There are two sights that caused me pain while thru-hiking. The first is the bag that held my freshly purchased resupply now full to the brim with all the trash created just by me repackaging everything to fit in my pack. The second is that bag next to a full-to-the-brim motel trash can holding all the trash I created consuming my last resupply.
I generated so much more trash thru-hiking than I did in the regular world - a frustrating observation as someone trying to observe leave no trace principles both on trail and in regular life. Over the years, I’ve found some tried and true practices to be more mindful of my environmental footprint while thru-hiking. I’m certainly not zero waste, but they’ve made me feel endlessly better about my time spent on trail. All the swaps are economical and practical for someone on a thru-hike. In honor of earth month, read on for ideas to help make your post trip trash bag a little smaller.
Ditch daily baby wipe showers: At the end of every day on my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, I gave myself a baby wipe bath. It was a huge mental boost to wipe off the day's mud and grime, but it did mean a wipe ended up in the trash bag daily. For my second thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail two years later, I carried a small bottle of soap and a cloth. I did my end of day wipe down by pouring a tiny amount of soap and some water on the cloth, then leaving it to dry overnight. This also ended up being a lighter and cheaper swap - the cloth and soap weighed less than a packet of baby wipes and the bottle of soap would last me a month or two.
Ditch freezer bag cooking: I desperately didn’t want to have to do dishes on my first thru. I also felt like washing out my pot and dumping water with food residue, even while using biodegradable soap, violated leave no trace principles. My solution was to cook my dinner in freezer bags every night even though, to me, this truly felt like an egregious waste of plastic the entire hike. For the PCT, I cooked in my pot every night and just … didn’t wash it. Yesterday’s ramen flavor today's mac and cheese? No problem at all. While the no wash strategy might not be for everybody, there’s other alternatives - including the Buc, which didn’t exist when I thru-hiked the PCT but has now become my solution to this problem.
Avoid travel sized items: The urge to grab travel sized items sometimes overrode logic - sure you could get 10 individual containers of peanut butter, but if it’s the same amount of peanut butter as a jar of peanut butter, why not just get the jar and cut down on the plastic? I looked for regular sized items in things I knew I would get through in my next section or two, including peanut butter, instant coffee, or oatmeal.
Be less of a weight weenie: Could you buy a bottle of 15 Advil to get you to your next stop? Yes. Will you get through the 30 pill bottle pretty quickly as well? Also yes. The weight difference those extra 15 pills make is negligible and you’ll save money and trash getting the bigger bottle.
Use hiker boxes: If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of a hiker box, it’s essentially the hiker version of one man's trash is another’s treasure. You’ll find them in hostels, gear stores, and other thru-hiker hang outs in trail towns. Folks can leave items they won’t use for any fellow hiker to pick up. Got more Pop-tarts than you want for your next section? Put the extras in a hiker box. Want Pop-Tarts for your next section? Check a hiker box. Being both a hiker box giver and taker helps cut down on the amount of waste generated by a thru-hike, not to mention it also saves money!
Swap Smartwater Bottles for Vesicas: Hey, it’s a plug but a true one! I used Smartwater bottles over the course of both thru-hikes. I reused my bottle until I couldn’t, as I usually used one to drink from, and the bottle would slowly break as I used it to squeeze water through my Sawyer again and again. “Reusing” my Smartwater bottles still meant replacing them a couple times over the course of my hike, and likely throwing them away at the end. Vesica’s are endless reusable and meant to be squeezed, making them perfect bottles to drink straight from, if you, like me, want to filter water in the laziest way possible.
Got another tip? Share it in the comments so we can all work on backpacking in the most sustainable way possible!