Class C with mountains at campground

Expert Advice

Leave no Trace at the Campground

If you’re new to camping, you may not be familiar with the seven principles of Leave No Trace.

If you’re new to camping, you may not be familiar with the seven principles of Leave No Trace. If you’re already an outdoor enthusiast, have you thought about how they apply at the campground? The principles provide easily understood guidelines for how to have a minimal impact when in the outdoors. With the growing number of people camping and having a bigger impact on wildlife and the environment, these principles are extremely important.

  1. The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace
  2. Plan ahead and prepare
  3. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  4. Dispose of waste properly
  5. Leave what you find
  6. Minimize camper impacts
  7. Respect wildlife
  8. Be considerate of other

Plan Ahead and Prepare

As a former search and rescue wilderness EMT, I can’t stress the importance of this principle enough. Most of our calls were for people who went somewhere or did something they were not prepared for. As a camper, you need to research where you are going beforehand and how you are going to get there. Are there road closures along your route? Are there any low bridges or tunnels that your camper may not fit through? Do you have everything you need to have a good time where you are going? What are the local regulations and campground rules? What is the weather prediction along your route and at your final destination? Do you have the right gear packed to keep you safe in inclement weather? Do you have campsite reservations? If not, and you arrive at a full campground, do you know how and where you can boondock? I like to arrive at the campground at least two hours before sunset so I have plenty of time to set up in the daylight. More questions to ask: Are campfires allowed where you are going? Are the bathrooms/shower houses open? As you start your trip planning, make a list of these questions and any others you can think of, so you know what to ask and research.

RV through tunnel
Know your RV's height and width limitations
GPS phone in RV
Research your routes
bag in RV
Know the weather forecast and plan accordingly

Travel and Camp On Durable Surfaces

So, what’s a “durable surface”? It’s basically a hard-packed area composed of rock, sand, gravel, snow, dry grass, and established campsites. You want to stay off living vegetation. Make sure you get a campsite that is large enough for your group and camp only on existing camp spots to minimize environmental damage. Only put that big outdoor carpet out if it’s on a durable surface. If you are boondocking, camp at least 200’ from any natural water source to allow wildlife an undisturbed path to the water. When hiking, stay on established trails and if you go off-trail, stick to durable surfaces.  

durable surface

Dispose of Waste Properly

This is an easy one. If you brought it, take it home. Make sure you pick up dog waste, even on the trails. Even organic waste, like apple cores, banana peels, sunflower seed shells, cigarette butts need to go in the trash. It takes months for organic waste to decompose and it can affect animals foraging instincts. Pick up trash left by others. And last but not least….DON’T put trash in a fire pit! Campground employees have to clean that out so just don’t do it.

LNT pack out waste.
pack out waste peel

Leave What You Find

Did you know that taking that rock from the National Park you just visited is illegal? Yep, leave it there. Not to mention, you might have just destroyed some insect’s home! Same goes for making cairns. It may look really cool and artsy, but you just disturbed the environment. Stick to the old adage, take only pictures, and leave only footprints.

Minimize Campfire Impacts

Who doesn’t love a good campfire? When you are at the campsite, only use provided fire rings and NEVER move them. If you bring your own fire pit, make sure to use it on a durable surface. Otherwise, the heat will kill what is growing beneath it. When it comes to firewood, if you are allowed, gather sticks (no bigger than your wrist) that are already on the ground. Buy firewood at your location. Do not bring it from home as your wood may have nasty bugs, like the mountain pine beetle, which can spread and kill trees. Finally, be sure you put your fire completely out using water and stirring it. You need to have enough water on it so the fire bed is cool to the touch.  NEVER leave an unattended campfire.

Use your firepit on a durable surface
gathering firewood
Check the rules at your campground to see if you are allowed to gather your own firewood. If not, buy your firewood at the camp store.

Respect Wildlife

Don’t be that person who makes the news for trying to pet a wild animal. As docile as a buffalo may look, they are not fluffy cows. Give all wild animals, big and small, plenty of space. Keep your dog on a leash and don’t let them chase wildlife. Don’t feed the wildlife. It damages their foraging instincts. If you’re driving through an area where wildlife are on the road, go slow and don’t try to push them off the road. Wild animals are dangerous….period.

don't feed the animals sign
bear crossing sign
Respect mother nature sign

Be Considerate of Other Visitors

This final principle is important in all aspects of our lives. But at the campground, we really need to think about it, as we may not realize some of the things we are doing are bothersome to our camping neighbors. The number one complaint we hear is in regards to people or kids walking through someone else’s campsite. It may be a shortcut to the pool, but don’t do it. It’s just rude. Go the long way and work off those s’mores from the night before. Don’t leave your outside lights on all night. Don’t play music or your outdoor TV unless the volume is really low or you’re using headphones, especially at night. If you’re camping with your dog, do not let them off leash and keep barking to a minimum. When you are in a parking lot with your camper, park in the back rows. Work off more s’mores. And, if the unthinkable happens and your camper breaks down, don’t expect immediate service from a local RV dealer. Instead, look for a mobile RV repair service that can come to you. Bottom line, be friendly and courteous to others.

The Leave No Trace principles aren’t set in stone and are constantly evolving. How you use them should evolve, too. We want everyone to enjoy the outdoors without leaving an impact. And, we all need to do our part to protect and preserve it. 

Lesa McDermott

Girl Camper South Dakota

Lesa McDermott is the Girl Camper Guide for the Black Hills/South Dakota Chapter and a contributing writer for the Girl Camper Magazine. She is the founder of and is a passionate outdoor adventurer who loves spending time in the mountains or scuba diving in remote places around the world.