How To Leave No Trace When Camping

Photo: Haley Toy and Gary Huey

Meet the couple who travels the country, educating folks on how to help preserve the environment through simple actions around the campsite.

Haley Toy and Gary Huey have been on the road, living out of a Subaru Outback for over a year, traveling around to various state parks, national parks, festivals, and events. Their mission? Kindly educate any active outdoor people, from backpackers to festival-goers and all walks of life, how they can take simple actions to Leave No Trace—and keep natural areas as natural as possible.

Toy and Huey met while taking academic and outdoor leadership courses in Yosemite National Park during college. Traveling the country in the Subaru, the two now set up booths and host clinics in various outdoor recreation areas, utilizing their collective skills in graphic design, photography, marketing, and storytelling to try to communicate the 7 Principles of Leave No Trace “in a relevant way for everyone,” says Toy. Based on those principles, here’s the duo’s best advice on how fellow, recreational car campers can do better to minimize their impact, whether they’re first-timers or every-weekenders.

7 Easy Steps to Better Car Camping 

1. Plan Ahead and Prepare

Look ahead to see if you need reservations, especially since camping has gotten so much busier over the last few years, says Huey. “Planning ahead keeps you from breaking rules…like not camping where you’re not supposed to,” says Huey. “When you’re more prepared, you’ll be more inclined to leave no trace, and your experience will be enhanced.” 

And, think about what you need in relation to the weather, and pack accordingly: “If you’re car camping for a few nights, you can be comfortable,” adds Toy. “I always bring a comfortable pillow.” Another tip: Download offline maps on your smartphone to find the campsite, or trails, that you’re seeking to avoid wandering around on sensitive areas.

2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

Established campgrounds have smooth, flat tent pads that should be pretty obvious. “Place your tent where there’s already been heavy impact on a durable surface instead of creating new impact elsewhere in a campground,” says Toy. In a non-established campsite, like on BLM land, she adds, make sure you’re setting up your camp at least 200 feet away from any freshwater sources—washing dishes, going to the bathroom, cooking…you don’t want any of that to contaminate the water.

Haley Toy and Gary Huey smile from a canoe Photo: Haley Toy and Gary Huey

3. Dispose of Waste Properly

Says Huey: “Any trash you bring in, pack it out. That goes for human waste and itemized waste.” Most campsites have a pit toilet. Use it. The pair add that they recommend repackaging your food when you’re packing for your camping trip so you can bring less trash to your campsite. “If you bring less trash, you’ll have less trash out there,” says Huey. Also, know that fruit peels and pits, and things like sunflower seed shells count as trash. They may decompose, but it takes decades, and they’re not natural to the environment you’re visiting. It’s also a hazard for wildlife to associate humans with a food source. Pack it all out.

Added tip: When you buy that giant plastic bag of ice for your cooler, save the plastic bag to use as a trash bag while camping.

4. Leave What You Find

“Say there’s a bunch of wildflowers and they’re really pretty, and your kids want to take a few home,” says Toy. “If you’re a family of five and take a handful of flowers, then all the families in the whole campground took a handful of wildflowers, that would make a huge cumulative impact.”

Instead, Hoy and Tuey advise taking photos, drawing, painting...Commemorate your experience in some other way that’s not leaving with something physical. “We never know the livelihood of those things in any particular environment and what they’re offering to the ecosystem,” says Hoy.

5. Minimizing Campfire Impacts

Make sure there aren’t fire bans due to fire danger by reading online before you travel, reading signs in the campground, asking the camp host. “If they are allowed, campfires are a great way to enjoy time together,” says Toy. “We just want to help people know to put them out correctly.”

“We call it campfire soup,” says Huey. “You want your doused-out fire to be very wet, cold—you should be able to touch the ashes. That’s how much your fire should be out.” Over 80 percent of wildfires started from human impact. “Take extra caution with fires.”

6. Respect Wildlife

This starts with the basic imperative to observe wildlife from a distance: Do not feed them, pet them, or get too close for photos, says Huey.

To protect you and the wildlife, store your food properly. “Pack everything that’s smellable in the bear box provided at a campground, including toiletries, cooking utensils—anything that has a scent,” says Toy. “And if dogs are allowed in the campground, follow leash requirements.” Wildlife can be spooked by dogs, so to avoid conflict, follow rules regarding dogs.

7. Be Considerate of Others

A social interaction can, unfortunately, give you a negative impression of your camping trip and vice versa. “Be mindful of your noise at your campsite, especially late at night and early mornings,” says Huey.

“It’s really about respecting others,” says Toy.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.