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I've read one one of the US national forest or wilderness websites that when camping in the wild, one should camp at a certain distance from a water source. Should I understand a water source to mean a spring/well, or any place where hikers may collect water (streams, lakes, etc.)? Why is this — I understand that where I leave wastewater etc. is relevant, but how does camping at 10 metre instead of 100 metre from a lake or river make a difference for protection of said lake or river?

I like camping at the lakeshore or at the sound of flowing water, and lakeshores often make excellent camping places.

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Everyone likes camping right by the shore. Invariably, everyone would camp in nearly the same spot, and ultimately trash the place. Dispersing campsites prevents that, to some degree. –  whatsisname Apr 23 '13 at 4:54
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An additional point that hasn't been mentioned, is when you camp next to a creek or stream the water level can quickly change, sometimes by quite a bit. It can be sunny where you are camped but heavy rain miles upstream from you, and the raising water level could wash away half of your camp while you sleep.

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Should I understand a water source to mean a spring/well, or any place where hikers may collect water (streams, lakes, etc.)?

Yes. Any source of water - no matter how large or small - should be avoided when choosing a camp site. 100 meters is just a guideline, 200 meters is better. 200 meters and out of sight is great.

The reasons are several-fold:

  • Waste - wastewater should never be put in creeks/lakes/etc - and although many people will walk 200 meters away to dispose of it properly, most wont. The closer people are to a body of water, the more likely they are to say "ah to heck with it" and dump it in. It's difficult to resist the temptation to just do a quick rinse of hands, plates, etc in a creek that is right next to you.
  • Erosion - The riparian areas next to creeks and lakes are often the most sensitive, and can not handle large amounts of traffic. Traffic up and down and along the creek banks can cause rapid erosion of soil and cause vegetation loss. This is a problem from alpine to canyon ecosystems.
  • Visual Disturbance to other hikers - Setting up your tent beside that beautiful pristine lake is an awesome scene, right up until that group across the lake sets their tent up in your view. Don't be 'that guy.' I've successfully distributed 15 groups of backpackers around a high-alpine lake so that every single one of them could pretend they were the only ones out there.
  • Disturb/Encounter wildlife - while you are asleep, chances are there is a whole host of thirsty critters strolling up and down the creek / lake shore looking for drink (or to eat those drinking). These are also natural travel corridors. Your presence can be disruptive to the fauna, or could put you in the path of grumpy wildlife (bears).

These reasons apply to all ecosystems (apline, desert, grassland, etc) and as such, camping away from water sources is good 'Leave No Trace' practice in all situations.

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You should also add "attracting wildlife". While it's true that the camper can disrupt fauna, it's also true that you're much more likely to be bothered by a bear at night if you're snoozing at his watering hole. –  Russell Steen Apr 22 '13 at 11:40
    
Good point. Added. –  LBell Apr 22 '13 at 12:08
    
@RussellSteen - Good point about attracting wildlife, which implies that you shouldn't cook near a waterhole, either, since the main attractor of wildlife (bears) is cooking food. If you want bears in your camp overnight, be sure to cook your evening meal in camp. ;) –  Don Branson Apr 22 '13 at 15:37
    
On a lighter note, if you sleep walk, you might end up in a lake full of alligators. ;) –  Unsung Apr 25 '13 at 10:02
    
@Unsung - following a track around a lake in Brunei. Track rose and fell over ridges and occasionally ran along lake shore. With a local guide (a non-professional). Every time we descended to the lake edge the guide got noticeably nervous, slowed right down and was ultra careful not to go near denser vegetation patches. We never saw anything untoward. I'd have liked to - but not too close. By the road the no swimming sign had a humorous depiction of a swimmer just escaping from one of the lakes denizens. The meaning of the sign, written only in Malay, was clear. –  user10162 Apr 26 '13 at 14:42
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There are a couple of reasons for this, as I understand it:

  1. Your wastes (soap, Giardia in your poop, DEET, ...) will contaminate the water.

  2. Lakeshores in high-altitude areas tend to be very delicate. People do a lot of ecological damage by pitching their tents right there. Unlike high-altitude areas in the Alps, the ones in the western US do not have huts, etc.

The western US is a dry environment. It's not like Europe where water is all over the place. This makes water resources more fragile, valuable, and in need of protection.

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The western US is a dry environment — I know that's true for Nevada, most of California, etc., but I don't think it's true for e.g. Olympic National Park, is it? –  gerrit Apr 21 '13 at 23:11
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