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Eco-Friendly Hiking and Backpacking

15 Ways to Make Your Trek More Sustainable

While people gravitate toward things like hiking and backpacking for a variety of reasons, just about everyone who laces ‘em up and hits the trail shares an appreciation for the natural world.

If you don’t love nature, you may as well just walk around a mall.

After all, the mall is air-conditioned. It smells like cinnamon buns inside, too.

But you don’t – you go hiking in the great outdoors. And that’s because you love it out there.

We do too.

That’s why it is incumbent upon us – the nature-loving hordes who descend upon forests, mountains, and fields every weekend – to help do what we can to protect it.

15 Sustainable, Eco-Friendly Hiking Tips

We’ve rounded up some of the best – and most practical – ways hikers and backpackers can enjoy the natural world in a more eco-friendly and sustainable way. Don’t feel like you must do them all. Just try to adopt one or two at first and build some momentum.

1. Practice Leave No Trace Principles

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Everyone who sets foot in the great outdoors should do so in a manner consistent with the seven Leave No Trace principles.

Established by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics in 1994 and based on the work the US Forest Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management conducted back in the 80s, these principles are intended to help address some of the environmental problems plaguing the world today.

The seven principles are as follows:

  1. Plan ahead and prepare. This will help keep you safe and make your outing more fun, and it will also give you the chance to familiarize yourself with the rules of the park. For example, you may be prohibited from encroaching upon sensitive habitats or avoid visiting some parts of the park at specific times.
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces. Popular parks get a ton of foot traffic, which can lead to eroded and unsafe trails. Additionally, it’s important to avoid walking across delicate vegetation.
  3. Dispose of waste properly. Leaving trash behind not only ruins the aesthetics of the great outdoors, but it also leads to problems with wildlife. Additionally, some types of trash can leach harmful chemicals that’ll damage watersheds.
  4. Leave what you find. Removing things from natural habitats can cause resource imbalances, and it can even play a role in the spread of pests and pathogens. This often occurs, for example, when people remove and transport firewood.
  5. Minimize campfire impacts. It’s important to keep your campfire under control, ensure it’s extinguished completely before leaving, and avoid harvesting excessive amounts of firewood.
  6. Respect wildlife. This falls under the category of “don’t be a jerk.” The wild animals living in habitats we all enjoy deserve our respect – we are the ones visiting their home. Act accordingly.
  7. Be considerate of others. No one owns the great outdoors, and it’s important that everyone gets to enjoy them. So, avoid playing loud music on the trail, learn who has the right-of-way on the trail, and make sure you’re not infringing on everyone’s ability to enjoy the natural world.

By embracing these principles, you’ll minimize your impact on natural habitats and increase the chances that you’ll remain safe while enjoying them.

2. Buy from environmentally friendly hiking brands and retailers.

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There are a number of manufacturers in the hiking and backpacking space who go to great lengths to help the environment (or at least not harm it any more than necessary).

Some are certified-B corporations, who’ve demonstrated a history of environmental stewardship, while others manufacture certified organic products, which help to protect watersheds.

A few of the most notable eco-friendly brands and retailers include:

  • Columbia
  • Cotopaxi
  • Dedicated
  • Finisterre
  • Happy Earth Apparel
  • Helly Hansen
  • Houdini
  • La Sportiva
  • Mountain Hardware
  • Nemo Equipment
  • Oboz
  • Outerknown
  • Patagonia
  • Picture Organic
  • Rab
  • REI Co-Op
  • Smartwool
  • Tentree
  • The North Face
  • Vaude 

Best of all, many of these companies produce and sell truly stellar products.

And don’t forget, part of the reason some companies adopt eco-friendly practices is because their customers demand it. The more we all, collectively, support eco-friendly businesses, the more companies will begin to view it as a mandatory part of doing business. 

3. Buy used gear when it makes sense.

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Even when you purchase gear from an eco-forward company, the process leaves a mark on the environment. This not only includes the carbon footprint associated with the manufacture and transport of the product, but also the resources the manufacturing process requires, and any pollution created.

One of the best ways to reduce these impacts is by buying used gear. At least when it makes sense.

For example, no one is going to buy used thermal underwear or a second-hand water bladder.

But what about some gently used hiking boots? Even better, some retailers will sell boots that were returned for being the wrong size. Such boots may as well be new, yet they’ll be priced pretty affordably.

Or what about a pack that’s been up and down the AT, but still appears to be ready to rock for a few more seasons? How about some trekking poles that are still in great shape?

Those certainly sound like reasonable purchases.

As a bonus, you’ll save money buying used gear (as long as you do so wisely).

4. Invest in higher-quality gear where it matters.

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There’s clearly a lot to think about when trying to buy gear in eco-friendly fashion, but we’ll leave you with one last tip in this arena: When you’re buying important bits of gear, it is wise to pony up and spring for the good stuff. Especially when you’re talking about gear that will see a lot of use and suffer lots of wear and tear.

By sticking to premium brands and products, you’ll be less likely to need to replace the stuff (representing another purchase and all of the impact that entails) because it wore out prematurely or just didn’t work like you’d hoped.

You’ll have to decide when it makes sense to spend the big bucks, but a few of the most important places to think about doing so include your hiking boots, tent, and pack. You’ll use these things a ton, they’re incredibly important for your outdoor experience, and they’ll (hopefully) last for years.

5. Ditch the disposable water bottles.

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I’ll admit that when we had our first virtual-water-cooler discussions about the ways hikers and backpackers could be more eco-friendly, this one seemed a bit obvious to me. Of course, you should opt for a reusable water bottle instead of disposable bottles.

But then I remembered that lots of hikers are brand new to the hobby, and they may not have considered the number of disposable water bottles they’ll use in a given year.

For that matter, it probably isn’t obvious to everyone – particularly those who’ve only recently converted to the church of the trail – that disposable water bottles cause quite a bit of environmental damage.

So, for anyone who needs to hear it: Plop down the $20 for a Yeti or Nalgene. And go ahead and buy your first sticker or two for it. You’ll thank us later. 

6. Carry a garbage bag on the trail.

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Trash is unfortunately common on many trails – especially high-traffic trails that attract a lot of people on weekends and holidays. And while this problem would be best treated at the source, litterbugs will litter.

Park staff and volunteers help clean some trails, but it’s generally up to nature-loving hikers and backpackers to the bulk of the work here. So, start keeping a trash bag in your pack. Then, make a point of picking up some of the litter you encounter while on the trail.

You needn’t feel the responsibility of cleaning up an entire trail, but do something.

Even if you just pick up one soda can or package wrapper per hike, you’ll be doing more than you did yesterday. And this is one of those cases in which every little bit does actually help.

7. Rethink the way you get to the trail.

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While you’re probably not an A-list celebrity private-jetting your way around the country, you do probably drive a gasoline-powered car. And while the jet-setting crowd definitely needs to reign in the size of their carbon footprint, this is about things you can do. That means driving a little less when you can.

So, look for ways you can do that when heading to or from the trail.

If you frequent remote trails in huge national parks, you probably can’t walk to the trailhead from your home. But you could carpool with your hiking pals. Or you could try to schedule your errands in a way that allows you to check them off your to-do list while driving to the trail.

And some people – looking at those of you living in urban areas with hiking trails and greenspaces – actually can walk or bike to the trailhead.

8. Reexamine your choice of hiking snacks.

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Food production carries a pretty significant carbon footprint, but the size of that footprint varies from one food to the next. There are some exceptions, but most animal-based proteins have a higher carbon footprint than most vegetable-based foods.

We’re not suggesting that you need to become a vegetarian or vegan, but if you’re interested in hiking and backpacking in a more sustainable, eco-friendly fashion, you may want to consider making some different snack choices.

As you can see in this graphic from Columbia University, beef is pretty hard on the environment. By comparison, nuts, beans, and tofu are all pretty environmentally friendly. So, consider ditching the beef jerky and packing some nuts and edamame instead.

9. Purchase commodities and frequently used items in bulk.

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Single-use plastic wrappers (and to a lesser extent, other types of individual packages, such as cans, bottles, and cardboard boxes) cause huge environmental problems. So, while it may be convenient to purchase snack-sized packages of nuts, cheese, or other snacks for the trail, you’ll be doing the planet a favor by skipping these items.

Instead, start purchasing things like nuts and cheese in bulk. Then, when you’re prepping for your next hike, pack as much as you want to bring in a reusable container of some sort.

And this doesn’t only apply to food, either. Think about the travel-sized bottles of things you put in your pack or first-aid kit, and try to start buying larger quantities of these items, and then repack them in small, reusable containers. This would include things like hand sanitizer and toothpaste, among others.

10. Stop discarding fruit peels and skins on the ground.

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Many otherwise-conscientious hikers and campers have a mental lapse when it comes to fruit peels and skins. The same nature-lovers who’ll walk 50 feet in the wrong direction to pick up a piece of trash on the trail will then finish an orange and casually toss the peel on the ground. 

Yes, an orange peel will break down if left on the forest floor, but that will take six months or more. A banana peel takes even longer to decompose – up to 2 years in some cases. And peanut shells? They may take 3 years to decompose.

So, while these items are ecofriendly in the grand scheme of things, they create an eyesore for a long time. They also cause problems for wild animals, who’ll often come to depend on these kinds of litter as food. 

As always, take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints.

11. Reconsider the campfire.

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There’s nothing like sitting around a campfire at the end of a long day on the trail. The snacks. The stories. The gentle cracking and popping of burning wood.

It’s pure bliss.

Except once you realize that campfires actually cause a bit of environmental harm. The smoke created is obviously not great for the air or the environment in general, but that’s kind of a small-potatoes issue in the grand scheme of things.

The wood harvested to create the fire, however, is a pretty big deal – especially in high-traffic parks. You can often see direct evidence of this by simply looking around at the trees surrounding high-use campsites. They’ll all look like they’ve been hit by a bomb from the ground up, as countless backpackers have removed the lower branches.

We’re not saying that you can never enjoy a fire, but we are saying that you should forego one from time to time. Sometimes, it’s a good idea to give Mother Nature a break.

Consider your geography too. If you’re camping in a healthy, dense forest on the east coast, chances are there’s enough wood around for you, me, and the next camping group who passes through. But out west, trees are fewer and farther between, and they require a bit more deference. 

12. Stay on the trail.

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There are occasional times in which you’ll need to step off the trail. For example, when setting up a campsite, answering nature’s call, or navigating around a downed tree.

But in most other cases, you’ll want to stay on the trail.

Trails are designed to weather lots of foot traffic. Trails are often covered in materials that help prevent undue erosion and most are periodically maintained to repair any damage that’s done. But this isn’t the case for off-trail areas. These areas will suffer significant and rapid erosion, which will often leave a mark for years or decades to come.

Additionally, it’s important that we keep a significant part of natural areas “wild.” That means confining our impact to the trail, as much as is reasonably possible.   

13. Poop and pee properly.

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Poop and pee may be natural and biodegradable, but indiscriminately deposited excrement can cause environmental harm. Carelessly discarded human waste creates very real health concerns, and it is also — what’s the word I’m looking for — gross.

So, be sure that you do move off the trail when you need to relieve yourself. The rule of thumb is to do your thing at least 200 feet from a trail, water source, or campsite, but you’ll often have to adjust this based on the natural topography. Suffice to say, move as far as you reasonably can from the places others tread.

Additionally, make sure that you don’t leave toilet paper behind – even the biodegradable kind, as it’ll still take a long time to break down. Don’t go burying it, either, as animals will just dig it up. Instead, pack out used toilet paper (this is one of the few cases where a disposable plastic bag seems appropriate).

Women can also consider reusable alternatives for when it is time to take a number 1.

14. Keep your canine leashed.

We love dogs and enjoy seeing them on the trail – as long as they’re leashed. All dogs should be leashed on all trails, unless they’re specifically characterized as off-leash trails.

Yes, even your dog, Karen.

We understand the appeal of letting Rover roam freely in the forest, but there are myriad reasons to keep her on a leash.

For starters, it is a rule imposed by most parks, and it’s even the law in many places. Few things scream “main character energy” more than blatantly flouting the rules like this. Secondly, even if your dog is friendly, plenty of other dogs enjoying the trail have had traumatic lives, leaving them a bit prickly. And if you’re friendly Jack Russell runs up to a reactive mastiff, there are going to be problems.

But in terms of environmental impact, off-leash canines can harass wildlife, destroy nests and dens, and spread diseases to wild animals through their poop. And all of these things are worth avoiding.

So, by all means, bring your pup on any trail that permits dogs. But keep her on a leash while you’re there.   

15. Stop feeding the animals.

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Look, we get it.

Many of the critters roaming through forests and swimming around lakes are simply adorable, and that makes you want to do nice things for them. But while giving a chipmunk his first almond or tossing some breadcrumbs to a duck will make them happy in the short term, it does nothing but cause them problems over the long term.

It’s much easier for wild animals to get food from humans than via their natural hunting and foraging behaviors. That’s why bears, coyotes, raccoons, and other critters often raid garbage cans and frequent busy campsites. And that causes them to deliberately seek out human sources of food.

This not only leads to negative encounters with wildlife, but it also causes animals to start depending on these unnatural food sources, leaving them less capable of surviving in the long run.

Additionally, many human foods are just not healthy for wild animals. So, while we share your love for the cute animals who live trailside, we beg you – please do not feed them.

Becoming a more eco-friendly hiker or backpacker is a lifelong pursuit. You can’t just employ some of these tips and magically become a Certified Friend of NatureTM (although that’d be cool).

It doesn’t work like that.

But if you embrace the principles of sustainability (the three pillars, as they’re often called) and implement as many of the tips provided above as you can, you’ll become a more eco-friendly hiker or backpacker on your next adventure.

And all any of us can ever do is strive to be a little bit better tomorrow than we were today.

But now it’s your turn.

We want to hear about your eco-friendly and sustainable hiking and backpacking tips! Are there any obvious ones we missed? Do you find any of the tips above particularly difficult to implement? Let us know in the comments below!

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