With millions of people each year traipsing through desert and woods in search of the perfect get-away-from-it-all campsite, the potential for damaging fragile ecosystems increases.
While serious backpackers have tried to practice "leave no trace" camping for years, the effort to encourage environmentally responsible camping is spreading more broadly.
The US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the Boy Scouts of America have teamed up to develop and publish a set of six principles for low-impact camping, according to David Bates, BSA's director of Boy Scout camping and conservation.
The elements are derived from the Boy Scout Handbook and the Boy Scout Fieldbook and can be practiced to varying degrees whether you stay in a commercial campground outside Montreal or along a trail side in the Sierras. These principles include:
Plan ahead and prepare to take what's appropriate. For example, when planning meals, think in terms of one-pot meals whose ingredients don't require a lot of packaging. The more packaging, the bigger the disposal problems. If you do have to buy heavily packaged foods, repack them by premixing meal ingredients in one package where possible. When selecting camping gear such as backpacks or tents, look for equipment whose color blends in with the environment.
Forgo the Jeremiah Johnson impulse and camp in places that already have been camped on and hike on existing trails. With tens of millions of people hitting the trails each year, even for day hikes, straying off the beaten path can needlessly destroy plant life and speed erosion. While following this guideline may seem a snap for people in organized campgrounds, even here campsites can be separated by natural areas that can provide tempting shortcuts to the camp store or the showers.
Packing it in? Pack it out. Leave nothing behind that would allow Sherlock Holmes to deduce the identity of the last campers at a site. Make a last minute sweep of the site for any trash and dispose of it, even if you didn't leave it. You'll be amazed how often these sweeps will also turn up Judy's lost toy dinosaur.
Can't pack it out? Then dispose of it properly. For backpacking, this governs even body waste, with used toilet tissue either buried in 4- to 6-inch deep "cat holes" or carried out in a plastic bag.
Leave what you find. "This applies to rocks, trees, plants, archaeological artifacts, anything you come across," Mr. Bates says. A camera can capture what interests you without uprooting anything. If you do happen to find significant artifacts, do the best you can to map the location of your find and report it to the landowner.
Minimize the use of fire by keeping campfires small, "or better yet, use a stove," Bates says. Stoves that burn white gas or propane range from lightweight single-burner units for backpacking to large three-burner stoves for car camping.