Pacific Northwesterners Camp Green: How to Leave No Trace on the Ground or in the Water

tent at a campsite overlooking a lake

Camping- one of the many joys of summer. From endless daylight, to experiencing nature in fun and new ways, to connecting with loved ones around the fire, camping is a timeless summer activity for many in the Pacific Northwest. The North American Camping Report estimated that in 2017, 67% of households in the Western United States camped at least occasionally. That’s a lot of people enjoying the great outdoors. Whether you’re experiencing nature in your RV, with a tent in the back of your car, or with just a backpack and a pair of hiking boots, there are a couple things to keep in mind to make your camping trip as water-friendly as possible and to help preserve our natural spaces for generations to come.

1. Leave No Trace
One off-trail selfie might seem harmless, but imagine if all hikers did the same. While one person’s action in a single moment might seem small, consider how that mindset can lead to many people making the same choice and, collectively, harming our forests and natural lands. That’s why it’s important that to practice Leave No Trace principles when we’re out in nature. The philosophy of Leave No Trace is to leave a space in better shape than the way you found it. Read more about the 7 Principles of Leave No Trace.

2. No Soap (Even Biodegradable!) in Waterways
two children playing with a wash cloth and two buckets of waterWater left over from washing dishes, taking a shower, or using the sink needs to be disposed of 200 feet from any waterway, including streams, rivers, lakes, and saltwater areas. Soapy water pollutes streams and lakes so it’s important to not wash directly in natural bodies of water. Many campers use biodegradable soap to bathe, wash dishes, or launder clothes. However, biodegradable soap must filter through soil or gravel first in order to fully break down, so it shouldn’t be used directly in any body of water. Instead, collect used water in a container and remove any food particles by hand or with a strainer. Then, dump used water at least 200 feet away from any water source. Check out this guide for more important tips on bathing and washing dishes in the backcountry.

If you’re staying in a designated campground, there are usually dedicated sinks or disposal areas for dumping used water, and you can always ask campground staff if you’re unsure. RV users should always dispose of water at designated dump stations. Storm drains lead directly to our lakes, streams and Puget Sound, and should never be used for dumping waste of any kind. Remember, only rain down the drain!

3. Practice Proper Pooping Principles
wooden outhouse in the woodsHuman waste contains all sorts of bacteria that can pollute water and spread disease. Burying your poop is the safest way to dispose of your poo – so be sure to invest in a proper backpacker’s shovel! Always stay at least 200 feet away from any water, trails or camps, and dig a hole 6-8 inches deep and 4-6 inches wide. In some fragile ecosystems and heavily trafficked areas, requirements for packing out human waste are becoming more common. And when RVing, always dump blackwater (wastewater with poop) at designated dump stations.

4. Use Bug Spray Sparingly Around Water
Mosquitos can be brutal, and no one enjoys being covered in itchy bug bites. For many outdoor lovers bug spray, often containing the chemical DEET, is the answer to all of their mosquito woes. Unfortunately, bug spray can end up in water through swimming, bathing, and washing clothes. The general recommendation is to use bug spray sparingly near water, and to do a pre-swim rinse with a bucket of water (always at least 200 feet from a water source), to wash off any chemicals before jumping in.

5. Choose Better Skin Protection
Many sunscreens contain chemicals that may be harmful to you and to aquatic wildlife. When swimming and recreating, protect yourself from the sun by choosing superior and safe skin protection:
• Cover your skin, with hats and long sleeves.
• Create shade – set up a tarp or a popup, or place camp chairs in a naturally shady spot.
• Choose mineral sunscreens- look for zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which have shown to be safe and effective compared to chemical sunscreens.

Follow these tips and not only will you and your family have a great time outdoors this summer, but you’ll leave your favorite areas ready for the next person to enjoy too.


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