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Clean Green and Wild

Understanding and Camping in Wilderness Water Systems

Summary:Understanding how nature processes and reuses "wastes" is a prerequisite not only to camping responsibly, but to designing any ecological wastewater system. This article will benefit anyone who spends much time outdoors. An understanding of these principles ideally would be required of anyone who designs water or wastewater systems.

Washing dishes directly in a creek using sand and leavesAn article which includes:

From this article you will learn how water is purified naturally in the wilderness, and how to adapt modern human wilderness washing behavior to fit harmoniously into this awe-inspiring natural order.

Of interest to backpackers, campers, cyclists, sailors and houseboaters, kayakers and river rafters, managers of rural retreats, teachers, people who live rustically, inhabitants of the third world, development workers, sanitary engineers, and any others who have occasion to wash with wild water or educate people who do.

(Every sanitary engineer's higher education should include a year in the wilderness observing and directly participating in the natural water cycle, with regular refresher courses throughout their professional life. Understanding how nature does it is the foundation for sensible management of "wastes" in any context.)


Author: Art Ludwig, published by Oasis Design, February 2002. 8.5x11, 6 pages, several color photos, one table. $4.95 for PDF file (350k).

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Water cycle primer

Most people know that water is purified when it evaporates from the ocean. Rainwater is exceedingly clean even in urban areas, at least until it touches something. Biological purification in topsoil, however, is relatively unknown and under-appreciated.

A nutrient-bacteria-earthworm soup permeates the topsoil. However, downhill from all the insects, rotting leaves, and deer poop on the surfaces of a wild valley, the main drain for all this dreck is a river of drinking quality water!
Also, as this witches' brew percolates through the topsoil, then subsoil, it becomes clear, clean groundwater.


In the process of biological purification , topsoil microorganisms biodegrade organic contaminants, (including deer poop and biocompatible cleaners) into plant nutrients. Plant roots suck the nutrients out of solution, leaving pure water.

This purified water infiltrates into the water table, which in turn seeps out through springs into rivers. While topsoil has tremendous purifying powers, rivers have little. In the soil water moves an inch a day in a thin film through a maze of plant roots; the contact time and contact area are huge. In a river there are just a few roots on the sides to maintain the cleanliness of a large volume of fast moving water. This is just sufficient to remove the trace of nutrients from occasional fallen leaves, bird poop and what not, so long as the water is clean to begin with...

Washing Techniques

A version of "reduce, reuse, recycle" applies to eco-clean camping. No matter the purported green pedigree of the cleaner—even if wrung from sustainably harvested rain forest flowers—if you use less or none the impact will be less. Even when I owned my eco cleaner manufacturing business I usually carried no cleaners with me backpacking, except for hand laundry on longer trips...




Keywords: water cycle, leave no trace, nature, natural, purification, low impact, wilderness, washing, techniques, dishes, hands, body, hair, clothes, wash, feces, soap, shampoo, cleaners, river, lake, dispose, biodegradable, stream, creek, lake, ocean, nitrate, phosphate, backpacking, camping, sailors, sailing and houseboat, kayak, kayaking, river rafting, sanitary, giardia