Improving the Sustainability of Thru-Hiking

Though I felt immensely connected to nature on my Appalachian Trail (AT) thru-hike (an end-to-end hike of a long-distance trail within one season), I was disappointed by how environmentally degrading backpacking can be. I found countless coolers and campsites full of trash, and eating individually wrapped packets of ramen and Pop-Tarts generated an uncomfortable amount of waste. Unsure of how to marry my beliefs in environmental sustainability with my need for lightweight calories, I ignored my guilt and promised to do better next time.

After summiting Springer Mountain, I reached out to other hikers for ideas on making long-distance backpacking more environmentally sound. Though it’s nearly impossible to avoid creating some amount of trash, many hikers found that making mindful purchases, buying in bulk and adhering to Leave No Trace principles helped mitigate environmental damage.

  • One hiker bought some of his gear secondhand from the Backpacking Light forums and REI Garage Sales. Buying used and repurposing items is always more sustainable, and this is particularly true for hikers, as many follow the latest developments in clothing and gear. While there have been some undeniable revolutions in lightweight backpacking, looking at specifications often reveals that the newest models aren’t significantly different from their predecessors. Buying older, gently used models can prevent great items with a lot of life left from being wasted.
  • Hikers can reuse footwear as well; though most people wear trail runners, I hiked in Chaco sandals. Chacos can be resoled and restrapped, and I continue to use the same sandals instead of buying multiple pairs of new shoes. Boots can be resoled as well, though most long distance hikers don’t use heavy footwear.
  • Many backpackers avoid the problem of individual packaging by sending bulk meals to mail drops. This allows control over the ingredients and whether the items were sustainably grown and raised. Though packaging food ahead of time still often includes a lot of Ziploc bags, Minigrip GreenLine makes biodegradable versions that help minimize the impact.
  • Hikers can best protect both the environment and other people by following Leave No Trace Backpackers should always respect fire bans; though the wildfires that plagued the southern AT were not caused by hikers, the devastation demonstrated how vital it is to prevent fire damage. Hikers should always avoid creating new campsites and satellite trails whenever possible, especially in fragile ecosystems that cannot rebound quickly.
  • Avoiding certain areas during peak hiking times will help the trail and those who maintain it. The Appalachian Trail does not yet have a permit system, so the influx of northbound hikers to Georgia in March and April wreaks havoc on the forest and campgrounds. I began my hike in Maine to dodge the crowds and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy encourages people to consider a flip-flop hike starting in Harper’s Ferry. Such alternatives minimize impact on the forest and create a more enjoyable experience for those who don’t mind missing part of the socialization.

appalachian trail, nature, hiking, sustainability

Though hikers are some of the most resourceful people I’ve met, there is still room for improvement in the way we treat the environment. With research and some creativity, future generations will be able to hike these precious wilderness trails as they are meant to be enjoyed.

Read more Voices for Biodiversity articles about sustainability and conservation here!


Danielle ValaplanaDanielle Vilaplana is an avid hiker, bird-watcher, runner, and long-distance backpacker. She graduated from The Ohio State University with degrees in Anthropology and Globalization Studies and currently lives in Columbus, OH. She completed a southbound thru hike on the Appalachian Trail in 2016 and is preparing to walk the Continental Divide Trail in 2017.

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An online magazine connecting humans with the natural world to help all species survive and thrive together. Voices for Biodiversity shares the stories of eco-reporters from around the world, using the ancient human art of storytelling to connect people with each other, other species, and the natural world. Our goal is to connect the human animal with the global ecosystem.