When it comes to visiting the great outdoors, Leave No Trace has long been a guiding framework for how campers and adventurers should act.

You’re probably familiar with the concept as it relates to even beginner backpacking, but you might not have considered that it applies as much to van living as it does to any other form of recreational camping.

Making responsible choices when it comes to outdoor activities will help us all share in the beauty and joy that the wilderness has to offer.

Whether you’re new to van life or an avid explorer, it’s important to understand and follow the seven principles of Leave No Trace.

Plan Ahead and Prepare

While one of the key features of vanlife is spontaneity, that doesn’t mean you can’t take steps to plan ahead. As with any outdoor activity, from backpacking to rock climbing, being prepared is the first step to minimizing your impact.

Familiarize yourself with the places you’ll be traveling through. Ask yourself:

  • Who owns the land?
  • What are the local regulations or restrictions?
  • How long are you allowed to camp?
  • What bathroom or trash facilities are there?
  • How fragile is the ecosystem? (Take the time to learn one from the other.  Desert ecosystems, for instance, are far less resilient to human impact to those in wetter climates)
  • What kind of wildlife can you expect to encounter?

Land managed by the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management usually have helpful information on their websites. Alternatively, there are third-party websites like FreeCampsites.net that can help you out.  If you can’t find the answers to these questions online, look for a local ranger’s station or visitor’s center.

When in doubt, ask before you head out!

Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

An example of cryptobiotic crust, characterized by the black tint to the rigid soil.

People can do irreparable damage to an entire ecosystem by driving or trotting over soil and vegetation.

In the deserts of the southwest US for instance, it’s incredibly easy to unknowingly park on cryptobiotic soil, which is actually a living creature crucial to these ecosystems.  They’re key in carbon fixation, nitrogen fixation, soil stabilization, and germination and nutrient disbursement among vascular plants.Formed over hundreds of years and destroyed in mere seconds.

Designated trails, roadways, and camping areas are provided specifically to help us enjoy the wilderness without causing unwanted damage.

When parking your van, choose somewhere that is 200 feet from a water source and has a durable surface like rock, gravel, pavement, sand, or dirt. This will help you minimize your impact on the surrounding environment.

Never drive off road and avoid driving down primitive dirt roads to find camping in wet conditions, as you may contribute to the rutting of the road (which in turn leads others behind you to expand the road in order to avoid the ruts).

Dispose of Waste Properly

When you’re following Leave No Trace, the places you visit should look as good or better than how you found them.

That means whatever comes with you should leave with you too, even food scraps that may be biodegradable like banana peels or apple cores. It’s also important to dispose of your waste properly—yes, that means poo.

If you don’t have access to a bathroom facility or toilet in your van (highly recommended because it does vastly reduce your vanlife impact), dig a cat hole 6-8 inches deep at least 200 feet away from any water sources.

DO NOT poop in the wild in arid desert environments.  These ecosystems are too dry for human feces to properly biodegrade.  Always wag bag your desert doo doo and pack it out.

Leave What You Find

When you’re living in a van, chances are you won’t have much extra space for souvenirs. But it goes without saying that you shouldn’t go taking things from the places you visit, whether it’s plants, rocks, archaeological objects, or otherwise.  In some places, like national and state parks, it’s actually illegal to remove anything, even the smallest of stones.

If you want something to help you remember, take a photo!

In addition, try to make as few site alterations as possible when setting up your camp.

Minimize Campfire Impacts

Campfires may seem essential to the camping experience, but improper use can be incredibly damaging to the environment. Nothing will ruin vanlife for everyone faster than accidentally causing a forest fire (which we’ve seen too much of over the last few years).

Here are some responsible campfire tips:

  • Always consider fire regulations and regional fire danger ratings first
  • Use designated fire pits or fire rings.
  • If you MUST build a rock ring (in an area where allowed), scatter the rocks before leaving.
  • Keep fires small
  • Be mindful of how much firewood you use
  • Never build a campfire within 200 feet of a natural water source
  • Don’t build fires in windy conditions

One of the best ways you can reduce your campfire impact is to cook using a portable stove instead. Delicious camp stove recipes are an excellent way to fuel your adventure with something warm and hearty without the need for a campfire.

Respect Wildlife

One of the coolest parts of vanlife is the possibility to encounter wildlife in their natural habitat. But it’s important to do so through quiet observation from afar rather than purposefully disturb them just to get a better look.

Remember, you’re a visitor in their home!

If you have pets, keep an eye on them or keep them on a leash so they aren’t bothering the local wildlife.

Also, remember to store food, trash, or scented products somewhere that wildlife won’t be drawn to them. Making sustainable decisions is important for other visitors and current inhabitants alike.

Be Considerate of Other Visitors

As more and more people take to vanlife or other camping styles, it’s important that we continue to treat one another with respect. One thoughtless vanlifer can ruin it for everyone.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that sound travels farther in less densely populated areas, so whether you’re listening to music or simply talking to your friends, be considerate with your noise level.

Give your camping neighbors space and do unto them as you would have them do unto you. That means don’t campsite poach unless absolutely necessary. Given how easy it is to find campsites (wild or sanctioned) via apps like The Dyrt, there’s rarely a reason to encroach on someone else’s space. Even if you’re in vanlife for social and community reasons, realize not everyone is.  Some people use it for precisely the opposite.

If there isn’t another option, ask before you park next to someone!

Remember, when it comes down to it, we’re all just here to enjoy what the great outdoors has to offer.

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