Zero Waste Thru Hike: The First 30 Days

First, a Few Numbers…

In 30 days on the Appalachian Trail:

  1. I’ve hiked 260 miles
  2. Lost 20 pounds
  3. Took 3 Zero’s
  4. Went 3 days without a shower
  5. Walked through 3 states

And have made countless new friends!!

Now, the Challenges

Coming into this, I knew doing a zero waste thru hike was absolutely crazy. But that’s exactly why I am doing it. In order to make a change, some crazy things must be done. I am hiking the Appalachian Trail to spread a message of love. We need to love our planet in every possible way  to ensure it will be here tomorrow. I am not trying to be perfect. I am trying to do the best I can, with what I have, the best way I know how.

So, what’s the hardest part about doing a zero waste thru hike? Everything related to food. Here’s a sample daily food breakdown of what an AT Thru Hiker eats:

  • Breakfast: Two oatmeal packets
  • 2nd Breakfast: Granola/ Cliff bar
  • Lunch: Tuna wrap
  • Snack: Candy bar and Gatorade
  • Dinner: Ramen/ Outdoor meal

That’s roughly about 8-10 pieces of trash per day, from trail food alone. Which is roughly 216-270 pieces per month (with 3 zeros per month on average), and approximately 1,296- 1,620 pieces of trash in 6 months for 1 person. Approximately 1,500 people complete the AT, so that’s 945,000 to 2,430,000 pieces of trash going into a landfill. This does not include trash produced in towns, off trail, on other trails, or even by attempted Thru-hikers or section hikers. Something must change.

Every time I crave a pop tart, or a snickers, I think about these numbers. I ask myself, is it really worth it? On most days I say no. On the few occasions I cave, I carry my waste for miles until I have enough compost to ship home. My waste ( or non traditional recyclables i.e. candy wrappers) is then recycled with terracycle, and my compost is composted in my home compost bin. Which brings me to my next challenge.

There has not been one town/hostel on trail that composts. Due to the high bear population, composting would attract bears the same way the trash cans attract bears. After talking to a hostel about their failed composting attempts, due to bears completely destroying their compost bins, I understood the dilemma. After crossing into North Carolina I made the decision to stop sending compost and boxes home. It makes my pack way too heavy. It also pollutes the air through the shipping process.  My trail treat of an avocado is not worth all the stress and harm.

The next challenge arises when I go into restaurants. After COVID many restaurants significantly increased their plastic usage. Utensils are now plastic. Styrofoam cups are given instead of glass ones. And I never understood the purpose of the straw. In the beginning I was taking my restaurant trash, carrying it out, and you guessed it, shipping it home. Now I’ve learned to look at the tables of every one else to decide if the restaurant is to plastic riddled before sitting down to eat. In the beginning I also use to eat whatever I wanted. But since my diet is so clean on trail, my body decided to reject all the bad stuff and only keeps in the salads. Which is good, I guess.

The final challenge I faced was with cold soaking. I did not mind cold soaking until I got rained on. On Day 4 I wanted to quit the AT. All my clothes got soaked. My sleeping bag got soaked. I pitched my tent wrong and there a puddle collected inside. A warm cup of tea would’ve eased my sadness. Instead all I ate were some wet raisins and cried myself to sleep. I prayed all night that I wouldn’t get hypothermia. The next day I got a stove and swore to never experience that again. Now when it rains I practically run to the next shelter to grab a spot. I use my fuel can ( which can be recycled) to make a hot dinner and some tea. Then snuggle into my dry sleeping bag.

Finally, the Good

There are some really good parts about doing a zero waste thru hike. The first being the support. So many people walk up to me and tell me how inspired they are to make changes based on my hike. That has by far been the most rewarding part of my entire journey. I receive words of encouragement online and on trail. So many people ask questions about zero waste and why I am doing this. That’s all I ever wanted. I want people to think about ways they can help love the planet. It does not have to be the way that I do, it just has to be some form of love.

The next good part has been the very detailed recycling system I’ve seen in the south. In Philadelphia all recycling goes into one bin. This made me skeptical of whether or not everything in it was actually being recycled. Eventually I started to pay to ensure my recycling was actually recycled through terracycle. However in the towns I’ve visited each material has a separate bin. Cans, cardboard, paper, glass, and hard plastic are some of the different bins I’ve come across.

The last good thing that’s helped me on this journey has been some of the resupply options. I’ve been to several grocery stores with a bulk bin section. This is where I get most of my snacks like banana chips and trail mix. Some hostels that offer resupply options have also sold compostable backpacking meals, which have been amazing to try out. They are on the pricier side, about $12 per meal, but it’s great to see outdoor food companies with sustainable packaging.

Final Thoughts

I’ve learned a lot in this first month. I’m pretty sure I have a lot more to learn. I will continue to make mistakes and I welcome them (except being rained on, I will never welcome that). This has been an amazing journey and I am so grateful for all the experiences and all the incredible people I’ve encountered. I hope I inspire you to do something for the planet and for yourself. Happy Trails!!

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 2

  • Kelli : May 17th

    Your attitude and positivity is so sweet and fresh….just like honey.

    • Daktari : May 21st

      FYI: Woods Hole hostel composts.


What Do You Think?