitors.

These principles are intentionally designed to be easy to follow. However, you will need to engage in some serious planning and preparation before you head out to ensure that you follow LNT principles at all times. Here's how to get started with green camping—and how to follow these principles with ease.

Green Camping 101

1. Planning and Preparation

Green camping starts long before you pitch a tent or reach the trailhead. To reduce waste and lessen your environmental impact, you need to plan your entire camping trip in advance and look for sustainable options when sourcing tents, sleeping bags, or cook sets.

One of the most sustainable ways to source everything you'll need for the trip is to evaluate what you already own—or borrow from someone you know! You may already have reusable water bottles, lanterns, cook sets, sleeping bags, and more.

And if you don't have everything you need on hand, you can check local thrift stores! Shopping secondhand is one of the most eco-friendly ways to shop: It creates a circular economy and keeps items out of the landfill. Even major outdoor retailers like REI sell secondhand goods online. Visiting a local secondhand retailer is a great way to cut costs and your carbon footprint

However, you may need to buy a few new items to prep for your trip. If you're unable to source secondhand merchandise, opt for eco-friendly camping gear. Depending on your destination, you may need insulated sleeping bags and a few containers to store food and waste.

Fortunately, the Brightly Shop features some sustainable products you can pack for your camping trip. From an Insulated Paper Walrus Cooler to a Collapsable To-Go Bowl, you'll be able to pack your beverages and prepped meals with ease. If you're camping with a group, you might want a serving tray set with bowls for everyone, or you can pack biodegradable bamboo bowls.

You can also consider investing in sustainably-made camping equipment through brands like Patagonia, which offers recycled lines and support renewable energy and community building projects. 

2. Protecting Wildlife 

Additionally, once you're ready to begin your camping trip, it's important to remember that the area you camp in is already home to various plants, insects, and animals. And human activity can have a devastating impact on local wildlife.

Some campgrounds have even been forced to close due to human activity. Recently, the Forest Service closed the popular Max Patch campground on the Appalachian Trail after campers caused serious damage to the local wildlife habitat

When camping, you can avoid causing damage by developing a sense of stewardship over the land you’re enjoying.  

This is particularly important at nighttime. Unlike humans, many animals are nocturnal and others are extremely responsive to light pollution. Unfortunately, many campers light up their campgrounds with floodlights and torches all through the night, which can disturb the behavior of nearby animals and cause undue stress. Limit the amount of light you use while you sleep to be sure you're not disrupting wildlife.

During the day, you can stick to pre-established trails as much as possible to reduce disturbance to wildlife. This applies to your pooch, too. If you bring your dog camping, always follow trail etiquette guidelines and opt to leash your dog if you’re unsure about the rules of the park you’re camping in. This will help you follow the LNT principles and ensures that wildlife remains relatively undisturbed. 

3. Waste Disposal

Waste can be a major headache if you’re at a campground that doesn’t have established garbage cans or restrooms. To avoid the possibility of leaving litter in your wake, bring enough containers to pack all your waste up. That way, you can take the waste with you when you leave. Reusable bags are ideal for this—always bring more than you think you’ll need!

Also, keep your waste bags separate from your food for safety, and when you're leaving, pack the waste bags toward the top of your backpack. That way, you can avoid spillage and rotten odors. And you can easily dispose of waste the proper way when you leave the campsite.

However, if your campsite has labeled waste bins for recycling and composting, be sure to take advantage of them. And be sure to throw your waste in the correct bins.

You’ll also need to store waste in a place where critters and animals can’t get to it—the smell of a half-eaten banana can travel miles. Human food poses a risk to wild animals, so the safest option is to hang a bear bag or two with all your food in one bag and waste in another. 

4. The Bathroom Situation

The million-dollar question is: What should you do if you need to use the restroom, but there isn’t one at your campground? 

You can go to the bathroom in the woods by moving 200 feet away from your campground and any bodies of water. Then, dig a hole at least 8 inches deep, do what you need to do, and pack away tissues in a separate waste bag. Once you’re finished, cover the hole over with the original dirt and wash your hands with hand sanitizer. 

It’s odd the first time around, but burying your waste keeps everyone safe—especially wildlife—and ensures that you follow LNT principles.

5. Minimizing Campfire Threats

What would camping be without a campfire to roast marshmallows? While campfires are a camping staple, it's true that incorrect campfire practices can cause harm to the environment.

When starting a fire, be sure to keep it small and controlled. If a campsite has existing fire rings, keep your campfire limited to that space only.

According to LNT principles, you can also determine whether a campfire is really necessary by asking yourself a few questions. Check for local restrictions or whether the area you're camping in can be threatened by campfires.

Following your campground's rules is one of the best ways to ensure your camping trip has a low impact on the environment.

The Takeaway

Green camping isn’t as hard as it sounds. You can enjoy the great outdoors and minimize your impact by choosing eco-friendly gear, ride-sharing with friends, and following LNT principles at all times.

Plus, there are several other ways to have a more eco-friendly experience, including using portable solar panels for charging devices.

And another camping tip: Remember to pack enough hand sanitizer for everyone!