If you made one of the nearly 331 million visits to a national park in 2017, it should be no surprise that getting outside is decidedly in right now. That’s a good thing for our collective health, because recreating in the great outdoors can lead to lots of benefits: improved physical, mental, and emotional health, as well as a desire to help conserve the environment. But the uptick of people hitting the trails over the past several years is not only compromising the overall experience of getting out in nature, it’s also destroying our favorite places.
For 38 years, Jeff Marion, a recreational ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey and a founding member of the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, has studied the impact outdoor enthusiasts have on natural landscapes. Even so, in study after study, including ongoing research by the USGS, Marion continues to be alarmed by how drastically visitors can alter the natural world in a single season.
The Campsite and the Damage Done
Take, for instance, finding that coveted camp spot near the river. In high-use areas, clusters of impromptu campsites can eventually merge into “megasites” that lead to erosion, ruining vegetation, and large swaths of bare soil that increase pollutants in waterways, trigger algae blooms, and affect trout reproduction.
It happens fast. A thriving meadow can transform into a compacted, exposed patch of dirt in as little as ten nights with a tent on top of it, Marion says, and once it’s been used regularly for a season or two, it can take years—sometimes decades—to fully recover. “Impact occurs very quickly,” Marion says, “but restoration is an incredibly slow process.”
Beyond flattening vegetation, campers are also chopping off branches and saplings for campfires in parks, preserves, and wilderness areas despite signage telling them not to. A study of campsites in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness found that half of all campsite trees had been damaged or cut down for firewood. That’s roughly 36,000 tree stumps across 2,000 campsites in the Boundary Waters alone. This level of impact degrades wildlife habitat and significantly alters the natural aesthetics for visitors, creating campsites that can feel wholly removed from the surrounding habitat. What you’re left with, Marion says, are sites that are highly visible and overcrowded and afford very little privacy, all of which takes away from the experience most people set out to have in the first place.
One of the worst examples of this is in Annapolis Rocks, in Maryland, a high-use section of the Appalachian Trail that gives way to sweeping vistas and offers prime real estate for climbers, backpackers, and family campers alike. In 1999, the AT management community deemed it the most degraded campsite on the trail, with 19 individual campsites carving out an average of 2,271 square feet each. The area became a microcosm of all the camping degradation issues Marion was studying—there were 83 damaged trees, 137 tree stumps, and 43,099 square feet of trampled vegetation, more than half of which was exposed soil.
Marion and a team of researchers got to work overhauling Annapolis Rocks in 2002, designing “side-hill” campsites that used natural slopes and topography to create self-contained platforms. The new layout relieved pressure from vegetation and resources while also creating more privacy and reducing the cumulative campsite footprint from 43,099 square feet to 8,574 square feet in less than a decade.
So Do This Instead
While researchers continue to experiment with ways to keep visitors out of sensitive habitat and double down on promoting sustainable recreation practices, it’s crucial for visitors to learn how to navigate natural spaces consciously and with care before they venture onto the trail. Marion says campers and hikers should read up on best practices like they would any other element of their trip—and always check and respect trail signage along the route.
Each wilderness area presents its own unique challenges, but Andrew Leary, the national youth program manager at Leave No Trace, has some hard-and-fast rules for low-impact camping that can be applied just about anywhere.
Instead of laying your tent over wildflower beds or vegetation, opt for a durable surface, like flat compacted soil, sand, or fine gravel that’s at least 200 feet (about 70 big steps) away from a water source. For an extended stay in the backcountry where dispersed camping is permitted, Leary recommends moving your campsite at least 25 to 50 yards every day to another durable surface to reduce the potential for long-term impacts. And if you come across a patch of vegetation that looks gently used from campers, keep walking. It might seem like camping on top of previously used space would reduce the overall footprint, but Leary says that unless it’s a truly trodden patch of grass or meadow, it’s better to let the area heal and find a more suitable spot.
The overall ethos of leave-no-trace camping is more than just packing out your garbage, Leary says. It’s small things like staying on marked trails. It’s resisting the urge to toss crumbs to the chipmunks or pluck the wildflowers along the path. It’s quieting the inner Paul Bunyan, putting down the hatchet, and opting for fallen deadwood to feed the campfire.
And it’s consciously picking out campsites that aren’t just Instagram-worthy but also sustainable.