The Golden Rule of Travel is: Take Nothing but Photographs, Leave Nothing but Footprints. Sadly, not every traveler has gotten the memo. After a busy tourism season, some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and serene forests can feel a like the frat house on a Saturday morning. These tips will make it easy for you to leave the beach, or any place else you visit, better after you leave than it was before you arrived.

Why the World Needs Eco Tourism

Even kids can be eco tourists. Photo courtesy the National Aquarium

Even kids can be eco tourists. Photo courtesy the National Aquarium

When I still had little ones, we used to like to take our vacations in early September. Chicago weather was still warm and lovely and families with school-age kids were home waiting for the school bus. One year, we took a few days the week after Labor Day to explore Starved Rock State Park. It’s a lovely spot about two hours west of Chicago.

As we walked the trails, we were stepping over discarded soda cans, beer bottles, the remains of someone’s picnic lunch. But the worst was the used diaper tucked into the limbs of a tree. That’s right. Someone with a baby—a baby who would grow up to inherit this world—had changed that baby’s nappie and stuck the dirty diaper in a tree.

Not expecting to find everyone else’s garbage, I didn’t have a way to pick up the mess. But, as a journalist, I did see an opportunity to enlighten the world about the mopes who messed with Starved Rock. What I learned from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources was nothing short of depressing. The department simply doesn’t have enough money to hire people to clean up after the visitors. Heavily visited weekend like Labor Day mean that the garbage really can pile up. And that was long before Illinois’ legendary budget woes meant big cuts in state budgets.

Doing our Eco Tourism Duty

I was reminded of that long-ago experience when I got a press release from the National Aquarium in Baltimore. It included these 10 great tips for leaving the beach better than you find it on your next family vacation. The National Aquarium is asking beach-goers to leave their favorite seashore destinations better than they found them this summer. Simple changes, family-friendly activities and thoughtful actions that fit seamlessly into a summer vacation can make a huge difference, aquarium officials say. Try one or two – or perhaps even all – to help protect the beaches so all of us – and our babies – will have them for the rest of our lives.

You CAN Take It with You

If you are strong enough to carry the full picnic basket down to the beach, you are strong enough to carry the reminds of your lunch back to the car. Take along a garbage bag and think about picking up after other folks too. Every can, bottle cap, wrapper, plastic bag and –ew! – cigarette butt can hurt the beach and the wildlife that calls the beach home.

Pay to Play

Funds collected by municipalities for beach access typically go directly to cleaning and maintaining the very beach you’re using. So, rather than trying to find a way to get to the beach for free or park without paying, think of that money as a donation to your favorite beach and pay it proudly.

Walk This Way

This is not the time to go off the beaten path. Use boardwalks and wooden walkways instead of climbing over the dunes as you come and go. Dune erosion endangers the longevity of the beach and the fragile habitats that are home to animals, from birds to lizards to turtles.

10 Ways to Make the World Better When You TravelKeep Off the (Beach) Grass!

While you’re respecting the dunes, make sure to never disturb, crush or pull the grasses that grow there. What might look like reedy weeds to you actually play a critical role in protecting the beach ecosystem.

Grow a Better Beach

Looking for an educational activity that actually makes a difference? Contact local environmental groups to and see if you and your kidscan take part in a beach planting project that works to foster and restore healthy beach grasses. Other opportunities might include organized beach cleanups and dune restoration projects.

Pick Up After Pets

Pet waste may seem harmless in the great outdoors, but it can actually be a powerful bacterial pollutant if left unchecked. Clean up after your pets and dispose of waste properly.

Take Trash, Nothing More

It’s that Golden Rule of Travel. When you find that lovely shell, think twice; every time you remove a natural element from an ecosystem, you leave that ecosystem just slightly less balanced than it was. That shell might be someone’s next home! If you must collect something, collect the trash. You can even turn it into a game for the kids—offer a prize to the one who returns with the heaviest trash bag.

Going Boating? Make Sure She’s Shipshape

Whether you’re a novice or an old salt, there are few things better than getting out on the water. But a boat in disrepair puts out dangerously elevated levels of pollution. Whether it’s a rental or a charter, do your homework and make sure your vessel is well maintained and in good repair. When in doubt, skip the engine …sail or row instead. It’s better for the environment and your body.

Respect the Locals

Few things are more magical than seeing marine animals in their natural environment. But remember to see but not touch. If you believe an animal is in need of assistance, look for a lifeguard, park ranger or other officiall who will know which local entities – like the National Aquarium in the Mid-Atlantic region – are qualified and ready to assist. Nobody around? Use your phone to check the internet for appropriate local authorities.

Eco tourism volunteers clean a beach. Photo courtesy the National Aquarium

Eco tourism volunteers clean a beach. Photo courtesy the National Aquarium

Think Before You Flush

Caring for the beach doesn’t end when you pack up and call it a day. When we visit coastal areas, it is just as important to be mindful of the pollutants we introduce into the groundwater and wastewater through everyday chores and habits. Chemical pesticides, cleansers, paint and oil all work their way very quickly from gutters and sinks to the oceans, rivers and streams of the local watershed area, as do extra or expired medications, non-biodegradable personal items or potentially hazardous cosmetics. Don’t flush them down the toilet.

If you’re headed to the beach, check out our Family Beach Vacation Packing List. And join our Sustainable Travel #TMOM Twitter party on April 18. We will be talking about sustainable travel and giving away a Ricardo suitcase!

How do you leave the world better than you found it when you travel?