Durable surfaces are resistant to impact, but also resilient. Walk on existing trail, rock, gravel, sand and snow, as opposed to broad-leaf vegetation, moss and cryptobiotic soils. Those fragile soils and vegetation types can't handle being trampled. In camp, don't pitch your pup tent on pretty, soft flowers or moss or broad-leaf plants.
Unless you're on an old road bed, or another wide, durable surface, follow in each other's footsteps to avoid widening trails. A lot of the impact we see out there, Lawhon says, is a result of people wanting to walk side-by-side, so they can talk with their friends, but what they're doing is unnecessarily widening those trails, and increasing erosion.
There are few hard and fast rules here. Mostly, try to think about where you're traveling and take into consideration that area's particular wildlife concerns. For example, don't wander off-trail in elk habitat during calving season, where you might spook a sow and her little ones. Don't leave food out overnight, where it can attract bears and habituate them to humans. Keep a respectful distance from wild animals, both for their sake and, when they're significantly bigger than you (55 people have been injured by Yellowstone bison in the past 15 years) or higher on the food chain (yes, grizzly bears), for your safety.
When nature calls, that euphemism for peeing and pooping, implies that it’s natural, like the woods, mountains and deserts we like to play in. The problem is that we put a lot of unnatural things into our bodies. When we go to the bathroom outdoors, we leave all of that stuff—vitamin supplements, birth control, man-made preservatives—behind, where it leaches into the soil and, sometimes, into water sources. Lawhon recommends digging a cathole or, better yet, packing it all out. See our special report—Skills: No Plumbing, No Problem—for more info.
When you know what your needs are, you can locate a site that will meet them without having to significantly alter it by building backcountry furniturehammering nails into trees for lanterns and clotheslines, clearing rocks or any of the other classic campsite impacts. Look for a site that's already impacted, Lawhon says, where you won't likely cause more damage. Recreation ecology research has shown us that the majority of impact to an area occurs within the first 15 nights of use.
Not only will it help protect streams and lakes from our pollutants—toothpaste, urine, dishwater—but it also ensures that animals in the area have undisturbed access to them.
If it's safe (low forest fire danger), legal and you have the skills to build one, make a fire using wood that fits the four Ds: dead, down, dinky and distant. That's dead wood that's down on the ground, smaller around than your wrist and away from camp.