Being good stewards of the land when we’re camping or engaging in other outdoor activities is important, especially when entering undisturbed habitat. Boondocking—also known as dispersed camping, dry camping, or wild camping—gives us the opportunity to be up close and personal with nature, without the crowds. It also means we’re responsible to leave the environment in the same (or better) condition that we found it. 

The “no trace” movement started over fifty years ago as a cooperative effort between the US Forest Service, National Park Service, and the Bureau of Land Management to promote ethical camping and reduce ecological damage, particularly in the backcountry. However, the principles developed from it can be applied anywhere, including our own backyards. 

Today, RVT examines the seven simple principles of Leave No Trace, and how we can use them to minimize our impact when we head into wide-open spaces.

The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace

1. Plan Ahead and Prepare

  • Adequate preparation reduces stress and allows you to fully enjoy your adventure.
    Boondockers don’t have access to water, electricity, or sewer hookups, and amenities typically aren’t handy. Make sure you have ample supplies for your trip, including adequate propane, water, food, hand tools, and first aid supplies. Prepare for inclement weather by bringing rainy-day entertainment and suitable clothing.
  • Check the regulations for the area you’re traveling to and make sure you have the proper permits, if required. Take note of any length-of-stay limitations and be aware of fire bans. Sites like the USDA Forest Service have information about dispersed camping in national forests and grasslands. Most national parks do not allow boondocking.
  • Not sure where to camp? Check sites like Campendium and search for free camping.

2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

To avoid damaging fragile ecosystems and causing soil erosion, make sure you travel and camp on durable surfaces. Choose a spot to camp that’s at least 200 feet (about 70 paces) from a water source and is composed of rock, gravel, sand or dirt. Your 4×4 campervan might be able to handle rough terrain, but stick to designated off-roading trails to test its mettle. Do not drive through vegetation or cut down trees.

If the area appears to be high use, minimize your impact by staying in the confines of the area already disturbed and avoid enlarging it. In pristine areas, take care to impact the vegetation as little as possible. Vary your routes for collecting water or firewood to avoid creating a worn path, wear soft shoes around camp, and stay a maximum of only two nights to limit impact. When leaving, take steps to naturalize the site. Rake matted grass with a stick, brush out footprints, and use native materials like pine needles to cover scuffed areas. If you can’t tell you were there, you’ve done a good job.

3. Dispose of Waste Safely

There are no waste services while boondocking, so you are responsible for all of your trash. If you pack it in, pack it out. Don’t throw litter or table scraps into the bushes. Food remnants may attract wildlife, and those animals who have found an easy food source can become a nuisance or possibly a danger. Campfires are also not a good waste disposal system. It’s possible not everything will burn completely, which can also attract animals. It may also leave an unsightly mess for the next camper.

There is also no opportunity for sewage disposal. Fecal matter pollutes water and spreads disease if not disposed of properly. It’s also unpleasant for the next camper to find. The most widely accepted way to dispose of human waste is to dig a “cat hole.”

  • Create a hole six to eight inches deep and four to six inches in diameter at least 200 feet from a water source and in an inconspicuous place. Garden trowels work well for this purpose.
  • Do your business, using toilet paper sparingly. Bury the toilet paper in the cat hole or pack it out.
  • Backfill the hole well when you’re done.

Before leaving your campsite, ensure all waste has been disposed of appropriately and the site is as clean or cleaner than when you found it.

4. Leave What You Find

It’s tempting to take souvenirs from places you’ve camped, whether it’s a stone, a plant, or any other interesting finds. However, if everyone took something when they left, that pristine place would soon be depleted; its beauty, cannibalized. If you think something is neat, take a picture and leave the real thing for others to enjoy. Plus, in national parks and other protected areas, it’s illegal to remove natural objects. Do not cut down trees, carve your initials, or hammer nails into them to hang things. Leave nature just as you found it.

5. Minimize Campfire Impacts

Before you build a campfire, make sure they are permitted. If not, do not try to “sneak” one. Respect the regulations. If you can build a campfire, look for an existing fire ring. Need firewood? Buy where you burn using firewood purchased in the area. You can also use dead wood found on the ground, if permitted. Never cut down a living tree. Keep your fire small and let it burn completely to ash. Use water, not dirt, to extinguish the fire. Flood it well to make sure it’s out entirely. Many forest fires are started by campfires that were not extinguished properly.

6. Respect Wildlife

View wildlife from a distance to avoid scaring them. Wildlife is just that: wild. Even if an animal seems harmless, they can be unpredictable. Many people approach wild animals believing them to be safe. Any animal will attack if it feels threatened; bears are not cuddly creatures.

Be aware of seasonal changes affecting wildlife, such as mating or birthing seasons. If you come across a sick or wounded animal, don’t touch it. Let the land manager know about the situation. Do not leave food out for foraging animals to access, and do not intentionally feed wildlife. Check out food storage recommendations for the area before you head out on your trip.

7. Be Considerate of Others

Most people are out in nature to enjoy the solitude and quiet. Be respectful of others. If you find that others are camped nearby, avoid loud music or creating excess noise. Consider using earbuds instead of blasting music, and try to talk relatively quietly. Ensure pets are permitted in an area before bringing them. Dispose of all pet waste properly. And this can’t be said enough: leave your area in pristine condition, like you were never there.  

We can all enjoy nature if we are good stewards and respect the land and others. Following these seven principles for leaving no trace will help make your boondocking adventure enjoyable for everyone, including the campers who show up after you. If this is your first time dry camping, check out these boondocking mistakes you want to avoid
If you’re looking for a truck camper or other RV for your next wild-camping trip, check out the latest North America-wide listings on RVT.com

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