I’ve spent a lot of time out in the desert either traveling with people, or observing other groups. From that I have come up with a few things that I consider rules for traveling with me, and I figure it might be less awkward to just lay ’em out up front so we’re all on the same page.

A lot of this comes back to a few core principles:

  1. I didn’t come out here to see / hear / experience XYZ, I assume most other people didn’t either, so I / we shouldn’t do it. One of the OG desert wanderers said it well: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.
  2. Think about “if everyone did that” what would happen.
    • Dad taught me this one when I was a kid and threw a rock into the Grand Canyon. Now, there are a lot of reasons to not do that (like there could be hikers below), but dad’s was “if everyone did that, eventually it would fill up”, which, technically, is true! :-)
    • Think about it with other, more realistic things. If everyone cut a branch off the tree for firewood, there wouldn’t be any trees around the campsite any more. If everyone took a souvenir from a ruin, they would disappear. If everyone drove off designated roads, the landscape would be scarred for decades / centuries (as, in fact, it already is. (Note: in many cases, all of those things are also illegal, in addition to being bad behavior)
  3. Basically: Don’t be an asshole.

The problem is, as I’ve seen, not everyone knows what that means out in nature, so here are some of my feelings.

In most cases if I talk about something here (like “packing out human waste”) if you don’t know what that means, how to do it, or what you need, I can give you some pointers.

Trash

Hopefully this one is obvious at least on the surface, but a few notes nonetheless:

Trash includes things you might think of as “biodegradable” and toss: orange peels, banana peels, apple cores, etc. These will be visible in the landscape for years to come. Do not throw away peels or cores.

Food:

  • Believe it or not, animals did not spend millions of years evolving to eat the mixture of sugar, preservatives, dyes, and chemicals we call “food”.
  • Animals also don’t do well learning to just get it from us instead of fending for themselves.
  • Food can also attract dangerous animals. More on that later. Just don’t leave food laying around, or throw it away as trash just because you think it’s “natural”.

Plastics and metals: do not put these in the fire. Pack them out.

“Police” camp before leaving. Take one last look around, even walk around, to make sure we didn’t leave any trash – or camping gear. I’ve found quite a lot of nice stuff this way!

Human waste

DIG A DEEP HOLE. I have a shovel (you should have one too) and use it. Nobody came out here to see shit-streaked toilet paper decorating the sagebrush.

If you need to wipe after peeing, dig a hole.

Just putting a rock on it is not acceptable.

In some areas you may be required to pack it out. Yep. Most places we’re ok burying it properly.

Disposable stuff

This kinda goes under the “trash” category, but it bugs me enough to talk about it specifically. Try to avoid using disposable things.

Plastic water bottles: I might have a meltdown if I see a case of 500mL water bottles from Walmart. Get a canteen (or several – I have five) and a large jug or two from which to refill. NO DISPOSABLE WATER BOTTLES.

Paper plates, plastic silverware: in general try to avoid these. Get some basic camp kitchen stuff – my favorites are actually really cheap, too – and wash / reuse them:

  • These spoons, forks, and knives are $0.90 each, and work great, cleanup easy. I love ’em. (The spoons really do most of the work for me, easier to just shovel it in that way.)
  • Sporks if you really want to cut weight. Some designs have a serrated knife edge, too, so… sporknife? knspork (the kn is silent?)
  • Long spoon / spork: Hold up, I’m supposed to spend $11 on an aluminum spoon? Hear me out: I eat most of my warm meals directly out of the freeze-dried food pouch they are made in (more on that in the next paragraph) and a long spoon is a game changer. No more fingers covered in pasta sauce!
    • I managed to get the SeaToSummit long spork, but I don’t see that at REI at the moment. There seem to be many options on Amazon.com.
    • Also, I once got a few plastic long spoons in the camping section at Walmart for – sit down for this – $0.88, although they are more flexible and are not sporks, so… I dunno, since I had the fancy metal one first I’m kinda snobbish, but the 88 cent ones are a good option too!
  • Plates: this is what I have, which are cheap, light, and square, so they don’t waste as much space at the corners! :-)
  • Cups: I do most of my drinking out of either water canteens or whatever the beverage came in (beer can, pop can, etc.) but a couple of these are handy as either small bowls (oatmeal!) and because they have measurements on them.
  • Mugs: I like an insulated thermos somebody gave me for my morning coffee, since it has a sealing sippy lid. If I’m camping where it’s a) warm and b) I’m not moving around a bunch, I might use a heavy ceramic diner mug.
    • Years ago REI sold an REI-brand mug that was nearly perfect: it had measurement markings, it was clear so you could actually read them), and it was insulated. They stopped making it, and mine got brittle with age. I can’t find my perfect coffee mug, so if anyone sees one like that, lemme know!
  • Glass glass: I do have a cheap Spanish-wine-style glass glass for stuff like bourbon or wine.

I am lazy and I hate doing dishes. I try to plan meals around that laziness. This does not mean paper plates and disposable plastic silverware! For example, I usually buy freeze-dried food that only requires pouring boiling water into the pouch, and I eat from the pouch. The only thing I have to clean is a spoon. PBJ on a plate means cleaning up a knife, spoon, and brushing some crumbs off the plate.

Camp

Have a neat and tidy camp. Lots of reasons: it doesn’t look like shit, for one, but also it makes it less likely for things to blow away in a sudden gust of wind, less likely that critters get into stuff or carry it off, less likely to create trash in the landscape, and less likely to leave something behind by accident.

Don’t leave stuff out overnight, for all those reasons (plus, I guess, theft, in some scenarios).

Roll up car windows, and shut doors when you aren’t actually at your vehicle.

Animal safety

Most people think about their own safety when it comes to animals (if they think all), but it’s just as likely – more, on a day-to-day basis – that we will harm them than the other way around.

No trash, no food. Generally this means: don’t leave food laying about, at all, unless you are actively preparing it or eating it. Best case scenario, for you, is that mice or ravens get it. Worst case, a bear gets interested. And none of the scenarios are good for the animals.

DO NOT FEED WILDLIFE. At all, any, ever. Not even the cute chipmunk begging for peanuts at the over

Pack up and close up things at night and when we’re away from camp. Your nice fancy camp chair is a nice fancy camp chair when your butt is in it. When the wind picks up at 3am while you’re sleeping and your chair blows over the cliff, it’s garbage polluting the environment.

Crows and ravens just need you to turn your head for a minute to get into stuff, and mice will do it right in front of you. You do not want mice eating your food (and pooping in it) nor do you want them scurrying around all night keeping you awake. They also chew on things that aren’t “food”, like wiring insulation and expensive sleeping bags.

Bears

If we are in bear territory then much of this is even more serious and I get even more strict about it.

Noise

Turn off your vehicle as much as possible, such as at scenic overlooks, stopping to look at maps, etc. I didn’t go out in nature to hear your engine or smell your exhaust.

Music: I also didn’t go out into nature to hear your thumping bass. Keep it turned down. Ask others before playing it at camp, and even then it should not be able to be heard outside our campsite.

Impact

Footprints: “take only photos, leave only footprints” – and really try not to leave those, either. From important to cosmetic:

  • Stepping on certain growths – some that may just look like dirt – kills them and harms the local ecosystem for decades. Ask me about “black soil”, “crypto” soil, etc.
  • Footprints are ugly, and remind us that we are not really in the wild. Didn’t come out here to feel like I was in a crowd, don’t want to see footprints everywhere, and whether they realize it or not, nobody else does either.
  • In general, nobody wants footprints in their photos of “pristine” nature. Think about where you (or I) might want to photograph before stepping in areas where footprints would be visible.

DO NOT DRIVE OFF DESIGNATED ROADS. Aside from the obvious staying on the roads, this also means in camp areas, turning around, and other situations where you might drive over vegetation or crypto soil “accidentally”.

Instead of just traipsing (or driving) off through the desert, try these ideas:

  • Walk on established paths, trails, roads.
  • Walk on rocks, slick rock, etc.
    • The one caveat to this is: be careful about “fins” – thin bits of rock in some places, like White Pocket – that can easily break in your fingers, much less under your whole body weight. Look where you’re walking, in such places, to avoid breaking the fins.
  • Do not take shortcuts, cut switchbacks, etc. There are lots of reasons for not doing that.
  • Like I said, avoid cryptobiotic soil. Often you can walk in “washes”, where water runs, as there isn’t as much crypto there, and your tracks will be washed away sooner, when it eventually rains, than in other areas.