Sleep In The Dirt

The Ugly Truth Behind My Favorite Campsites in the Southwest

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For every picture-perfect tent shot on Instagram, there is an entire gallery of images you should see — but rarely do. When we share a photo on social media, we can’t monitor who it reaches, and a lack of knowledge (or worse yet, a blatant disregard for the rules), can ruin some of our favorite campsites, trails and parks. From garbage to human waste, I’ve dealt with all kinds of foul things when setting up camp, and it only seems to be getting worse.  

Platforms like Instagram are directly linked to this problem, but they can be just as effective in educating people and encouraging them to behave more responsibly outside. I was thrilled to see Leave No Trace (LNT) recently share a set of social media guidelines, concerning both geotags and the message a photo can send. As lovers of the outdoors who sleep in the dirt in the digital age, it’s important to keep this discussion going — and understand how we can better preserve the places we cherish. 

The view from camp at Bears Ears National Monument

I made my first trip to Bears Ears National Monument in May, and I loved the towering rock formations just as much as the sense of solitude I felt there. However, I was bummed to see a number of fire rings all over the primitive camping sites, along with dirty toilet paper and plastic trash. There are numerous signs stating that you’re not allowed to have fires anywhere in Valley of the Gods, and this information is posted online as well.  

So, what can we do? If you see something, SPEAK UP. And this goes beyond approaching fellow campers and politely explaining fire restrictions. When we see illegal fire/camp/drone shots on social media (and I found a handful of campfire shots from this particular section of Bears Ears), it’s important to say something there as well. Send someone a DM or leave a comment, and if it’s an especially flagrant violation, alert local authorities. Parks have busted people in the past after being tipped off about social media posts, and I fully support that. I don’t like that we have to go out of our way to rat (and call) people out, but I also don’t want my favorite places being destroyed. 

When there are “No Fire” signs posted in a number of spots around the monument, I don’t have a problem leaving comments like this.

And it’s not just about others. What you do is equally important, and while location tagging your campsite may seem harmless, it can cause a lot more damage than you might think. Even if you only have 300 followers, a geotag still shows up for everyone, and if you also use hashtags and a large account shares your photo, it can potentially reach millions of people. And one of those people might go ahead and burn a fire somewhere they’re not supposed to — after seeing your camp shot online. It may sound far fetched, but it’s not. 

When I find a campsite this peaceful and stunning, I want to do everything in my power to protect it.

From hot springs to lakes, I’ve seen far too many spots blown up on Instagram and subsequently trashed by careless individuals, so these days I rarely include any sort of exact location information when I post. I will often tag a state, and occasionally a national park, but that’s it. While Instagram is a great place to connect and inspire others, if you really want to protect a place, you must consider the implications of what you share. Think before you post, and there is also something to be said for finding your own adventure. I don’t plan most of my trips based on Instagram geotags; rather, I look at maps, I ask friends/locals/rangers what they’d recommend, or I just (gasp!) stumble across these places while rolling down dirt roads. 

We had a cooler full of cold beer, killer views and the best campsite in southern New Mexico.

When camping at an incredible primitive spot at Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument last month, my friend and I enjoyed a few sunset brews and set up our tents. We debated having a fire, but decided it was too much work, as we were exhausted from a long day in the car. Before tucking in to our sleeping bags, I cut my big toe on something next to my camp chair, and the following day I noticed gashes all over the bottom of my tent. Unbeknownst to me, in the dim evening light, I had set my beloved Tufly tent on top of a sea of broken glass. And it was then that we noticed the poorly constructed fire ring near our tents, which was overflowing with ash, charcoal and all kinds of trash. 

And…here’s what you don’t see alongside those dreamy camp shots: All the glass, nails and shotgun shells left by the previous campers, along with an entire garbage bag full of ash and charcoal.

The ring was probably 6 feet across, and the previous campers appeared to have extinguished their fire with rocks and dirt — and probably not enough water. I removed about two large dozen rocks and put them next to the “NO VEHICLES” sign at our campsite, and then got to work picking up inside of the fire pit, which was full of dozens of nails, more glass, shotgun shells, batteries and dirty baby wipes. We ended up packing out one large garbage bag of trash, and I shared the photos above on social media. While I received quite a few messages of support, I wondered: For all the trash we see (and gripe about), how often are we actually picking it up? 

The dunes I’ve been dreaming about for years.

I first visited White Sands National Monument when I was 12, and this May I finally made it back. Though you cannot camp on the dunes, if you obtain a backcountry permit from the ranger station, you can pitch a tent right next to them in one of ten primitive sites. The designated camping areas are on flat patches of land and clearly marked with numbered posts, so it’s pretty hard to miss. Fires are not allowed, and not only is there signage at every campsite and the trailhead, but it’s written on the wilderness permit you sign in front of an NPS ranger.  

Not the most scenic campsite, but I loved being out here.

I spent four nights camping in the monument, and I was very disappointed to find food scraps, dirty toilet paper and a burnt log at my campsite. I brought the log back to the ranger station and packed out the trash left from the previous campers, and while I realize that this is something most of us would do, there are still plenty of individuals who wouldn’t make the effort. Just because you didn’t leave litter doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pick it up, and if you care about a place and want to see it thrive, taking action is far more effective than talking about it. 

What can we do when we see people blatantly disregarding the rules?

Just a few days after I left White Sands National Monument, LNT released their social media guidelines, and I found the remark that we should be “mindful of what [our] images portray” to be especially relevant. I’ve seen quite a few shots from White Sands of tents either on the dunes or Photoshopped in, and while they are stunning, it’s putting the wrong message out there. Some argue that staging tent shots and not “really” camping there is OK, but it’s actually just as bad, because you have no idea who you might encourage to recreate your photo or experience. I’d like to challenge some of the bigger accounts, whether they’re personal, community or brand pages, to understand the damage staged shots can cause — and to stop sharing anything that could give someone the wrong impression.  

An electric sunset just steps away from camp at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

I wish I could leave my favorite campsites and trails and trust that others will treat these places with the same level of respect as me, but it only takes a few individuals to ruin a spot for years. We can do a lot more than we might think to clean up our wild lands — and motivate others to follow suit. If you agree with me, please share this post and take action, whether it’s picking up trash or speaking up against something you see on social media. You CAN make a difference. 

Elisabeth Brentano has been sleeping in the dirt with Big Agnes for a handful of years now. She’s a writer and photographer who lives out of her Jeep in the wild west, searching for the perfect cup of coffee and dreamy landscapes. See more of Elisabeth.

Comments (38)

38 responses to “The Ugly Truth Behind My Favorite Campsites in the Southwest

  1. Your post is spot on!
    I live in Alaska and I quit sending pictures to friends and family years ago for all the reason you highlighted in your expose’!!!
    If they want to see something get up and do it.
    There is a complete disrespect for our environment BY All People Breathing, because if your living your creating an impact somewhere in this world!
    We can all be more responsible and make less of an impact anywhere we live, work and participate in recreational activities.

  2. I totally have to agree with you. I love introducing folks to the outdoor – but they call me silly names because I am so picky about keeping fires and impacts small. I take a lot of heat – but I do not care – it is worth t to protect these places. If someone give me too much trouble – they do not get to go out and “play” with me anymore. I am very selective with those I share special places with!

  3. Thank you, Elisabeth! It’s ridiculous to me how often I’m picking up junk left behind by others and no one else seems to think it’s a problem. Keep doing what you’re doing.

  4. THANK YOU so much for this post! I too pack out other people’s trash and am ashamed to see the amount of similar posts on New Mexico campgrounds highlighting our trash problem in the wilderness. ! I would especially like to see a focus on female outdoors enthusiasts packing up their feminine hygiene waste and packing it out as opposed to leaving it exposed in the wilderness for others such as myself to come across when we are out exploring this beautiful state. I love our backyard and am glad you were able to see the beauty in it too…

  5. Well spoken Elisabeth. It’s sad and infuriating to see how careless or more likely, plain sorry some people can be. We have a beautiful 400 acre nature park near my home with gorgeous trails through wetlands recognized by the Audubon Society as a important bird nesting site. People are asked to use doggy poop bags (provided) and dispose of them in trash cans (provided). You would be surprised at the number of people who will use the bags and leave it to others to carry the bags a half of mile to the trash cans. In my mind this is worse than just letting your dog poop and letting Mother Nature or someone’s shoe deal with it.

  6. Honestly can’t stand this attitude. I used to be like this and it’s a miserable outlook. If you’re just going to call everything that isn’t part a utopian vision ugly maybe just stay downtown.

    1. If you’re going to ruin beautiful wild spaces with your trash and illegal fires, you should be the one staying home. There are rules for a reason – to preserve the wilderness for the ones who come after you. Don’t just leave no trace, pick up and pack out others’ junk.

  7. Well after living for two decades in Southwest, and in PNW, I can tell you it is same here. Not counting than I am meeting more and more people hiking and blasting their outdoor speaker on their backpacks same time. Good bye clean and quiet nature till most of us don’t realize that those beautiful views are coming with a responsibility of preserving them.

  8. So so true! I just spent two weeks backpacking around The Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area and the amount of illegal fire pits was ridiculous. It’s literally posted everywhere. Plus there’s a flat no fires above 4000ft in the entire area. I probably carried out ~5lbs of garbage I collected along my hike. I was on a 4 day no resupply out n back. So much for a lighter pack out haha.

  9. In my honest opinion, I think the entire Leave No Trace movement is a complete failure. I’m a Master Leave No Trace Educator. Lots of lip service by the outdoor industry and outdoor conservation groups, but most hikers, backpackers, and campers ignore the guidelines. I follow them because I believe in the greater good, but we live in an age of self-gratification, even if it’s at the expense of others.

  10. I am lucky to have had a wonderful wilderness guide show me the ropes and teach me everything I know about wilderness camping, respecting the land and following the rules. I chalk a lot of the behavior described here to arrogance and ignorance and, like you, will pack out trash, etc. Thanks for a piece that speaks the truth, sometimes the truth is difficult to hear- but it is truth nonetheless.

  11. Thanks for the article.

    Often all it takes to help eliminate or at least reduce problems is education. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take care of all problems such as violating rules, leaving trash, and living obnoxiously. I hope your words reach many and that the rest of us share the message.

    Thanks again.

  12. Well said. My husband and I are full time RV ers and stay a lot on BLM and National Forest land. We pick up trash as soon as we arrive at our campsite, sometimes it takes up to an hour and we fill a large trash bag or two before we feel comfortable settling down. Our biggest problem is finding a place to get rid of the garbage we pick up. We have been turned down at convenience stores near National Forests who have dumpsters…even after we tell them it is trash we’ve picked up. We traveled in 23 states over the last 10 months and it is the same everywhere.

  13. If you’re really concerned about all this, quit shilling for a gear company that, like almost all gear companies, has been using site-specific nature porn to sell its products forever.

  14. It’s been a problem for a long time. Just now stupid people can show everyone else what they have done on ‘social media’.
    Back in 1972 while on a Scout hike we came across a section of trail that someone had TP’ed. Yes, about 20 feet was laced with toilet paper. Scoutmaster, who had no LNT training (wasn’t any back then), said ‘Put your packs down, we’re cleaning this up.’
    Another time, Troop next to us chopped down a tree and was washing their dishes in the stream. We were overjoyed when the Ranger happened to come through and told them they had to choose between 10 hours of service or $100 per person. Payable before they left.
    It’s media, just not sure about the society of some of those who post on it. I agree with you that we probably shouldn’t let ‘followers’ know where to go. Wait till they are Leaders. NOLS NC76

  15. Nice one, E. Keep spreading that good word. What I don’t understand is what the careless campers think when they get to a campsite and see other people’s trash, toilet paper, and broken glass left behind. Does it give them a social pass to also be disrespectful to the place? Do they think “ew, gross!” but then fail to make the connection to their own behavior? Like the meanings of mank and ind, it is a mystery.

  16. Good on you Elisabeth, we all need to do our part to keep spreading the word. My last trip to Bears Ears I found a fire ring someone unknowingly had used a Metate stone as part of their fire ring.

  17. Thank you so much for this. I feel that it is a topic that has been more or less largely neglected like the elephant in the room for some time now. I was a Boy Scout while growing up so it has always been my mindset to leave no trace, but it’s so easy to forget that others may not have had exposure to programs like that at an early age and may not know that they are being disrespectful. I know that some people just don’t care, but for every one of them there are many of us who do. I always spend at least an hour at the beginning or end of any camping excursion picking up after others and yes I agree that it has gotten worse. Again thank you for talking about the social media impact on these places, people need to be reminded about how delicate these ecosystems are and how we can be stewards of them physically and just as much while on these social platforms. It has nothing to do with intent and everything to do with accountability.

  18. Big Agnes should practice what it is preaching here and pay more attention to the posts of its brand “ambassadors”. A recent post by a famous Big Agnes Ambassador (120,000 followers on IG) showed a Big Agnes tent next to a campfire five feet from a desert stream somewhere in the bottom of a narrow slot canyon on the Colorado Plateau…during a complete fire ban! When confronted about it on IG, the Ambassador defended her actions and Big Agnes itself responded with a like and a happy face emoji. Even if the photo was taken before the fire ban started, or even if the campfire was technically legal (i.e. it was outside of park or Monument or Wilderness where fires or camping is sometimes not permitted within a certain distance of a waterbody) it still shows poor LNT principles and could lead some of her 120,000 followers to believe it is ok to build a completely new campfire ring and have a campfire five feet from a desert creek during a fire ban. This is just one example. Whether showing off-trail mtn biking where such travel is not permitted (i.e. much of the west is limited to designated roads and trails for mechanized travel), camping on the shores of lakes in high-use areas where such camping locations are not permitted by rule, or geotagging locations, there are many ways that outdoor gear manufacturers are promoting poor LNT principles, just to get the shot. Big Agnes obviously means well, but it might be time for them to pay a bit more attention to their own marketing, including social media influencers, catalog photographers, and other media, rather than worrying about other peoples geotags.

  19. Thank you for taking the time to share. You did a great job of outlining the LNT guidelines while showing examples of the problems, challenges and offering solutions. I’ll re-share this in hopes that it inspires more people to take responsibility for their actions, follow the rules and pack out everything that they brought. Keep up the good work!

  20. As a native Oregonian, I have watched the massive influx of people bring so, so much trash, irresponsible fire pits, and trail cutting to what feels like every nook and cranny of our state. To be honest, it’s made me really loathe the PNW and related hashtags. If only each use of those hashtags was sistered with #leavenotrace and/or #leaveitbetterthanyoufoundit, we would likely be better off. Every moment is a teachable moment. Thank you for this post! Such a great reminder to spread the word.

  21. The situation is bad and only seems to be getting worse. The “masses” are converging on places that were once only visited by the respectful backcountry “purists”. I’ve been backcountry camping/backpacking since the early 1960s. Fortunately, I was educated about responsibility early in my youth by my parents, scouting, and 3 years of military service. Unfortunately, the way that camping & backpacking is marketed today by the manufacturers and retailers of equipment to the masses is responsible for a lot of this mess,…… along with poor parenting, immaturity, false bravado, getting one’s “stoke”, hauling every convenience of modern living out to pristine nature, and way too much alcohol. With the ever increasing human & dog population, greed for profit by the outdoor equipment industry, too much free time, lack of attention span, social media, and the understaffing by agencies like the Forest Service, I don’t see things getting any better in the near future. I’m thankful for my memories of earlier times when places of solitude weren’t under such intense human (and dog) pressure. Point to remember: the wilderness and forests are the home of many species that we share this planet with, so show some respect.

  22. Yes your photos make an impact and yes people notice details in your photos. I have recently noticed dogs running free where dogs are prohibited, tents with ditches dug around them for rain drainage, children biking without helmets, drone film of a fire where fire helicopters are working, and a guy handling a rattlesnake. These things give people the wrong idea and encourage bad behavior. Doing bad behavior is bad enough but then sharing that is even worse. Think before you share.

  23. How I agree with all that you have written. The same goes for beaches too. It is so easy to pick up litter when walking on a beach. The sea of plastic now threatening our oceans needs to be removed and everyone needs to be responsive, mindful and care if we want to reverse what we are doing to our planet.

  24. Well said. I’m in Australia and same issue. TP is a big problem. Make a hole for your poop and burn the paper in the hole and bury it. Ladies take the sanitary products out (bring a nappy disposal bag). I love a campfire but in our National Parks they’re often not allowed due to 1) bushfire risk and 2) habitat for animals and insects. When we do have a legal campfire in a wilderness (offtrack) place, we dont use rock rings, we douse it, and we get rid of the ash/coals and cover it.

  25. Elisabeth…First, thanks for the excellent presentation that truly needs to be taught and practiced, frontcountry included. Maybe being linked to BA blog, this will reach those that really don’t know many of the things they are doing are wrong and the unintended consequences of their ignorance. I know this can be overwhelming and frustrating for all, but I have to hope that Aristotle was right in believing that if a person had knowledge, they would choose to do the right thing. (Most of them anyway) . Second, we all know it’s hard not to become jaded seeing all the destruction of what was once pristine, but all of us who do the right things cannot lose the faith. Don’t become storied King’s Canyon Park Ranger Randy Mortenson in the “Last Season” where your love of beauty becomes replaced focusing on “Swinus Americanus” . Lead by example, don’t confront or lecture. Picking up another person’s litter (apple core/ banana peel while they can see you) pack it out makes a statement in itself . Understanding that Leave No Trace is not a bunch of rules to follow but an Ethic starts to make sense. If not for people like us and John Muir, the ten percent of the redwoods left today would have been picnic tables and cigarette cartons long ago. Smoky the Bear, Woodsy the Owl and Ranger Rick serve as a reminder that this is not a new problem, so we can’t let it ruin our outlook completely.
    NOLS WFR, LNT ME, ATC Volunteer

  26. Thank you so much for your experiences. Leave No Trace is something we all have to practice because unfortunately not all will and we have to make up for them. As an AT thru-hiker the remote locations are a diamonds hidden in the ruff. Leave No Trace of Anyone having been there, don’t promote bad habbits and erase those that do is all we can hope of for and for your help I thank you to!

  27. Thank you so much for your article. As a 60 something, I do not use Instagram or other social media. It is up to your generation to get the word out. I hope you start a social media movement to stop this abuse.

  28. Thank you well said , We have the same problem on the East Coast . it is sad to see , one peak i hit in the white mountains of NH had a nice pile of human waste about 10 feet away from summit where everyone take the photo of there accomplishment.

  29. I agree with everything your post suggests. But I also think that outdoor companies need to make sure their representatives are living the principles they (the companies) espouse – especially if they are posting to social media. Otherwise, its the old “do as I say, not as I do”. We are indeed caught in vortex – we need people to care about these natural spaces, but the more people we turn on to these places, the more we put these places at risk. Education is key, but how do you make a person truly care when everything else in their world tells them they don’t have to care about anything but themselves?

  30. Love love love this. Will be reposting on my social media sites! This is so important to me. Thank you for putting it all into words!

  31. Unfortunately I think the majority of the current “outdoor community” are a bunch of Al Gore, do as I say not as I do, hypocrites. I work for a very large ski resort. The amount of trash they leave in the parking lot is horrendous. Pack it out? Yeah right. They can’t even put it in their car. I miss the days when I was the only one in the entire state park.

  32. Unfortunately I think the majority of the current outdoor community are a bunch of Al Gore, do as I say not as I do, hypocrites. I work for a very large ski resort. The amount of trash they leave in the parking lot is horrendous. Pack it out?

  33. So happy to see that this topic is starting to get some traction, and thrilled that Big Agnes has highlighted it. I’ve been teaching Leave No Trace Master Educator courses for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy for the past five years and serving as the PA Leave No Trace state advocate for the past two. I’m now even more proud to put all of our course participants in BA tents! We have intentionally increased our discussion around the role of social media in preserving and degrading our shared outdoor spaces. We have a long way to go, but as people become more aware of how their social media behavior can impact the places they love, I hope the dynamic will change. I try to highlight examples of good stewardship in our natural areas and focus on the volunteers and visitors working to do what is best for these places. If the greater outdoor retail industry can get on board with this messaging, cohesively they can spread the word about our impact and responsibility as visitors.

  34. Thank you!! I’m from the backpacking area’s of Emigrant Wilderness and Carson Iceberg Wilderness being my favs. Don’t stop. Your message needs to be the message of the many not the few.

  35. I totally agree with you!! Instagram and those wildlife shots really start to piss me off when i’m going to places i’ve been for years seeing wild campfires and trash everywhere now. Hope that this is not getting worse. And hope it’s not gonna be the reason for wildfires and even worse.

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