Why Fixed Camps Are Better For The Environment – An Unnecessarily Controversial Topic

For a long time now, there’s been a lot of hue and cry about the idea of fixed camps — the idea of camping at the same location for a longer period. I’ve been seeing other organisations targeting Indiahikes, posting pictures of our campsites, maligning our Green Trails work — all in the name of fixed camps. 

It has escalated to such an extent that the term “fixed camp” has almost become a bad word. It is now immediately associated with damage to the environment. It is considered inferior to “rolling camps” or “rotating camps” where organisations camp, pack up, leave and move to the next camp, until the next team comes. 

This idea baffles me to no end. When every ecologically evolved country of the world has adapted fixed camps as a norm, it surprises me that educated organisations in India are still debating the idea. 

What bothers me more is the lack of any logical backing in their argument. I don’t see numbers, I don’t see research. If there was any science behind it, Indiahikes would be the first to learn from it and adapt it. 

So today, after many months of deliberation, I’m going to address this topic, and go against every vehement proponent of “rolling camps” / “rotating camps.” I am going to debate you why fixed camp is infinitely better for the environment

I’m sharing our years of research and study on this topic. 

Important note: In this post, I’m not addressing solo trekkers or small groups of trekkers. This is meant for organisations that have 3 or more groups a week, whether in the Himalayas or anywhere else in the world.

1. Fixed camping dramatically reduces the trample effect on trekking trails

This point requires a slightly deeper understanding of what “trample effect” means and why it matters.

When a trekking team of 15-20 members has to camp, it involves a whole lot of resources — tents, sleeping bags, safety equipment, snow equipment, toilet equipment, kitchen and dining equipment. Add to it food and provisions. All these have to be moved from one camp to another, usually on mules, occasionally with porters. This movement of people, equipment, provisions and mules causes something known as a “trample effect” on trails.  

This trampling of trails leaves behind an impact. It erodes away precious topsoil, which contains most of the ground’s nutrients and fertility. It bruises or shears off plants. It also compacts the soil, which doesn’t bode well for any greenery. 

 The effect is evident when you study the numbers. Consider this. 

For every team of 25 (including staff members), our gear weighs around 600 kilos for a 4-day trek. This is loaded onto mules. For a load of 600 kg, we usually have 12 mules on the trail, each carrying roughly 50 kg. 

While this doesn’t seem like much weight, here are the numbers that matter. 

Each mule, on its own, weighs around 350 kg. This is the lower average. With another 50 kilos of load, each 400 kg mule heads out on trails. 12 such mules of 400 kg walk one after the other with metal hooves on trails. 

While even humans have a small trample effect, it isn’t as heavy as a pack animal. You can read more about it in this research paper (point 6).  

So when you’re constantly pitching camps and moving to the next, taking all the equipment with you, you’re taking 12 mules of 400 kg each time, trampling trails again and again. 

Additionally, mules also consume vegetation from the trail as fodder. They eat grass, flowers and vegetation they need to stay alive. This can be quite a bit, when you consider 12 mules doing it day after day. 

Let’s consider that Vs fixed camp

When you fix a camp at a certain location, the tents, sleeping bags, toilet equipment, all the heavy equipment is taken care of. It reduces the number of mules dramatically, since all that is left to transport now is offloaded backpacks and food replenishments. The amount of weight we carry comes down to a maximum of 150 kg. This is usually managed with just three mules. 

Fixing camps reduces the trample effect by 75%. This is an incomparable benefit to the environment.

2. Fixed camps cause LESS damage to the ground than rotating camps

Many people have this contention that we camp at the same place for weeks together, damaging the ground on which we are camping. Especially the ground below and around the tents.

There is a big misconception here, which I’d like to clear out. 

There is research and scientific evidence that most of the damage on a campsite happens when you first pitch camp. Once pitched, the damage is much lesser as you continue to stay there. (Read research paper here)

A graph representing that the first impact is usually the most damaging impact. Source: Wilderness campsite impacts: Effect of amount of use

The logic behind it is straightforward. 

When you first arrive at a campsite and pitch tents, it damages the growth under the tent. Plants/grasslands get damaged, the soil gets compacted. The impact is the maximum when you first put a tent. Over the next few days, the extent of damage on the same spot reduces. 

When you’re moving camps regularly, you pitch camps again and again, in different spots, causing damage to more surface area. The constant movement impacts the ground a lot more than staying stationed at a camp.

Side note: Many trekkers worry about camping in meadows and that it does damage to meadows. Studies have shown that meadows and grasslands, in general, are a lot more resilient and grow back easily compared to forest land (Read research paper here, Page 1). This is true from our observations too. Every time we return to the meadows to camp, there is no sign of our previous camps there. To classify fixed camps as causing “permanent damage” is a gross misrepresentation.

This is a basic understanding that the whole world works with. Trek in Nepal, trek in New Zealand, trek in Switzerland, Italy, France or Austria. You will see that there are designated campsites for a reason — to limit the impact of camping to a small area, rather than spread out. 

The biggest difference between most of these countries and India is that they have progressed towards permanent fixtures at campsites, like mountain huts, yurt camps and tea houses, which is why nobody debates them. Indian trekking is yet to develop to such an extent, where we can have permanent infrastructure on remote trails.

3. Toilets are better managed with fixed camps

Here’s another grossly misunderstood topic. Most organisations are constantly harping on about deep toilet pits causing damage to the environment. Yet, at the same time, the same trekkers are surprisingly impressed by toilet setups on international trails like Kilimanjaro and Mt Fuji.  

The only difference between the international toilets and the Indiahikes toilets are the infrastructure. They have concrete / wooden structures. We have tents. Underground, they are both the same. They are deep pits dug into the earth, their depth and size proportionate to the number of people and duration of use. 

By far, in high-altitude trekking all over the world, this is accepted as the most environmentally viable concept. In fact, I’d say at Indiahikes we’re a step ahead, because we always use accelerators that aid decomposition (like cocopeat or sawdust), something other countries don’t do. 

There are obvious benefits of deep toilet pits, compared to setting up shallow toilet pits with every campsite setup. 

  1. Deep pits protect the topsoil from permanent damage, and if managed well, can make the soil richer. With multiple shallow pits, the amount of topsoil removed is significantly high. However, with 2 deep pit bio toilets, we are looking at just 18 sq ft of topsoil being removed per pit.
  2. Deeper pit = faster decomposition. Shallow pit = slower decomposition. The process of composting benefits from a lot of heat. The larger the pit, the more the heat is retained, speeding up decomposition. With shallow pits, heat escapes within days, slowing down decomposition.
  3. Deep pits protect over 80% of the campsite area from spread of human waste. When you have a fixed camp, your toilet pit requirements are limited to 2-3 deep toilet pits for the season. These are 3x3x3 in size. This way, the human waste is contained in one area.
    When you’re moving camps, you’re constantly digging shallow toilet pits for each day, increasing the number of pits at each camp exponentially, in reality around 900 toilet pits at each campsite!
  4. Deep toilet pits protect water sources. When you continuously dig multiple shallow pits for toilets, the more spread out human waste is going to be, going as far as the banks of streams and lakes.
    On the other hand, deep pit bio-toilets help in containing human waste to a specifically designated area. At Indiahikes, we ensure that our pits are as far as possible from the water sources.

  5. Deep pit bio-toilets are reusable: A big benefit of a deep toilet pit is its reusability. In all our camps, we use our toilet pits in the same place, again and again, every year. 

With shallow pits, we suffer from incomplete decomposition. This makes it difficult to reuse the pits again. It creates an unnecessary need to dig out more and more shallow pits, causing long-term damage to the environment over many years. 

To read our whole article about why deep pits are more sustainable for human waste management at high altitudes, click here.

4. Fixed camps ensure less wear and tear of camping equipment, thereby reducing environmental impact

Here’s an indirect impact on the environment that not many people realise. When you’re constantly rotating camps, you’re constantly packing, unpacking and transporting your equipment. More damage is done to the equipment during these three actions than anything else. They tend to tear, the poles tend to bend or break, and pegs get damaged. 

But the damage is not the concern. There’s a larger impact on the environment. 

“Every piece of equipment has its own life cycle. It has its own carbon footprint, water footprint, ecological footprint. The more you reduce the lifespan of a product, you have underutilized the resources you have used. The more you’re wearing and tearing, the more waste you’re generating,” says Lakshmi Selvakumaran, head of Learning and Development at Indiahikes. 

“Furthermore, sports equipment is often made from polymer materials with waterproof coating. They are very very hard to recycle. On the opposite end, they are also very hard to manufacture. Chemical science is complex, the process is laborious. It requires high-end manufacturing equipment and energy. When we shorten the life-cycle of equipment, we are using more resources, leaving behind a large environmental impact,” she adds. 

Organisations like Patagonia have dedicated their entire vision towards making sports equipment more sustainable. That is the only way forward if we want trekking to grow in India. And fixed camping allows you to do that. 

When you fix camps, you pitch camps only one in several times compared to rotating camps. It goes a long way in prolonging the life cycle of the equipment, a practice that makes trekking more sustainable.

5. Fixed camps allow you to focus better the camp environment, beyond the nitty-gritties of plain camping

When our team members are stationed at one place, the “setting-up” is a one-time process. Once that is done, the only goal for them is to make the experience better and better. This is something we have a razor-sharp focus on at Indiahikes. 

This is not possible with rotating camps. We have observed that most organisations don’t involve trekkers in the campsite set-up either. It is usually staff members involved in campsite management, pitching tents, washing utensils, setting up small pits for toilets. The very next day, they hurriedly pack up, close toilet pits shabbily, leave trash behind. This is something we observe on almost all trails.  

When you fix camps, you focus on the right things — It’s like your campsite is your home. You maintain it, you host people, you treat them well and involve them in everything. Much like in your home, you try to become more and more sustainable and self-sufficient, leaving the place better than it was. 

In conclusion: 

Trekking is growing in India. Within Indiahikes alone we are seeing a tremendous increase in the number of trekkers every year. This is the case across almost all trekking organisations in the country. 

When this is the case, fixed camping is the only way forward. It reduces the amount of energy utilized, the impact on the camping grounds and the wear and tear of equipment. It aids better human waste and campsite management. It is better for the environment. 

There is ample research on this topic and enough live examples around the world to show us that it works. 

While it has become somewhat fashionable to berate fixed camping, logical and scientific evidence point to a different picture. 

I hope other organisations, the government and all other stakeholders in the Indian trekking industry take note and understand the goodness of fixed camps.

Swathi Chatrapathy

Swathi Chatrapathy

Swathi Chatrapathy heads the digital content team at Indiahikes. She is also the face behind India's popular trekking video channel, Trek With Swathi. Unknown to many, Swathi also writes a weekly column at Indiahikes which has more than 100,000 followers. A TEDx speaker and a frequent guest at other events, Swathi is a much sought after resource for her expertise in digital content. Before joining Indiahikes, Swathi worked as a reporter and sub-editor at a daily newspaper. She holds a Masters in Digital Journalism and continues to contribute to publications. Trekking, to her, is a sport that liberates the mind more than anything else. Through trekking, Swathi hopes to bring about a profound impact in a person's mind, body and spirit. Read Swathi's columns. Watch Swathi's videos.