I live in the Balkans where beautiful nature abounds – but the nature is often also full of trash and piles of toilet paper lurking right off the trails. In many places, camping is completely forbidden simply because the people are too stupid to do things like not get mauled by a bear.
Basically, a few idiots are ruining things for everyone. None of this would be an issue if everyone would just follow these basic rules when wild camping.
#1: LEAVE NO TRACE
This is by far the most important rule of camping or backpacking. Seriously, don’t be the jerk who leaves trash, toilet paper, and other crap (literally and figuratively) off the trail. Also don’t be the jerk that destroys nature in sensitive areas, such as by picking endangered plants. I know it’s sometimes difficult not to leave any trace at all. Your tent, for example, will crush the grass. However, you can reduce your impact by doing things like:
- Anything brought in must be carried out (so don’t bring things like canned good which will be annoying to carry out)
- Put up your tent at designated camp areas, if possible.
- Reuse fire pits. This leaves less of a trace than making a zillion different campfire pits.
#2: Always Enclose the Fire
Every fire needs to be enclosed in some way so flying sparks don’t cause a forest fire. You could dig a pit for it. Or, I prefer to make a fire circle out of rocks. Seriously, you really don’t want to be the jerk who started a forest fire!!!!
Remember to be careful when picking up big rocks when you are in snake country! Give the rock a good tap before picking it up, and even then proceed with caution.
#3: And Always Put Out the Fire
I was camping on the beach in Albania last month. Some locals made a fire. When they left, they insisted that they “didn’t need to put it out” because “it’s the beach, and there is nothing flammable.”
True, you aren’t going to start a forest fire on the beach. But what if the wind blew a hot coal onto the beach and some barefoot person stepped on it?
I put the fire out by dousing it with sand.
In the woods, you don’t necessarily have to douse the fire with water (though this is recommended if it is very dry out – a single spark could result in a forest fire!). But do make sure that the flames have gone completely out and spread the coals out so they don’t re-ignite.
#4: Don’t Go Off Trail
Want to go off trail “just a little bit” so you’ll get a better view? It’s amazingly easy to lose the trail and end up lost. There have been scientific studies which show that people really do walk in circles when they think they are walking in a straight line. People have been found (dead and alive) by Mountain Rescue just a few yards off the trail.
If you absolutely must go off trail, then use a compass. This way, you can be sure you are walking in a straight line.
#5: Set Up Camp Before Dark
At campgrounds, you can arrive late at night and still easily set up camp. That’s because you don’t have to scout out a campsite, check for dangers like “widow-maker trees” or hang a bear bag (many campgrounds have bear vaults for your food).
When wild camping, you will want camp set up long before dark falls. Even with a good headlamp, tasks like hanging a bear bag, gathering firewood, and making dinner are difficult if night has fallen. So allow yourself plenty of time to set up camp before night falls so you can relax and enjoy the stars.
#6: Hang a Bear Bag
The last thing you want is a hungry brown bear roaming your campground. Even worse, ripping into your tent while you sleep to get the food you foolishly put there! And, just in case, bring some bear spray.
Even if you aren’t in bear country, you still may need to hang a bear bag or use a canister. Bears aren’t the only critters which will eat your food.
Worried about bears? Read what to do if you encounter a bear in the wild.
#7: Dig a Catole
This goes along with the “leave no trace” rule for wild camping. However, considering all the piles of sh*t and toilet paper remains I see right off trail, it needs special attention .
The proper way to go to the bathroom in the wilderness is to dig a cathole. Catholes should always be
- 200 feet from water and camp
- 6-8 inches deep
- 4-6 inches in diameter
- Covered with natural materials when finished
I once bought a cheap small shovel for digging a cathole, but found it useless in rocky soil or around tree roots (so, basically everywhere in the woods). Instead, I just use a cheap knife and a stick to dig a hole. It works fine.
#8: Treat Water
Finally, remember to never drink water from natural sources (ponds, streams, lakes, etc.) without first treating it. Just because it looks clean, it doesn’t mean it is clean.
Even clean-looking backcountry water can still contain bacteria and parasites like giardia and Cryptosporidium. There are a few ways to treat water to make it safe to drink. The easiest is to just filter it. I use the Sawyer Mini filter and it literally makes camping possible for me.
#9: Don’t Hike without Overnight Gear
You’re just going for a short hike, so you don’t need much gear? That mentality is why dayhikers are more likely to need rescuing than backpackers. They often set out unprepared. Then something happens — like the weather changing suddenly or getting lost or injured — and they need to stay the night in the woods.
ALWAYS bring a “survival” kit when hiking. Here’s a list of what hiking gear to bring.