When we venture into the outdoors, whether in the Upper Peninsula or at the University of Michigan Dearborn EIC nature trails, all of us want to find an environment free of trash and the marks of human kind.
Even the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has recently taken on the task of asking campers and backpackers to do a better job of “going green”. So here are a few steps backpackers can take to make things a little cleaner out there.
Washing dishes or digits
I always hope that my assumption backpackers are the least guilty of environmental crimes is correct, but I have been surprised over the years.
While backpacking on South Manitou Island in Lake Michigan, my wife and I came across a backpacker who was washing his dishes in the lake. Not only is this a good way to contaminate your dishes, but much more importantly, think of what this does to the water. If he got sick, he could get better, but the damage to the lake remains.
Explaining to the man that it was not a good idea did absolutely no good, he just kept washing those dishes. Finally after he blew me off and acted like I was the fool, I mentioned it to that nice stern ranger lady when I saw her a bit later. When she explained the situation to him, it wasn’t in a nice way and she made her point rather quickly.
You should always wash or dispose of water no closer than 200–feet from a water source. And this applies to washing pots and pans or feet and hands. Always use a biodegradable soap. This does not make it perfectly safe but it is a lot better than other soaps around.
Another thing that most of us are guilty of is burning trash in the campfire. I will not argue that burning paper is bad, as all of us have done this. But you have to make sure it is paper and that there is nothing else on it. The example I always use is the cheese package from macaroni and cheese. The package is paper laminated to a plastic and foil inner layer. If you burn this, not only will the foil remain, but the compounds given off by the plastic are rather nasty.
What you need to do is pack it out, all of it. If you could carry the food in, you can carry your trash out. I keep a large zipper close bag just for trash. It doesn’t take up much space and it makes carrying the trash clean and easy.
When it comes to camp fires, remember that you do not want to scar the ground where you place the fire. There are a few ways to avoid this or at the least to repair the damage you do.
First off if there is an existing fire pit, then use it. It makes no sense to create another fire pit just because you don’t like the view from the existing one. Some people have taken to using a fire pan to protect the ground, but for backpackers this is really not an option. There is also the option of a mound fire, where you build a mound of soil on top of a ground sheet and then build the fire onto of the “mounded soil”. I have never done this but I am sure if done correctly it would work.
When I have found myself in an area where there is no existing fire pit I take steps to make sure I will not leave a scar on the land.
Once I locate where I want to place my fire and have cleared an area around it for safety, I take my backpackers trowel and remove a section of top soil, about 6–inches thick. If it is hard to dig into the ground, I will use my survival knife to cut a section out. The point here is to cut down deep enough to reach the mineral soil. Remove the section like a piece of sod and place it to the side. If you are there for a few days, make sure to water it a bit to keep this layer alive.
Then I build my fire with small downed wood in the hole I have made. And I stress using small pieces of wood as you will be able to burn these down to ash. When you are done with the fire pit, all you have to do is clean out the ash, spread it around and replace the section of top soil.
Other Peoples Trash
Finally, I never come home with less trash than I create. Whenever I am on the trail backpacking or taking a day hike, if I see a piece of trash I can carry, then I grab it. It is everyone’s job to try and maintain a clean environment and even picking up that piece of paper you come across will help.
So next time you ard on the trail do your part to make this world a better place.
A good source of information is the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. The group offers tips and training to help keep our impact in the natural world to a minimum
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