How Low Do You Go?

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Outside magazine, April 1995

How Low Do You Go?

A self-proctored exam to gauge your backcountry impact
By Paul Kvinta

Low-impact camping doesn’t have to mean tiptoeing naked through the forest and not bathing for weeks. But it does involve treading lightly, showing respect for both the surroundings and your fellow enthusiasts, and using common sense. Here, with the friendly yet firm guidance of our friends at the National Outdoor Leadership School, Outward Bound, and the U.S. Forest Service,
is a quiz to determine how low your impact actually is (for the answers, see below).

1. You come upon an idyllic meadow after hours of hiking through the woods. You should make camp
(a) in the middle of the meadow, where the open space will prevent you from damaging trees.
(b) well into the trees on the meadow’s edge.
(c) wherever the ground looks softest.
(d) close to the nearest trail, to avoid beating any new, unnecessary paths.

2. You settle and make camp. Fortunately, your tent is:
(a) brightly colored in case a lost hiker needs help.
(b) blue, to blunt the fury of the sun.
(c) an earth tone, to blend subtly into the surroundings.
(d) rainbow-colored in festive celebration of the great outdoors.

3. You’re hiking after recent rains and encounter a gooey mud bog across the trail. The wise thing would be to
(a) sit down, eat a banana, and wait for the mud to harden.
(b) edge around it, walking gingerly to avoid breaking branches or stepping on exposed roots.
(c) plow right through it.
(d) look for an established shortcut through the woods.

4. It’s time to cook dinner, and your chosen campsite has an existing fire ring, about five feet in diameter and surrounded with large stones. You should
(a) build a fire there to keep from scarring another area.
(b) dismantle the ring by scattering the stones, pulverizing the used charcoal, and sprinkling it about the campsite, and then use your camp stove.
(c) fill the ring with hot coals and indulge in a soul-cleansing fire walk.
(d) ignore the ring completely and use your camp stove.

5. When collecting firewood, always
(a) grab enough to leave a courtesy pile for the next group.
(b) gather inside the boundaries of your camp.
(c) gather outside the boundaries of your camp.
(d) choose logs at least half a foot thick.

6. You’ve just scarfed an orange and are left with the peel. You should
(a) pack it out.
(b) toss it–since it’s biodegradable–but do so well away from the trail.
(c) shave it into thin strips and sprinkle them over salads.
(d) burn it.

7. When nature calls, you and your fellow campmates should:
(a) hold it until you get to a ranger station.
(b) dig individual cat holes, six inches wide and eight inches deep, and fill when done.
(c) dig a latrine at least three feet deep and fill it when you break camp.
(d) dig a trench one foot wide and 14 inches deep and cover as you go.

8. You get stuck doing the dishes after a meal. Remember to
(a) use natural debris like pinecones, sand, or gravel to scour with.
(b) use a dishwashing detergent that’s free of phosphates.
(c) use scouring pads without chemical additives.
(d) leave the dishes out so raccoons can lick them clean.

9. You’ve finished the dishes and have a quart of messy dishwater in your pot. Be prepared to
(a) dump it on the forest floor, where decomposing duff will filter it.
(b) pour it through a strainer and then sprinkle it over a broad area.
(c) drench obnoxious camp neighbors.
(d) drink it.

See also:

How Low Do You Go? The Answers