The pandemic brought rough stuff to all our lives, but a fresh love of nature counts as one of the perks.
According to KOA’s North American Camping Report, the number of US households identifying as campers grew by 3.9 million in 2020, with the rate of first-time campers booming by more than five times what we saw in 2019.
I’m guessing this isn’t news if you scrambled to score a last-minute campsite last season.
With our renewed fondness for pitching a tent under the stars comes a whole host of responsibility some may not know about. From protecting our wild places to pooping under a tree (yep, we’re going there) here are 7 things to know about being the best possible camper in 2021.
Plan ahead for permits and reservations
I’m a native Oregonian who grew up tent camping, and no one in my family recalls ever reserving a campsite. You just rolled into a campground on Friday night and found one.
Oh, how times have changed.
While you’ll still find first-come first-served sites in many campgrounds, they’re tougher to score on busy weekends and in peak summer season. (Ask me about my 6 a.m. mid-week trek to Suttle Lake to circle like a vulture, swoop in on a newly-vacant site, and pitch a tent before racing back to work).
Websites like recreation.gov and reserveamerica.com give you options for reserving spots at many campgrounds, but there’s no single website that lets you search all of them. You’ve also got a mishmash of Forest Service, BLM, State Parks, and private campgrounds, all of which have different rules and reservation systems. It takes persistence to find something, which is why it’s handy to keep an open mind about where you pitch your tent.
Many campgrounds set aside non-reservable sites you can grab on a first-come, first-served basis. You’ll have better luck finding one if you try mid-week or early/late in the season instead of a midsummer Friday night in July.
Dispersed camping (i.e. the kind where you won’t find facilities like restrooms and running water) can be easier to come by, but requires more planning for how you’ll drink, wash dishes, and answer nature’s call. It’s extra-important in those areas to be sure you’re following Leave No Trace practices (more on that in a sec) and fire regulations (ditto).
Plenty has changed with permits as well. If you’re dreaming of back-country camping in the Central Oregon Cascades, read up on the brand-new Central Cascades Wilderness Permit System. Many areas you’ve trekked or camped before now require a permit, so be informed before you shoulder that pack and set out. This blog post will tell you what you need to know.
Leave no trace
The golden rule for any outdoor adventure is to Leave No Trace. That means picking up your own trash and maybe snatching someone else’s stray gum wrapper while you’re at it. May as well leave things better than you found them, right?
Besides not leaving trash behind, don’t take anything but photos and memories. No breaking off branches for firewood or walking sticks, and please don’t pocket a bunch of native plants thinking they’ll look pretty in your flowerbed back home. Don’t move rocks to build fire rings, and read the fire safety section below to be sure you’re allowed to have a campfire (probably not, especially in dispersed areas).
When you wander from your campsite, stick to marked trails and parking areas so you don’t disturb wildlife or the fragile forest ecosystem.
Want to go a step farther with leaving wild areas better than you found them? Consider a donation to Pledge for the Wild, which supports the nonprofit land managers maintaining Central Oregon’s wild places. That way, future generations can enjoy them like you are.
Practice fire safety
Remember last fall when it seemed the whole state of Oregon was on fire? It kinda was.
This past March while hiking Riley Ranch Nature Reserve, I saw a big plume of smoke near Tumalo and my first thought was, “fire season’s starting early this year.” And again, it was.
The Oregon Department of Forestry’s Central Oregon District has already declared fire season underway, making it the earliest start in more than 40 years.
Guys – yikes.
I’m legit worried about what our low spring rainfall, rapid snowpack loss, and tons of dried fuels means for potential forest fire. You should worry, too.
You should also bookmark the page for the Oregon Department of Forestry and pay extra super-duper close attention to fire restrictions for the area you’re camping. This site is another awesome one to check if you’re smelling smoke and want to know if it’s a prescribed burn or something scarier.
Fire bans typically go into effect in late summer each year, but I won’t be surprised to see it happen earlier in 2021. The Bureau of Land Management already issued their annual fire ban going into effect June 1, which is earlier than I ever remember it. Keep an eye on that Forestry site I linked above so you know what restrictions are in effect in the area you’d like to camp.
If campfires are permitted in the time and place you’re camping, be sure to stoke them only in designated fire pits. I’m talking about the sturdy metal rings in established campgrounds with hosts selling firewood, as opposed to man-made rock rings in dispersed camping areas (which are not okay anytime).
Always have a shovel and bucket of water handy to deal with runaway flames. Always, always make sure your fire is fully extinguished before leaving your campsite.
For more info on how to avoid lighting the forest on fire, check this blog post.
Watch your waste
I’m not talking about that kind of waste (though we’ll get to that in a sec).
I’m talking about candy wrappers, individually-packaged granola bars, and those oh-so-handy paper plates that spare you from plunging your hands into icy-cold pump water to do dishes.
Real talk, parents: Camping with kids is a challenge. Sometimes you just need to hand them a can of soda and a fistful of string cheese to buy yourself a moment’s peace. I get it, trust me.
But in the scheme of things, it doesn’t add that much extra time to pre-slice hunks of cheddar into eco-friendly containers and pack beverages in reusable bottles. Spend a few days planning meals to minimize waste. Invest in some sturdy camp dishes you can use again and again (bonus: my kids freakin’ loved having their own special camp dishes when they were little).
Got camp supplies like lanterns or headlamps that use batteries? Consider reusable ones instead of alkaline throwaways.
While it’s inevitable you’ll generate some waste, be wise when it comes to disposing of it. If your campground has a host, ask him or her about the best way to handle recyclables, trash, and compost. It’s less mess for them to deal with in the long run, and a load off your conscience knowing you’ve done your best to minimize what’s in the landfill or left behind for future campers.
Learn how to poop
I said we’d go there, so let’s do it.
Since piles of human excrement were one reason for that new permit system I mentioned, it’s clear a whole lot of us are confused about how to do our duty outdoors.
If you’re camping or hiking in established areas, odds are good you’ll at least find a vault toilet. I keep a couple tissues in my pack at all times in case there’s no TP. But what happens when you’re miles from real facilities and nature calls?
One option is to follow Leave No Trace principles and pack it out like you’d do with Fido’s canine landmines. Keep in mind human waste is illegal to dump in regular ol’ trash cans, so you’ll need something like Wag Bags designed for this purpose. Tuck a couple in your pack just in case.
If that’s not an option, start by making sure you’re equipped with a small, lightweight trowel. Find a suitable location at least 200 feet (roughly 80 steps) off the trail and away from water sources, campsites, or picnic areas. Dig a hole at least six inches in diameter and eight inches deep.
Next…well, do your thing. If you use wipes or TP, tuck it in a baggie and pack it out. Leaves or moss will also work, or even a smooth rock.
Once you finish, bury everything and place a large rock on top to keep animals and other humans from digging it up. Clean your hands well with that bottle of hand sanitizer you carry because the pandemic caused us all to hoard the stuff like it’s a rare reserve whiskey.
Congratulations! You’re a champion nature pooper.
Rent, borrow, or buy used
If you’re new to camping or easing back in, your stash of gear may need replenishing. Instead of maxing out credit cards to fill your garage with equipment you may use just a handful of times, consider renting or borrowing.
Got a buddy with a tent you covet? See if she’ll let you use it for a couple nights. Ask around if anyone has a spare camp stove or can part with camp chairs for a day or two.
If quarantine or politics rendered you friendless, scour thrift stores or craigslist ads to score used supplies. Bend boasts several great secondhand gear shops, and thrift stores are filled with castoff camping gear. Lots of local retailers rent outdoor equipment, so call around to see what’s available.
Not only will you save a few bucks, you’ll help keep unwanted gear out of the landfill. Look who’s the savvy camper now!
Don’t feed the bears
Yep, we’ve got bears around Central Oregon. And cougars and rattlesnakes and other critters who’ve been here a lot longer than we have and would very much like to search your picnic basket for lunch or a nice nap spot.
This blog post will give you tips for potential encounters with Central Oregon wildlife that deserves an extra-wide berth. It’ll also help you avoid those encounters in the first place by reminding you to keep campsites clean and food sealed up and clear of sleeping areas. That way, you won’t be the reason Smokey Bear gets shot for being too cozy with campers.
While it’s tempting to feed cute critters like chipmunks and ground squirrels, please resist the urge. Not only does it mess with their nutrition and health, but you risk starving some little fuzzball in the long run because he dragged your donut into his den and rotted his winter food supply.
When you venture from your campsite to recreate, please stick to marked trails and respect signs indicating closures. You might be bummed to miss that one particular mountain bike trail, but wouldn’t you be more bummed knowing you wrecked an elk migration pathway or sent a newborn calf careening down some social trail away from its mama? Learn more about wildlife-related seasonal trail closures here.
Above all, have fun! Whether you’re camping around Central Oregon or anyplace else on earth, it’s on all of us to take care of the places that feed our souls.