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What has less impact from an ecological point of view — camping below or above the tree line? US and Swiss organisations appear to contradict each other:

From the American lnt.org comes the advise (or rather order) to not camp above tree line:

Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces: While visiting these areas stick to the trail or bare rock to help protect this beautiful environment. Camping is not permitted above tree line.

However, from the swiss alpine club comes the advice it is better to camp above tree line:

Aus ökologischer Sicht sind Standorte oberhalb der Waldgrenze meist unbedenklich.

Meaning from an ecological point of view, locations above the tree line are usually unproblematic. They advise to particularly avoid the forest near the tree line, as animals seek shelter there, but otherwise their reasoning appears to be: the higher up, the less life, the less humans are disturbing (plus the lowest elevations in the Alps are more often in use by humans).

It would seem that in alpine territory, durable unvegetated surfaces are more common the higher one goes, until reaching the territory of only snow and ice, where all surfaces are durable (ecologically speaking). On the other hand, a lush warm rainforest may recover much more quickly if I do camp on vegetated surfaces. From an ecological point of view, aiming to leave no trace, should I rather camp above or below the tree line?

The other advice from the Swiss organisation (bury human waste, carry out toilet paper, camp on durable surfaces, etc.) agrees with what I have read from American organisations.

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    Aren't those two organisations giving advice about camping in the alpine of completely different parts of the world? It would make sense if the ecological considerations are not identical. – csk Aug 24 at 17:29
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    I'd go the US route, privileging lower levels first and then bare rock when available. The presence of a forest implies a certain amount of biomass and recovery capacity. Thing is, the vegetation at higher altitude is barely getting by at the best of times, that's why there are no trees left. It just doesn't recover very quickly at all. How do I know this? We have several viewing areas for alpine flowers in BC. All very beautiful and they all tell you to stay on the path for this reason. First though, I would look at actual park/reserve regulations. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Aug 24 at 20:31
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    I believe what's going on here is that vegetation above the treeline is at it's limits and recovers very slowly. In my only recent forays above the treeline, though, it very quickly goes to terrain totally devoid of vegetation. Finding a level enough spot for a tent would be difficult but I wouldn't worry about the plants that don't exist. – Loren Pechtel Aug 25 at 2:38
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    @csk That could be the explanation, but I'm not certain it is. – gerrit Aug 25 at 5:18
  • There are way too many factors to state a rule on this. – Ben Crowell Aug 25 at 16:16
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Summary: I suspect that this is a question of whether the glass is half full or half empty:

  • "you can camp unless [list of factors that prohibit camping]" vs.
  • "you cannot camp unless [list of conditions that need to be fulfilled to allow camping]"

The order to not camp above the tree line in the LNT post is a legal regulation for the White Mountains. Thus corresponding to the Swiss "no camping in [pick any of the Swiss protected areas]".


  • The LNT website has the general rule to Camp on Durable Surfaces and besides saying that judgment about the local conditions is required explains:

     The most appropriate campsites in arid lands are on durable surfaces, such as rock and gravel

    Which is a criterion that would be met in alpine regions sufficiently high above the tree line so that there is no vegetation. Note that rock or gravel also means "no soil to disturb".

  • Though I find it somewhat ambiguous, my impression of the LNT post is that it applies the LNT rules to a particular region (Franconia Notch, NH).

  • High altitude wild camping in the US:

    I conclude that the order to not camp above tree line is a legal requirement in that specific region.

  • There are lots of regions in the Swiss Alps that are above the tree line and are "no camping": The offical map linked in the Alpine Club post shows plenty of the protected areas to be well above the tree line.

  • The Swiss are very clear that the ecosystem at the tree line is rather fragile, and one should not camp there.

  • One specialty of the Alps is that due to Almwirtschaft at the high pastures, there is often no clear forest line but rather zone with a transition from alpine forest to meadow to no vegetation, or the forest line is artificially low due to pasture use. It may be difficult to judge where the forest line would be without grazing. Pasture land that does not have further factors that make it particularly vulnerable (e.g. mountain bogs) above the factual/current forest line can be well able to cope with a low density of LNT campers. And camping there may be less disturbing to wildlife than camping at the fringe of the forest or the transition zone.

  • There are probably further considerations.

    • E.g Switzerland has a general right for everyone to access forests and pastures (including e.g. the right to collect mushrooms or berries for private use; camping needs permission of the owner, though), regardless of whether they are privately owned or not. AFAIK, this is not the case in the US.
      This also means that in Switzerland "hiking land" includes lots of not particularly vulnerable land that would not be "hiking land" in the US and that does not require paricular restrictions on LNT/low impact (single person, single night) camping from an ecological point of view.

    • In general, however, it is up to the Kanton (and the community) to decide camping/bivouac rules. And there seems to be a whole lot of regional variety

    • Not sure about Switzerland, but Geman Länder distinguish bivouak (no tent) from camping (with tent). In Switzerland, Obwalden distinguishes between "camping" and "staying one night" (including in a tent). The list above suggests that some Kantone distinguish single person from groups.
      Also, if you look at the Obwanlden example above, it specifies that you are not allowed to disturb any private or public interests. Thus, you cannot stay where you'd disturb any fragile ecosystem.

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  • From context, by White Mountains, I suppose you mean the ones in New Hampshire (USA)? There are also those in California (USA), which have rather a desert ecology (the lower parts are barren/desert and the upper parts are vegetated, not sure if they go high enough to have an alpine tree line. – gerrit Aug 25 at 12:13
  • @gerrit: yes. The ones the map shows me surrounding Franconia Notch New Hampshire (I don't know anything about them but what I found on the interenet looking into your question). – cbeleites unhappy with SX Aug 25 at 12:22
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    You're correct, the US does not have a general right of public access to forests and pastures. Forests and pastures can be privately owned, and private property is off-limits without the permission of the owner. Typically private land owners put up signs saying "private property" and/or "no trespassing" to make it perfectly clear which forests are not public. Pastures usually have fences around them, and it's left to the individual to know not to cross over a fence without permission. – csk Aug 25 at 16:39
  • @csk: thanks for confirming – cbeleites unhappy with SX Aug 28 at 18:06
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I would say less impact to camp below the tree line. One reason alpine camping is discouraged in the US is to protect the cryptogamic/cryptobiotic crust.

"Crusts are easily disturbed and extremely slow to recover. Considering the growing number of backcountry users, it is imperative to improve alpine resource managers understanding of the ecology of these fragile organisms." From UW report to USDA

Also known as biological soil crusts, they are communities of lichens, mosses, algae, and cyanobacteria that cover the surface where vascular plant growth is restricted due to harsh environmental conditions (desert, alpine, arctic etc.). Alpine systems are slow to recover from damage due to the short growing season, harsh climate, and nutrient-poor soils. The living crusts are the basis of the alpine food web and provide important ecological functions of nitrogen fixation, soil insulation, and increased nutrient and moisture retention.(Crisfield et al. 2018)

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  • I thought cryptobiotic crusts were rather a desert ecosystem phenomenon. I don't recall having ever seen them in alpine climates (but I've been much more above the treeline in Europe than in North America, and essentially not at all in the USA). Are they common in American alpine ecosystems? – gerrit Aug 28 at 16:35
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    They are found in most systems that are limited in vascular plants, which tends to occur in harsh systems, like deserts, alpine, and arctic biomes. They are, however, most-studied in the desert. See references above and here. nature.com/articles/ngeo1486 – BirdNerd Aug 28 at 23:52
2

You are ignoring the context.

The full paragraph is:

Überlege dir vorab gut, wo du übernachten willst und nimm dabei Rücksicht auf die Natur. Suche dazu auf der Landeskarte möglichst unproblematische Lebensräume. Meide Auen- und Feuchtgebiete, da sie oft seltene Pflanzen beheimaten. Aus ökologischer Sicht sind Standorte oberhalb der Waldgrenze meist unbedenklich.

Which translates to:

Think carefully in advance where you want to stay overnight and be considerate of nature. To do this, look for habitats that are as unproblematic as possible on the national map. Avoid floodplain and wetland areas as they are often home to rare plants. From an ecological point of view, locations above the tree line are usually harmless.

The swiss are not recommending that it's better to camp above the treeline, they are noting that you should avoid extremely problematic areas and are listing the areas above a treeline as less problematic.

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    I'm not sure that I'm ignoring the context, I still think that there is a contradiction between the Swiss "locations above the tree line are usually harmless" and the American advice/order which I think comes from the consideration that those areas are the most sensitive. – gerrit Aug 25 at 6:15

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