The usage of public lands has skyrocketed the last couple years. This is not hyperbole, but based on statistics. We are using public lands like never before. And while this is plenty good reason to work towards protecting more of these lands for future use, we also need to take time to learn how to use them properly to reduce impact and make sure they are enjoyable not only for ourselves, but for everyone else we share them with.
And as avid lovers of the outdoors with decades worth of experience, I thought I’d share a few tips to help reduce the impact of our collective visits on these places we love. The catch 22 with our human love of the natural world is that if we aren’t conscious and a little thoughtful in our time there, we end up changing it into something we longer love… So my goal is to offer some tips for how to keep our natural world… natural. And pleasant. And free of piles of human poop and toilet paper….
We need to talk about poop. This is by far one of the most obvious and appalling thing I’ve been encountering the last couple years A LOT in Montana. If nature calls while you are in the woods it’s not a problem. Don’t panic. But don’t just drop it on the ground… take an extra minute to make sure no one else will encounter your poo or toilet paper. Why? Does that really need to be explained? Poop left in the open is not only just plain gross, but dangerous for other humans and animals that are exposed to it. Ideally you treat it like your dogs poo at the dog park… carry it out, dispose of it in a proper trash container. But if carrying it out is not an option no worries, you can bury it. Dig with a shovel, Pulaski, stick, whatever, and make sure your poo is at least eight inches below the surface (deeper if possible). Ideally if you don’t carry out your poo you can at a minimum carry out your toilet paper, but again, if that isn’t happening, at least bury it responsibly or burn it in your campfire if you have one. Even if you think you are somewhere no one would possibly be, burying or responsibly dealing with your poo is necessary. For one, people often will be there, and if not, an animal will for sure. And remember this: If you are at at campground or even dispersed campsite, always, always, always walk at least 50 yards away to do your business, and never in the proximity of lakes, streams, or rivers.
Fires. There is a time and a place for camp fires. But out here in the west, that time is rarely mid-summer, and never in areas that are dry. If you are in a campground and the season allows for it, use an established fire ring. Even if it is not ideal, these rings are intended to help preserve the site for the many, many users that will be there long after you are gone. If you are somewhere without a fire ring, consider using a portable fire pan. This reduces the amount of plants and soil microbes killed beneath the fire, making it so the soil can rejuvenate. If you do build a ring, consider digging out a small circle in which to build your fire, which allows you to replace the top layer of soil when you are gone, and increasing the likelihood that the plants will quickly re-establish themselves. Fires are no small matter out here, and plenty a multi-million dollar forest fire have been started by innocent people just wanting a pleasant ambience, but if you are going to have one you have to be extremely cautious and aware, and most importantly, when you are done, be sure it is totally out, wet and cold enough to run your hands through, literally. Unattended smoldering fires have frequently carried on in the roots of near by plants or just picked up again once the user has left the scene, and built into a beast that has burned millions of acres of land. Additionally, many a good camp site has been ruined by people with opposing views of where to best build a fire… as a rule, if there is an existing fire ring, just count your blessings and use it. We don’t need 4x fire rings per site…
Music. You love it. But when you are in the woods you are in a shared space. And most of the people in the woods are there for the sounds of nature, not your favorite Brandi Carlisle or AC/DC song. If you need music while you are camping or walking in the vicinity of others, please use headphones. (This goes for hiking, biking, rafting, etc.) Also be aware of the sound of your generator if your camp set up is equipped with one. Try to keep it to a minimum if you have to use it at all, and never in a public campground at night or early morning. Public spaces are not just yours. We share them. Try to be a courteous neighbor and let others in your area enjoy the quiet of the land, not the noise humans bring to it… that is the thing most of us are trying to escape when we head into the woods or down the river.
Trash. Do we really need to even cover this? Yes. Yes we do, because if you have camped anywhere in the west in the last few years you see it EVERYWHERE. We need more Woodsy Owl in our public education system, apparently. So this one is easy… if you carry a thing into the woods, carry it out, and be mindful enough not to drop it. If you have kids, teach them and keep an eye on them to help. No one, and I mean no one wants to carry your trash, any more than you want to carry theirs. So, as Woodsy Owl says, “Give a Hoot; don’t pollute!”
Don’t carve on things. Please just don’t. Not on picnic tables, tree trunks or rocks. Nothing. If you have a hankering to use your knife, grab a dead stick and get to whittling but don’t tell future generations about your love for KW inside a heart on a tree trunk. I promise no one cares, and it’s just a bummer when perfectly good things get tagged by people that only think of themselves.
Leave it better than you found it. This axiom goes a long way. These lands are yours, but not just yours. They are a shared legacy, the land of our fellow citizens and all the peoples that have yet to be born. Let’s leave it better than we found it and help ensure that even those around us who might be enjoying it differently than us are still able to enjoy it as well.