Monday, August 17, 2009

How Green Is Camping? - Behind the Smoke Screen

Muggy, no view, dank air coming in the windows.

I just completed my annual camping vacation, which I try to include a green camping perspective. It was the first time in a long time that we did not have to fight the rain. It was a glorious time; good friends and good food. No electronics; just fresh air, babbling water and mountains. Oh, and a visiting bear.

We try to do the environmentally friendly camping bit. You know, "take only pictures, leave only footprints". We bring organic food (the wine isn't always organic), we recycle, and avoid disposable products. But I did get to thinking, just how green is camping?

There were 2 main areas that got my attention this year. Our at the core of camping camp fire and the biodegradable soap.

Biodegradable soap sounds pretty green, right? I mean, it biodegrades into nothingness, no harm done, right? Well, after some research, not exactly. First, there are no "laws" when it comes to labeling biodegradable soap, just guidelines by the FTC. Second, in order for soap to biodegrade, it needs the bacteria from the soil (not water) and can take more time than you think but hopefully by 6 months. (no, not 6 hours like I was hoping) Third, DDT eventually biodegrades too under ideal conditions but in the mean time, it's not cool.

So what's a sweaty, 3 day old, greasy-haired green camper suppose to do? Wilderness and environmental guidelines all say the same things... keep all biodegradable soap for dishes and hygiene at least 200 feet from a water source (about 70 paces). Yikes. I guess that means washing in the river is out of the question. Apparently, biodegradable soap does not biodegrade in the water. It just floats downstream in dirty soap form. And if you think about it, you wouldn't want to be downstream of someone washing and filling your water bottle. It needs the soil to filter the soap and provide the necessary bacteria to break down the soap to natural elements. So, grab a basin, fill it with water and walk 70 paces away from the water's edge and enjoy the green cleaning opportunity.

And now for the really touchy subject... the camp fire. Just how green is a camp fire? Well, not very, really. But there are some tricks to help it be greener. but first...

Why did I even want to think about this subject? The camp fire is the very essence of camping. But if the wind blows the wrong way, the smoke really stings the eyes and makes me cough because the tough to swallow reality is there's a lot of crap in that smoke.

Wood burning smoke is polluting; very polluting. Canada makes a big deal out of burning wood from wood stoves because it causes major winter smog. And that's from wood stoves which are usually cleaner than open air burning. The EPA has its own guidelines and statements about the small participles reaching deep into the lungs and causing respiratory problems. The Lung Association isn't too keen on it either. This definitely is not very green, is it? So what's a singing, smore making, camp fire lover suppose to do?

The guidelines for the least polluting green camp fire begin with no wood. That's right, use gas instead. If you don't want to go there (I won't either) and have to have the wood experience or must out of necessity, then avoiding the nasty smoke is the priority here. Start with very dry wood and good kindling that you have brought with you. (no gathering remember) Create a hot fire as quickly as you can. If you notice, a hot fire does not smoke and that's the key, keep it hot. Do not put trash or anything else in the fire.

It was a little unsettling to think that my camping wasn't really very green considering the washing up issues (I at least chose to stay greasy) and the smokey camp fire realization. It didn't exactly put a damper on things (sorry about that) but it did get me thinking and I've come away from all this having a greater respect for the outdoors. And yes, if we extend our camping days next year, it's basin and walk 70 paces time.

And the bear? A big black one at 4 A.M.

So, how green is your camping?


wirehead said...

Consider an annual camping vacation vs. daily use of wood-fired heater. Camping fires usually only need a few logs.

Likewise, the problem with burning wood isn't so much a matter of it being bad to burn wood... you are just pushing the natural carbon cycle along... it's that burning wood on top of everything *else* we are doing to the planet is just making things worse.

The problem is respectful use of resources more than anything else.

Well, that, and starting forest fires. :)

Anonymous said...

Have you thought about using soap nuts at the campsite? It's good as a shampoo, dishsoap and all round cleaner. Just make up a bottle ahead of time by boiling the soap nuts.

Real Green Girl Activist said...

Great idea! Thanks. I think if you boil them in water, you can use the cooled liquid. Not sure if that should go directly into a stream, but if "seems" more benign. Cheers