Minimal vs. Displaced Impact
Search the internet with the phrase “minimal impact camping” and a multitude of websites will appear. Leave No Trace and Tread Lightly will be two of the sites you will find. Both of these offer a set of guidelines or principles to minimize our impact on the environment. While these are worthwhile rules, we also need to dig deeper to fully understand our impact on nature.
Just by our sheer existence, we are impacting the environment. We inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. We eat baked beans and release hydrogen and methane gases. We consume water, plants or animals daily. There is no escape from having an impact. Now, I’m not saying we should just say screw it and burn the forests to the ground, but what is the proper balance? If we follow the leave no trace/tread lightly principles, are we really having less of an impact than traditional camping techniques? Let’s weigh the pros and cons to determine our impact.
Campfire vs. Camp Stove
When discussing a campfire, there are two components that come into play: 1) availability of wood to build the fire, and 2) the emissions created by burning the wood. In heavily used areas, downed or dead wood may be scarce and not feasible. Burning wood releases carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, benzene, particulate matter and other volatile compounds. So, is the camp stove the better choice?
Camp stoves are crafted using lightweight metals, quite commonly aluminum. Aluminum starts life as bauxite, typically mined from the ground by strip mining, thereby causing runoff and other issues. Then, the bauxite is smelted which takes an enormous amount of energy and releases greenhouse gases such as perfluorocarbons, fluoride, sulfur and carbon dioxides to name a few. Also, the camp stove needs a fuel source with propane and isobutene being the most common. Burning these gases can emit particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, methane and others gases. So, maybe the campfire is the victor?
There is not a clear cut winner in this comparison. A campfire has an impact on your immediate environment by burning wood with only minor displaced impact through greenhouse gas emissions. The camp stove has a mild impact on your immediate environment thru emissions but a tremendous displaced impact due to the manufacturing process. In my opinion, they can both be viable options assuming you are responsible. In heavily used areas where wood may be unavailable or fires are prohibited, use a camp stove. In areas where wood is readily available, it is no more harmful to have a campfire. Always ensure you check the local regulations especially regarding the transporting and foraging of wood.
Synthetic Materials vs. Natural Materials
Looking through our camping gear, we need to take inventory of what materials are used in the manufacturing of these items. Starting with the tent, we see nylon used for the main body and aluminum or fiberglass poles with rubber shock cords. Add in a sleeping pad constructed with some sort of foam with polyester or nylon, and then top it off with a sleeping bag made from more nylon, polyester and poly-fil. As you can see, the synthetic materials are piling up. Then we have our cooking gear. Plastic, aluminum and other lightweight materials are used to construct our spoons, forks, plates, bowls, stove, as well as the many gadgets and clothing we use regularly.
Let’s explore the manufacturing process of plastic, including nylon and polyester, and rubber as we have already discussed aluminum’s process. Nylon and polyester are polymers made from plastic. Plastic begins life in an oil refinery with the distillation of crude oil. After the oil is distilled, it gets very technical, but essentially more refining is done adding chemicals to the oil. This process uses energy from coal and natural gas and emits toxic fumes. Natural rubber is harvested from trees, while synthetic rubber is made from crude oil. Both natural and synthetic consuming more energy and chemicals to process. These processes all create tremendous displaced impact.
For centuries, (well, actually longer) humans have used wool for clothing and canvas for shelter. Wool requires the shearing of sheep (or other animals) and canvas is made from cotton or linen – all renewable resources. In some cases, chemicals are used in processing these materials but it is not actually necessary. The energy used and emissions created processing wool/cotton/linen is minimal. The downside is that quality wool and canvas can be expensive.
In my opinion, there is no denying that wool and canvas have less of an impact on the environment but can’t be used to manufacture everything we “need” in modern times. Therefore plastic and rubber derivatives are useful to fill the void.
How can we lessen our impact on the environment when camping? As stated previously, just by breathing we are affecting the environment and I don’t plan on discontinuing this process any time soon! To me, making informed decisions is the best way to minimize impact. When on the water or in the woods, keep the Leave No Trace principles in mind when selecting a campsite and always pack out your trash. When it comes to our gear, just because a new color or design is released doesn’t mean that we need to make a purchase. Using our gear until it no longer functions properly can reduce emissions created in the manufacturing process obviously because not as much manufacturing takes place when we reuse and upcycle. When you do need an item, try buying used. eBay, Marketplace and Craigslist are great resources for buying lightly used gear. You can even acquire used gear on major retailer sites such as REI, Outdoorgeek.com and Geartrade.com. When you no longer need a product that you have, consider selling the item on one of these sites or donating it as opposed to throwing it away. If you must discard gear, always ensure you are recycling all materials possible.
If all of us adhere to these simple principles, we will ensure that generations to come will enjoy the wilderness as much as we have. Please share your tips with us on how you minimize environmental impact while in nature in the comments below.