State Parks Getaways - Texas Parks and Wildlife E-Newsletter

Low-impact Camping

A Few Simple Rules to Help You – and Your Fellow Campers – Enjoy the Outdoors Even More

By Julie Coombes

Imagine enjoying a peaceful hike along the river with the wind whispering in the sycamores. There is beauty all around, and then you discover a fire half-out, trash scattered along the bank and, nearby, a chopped tree. How depressing – and completely avoidable.

We are guests in nature, and good guests know that whether we're outdoors or visiting grandma's house, minding our manners is a courtesy worth paying to both the resource and the people who will come after us. There are many simple things we can do to make camping better, safer and more fun, things that won't leave other people wishing we'd never come to call. So here are few tips on outdoor manners.

Good Guests Help Out in the Kitchen

cooking outdoors over a fire

Food always seems to taste better outdoors. Tired of carrying bulky, heavy packages? Put food into zippered bags and press out the air. There will be less weight to carry and more space in your pack. Keep food light and simple so it can all be cooked in one pot. Try no-cook or just-add-water meals. These are easy and tasty and they require less clean-up for the cook.

To make sure you actually get to eat your next meal, protect all food from animals and remember: It's illegal to feed wildlife in Texas state parks.

Don't Burn Down the House

There's nothing like the smell of a campfire, but low-impact camping means using fire responsibly. The cleanest way to cook in the backcountry is with a small camp stove. If you must have a campfire, use existing fire rings instead of making new ones. Do not cut trees for firewood, and extinguish fires completely, until cold to the touch.

Preparing a Campsite

You wouldn't grab an ax and chop yourself a new bed from grandma's old dresser, but some people who were taught outdated camping methods still think they need to clear elaborate campsites and build furniture. Low-impact campers reuse existing campsites, or camp on bare ground, not on top of delicate plant life. Do not clear or cut brush and don't dig a trench around your tent.

Family enjoying the outdoors at their campsite

Keep Your Feet Off the Furniture

Hike on existing trails. In true backcountry where there are no trails, spread out if you are with a group, to avoid creating new trails. Heavy boots can damage plants, so keep to hard surfaces such as rock, sand, snow or gravel.

Good Guests Clean Up After Themselves

Pack out all trash – don't bury it – and keep a bag handy to carry out trash you find along the way. When washing dishes, or yourself, stay at least 200 feet away from streams and other bodies of water. Use very small amounts of biodegradable soap.

Where there's no toilet in the backcountry, do what cats do: Dig a small "cat-hole" with the heel of your shoe or a small trowel, about 6 to 8 inches deep. Make sure the hole is at least 200 feet from water. Deposit human waste in the hole and cover it up with leaf litter. Carry a bag to pack out toilet paper so animals won't dig it up and send it flying across the landscape.

Don't Steal the Silverware or Keep Grandpa Up All Night

It's a cliché, but "Take only memories, leave only footprints" is a good rule for campers who wish to minimize their impact on the landscape. Besides, in state parks, it's the law – all historic artifacts, plants, animals, rocks and everything else are protected.

Noise pollution is a type of trash, too. You've probably experienced this: Just as you're drifting off to sleep after a blissful day in the outdoors, loud music comes blaring out of the neighbor's tent. So leave the music at home and enjoy nature's sounds. You'll have a more relaxing trip, and by being quiet you may be lucky enough to spot some wildlife.

To learn more about low-impact outdoor skills, contact the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics at or call (800) 332-4100.

This article appeared in the September 2004 issue of Texas Parks & Wildlife. If you’d like to read more articles like this or subscribe to the magazine, visit

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