Hikers I meet on the trail generally consider themselves to be environment-friendly people. While most try their best to minimize the ecological damage they cause just by simply being on trail, I often encounter questionable behavior from hikers who seem to have no clue of the consequences of their actions. I like to believe most people out on the trail mean well and that the problem is a lack of education about the Leave No Trace principles. Here are some tips to be the “greenest” hiker possible:
Do not wash your clothes in rivers and lakes
I have to admit that I am guilty of this one. I used to think this was fine as long as I was using biodegradable soap. When camping close to a lake or river or crossing a water body en route, do not contaminate it by using soap or detergent, even biodegradable one, to wash clothes or dishes in it. The correct way to handle any washing you need to do is to carry some clean water in a bottle or bucket to a distance of at least a hundred meters from the water source. That way the dirty water doesn’t trickle back in. It’s not only wild animals and other trekkers that will use the same spot later, but yourself could also be using the same water flowing down to some other point ahead.
Leave no trace of new trails
As much as possible, use existing trails. Is is tempting to go around the muddy areas by walking “in the bush”. However, if all hikers do this, the muddy section will just get wider and wider over time. Your boots are designed to get muddy and wet. Hiking in wet boots is part of the sport, embrace it! Eventually your feet get tougher and won’t blister anymore when this happens. Hikers in shiny boots don’t look cool!
Second part of this advice is to avoid shortcuts. Professional trail builders usually know how to build durable trails. Trail planning involves not climbing slopes at a degree that is too aggressive and using switchbacks instead. Cutting short and not using the switchbacks shows not only a lack of respect of the hard work of trail builders and maintenance teams, but little knowledge on the long-term impact of such practice.
No stoves inside shelters
I will always remember being an ultra-crowded shelter on one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks” (aka super popular trail) and getting a strong headache after only ten minutes of being inside. I had been warned, a strong gas odor welcomed us as soon as we got to the shelter. The dining area was crowded with about 50 people, about 15 of which were running their own gas stove on the picnic tables, away from any windows or ventilation source. It was not pleasant for anyone there. Carbon monoxide (CO) produced by a running camping stove is toxic and is sufficient quantity, lethal. While it’s unlikely to reach a lethal level inside a shelter (but can happen easily inside an enclosed tent), people can get incommoded at low levels of CO in the air. CO limits the supply of oxygen to your body as it is easier for your blood to absorb CO rather than oxygen.
So what should you do? Only use your stove next to an open window or in a area with good outside ventilation. Your shelter does not have any windows? Please go outside. Yes, even if it’s -20.
Ditch the toilet paper
There is nothing that brings up frustration to me more then isolating myself away from a trail to take care of personal needs and to see toilet paper on the ground or under a rock. There are so many leaves to be used in most areas as replacement to toilet paper. If you really insist on carrying it, pack it out! NO excuses. If you do not want to have to carry your dirty toilet paper around, well maybe hiking is not for you.
Being biodegradable does not make it “ok” to throw away in nature
Waste being biodegradable is also not a good enough reason to toss it out of sight on a trail. Main reason is that it can bring wildlife to associate hikers with food and thus create unsafe situations for the hikers behind you. Most biodegradable food that hikers carry are not native to the local ecosystem and can be harmful. One simple rule to follow: Anything that we carry into the woods should come out of the woods with us.
Carry a trowel
Mentality around the use of trowels has changed a lot in the past years, thanks to the education effort started by many trail associations. Most thru-hikers I have met dispose properly of solid waste. I actually noticed that a trowel is the new cool-tool to have on trail, as GPS were twenty years ago I guess.
I personally use the Deuce of Spades trowel.
Pack in, pack out. Don’t leave stuff in shelters.
Once again, anything that we carry into the woods should come out of the woods with us. It’s your last day on trail, you have one inch of peanut butter left in the plastic jar you are carrying and you would like to give it to other hungry hikers behind you? Or maybe you drank that bottle of wine with your friends in the shelter last night and you think it would make a very nice candle holder for the shelter? Answer is: DON’T LEAVE IT THERE, as useful as you think it could be, it adds to the garbage rangers and volunteers have to pack out each time they visit. Unless you can give it hand-to-hand to someone who agrees to use it and pack it out, don’t leave stuff at shelters.
A main reason why I disliked the book “A walk in the woods” was the tendency of the two hikers in the story to toss out whatever they didn’t want to carry anymore. I don’t think this is either funny or advisable. Acting like this shows just how uncaring and uncomprehending of the bigger picture you are (even in a novel!). Everything you do has an impact, and there is no such thing as “immaterial impact” in nature.
Look for bulk food. Avoid “Ziplocs” and other disposable packaging. Stop living in a disposable world.
This one is harder depending on where you have to resupply. Disposable plastic “ziploc” bags are a convenient and lightweight way to carry food around on trail. However I always end up feeling bad at the extra amount of trash this creates, in addition to the packaging that the food came in at the grocery store. Whenever I use Ziplocs, I try to buy sturdy ones and to reuse them as many times as possible. I have also used Sea-to-summit ultra-sil dry bags as a alternative to disposable ziploc bags. These dry bags allow me to purchase bulk foods when they are available without creating extra trash.