When camping in the Rockies, there’s nothing better than driving out to a quiet forest road to find a dispersed campsite and solitude. With National Forest and BLM land covering much of the state, it’s easy to find opportunities where you can camp legally pretty much anywhere. However, there are a few ethical considerations to keep in mind when picking a campsite that can help minimize your impact. Here’s what happens when you camp on alpine vegetation, and a few tips for minimizing your impact and following Leave No Trace outdoor ethics.
What’s the Impact of a Night or Two of Camping?
Creating campsites in the mountains seems harmless in the small scale. However camping carries with it a host of impacts that can degrade an area significantly over time. The biggest risk comes at higher elevation. Vegetation in the mountains grows far more slowly in the harsh conditions. Trampling alpine tundra can cause damage that takes hundreds of years to heal. Other impacts include:
- Continued camping impacts wildlife and can block migration corridors.
- Campfire rings lead to the collection of wood and ugly ash piles.
- Camping typically leads to more litter and trash left in the area.
- Over time social trails grow and link the site with the main trail, road, and other sites.
When you make the choice to trample down fresh grass, you all but ensure those who follow will help finish the job. The key is preventing the establishment of new campsites over time.
In the Frontcountry, Stick to Established Campsites.
When camping along forest roads or main trails (like 14er routes), stick to pre-established campsites. This means areas that have clearly served as a campsite before. Look for these signs:
- Grass and vegetation is already trampled or killed off.
- There is rock or other bare surfaces.
- A campfire ring exists nearby.
- There are open areas to setup tents and cook.
- Often you’ll find a nearby water source like a small spring or creek.
If you come to an area and find all the established sites full, do NOT drive into a meadow or clearing to create your own site. Camping has existed in these areas for 80+ years. If all the existing sites are full, the area is simply at capacity. Head to an established campground and try again earlier next time.
In the Backcountry, Camp Light & Move Often.
If you’re backpacking or trekking in the backcountry or Wilderness areas, things are a bit different. Instead of concentrating our impact, travel here is light enough to permit us to camp lightly on the land. Setup camp wherever the conditions are right, but follow these tips to ensure you don’t establish a permanent campsite.
- Pick a pristine site. If it seems like someone was there, leave it be so it can heal.
- Avoid taking the same path between your tent & other areas so you don’t leave trails.
- Consider whether a fire is necessary and if possible, avoid it.
- When you leave, re-naturalize the site by erasing signs of your presence.
- Move your camp every day to avoid killing vegetation.
These Leave No Trace practices help ensure you don’t leave behind an established campsite and all the impacts that come with them.
Respect Restoration Area Closures.
Lastly, fight the urge to camp in closed restoration areas. It’s common to com across signs in the mountains that say “Area Closed for Restoration.” Often, these are picturesque, ideal spots for a campsite (which is the reason they become overused and degraded). Don’t camp in these areas. The terrain here is fragile and they need time to recover for future generations to enjoy.
Help Leave No Trace in the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
We are so lucky to be able to enjoy hiking, camping and climbing in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. I hope you join me in practicing Leave No Trace ethics while recreating and enjoying these beautiful vistas and wild spaces. Did I forget a key piece of advice? Leave your thoughts in a comment below.
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About the Author: Alex Derr
Alex Derr is a mountaineer and blogger based in Denver Colorado. He is working to climb Colorado’s highest 100 peaks, and the 20 tallest peaks in California. He created The Next Summit to share advice, stories, history & reflections from the Colorado Rockies & Sierra Nevada. When not climbing, he is managing the Communications strategy at Visible Network Labs.