Ontario campgrounds are reporting increased levels of garbage this camping season. Some have had to close or delay openings because they can’t keep up with the waste. Not only is trash a drain on park resources, it effects local ecosystems, and increases the likelihood of human-wildlife conflict.
There’s lots we can do to help. We can start by learning how our actions effect local environments and take steps to minimize our impact. Going a step further, we can practice zero-waste camping and volunteer our time to conservation and clean-up projects.
Below I’ve outlined some simple things we can do to protect park ecosystems.
I want to preface this conversation by pointing out that many national and provincial parks were established through the forced eviction of Indigenous people from their territories under the guise of conservation. This meant taking away hunting, trapping, and fishing rights and decisions about land use. This post is directed towards visitors of these parks, not those whom these traditional territories belong to. As visitors, the least we can do is pick up our garbage.
Pick Up and Pack Out Your Garbage
This includes compostable food waste. Apple cores and orange peels can take 1 – 6 months to break down! Not only are they unsightly, they can attract animals like bears, wasps, mice, and raccoons.
Wash dishes in a basin away from lakes and rivers. Campgrounds have designated areas to dispose of grey water, this could be an outhouse or utility sink. If you are unsure what to do, ask park staff.
To dispose of grey water in the backcountry, you’ll need to dig a cathole at least 200m away from campsites and water sources. Alternatively, you can “broadcast” the water. I have a post detailing how to wash dishes in the backcountry.
To Flush or Not to Flush
Don’t flush menstrual products, food scraps, and baby wipes. You should only flush pee, poo, and toilet paper.
Never Cut Down Trees or Pick Wildflowers
Don’t disturb trees, wildflowers, and other vegetation. Most parks prohibit gathering dead wood and fallen branches for fires. Picking flowers or trampling on them for photos can destroy them.
Don’t Wash in Lakes, Rivers, and Streams
Soaps, even the biodegradable kind, harm aquatic ecosystems. They strip protective mucus from fish and can change the pH of water.
Leash and Pick Up After Pets
Unleashed dogs and cats can be a nuisance to people and harm wildlife and vegetation. Keep pets leashed and pick up and dispose of their waste. Don’t let animals defecate near water bodies.
Firewood can spread invasive species and disease. Buy local and burn local. Don’t bring firewood from home into parks and vice versa.
Keep fires small and in designated fire pits. Don’t burn plastic, aluminum, or other trash.
Make sure that fires are extinguished correctly. Soak ashes and coals until its safe to poke your fingers into the ground.
Stay on the Trail
Over time, straying from trails causes damage. If it’s rainy or muddy, pack your boots.
Never Feed Wildlife
Not even those cute chipmunks! Feeding animals leads to problematic wildlife behaviour. It can result in the death of the animal, forced relocation, or dependency.
Store food in bear canisters or tie it in the trees.
Off the Beaten Path? Bury Your Poo!
Often backcountry sites have designated outhouses or thunderboxes, but when they aren’t available bury your poo. Do this at least 200m away from water sources, trails, and campsites. Never bury diapers or menstrual products.
Better yet, carry it out. Some backcountry sites require you to carry out human waste.
Single use plastics and cans are a big problem for our parks. Some parks, like Algonquin, have even banned them from the backcountry. Try re-usable mugs, bottles, bags, containers, and beeswax food wraps.
Reuse, Repair, Borrow
If you don’t plan on camping often, borrow gear from a friend or rent it from a park or local outfitter. Buying used gear can save you money and help the environment. Repair broken items instead of tossing them in the garbage.
Replace Single-Use Items
Avoid disposable paper plates and plastic cutlery. You can get cheap cutlery and dish sets for camping at thrift stores. Use rags instead of paper towels and fire safe pots over aluminum foil.
Use Recycled or Natural Tinders
Going Above and Beyond
Volunteer to Do a Park or Trail Clean-Up
Pick up and properly dispose of trash you find. You’ll be helping park staff and keeping ecosystems and wildlife safe. Sometimes parks and surrounding communities will have volunteer opportunities to help clean up areas.
Volunteer for Citizen Science Projects
Many parks need help with citizen science projects. It’s a cool way to get involved, help with conservation, and learn more about local flora and fauna. Contact your local park and ask if there are any upcoming projects.
Support Indigenous Sovereignty
Learn about the history of the parks you visit and support Indigenous rights and sovereignty. You can read more about this history here and here. Ultimately, we are visitors and we must support reconciliation efforts that go beyond symbolic gestures.