Debbie Downer Time

Your Summer Adventures Might Be Harming Nature More Than You Think

How are campers impacting the environment?

By Gwendolyn Knapp June 25, 2018

Can trails support all heavy hiking and horse traffic? The USGS hopes to find out.

Last year, 330 million people visited national parks, and millions more visited state parks, wildlife refuges and federally designated wilderness areas too. That's quite a lot of foot traffic and the United States Geological Survey wants to know just how all this camping/hiking/recreational outdoor enthusiasm is affecting our protected natural areas.

There's the obvious, of course—rare plants are getting trampled and wildlife is being displaced from its preferred habitat by attraction to people's food. But there are other, lesser known factors as well.

Cutting down trees for firewood, for instance. In Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota, the USGS found that 44 percent of campsite trees had been damaged and approximately 18 trees per campsite had been cut down  for firewood. That's bad news for local habitat.

Campsite size and topography are also major issues. Campsites in large, flat areas are frequently expanded by campers, which can cause more water runoff with soil and pollutants into lakes and creeks. Runoff and pollution from campsites can destroy water purity, and have an affect on our fish populations—certain fungi and bacteria found in sediment can harm trout eggs, and sediment can also create algal blooms that kill off all types of fish.

Parks are also becoming overwhelmed with hikers, bikers and horseback-riders, especially during popular summer seasons. That means more visitors are likely to venture off trails and harm vegetation and organic materials. Trampling plants is bad enough, but this can also compact soils and lead to erosion. The USGS reports that soil loss is the most significant and long-lasting environmental impact.  

Don't want to hurt the natural world on your vacation? The USGS urges outdoor enthusiasts to practice its science-based Leave No Trace guidelines, which are also used by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Do you know how to choose a campsite?

Here are some handy USGS outdoors tips you might not otherwise think about:

  • Collect only dead and fallen campfire wood that you can break by hand
  • Choose small campsites in sloped areas that are more than 200 feet from water
  • Hike, bike, ride, camp and recreate on durable surfaces like rock or trails/areas that lack plant cover.
  • Choose smaller campsites on sloped terrain that are at least 200 feet from water—they have far less impact than larger campsites near water.
  • Don't feed wildlife or leave out food scraps or trash where animals can get to it
  • Always look for your park's local signage for tips and important information

The USGS also has your back. Its researchers and scientists are currently identifying the most sustainable campsites on the Pacific Crest Trail, and creating a map that campers can download onto their phones.

It is also investigating sustainable trail design guidance and actions to deter off-trail hiking in several national parks, and developing more ways that parks can educate their guests about the risks for our precious habitat and wildlife.  

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