Eco Friendly Tips for Hikers: 10 Simple Tips for Sustainable Hiking

Every day I try my best to move towards a more sustainable future and reduce my carbon footprint. As a hiker and lover of the outdoors, I want to continue to explore the world’s wild spaces and help preserve them for future generations. While I’ve been hiking since the age of 15 in more recent years I’ve honed in on some sustainable hiking tips that I’m going to pass along to you here. These eco friendly tips for hikers keep trails around the world in amazing condition while supporting local economies and protecting flora and fauna.

Eco Friendly Tips for Hikers

sustainable hiking tips: Pick up trash

I’ve been a hiker since the age of 15. Between now and then I’ve picked up a lot of trash. It takes very little effort and makes a difference in the long run. However, the longer you’re out on the trail the harder it is to pick up lots of trash. Days hikers are going home at the end of the day, weekenders are out for 2-3 days, but thru-hikers or those hiking for a week or so will be out for longer periods of time. Picking up trash adds weight to your pack, but not everyone wants that.

Here is my proposal. Whether you’re out hiking or in your everyday life pick up one piece of trash a day off the ground and dispose of it properly. At the end of the year that’s 365 pieces of trash. If you pick up 2 pieces a day that’s 730 pieces of trash!

Want to take it a step further, join a trail, park, or beach clean-up during your free time. Sustainable hiking starts with you and this is a great way to make it happen.

And for the bold, call people out when they litter. Remind them of the effects that trash has on the ecosystem. I know this isn’t something everyone is comfortable with and that’s OK. It took me a while to get there myself, but if we’re all holding each other accountable change will slowly happen.

eco friendly tips for hikers: Reduce Single-Use Plastics

We, as hikers, are notorious for our use of lightweight items, which includes a lot of single-use plastic. Plastic baggy wallets, plastic baggies for everything, constantly switching out Smart Water bottles when the ones we’re using to filter water are perfectly fine, and using trash bags to line out backpacks. I list these things specifically because I’ve done them all, and still use a trash bag to line my backpack. This makes me just as guilty as the next hiker.

The 3 R’s are Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Reduce is first because it is most important. If we reduce our use of single-use products as a whole we will be helping Mother Earth have to deal with less waste in landfills. This is where we as hikers come in. Here are a few eco friendly tips about things we use that are single-use and how to reduce how much we use.

  1. Instead of getting a plastic baggy wallet get one of those cool reusable ones from Chums. You’ll have it for most hikes to come.
  2. Think about how many plastic baggies you really need. How many times can you refill and empty the same one that you use for your trash bag. I went 2 months one time! Does every single serving of snacks need to be organized into baggies? This is a super easy way to make a difference that many people don’t think about.
  3. I have used the same trash bag for 2 years to line my pack, and it’s still going strong. Many people buy the trash compactor bags that rip really easily, you don’t need that. Get a heavy duty trash bag and it will last you a good long while.
  4. Using Smart Water bottles is the easiest way for Sawyer Squeeze users to filter their water. During my 6 months on the AT I used 2 of them. I met a guy on trail that got a new one every week. I know I’m a bit of an extreme, but instead of getting a new one every week, what if he only bought 1 a month. If he was on the trail for 6 months that about 24 bottles, but if he got 1 bottle a month that’s only 6 months total. Big difference for a small change!

sustainable hiking tips: Secure your Food

This is a source of contention on the trail as there are so many different ways to secure food. I’m not here to start a fight about which way is the best. I don’t can’t how you secure your food, as long as you do it. And NO putting your food in your tent at the bottom of your backpack covered with your smelly clothes is NOT securing your food. Securing your food is putting in the effort to hang your food, putting it in an Ursack and securing to a tree, or putting it in a bear canister.

Doing this will not only ensure you have food the next morning, but it also makes sure animals don’t become reliant on humans for food. Animals are very intelligent and don’t work any harder than they have to for food. Everyone thinks about bears, but raccoons, mice, and other smaller animals will take advantage of free food as well.

In my former life, I was an outdoor educator for kids for a company called Nature’s Classroom. We used to play a big game called predator vs. prey and afterwards we taught them about the food web and that in nature it’s all living and connected. This is something that I wish all hikers knew or remembered from school. If we, as hikers, bring food and habituate animals to get food from us we disrupt the very delicate system in place. In my opinion, we mess with the Earth enough.

If we’re going to go out into nature and enjoy ourselves, we need to keep in mind we’re only guests there and do what we can to protect the animals that live there.

Please, secure your food for the safety of the animals.

eco friendly tips for hikers: Follow the 7 Leave No Trace Principles

It’s important to have knowledge of Leave No Trace. Leave No Trace is the idea we should enter wild space and take only pictures and leave only footprints. To make it super simple, leave the spaces we use in the outdoors better than we find them. There are 7 pretty simple principles of this concept.

The 7 Principles of Leave No Trace are:

  • Plan Ahead and Prepare
  • Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  • Dispose of Waste Properly
  • Leave What you Find
  • Minimize campfire Impact
  • Respect Wildlife
  • Be Considerate of Other People

Leave No Trace has a short online training for anyone looking to learn more that is free to take. I highly recommend any thru-hiker, no matter how long or short your thru-hiker is, take the time to learn about Leave No Trace.

sustainable hiking tips: Stop repackaging your food

There are items on this list that I’d love to see every hiker do, but if I had to pick just one, it would be this one. STOP!!!! Because you want to save a couple of ounces you’re going to take your food out of the original packaging and put it in single-use baggies just to throw them away later? You’re just making extra trash!

Most of this article is to give you tips on how to make changes, this is the only section where I’m going to ask you to stop. If your food needs to be repackaged maybe you shouldn’t be bringing it on the trail to begin with.

Hikers like me who feel this way are silently, or not so silently, judging you for this. For the love of baby sea turtles and whales that keep swallowing plastic bags and all the other animals in the world, STOP! *steps off of soapbox*

sustainable hiking tips: Don’t Leave Fires Unattended

I’ve lost track of how many fires I’ve found that were left unattended over the years. While many people don’t think it’s a big deal to leave coals unattended, it really is. It only takes one small spark to leave the fire pit and start a fire. If the throngs of wildfires on the west coast of the US have taught us nothing over the past few years, it’s that it doesn’t take much to threaten our wild places as well as the homes and towns where we live.

In 2019, I worked for Girl Scouts of Northern California at Skylark Ranch. I took 12 high school-aged girls on their first backpacking trip along the Skyline to Sea Trail. During the summer of 2020, a huge forest fire destroyed, not only the entirety of the Skyline to Sea Trail, but the summer camp, people’s homes, and the 3 state parks the trail travels through. As of this writing, the trail, summer camp, and state parks are all still closed.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good campfire, but when you’re done, whether that be going to bed for the night or leaving the area, make sure the fire is completely out. To do this, slowly pour water on the coals of the fire, then stir it around with a stick. To this until you can no longer we at red hot coals. However, this does not mean the fire is out. Make sure you spread apart any remaining larger logs or sticks.

If you think the fire is out hold your hand a few inches about the coals. Can you feel the heat? If you can, add a little more water. The true test if a fire is out is if you’re able to hold the ashes of what used to be coals in your hand for at least 5 seconds. But don’t be stupid and try that right away, and if you do and burn yourself there is no help for you. Be smarter.

eco friendly tips for hikers: Think Local

While hiking, especially doing a longer thru-hiker, sticking to a budget is important. However, it’s important to remember all those small Mom and Pop stores in trail towns. I know you’re thinking that this has nothing to do with the planet, but I promise you it does.

Spending money at local stores keeps more jobs in small towns, helps all those local soccer teams that need sponsoring, and ensures hikers don’t need to use transportation to towns further away from the trail to resupply. Plus, we all know supporting small businesses is better for the local economy, Walmart and Dollar Tree don’t really need your money.

For many people doing a complete resupply at a local shop might not be realistic. But think of what would happen if every hiker along, say the Appalachian Trail spent just $10 at a Mom and Pop shop when resupplying. In 2021, approximately 4,000 hikers registered their thru and section hikes of the Appalachian Trail. If that many people spent $10 in each town at a local store that’s $40,000 per town. Even if it was $5, that’s $20,000. Small actions, when done by lots of people can make a big difference.

sustainable hiking tips: Repair Damaged Gear (Or use your warranty)

Quality gear can make or break a hike. However, sometimes things go wrong and tent poles snap, trekking pole bend, and backpacks get holes in them. Instead of throwing them away and having them end up in a landfill, see if you can fix them. Plus, so much of our gear and clothing on the trail gets gross and smelly, so I tend to use it for as long as it lasts. There’s no need to get new stuff just because there are small holes or it smells.

I busted the tent poles on my MSR Hubba NX1 and during my hike I was able to Mcgyver them together so I could use my tent. When I got home I called MSR and I sent them off and in a few weeks, they came back are as good as new. They even sent me so new tent stakes!

My ULA Circuit backpack had a small hole in it and I sent them an email and they told me they would patch it for free or I could pay a small fee and they’d replace the entire panel that had the hole in it. I paid and had them replace the panel because, I figured, why not have them do it if I was going to send it to them anyway.

I recently found out about this amazing woman owned company, NoSo Patches. They sell patches in different shapes and sizes, many of which have really fun and funky designs, to patch rips on clothing and gear. I have a puffy jacket that got a hole from a campfire spark that I fixed with one of their patches. It’s good as new and has a little extra flare.

eco friendly tips for hikers: Buy Used Gear Instead of New

Another great way to keep gear our of landfills and more often than not get a great deal is to buy used gear.

I’m lucky enough to have a local gear shop, Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington, Vermont, that has an excellent consignment basement. Over the years I’ve purchased a lot of used gear there, and will keep doing so for as long as I can. For my first trip up Kilimanjaro, I purchased a pair of fleece pants that kept me warm on summit night. When I was learning how to scuba dive in Cozumel, Mexico I bought a used GoPro that has serviced me well for many years.

My climbing shoes are used, and I bought them there as well. If you don’t have a gear shop that does consignment, check out local thrift stores too. You’re more likely to find clothing as opposed to gear, but every little bit helps your wallet and the planet.

Another great way to find used gear is to join Facebook groups like Backpacking Gear Sale and Backpacking Gear Flea Market. I’ve had some success both buying and selling gear on there. Because you can’t see it in advance take care to see as many photos as possible. The only downside of this is there are no guarantees you’ll get what you paid for and there are no consequences for someone who rips you off. Proceed with caution.

More and more gear companies, like REI and Arcteryx, are selling used gear on their websites. Just like with consignment stores, thrift stores, and Facebook groups you never know what you’re going to find, but there are plenty of deals to find and you’ll be doing Mother Earth a favor.

eco friendly tips for hikers: Recycle your Shoes

Yes, I’m serious, you should recycle your hiking shoes through Nike’s program Nike Grind. This program is part of their Move to Zero journey towards zero carbon and a zero waste future for the company.

eco friendly tips

They accept any brand of athletic sneaker, but they do not accept any sandals, dress shoes, boots, or shoes that have metal (think cleats and spikes).

All you have to do is bring your used shoes to any Nike retail store in the US or Europe, and they’ll take them. Make sure they’re clean-ish though. If you’ve been stomping through the mud, maybe hose them down and dry them before bringing them in.

Eco Friendly Tips for Hikers

Don’t be overwhelmed about the things on this list. You don’t need to do all of these right away. Pick one and add it to your hiking routine. Once it becomes a habit add another one in. This way you won’t be stressed out while hiking, no one wants that, and you won’t feel like its a complete chore. Over time all of these will come as second nature and you’ll be making a BIG difference!

Do you have any eco friendly tips for hikers? Let me know in the comments!

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