10 Thru-Hiking Tips to Reduce Environmental Impact
As thru-hikers, we’re already traveling off the beaten path. In an era of single-use plastics, disposable toiletries, and landfills the size of small islands, hitting the trail for months at a time is a step toward helping our beloved planet. Being able to fit all of my garbage into one plastic bag for days at a time showed me how much waste I was saving by living on the trail. However, there are always areas to improve and ways we can reduce our waste even when living out of a 50-liter pack.
1) Take Advantage of the TerraCycle Program
If you’re one to rely on freeze-dried meals while thru-hiking, you know how bulky those plastics can be. Instead of tossing them into the garbage, several companies encourage consumers to participate in TerraCycle. Backpacker’s Pantry and Mountain House both offer this innovative recycling strategy as a free waste-reducing option for hikers. With an online order at Backpacker’s Pantry, you can request a return recycling shipping label, which can be easily mailed out of any stop in town. Yes, this is one more thing to carry, but it’s worth it. For Mountain House products, you can print a shipping label right in town, box it up, and send it out. All free of charge.
2) Buy Quality Gear
We’ve all heard it: buy well, buy once. Before making large purchases, such as a tent, sleeping bag, or backpack, do your research. Choosing items that are specifically built for thru-hiking and long-distance treks helps avoid early wear and tear, saving both money and the environment in the long run. Sale and discounted items may be extremely enticing, but may result in an additional purchase sooner than necessary.
3) Shop REI Garage Sales and Other Used Gear Programs
We all know REI’s generous return policy, but may fail to take advantage of these products coming full cycle. With like-new and usable returned gear, REI hosts garage sales for its members. If you can’t make one of these events, REI recently launched an online used gear store as well. Quality gear can be pricey, and this helps keep gear out of the landfills and in the backcountry.
4) Replace Single-Serving Bars, Trail Mix, and Instant Coffee with Bulk Options
This applies to resupply boxes and grocery hauls in town. It’s convenient to have wrapped, individual bars and snacks, but that extra plastic adds up quickly. Many grocery stores have bulk sections where you can fill up on nuts, dried fruit, and other goodies for one bag of homemade trail mix. Plus, you won’t have to pick out all of the gross raisins. Replacing single-serving snacks with bulk items makes a significant reduction in waste, and can save money as well. This also applies to instant drinks such as coffee. Instead of buying single-serving packets, consider a larger can and transferring it into a plastic (or reusable!) bag. Being mindful and cutting down on single serving snacks and utilizing TerraCycle programs means almost zero waste from food. Pretty impressive for a thru-hiker.
5) Utilize Reusable Hygiene Replacements
We’ll all need to wipe our butts. But there are ways to make sure those few precious squares of toilet paper we use are as environmentally friendly as possible. For ladies, investing in a Kula Cloth is a complete game changer. This reusable, absorbent pee square saved us from having to choose between using extra toilet paper or dealing with slightly damp shorts. As far as those situations where single-use toilet paper is unavoidable, there are post-industrial recycled content options available. This company uses bamboo and recycled paper to make their bathroom tissue. Investing in this sustainable swap definitely isn’t cheaper than stealing a few squares from the occasional pit toilet, but will make an impact nonetheless.
Women unfortunately have another hygiene issue to consider. A menstrual cup not only saves waste from single-use tampons and pads, but also is an enormous space and weight saver. There’s a few different brands to choose from, many of which are available in stores at CVS, Target, or online.
6) Follow Leave No Trace Principles
In order to stay up-to-date on all the latest Leave No Trace guidelines, it is an imperative to check their website and brush up on all updated rules. In recent years lnt.org has included a new resource on how to geotag and use social media consciously. It’s up to all of us to keep these trails wild and pristine as possible for future generations to come as social media draws more visitors to the areas. Plus, we could all use a reminder to make sure our campsites and footprints leave as little impact as possible.
7) Use a Microfiber Filtering Laundry Bag
This is an investment that will help our water systems at home and on trail. These laundry bags are designed to protect our clothes from releasing harmful plastic fibers into our waterways. While on the trail, this is a crucial way to ensure our clothes aren’t harming the streams and rivers we all benefit from in the backcountry. Also note that it is best practice to gather water and wash clothes elsewhere to prevent the stream of sunscreen, bug spray, and other unnatural products into our waterways.
8) Keep a Reusable Garbage Bag
To be honest, I didn’t think twice before tossing my gallon-sized garbage bags with all my trash at each resupply. There was absolutely no reason for me to do this. I could’ve just as easily dumped all the trash out of the bag and refilled it. Or, better yet, brought along a lightweight reusable trash bag to avoid the use of any plastic.
9) Carbon Offsetting Plane and Car Travel
Many of the thru-hikes I’m eyeing require a bit of travel. Carbon offsetting is not a perfect solution to reducing our transit impact, but it’s a step in the right direction. Basically, for a minuscule purchase (around $2 or more if desired), you can offset the miles you traveled with these funds going straight toward emissions-reducing projects. The Good Traveler is a wonderful resource for all questions regarding carbon offsetting benefits.
10) Replace Toiletries with Plastic-Free Options
Bamboo toothbrushes are gaining in popularity, and are a lightweight options to replace plastic brushes. Replacing plastic toothpaste tubes with bite-sized toothpaste bits is additionally an environmentally and weight friendly way to cut down on waste. This also saves us frugal thru-hikers from squeezing every last drop out of a long empty toothpaste container. Another simple money and plastic saving tip is to avoid buying single-use travel-size toiletries and invest in reusable tubes to refill with soap, lotion, or whatever helps you feel clean while living outdoors.
When it comes to protecting our beloved trails and environment as a whole, it’s up to all of us. Many of these tips may seem insignificant, but each small reduction in plastic use adds up quickly. As the time of year approaches when we are all dreaming of hitting the trail and may be planning trips for 2020, it’s imperative to consider ways we can reduce our impact.
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