Many outdoor enthusiasts grew up with the idea of leave no trace. But as the world turns towards sustainability and eco-friendly travel, as a collective, we are learning that there is so much more we can do. The good news is that a lot of how to live sustainably at home also works for life on the trail.

As our treasured public lands become increasingly popular, we can help to spread the load and minimize our environmental impact. This guide covers ways you can hike sustainably, both on and off the trail.

Photo: Tomislav Moze at HIGHLANDER Bosnia & Herzegovina

STEP 1: THE PLANNING

PICKING A TRAIL

Such is the reverence many hikers hold for nature, it's easy to overlook how we hurt it. By not looking beyond our appreciation, we forget that as much as we try otherwise, we can still leave a trace.

A big aspect of sustainable hiking is in the planning. Just like at home, sustainable living has to be intentional. There are many things we can do around the house to reduce our carbon footprint, such as switching to renewable energy, eating less meat, or even going vegan. For sustainable travel, it helps to go against the grain.

Popular hiking trails see hundreds of thousands of footsteps every year. You know, the ones splashed all over social media and the sights we are loving to death. Do some research and you’ll quickly find some amazing trail tips and unloved adventures that aren’t at risk of overcrowding and erosion.

Photo: Tomislav Moze at HIGHLANDER Julian Alps, Slovenia

CHOOSING YOUR GEAR

An aspect of sustainable living that takes some thought is choosing your gear. Once you know more about your outdoor adventure, from weather and time of year to the environment and camping amenities, you’ll know what you need for the trek.

Just like in everyday life, it pays to stay away from fast fashion and invest your time and money into ethical clothing brands. Many outdoor clothing brands were quick to catch onto the growth of sustainable travel.

Merrell and Patagonia are two leaders in this field. You can also keep an eye out for Bluesign or Fair Wear certifications which are placed on responsibly produced gear.

It’s one thing to purchase through ethical clothing brands, but when it comes to serious outdoor experiences, you’ll want to make sure your gear lasts. Brands such as Osprey have warranties that will ensure repairs and once the bag has seen the end of its days on the trail, it is then recycled into another pack.

By ensuring quality and making use of recycled materials, brands like Osprey allow us to pursue a sustainable lifestyle.

Photo: Predrag Vuckovic at HIGHLANDER Stara Planina, Serbia

PART 2: LIVING SUSTAINABLY ON THE TRAIL

STAY ON THE TRAILS

The term leave no trace has been floating around the outdoors for a long time. But over the last few years, it’s taken on even more importance. As you continue to pursue a sustainable lifestyle off the trail, let’s look at ways to reduce our direct impact on the environment we love.

Trails aren’t just designed to make our lives easier. They’re in place to reduce the impact we have on the wild world around us. By walking only on the trails, we limit the damage done to fragile shrubbery and stop erosion. If we go off-trail, we widen the path and damage flora, leaving a higher likelihood of a boggy trail after rain.

Photo: Predrag Vuckovic at HIGHLANDER Velebit, Croatia

DIG YOUR CATHOLES

Within national parks and along many major trails you’ll find privies and drop toilets. These are a privilege and one we should be grateful for, especially if you’ve ever tried to go number two in the woods. If you do have access to one, don’t drop rubbish or hygiene items, and remember to put sawdust over the top if possible.

For the rest of us, we’ll have to find a private spot to do our business in an eco-friendly manner. To do so, bring a trowel on your hike and dig a cathole 6 to 8 inches deep and at least 200 feet away from a water source, camping site, or common eating area.

Any used toilet paper must be carried out with you. There’s nothing worse than stumbling on toilet paper poking out of the ground like a zombie after rain.

For those that want to go even further, check out options for pee cloths and menstrual cups. As always, bring along some environmentally friendly hand sanitizer.

DO YOU NEED A FIRE?

Natural wildfires happen with increasing regularity because of climate change. But so many occur because of our own ignorance and lack of awareness. In fact, the majority of major fires have begun because of unattended fires or the littering of cigarettes.

Before you light up your fire, it’s important to be aware of your surroundings. Is there an allocated firepit? Have you cleared enough space around your fire? Is it dry and in the heart of summer?

Campfires are a fun part of hiking. So if you choose to light up, follow any and all fire regulations. To create your fire, you’ll want to scavenge for dead, fallen branches and twigs, along with building a fire ring if possible. Once you’re done, pour water over the fire and make sure all coals are extinguished before departing.

Photo: Dragan Stojkic at HIGHLANDER Durmitor, Montenegro

PART 3: POST HIKE

After clearing out your campsite, making sure to pick up all rubbish and extinguish the fire, it’s time for the dreaded return home. A lot of hikes come with the realization of what you do and don’t need. It’s amazing how simple and sustainable life can be outdoors.

If you have excess gear, you can donate them to a variety of secondhand outdoor stores, even REI if the items are in solid condition. This will allow someone else the opportunity to purchase outdoor gear, lessening the load on major manufacturers.

Author: Chelsey Evans

Chelsey Evans

Chelsey Evans is a travel outdoor enthusiast who loves to inspire others to get out in nature and explore more. She is the founder of the blog Chelsey Explores which focuses on fun outdoor adventures to do in San Diego and beyond; including things like hiking, camping, backpacking and more!