We tend to think of hiking as a “green” sort of activity, and it absolutely can be.
But hikers can also have significant environmental impacts, from obvious ones such as a foot-trampled swale or accidentally sparked wildfire to the subtler but significant carbon footprint associated with outdoor clothing and gear.
In this article, we’ll run through some basic ways to implement a more sustainable hike, from selecting greener products to making responsible and ecologically sensitive decisions out in the backcountry.
Planning & Preparing For Your Hiking Trip
Let’s kick things off with what you can do ahead of actually hitting the trailhead in terms of pursuing a more eco-friendly hiking trip.
Outfitting Yourself Responsibly for a Hike
The kind of gear you bring (and wear) on your hiking trip is a major if often overlooked, a contributor to your environmental footprint.
Check out this video explaining what a carbon footprint is:
Two straightforward and related ways to lessen that footprint on this front are to (a) buy secondhand gear whenever possible and (b) use your clothing and equipment as long as possible.
When it comes to extending the lifespan of your kit, attempt repairs of damaged or worn items—sleeping bags, tents, boots, what have you—rather than immediately shopping for a brand-new replacement.
Assessing the Production Footprints of Outdoor Apparel & Gear
When shopping for the right gear, try to gauge the environmental and social costs involved in an item’s production.
Doing your research like this takes work—and, needless to say, it can be hard to trace all the systems at play in bringing that puffy to the rack.
But a little investment of time and effort in this way is part of being a conscientious outdoorsperson—and an acknowledgment of the vast web of environmental pathways our actions and preferences influence.
Look for designations such as Responsible Wool and Responsible Down standards or Fair Trade certifications, and support companies that provide detailed information on their footprint and what they’re doing to decrease it.
More and more companies in the outdoor industry are attempting to tackle this insidious problem, which is only a good thing. Higher-quality synthetics tend to release less, so think twice before buying the cheap stuff.
We’re increasingly aware of the disturbing amount of micro-plastic waste and pollution shed by synthetic fabrics such as conventional fleece.
Consider natural alternatives (while, of course, weighing their own associated costs) as well as synthetics produced from recycled plastic, which tend to have the lower raw material, water, and energy inputs—and send less material into landfills or ecosystem channels.
Front-loading washing machines tend to slough off fewer micro-plastics from clothing than top-loading models.
You can also invest in washing-machine filters to keep more of the micro-plastic waste out of waterways.
Miscellaneous Tips on Buying New Gear
In general with new gear, avoid single-use plastic and excessive packaging as much as possible.
Reusable water bottles are obviously a better choice than plastic bottles.
Select eco-friendly sunscreen, insect repellant, and other chemical products. In the cooking-and-eating department, seek out grains, nuts, fruits, chocolates, and the like in the bulk aisle rather than in prepackaged form, and maybe prep some of your own food for the trail with an inexpensive dehydrator.
From a waste-generation standpoint, meanwhile, a liquid-fuel camping stove is more sustainable than a canister stove.
Choosing Where—and When—to Go Hiking
Consider avoiding popular areas that are vulnerable to overcrowding, or schedule your visit for the off-season (if there is one).
Within a given recreational destination—a national park, for example—you can also steer clear of more heavily used hiking trails.
That said, in certain locations—such as a hiking area of small acreage set in an intensively developed landscape—one could argue concentrating hikers on well-trammeled routes preserves refuges for wildlife.
As with all of this stuff, context matters.
More visitors tend to translate to greater environmental impacts after all, including greater trail and trailside erosion and disturbance to wildlife.
Speaking of the timing of your hiking trek, abide by any seasonal closures: They tend to be in place to protect sensitive wildlife—such as nesting birds—or the natural environment itself, as when certain trails are closed during the wettest, muddiest time period to lessen erosion.
The same, of course, goes for respecting rules and regulations when it comes to areas permanently off-limits to hiking.
Sometimes such prohibitions are there to protect hikers themselves from unsafe terrain, but keep in mind that in many cases they safeguard especially fragile or rare vegetation communities, critical wildlife habitats, or other natural resources that could be threatened by human visitation.
Traveling to Your Destination
Your hoofing it along the trail may not involve much in the way of carbon emissions (excepting, of course, those generated in the production of your clothing and gear), but what about getting to and from the trailhead?
Choosing a hiking destination close to home is one basic way to minimize the greenhouse gases involved in traveling there.
After all, there’s a good chance your big backyard includes some fabulous hiking, even if big-name national parks or exotic international locales seem more intrinsically exciting.
The local forest preserve may not be your dream destination, but it’s likely to harbor plenty of off-the-radar magic.
Whether for the whole journey or (for farther-off destinations) at least part of it, consider bicycling or taking public transportation to your trailhead.
Support Local Businesses
Whenever possible, support the local economy during a hiking trip: shopping at local groceries and outfitters, hiring local guides, etc.
Among other benefits, this approach can (on a cumulative basis) foster more positive impressions of wildlands among local communities.
That, in turn, may strengthen or expand locally supported land-conservation efforts.
Think About the Size of Your Hiking Party
Solo hikes can be wonderful, but there’s no question that hiking with others is a sensible safety measure.
But group size is another important factor to consider when trying to make your hiking as eco-friendly as it can be.
All else being equal, larger parties can’t help but have a bigger impact along the trail: more noise (disturbing to wildlife), more trampled groundcover and scuffed soil, etc.
In wilder, more “pristine” locations, consider hiking with only a few companions to minimize impacts.
If you’ve got quite a few family members or friends eager for a shared hiking adventure, favor more developed locations with (if you’re overnighting it) designated group campsites.
Eco-Friendly Hiking Practices on the Trail
Now that we’ve covered some of what you can do ahead of time to make your hiking trip more eco-friendly, let’s talk about pursuing the most sustainable, ecologically conscious actions while actually hoofing it.
Much of what follows is an exploration of the Leave No Trace protocol.
Certain landscapes are more resilient than others when it comes to human impacts; best Leave No Trace practices can vary a bit depending on the specific natural environment.
To help you do your homework on this front, we recommend checking out the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics: a rock-solid resource for learning more about good techniques and decision-making for traveling lighter out in the great outdoors.
Hiking On & Off the Trail
In some places, hiking is only allowed on official trails. In others, off-trail hiking is allowed; indeed, cross-country travel may be the only possibility in particularly remote or undeveloped regions.
Where you can legally hike off-trail, the question remains whether you should.
This is another of many Leave No Trace judgment calls: Assess the number of your hiking party, the season, the size, and the geographic and ecological context of the area.
When you hike on a trail, actually stick to the path.
It’s tempting to detour around mudholes, fallen trees, or rutted sections, but that can damage trailside vegetation, increase erosion, and widen the trail tread (and thus its footprint).
And hike in the center of the trailway as much as possible, which means going single-file when you’re in a group.
River fords are common problem spots when it comes to off-trail trampling and manway establishment.
Where bridges don’t allow dry-shod river crossings, many hikers will tend to seek out their own spot to cross rather than where the trail indicates.
Now, sometimes this is necessary from a safety standpoint, as when the flow’s too fast, deep, or otherwise treacherous at the established crossing point.
But often enough the river at normal flow is crossable where the trail leads (especially if you’ve got trekking poles to aid you), and hikers shouldn’t bash around on the riverbanks looking for convenient log bridges or hoppable stones as an alternative.
Also, tempting (and well-beaten) as they may be, avoid shortcuts on switchback trails, which over time can have a huge impact in terms of erosion and vegetation destruction.
Right-of-Way on Hiking Trails
Right-of-way matters on the hiking trail, and besides the social etiquette and practical dimensions to this there’s an ecological one.
Stepping off the trail to allow another party to pass—as when hikers yield to mountain bikers or horseback riders, or when downhill hikers yield to uphill ones—should be done whenever possible on hardier trailside surfaces, such as bare rock, gravel, or hard, dry soil.
Avoid groundcover vegetation, mud, and other more vulnerable or impactful surfaces.
If you want to be extra careful about this, consider yielding to your fellow hikers no matter whether you’re traveling up- or downhill: That way you can select the best spot to step off the path, just in case the other hiking party doesn’t know their trail etiquette (potentially forcing an awkward—and trailside-trampling—mutual stepping-aside) or Leave No Trace best-practices.
Leave No Trace practitioners need to pay moment-by-moment attention to where they’re placing their boots when hiking cross-country.
Staying on durable surfaces is the main goal.
Such surfaces are either especially resilient to footfalls—as in the case of bedrock, boulders, gravel, or sand—or, as in the case of snow, they buffer more vulnerable groundcover below.
If you need to hike across an organic matter, choose duff or dried grass over moist grass or herbage, and grass/sedges over more brittle woody shrubs and sub-shrubs.
Riparian zones, lake and wetland edges, and alpine meadows and turf communities are examples of ecosystems particularly susceptible to footfall damage.
When fetching or filtering water from a streamside or lakeshore, make an effort to access it by the most durable substrate possible—rock outcrops, for example.
In deserts and other drylands, be aware that what looks like sturdy bare ground may be cryptobiotic soil.
Such biological soil crusts (or biocrusts), composed of lichens, fungi, and other organisms, are living communities extremely vulnerable to trampling.
On a cross-country hike in arid environments, learn to recognize and avoid biocrusts. Spread out when you hike off-trail at a party.
The single-file approach you follow on the trail isn’t appropriate for it, given the battering vegetation and soil takes from successive rounds of trampling.
Evaluating the Level of Human Impact on a Landscape
When traveling in the backcountry, assess its relative level of human impact to determine your own throughways and campsites.
In wildlands that have been long and well used, it’s typically better to utilize obvious manways and well-established dispersed campsites than blaze your own.
But in less-impacted, more lightly visited wildernesses, avoid using faint user paths or campsites to avoid perpetuating them.
If backpacking, consider relying more on elbow grease and rinsing than soap to do your dishes.
Good old-fashioned scrubbing goes a long way, and after all, you can always do more thorough dishwashing back home.
If you do use soap, choose a biodegradable kind and do your washing and rinsing at least 200 feet from any surface water source.
Doing Your Business (Ahem) in the Great Outdoors
Now, how about when (so to speak) Mother Nature calls?
In heavily used recreation areas, improperly disposed-of human waste is often a chronic (and, yes, disgusting) problem.
We’ve all probably seen (and tried to unsee) the wads of dirty toilet paper in the woods just off-trail or beside a campsite.
When it comes to No. 2, do your business at least 200 feet from waterways, trails, and camps, and in a cathole dug about six inches down and six inches across.
Mix the waste with soil and then fill in the cathole.
Better yet—and required in certain environments, such as snow- and glacier-scapes—double-bag and pack out your waste.
Toilet paper should always be packed out, regardless.
Oh, and lest you think No. 1 gets off the hook: In mountain-goat country, you should urinate well away from the trail and established backcountry campsites, plus the usual buffer-zone distance from water sources.
Goats treasure the salt in urine—not to mention human sweat—and particularly in popular alpine areas trailside peeing can bring them into close contact with people and encourage iffy encounters.
Campfires (or Lack Thereof)
Just about everybody loves a campfire out in the backcountry.
But campfires consume wood and leaf litter that otherwise provide habitat and nutrients, release carbon into the atmosphere, and can scorch soil.
Poorly tended or extinguished, they can also spark wildfires.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t ever have a campfire, but generally speaking, you’re traveling lighter on the land by skipping one.
It’s most eco-friendly to eschew a campfire if you’re camping in a locale where suitable fuel is naturally limited, such as a sparsely vegetated desert or timberline parkland.
If you want to build a fire in an appropriate setting, consider a mound fire or fire pan as a more Leave no Trace-friendly alternative to a blaze built directly on the ground.
Gather dead and downed wood (no thicker than your wrist) from a broad area, never hammering the supply in one particular spot.
Keep your fire small, and always have water and a shovel on hand to extinguish it.
Upon leaving your campsite, scatter cold ashes and restore the fire site to a natural-looking condition (easiest to do with the aforementioned fire pan or mound fire).
It’s hopefully obvious, but please comply with any and all fire regulations in place where you’re hiking.
When wildfire danger is high, or in natural areas where land managers are attempting to mitigate for heavy human impact, campfires may be (temporarily or permanently) banned.
Treating local wildlife with respect is part and parcel of sustainable hiking.
It’s thrilling to see wild animals out there on the trail, but don’t let your excitement—or your desire for a social-media-worthy picture—overwhelm common sense or basic etiquette.
Approaching an animal, more often than not, will stress it out; you may bump it from a critical feeding area, and force it to expend precious energy fleeing from your presence.
And, naturally, encroaching on an animal’s personal space may invite an aggressively defensive reaction—which can be downright mortally dangerous if said animal is something like a brown bear or moose.
Dogs & Wildlife
This is as good an opportunity as any to raise the topic of hiking with dogs.
No question that it’s a blast to hit the trail with your favorite pooch, but keep him or her under control at all times.
An unleashed dog that’s not under reliable voice command may chase and even injure wildlife.
There are also plenty of horror stories of free-roaming dogs, their courage very much vanished, racing back to their owner with an angry bear in tow.
Keeping a Clean Camp
Another way to protect local wildlife is to keep a clean campsite.
Everything from rodents and songbirds to bears may be attracted by camp odors, and food left unattended or poorly secured may be pilfered.
That’s annoying, sure, but it can also be detrimental to the long-term health and behavior of the scavenging animals.
Needless to say, it can also be dangerous: A bear drawn in by the prospect of your backpacking food, let alone a habituated one accustomed to raiding camps, may injure you or future hikers camping at the spot, and ultimately may need to be removed or killed by wildlife managers—the whole “a fed bear is a dead bear” deal.
In bear country, cook and clean well away from your tent.
Store your provisions in an approved bear canister or by stringing a stuff sack up off the ground in the appropriate manner.
Knowing Your Limits
We’ll close with an often-overlooked component of sustainable hiking and backpacking.
Obviously, you’ve got a personal investment in staying safe while tromping through the backcountry.
But coming to the wilderness with the skills, equipment, contingency plans, and all-around good judgment to minimize risk is not just about your own safety, but also the more environmentally responsible approach.
Why? Unprepared, foolhardy hikers are more likely to get into trouble: becoming full-on lost, twisting an ankle, etc.
In dire straits, you’re understandably less focused on adhering to Leave No Trace practices.
Bashing about trying to find your way, or being forced to light an emergency fire, you’re likely to have a heavier impact on the landscape.
And furthermore, if you end up requiring active rescue, those efforts will surely enlarge your overall footprint: by bringing a passel of searchers into the woods, for example, or in the form of the fuel and noise pollution represented by that chopper hauling you off the mountaintop.
Support for a Sustainable Future
Here are some great organizations to check out if you want to get involved in actionable campaigns to make a difference for the environment.
- Forests Forever: They have been defending California’s forests since 1989. Their efforts have rallied Californians over the years to protect the state's 17 million acres of woodland ecosystems and watersheds. They are involved in education, grassroots organizing, occasional litigation, and elections and advocacy. Learn more about the Forests Forever Campaigns.
- Soulful Concepts: Soulful Concepts is an accredited travel company that offers a range of responsible travel experiences that benefit the community and environment in their destinations. Their handcrafted travel experiences ensure that every trip they provide benefits a meaningful cause. Visit their website today to learn more about Soulful Concepts unique offerings.