I recently met a pair of new backpackers, Bill and Elena, and they asked me my opinion about the 200 foot rule. This is a a backcountry camping rule in many federally regulated forests.
Check your local regulations for specifics because they vary accross different federal and state jurisdictions. If you hike within the White Mountain National Forest, here is a link to their Backcountry Camping Rules. In certain fragile areas, the 200 foot rule is replaced by a distance of is 1/4 mile.
The 200 foot rule says: No camping within 200 feet of any trail except at designated campsites.
Taken literally, it means that you can’t pop your tent or shelter down anywhere you choose within 200 feet of a trail, unless you’re at a designated campsite. Designated campsites are signed by the forest service or local administrative authority and are usually listed on maps. They can be free to use or may require payment.
Contrary to the rule, a White Mountain forest ranger had told Bill and Elena that it’s ok to camp in a non-designated campsite within 200 feet of the trail, if it’s at a pre-existing campsite, because it’s better to camp at a site that’s already been impacted than to create a new campsite on virgin turf.
You’d be surprised how little it takes damage or kill off the vegetation under your tent or to create a discernable pathway through an area if you walk over it several times. That’s why it’s recommended that you use an existing tent site if one is already available.
The night before I’d met Bill and Elena, I’d camped at a pre-existing tent site along Carrigan Brook (which has so many pre-existing tent sites that it’s hard to find any ground to pitch a tent on that hasn’t been previously impacted). That’s just the reality of the White Mountains when you get close to areas that a lot of people visit like the 4000 footers.
How to Tell if You’re Camping at a Pre-existing Campsite
How can you tell if you’ve found a pre-existing campsite? Here are a pair of dead-give-aways:
1. Someone has built a fire ring and there are burnt rocks or wood in it. This doesn’t give you license to use the fire ring, but it’s a sure sign that someone’s camped at the spot previously. Creating a fire in the fireplace will further impact the site because you’ll further blacken the rocks in the fireplace and create more ash. It’s best to use a cooking stove instead, dismantle the fire ring, and throw the rocks in it back into the forest.
2. The ground of the campsite is heavily compressed with finely ground leaf litter that’s been broken up by the passage of many feet. There’s no vegetation understory left and there aren’t any sticks on the ground, where people pitched tents previously.
While camping at a pre-existing campsite breaks the 200 foot rule, there’s a trade-off between using an existing site that’s been impacted versus creating a new one. This is the same reason why designated campsites and privies are created – to concentrate the damage to a backcountry area, so that the remainder can be enjoyed keeping other areas in as wild a state as possible. Only in this case, the pre-existing, non-designated sites are usually made by people with their own agenda, who were ignorant of local backcountry regulations and Leave No Trace practices.
Note however, that a backcountry ranger may still fine you for egregious violations of the 200 foot rule . Your best defense in such cases is to know what the local backcountry regulations are and to practice Leave No Trace wilderness ethics so you can make defensible decisions.