8 Tips for Trekking Responsibly
Our “Sustainable Travel” series is sponsored by Global Basecamps. Global Basecamps is specialty travel company that helps independent travelers research and book locally owned boutique hotels, off-the-beaten path lodges and multi-day excursions all over the world. Whether hiking the Inca Trail, experiencing a traditional Japanese Ryokan, or relaxing on the beaches of Thailand, Global Basecamps specializes in designing completely customized itineraries to meet each travelers specific priorities and match their travel style.
Whether scaling the icy peaks of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, clambering the ancient Inca trail in Peru or tailing wild beasts on an African safari, trekking remains one of the most authentic and physically rewarding ways to discover the world’s sights. The back-to-nature principles of hiking and camping may be a hit with the eco-conscious, but thousands of walkers trampling through the countryside can still be damaging to natural eco-systems and local communities. These eight tips are aimed at reducing that impact; preserving the trails for future trekkers, supporting sustainable tourism and respecting local cultures and wildlife.
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1. Leave only footprints
Responsible hiking means leaving the environment as you found it: cleaning up after yourself and taking out everything that you brought in. While most hikers wouldn’t dream of throwing soda cans or food wrappers on the ground (although sadly, some still do) smaller items like cigarette butts, toilet paper or food scraps are often over-looked. Think ahead and minimize waste by removing excess packaging, utilizing reusable containers or stuff sacks and carrying a trash bag. Degradable waste and leftover food that may attract unwanted animals into camping or eating areas can be safely burnt and where camp toilets are unavailable, waste should be buried in a hole (around 15cm deep) and covered over.
2. Look after your porters
Many high-altitude climbs employ the use of porters, hired to carry luggage and camping equipment up steep mountain paths, a difficult task that none-the-less provides welcome employment opportunities to local villagers. Unfortunately, porters are all too often treated as mules, overloaded with packs weighing almost as much as their body weight, wearing flimsy sandals ill-suited for climbing and grossly underpaid.
Although often disregarded, porters are a crucial and hard-working member of the trekking team, without which many climbers would be unable reach their destination, so be sure to treat your porter with the respect he or she deserves. Pack as lightly as possibly and distribute heavy items between packs if traveling in a group; tip appropriately as many workers rely on tips to supplement a less than adequate wage and quiz your trekking company on their employment regulations before booking.
3. Respect the local environment
Tourist interest in the world’s most popular trails has done a lot of good for preservation and conservation efforts but crowds flocking to an area undoubtedly brings its pitfalls. Walking off-route or trailblazing down hillsides puts fragile landscapes at risk of erosion and while one person picking flowers, burning tree branches or collecting natural keepsakes may have little effect, the cumulative impact can be severe.
The trick is to become a passive observer, sticking to well-trampled trails, keeping a respectful distance from wildlife, burning only dead wood and resisting the temptation to remove rocks, shells or plants from their natural environment. Most importantly, encourage local communities to respect and preserve their environment rather than mining it for sellable resources – discourage souvenir-making from non-renewable resources, pass on your knowledge of endangered plants or wildlife and encourage trek guides and porters to follow suit.
4. Abide by the local culture code
Many of the world’s most enthralling landscapes are also home to indigenous or tribal communities, whose rituals and religions can be equally fascinating to the intrepid traveler. Whilst tourism brings wealth and employment to these oft-overlooked populations, it can also lead to a clash between traditional values and western ways.
It’s a trekker’s duty to be sensitive to these local cultures and educate themselves beforehand on acceptable behavior, appropriate dress codes and local customs. Remember to ask permission if you want to take photographs and respect their right to refuse. Refrain from the urge to distribute ‘gifts’ to poorer residents – even this seemingly innocent gesture can encourage begging and create a distance between locals and tourists. If you have a genuine urge to donate, consult with your trekking company or the village elders for advice on distributing supplies or cash donations.
5. Practice responsible sight-seeing
Many treks pass through scared areas or places of religious importance and while many westerners may visit for alternative reasons, it’s important to do your research before heading out and respect the associated traditions, taboos or customs. Whether it’s covering yourself with a scarf and removing your footwear to enter shrines or temples, receiving a blessing to cross into aboriginal territory or valuing the rights of pilgrims trekking to holy sites, there are a host of obligations to consider that may not be immediately obvious to visiting westerners. Disrespecting these ‘rules’ is not only offensive to locals but may even be against the law in some countries. If you are unsure, watch what the locals do and don’t be afraid to ask your guide or other visitors for guidance.
6. Watch out for water pollution
Streams and rivers on-route may seem like a great place to bathe, do laundry and wash up your cooking equipment, but be aware that they are often the main water source for local villages as well as wildlife. To avoid contaminating water supplies, pack refillable or collapsible water bottles or pouches, carry supplies back to your camp and dispose of dirty water well away from streams or rivers. When going to the toilet, make sure you are 100m from the water edge as disease is quickly spread by waste draining through into the water.
7. Support the local community
Sustainability is key to responsible tourism and the best way to encourage long-term growth is to support local companies and use services provided by locals. Consider hiring local guides and porters, even when you might prefer to trek independently – not only will you benefit from their insider knowledge, but you’ll be creating employment for and building connections with locals. Correspondingly, spend your money on locally made souvenirs, stock up on food at the local market and buy camping supplies from local stores.
Book treks with reputable local companies wherever feasible and if booking through an international company, look for one that is sustainable and puts money back into communities as well as creating jobs. Don’t be afraid to quiz them on their policies: how much of your money will go to local communities; do they hire local guides; do they have any schemes in place to preserve the local environment? A good tour company will be honest and transparent in their answers, and should be more than happy to share their knowledge with potential visitors.
8. Pass on the message
Most importantly, spread the word. Share your tips and knowledge with other travelers and friends back home and listen to their own advice too – the best route to change is through exchange!
Whilst trekking, call out other trekkers that you see littering or damaging the environment and politely explain to them the error of their ways. Encourage local companies and guides to adopt eco-friendly and sustainable initiatives by showing them that westerners are concerned about these policies – changes will soon be made even in countries where there is little concern for the environment if it’s thought that this will attract more customers to their company.
As a member of the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistant Project, Global Basecamps works to secure fair treatment of all guides, porters, and staff trekking in Tanzania and throughout the world. All their treks are sustainable, the staff and guides are treated fairly, and profits help support the local community.For example, Global Basecamps’ Tanzania tours directly benefit local communities in Arusha and Lake Manyara by providing financial support to primary schools and supporting local orphanages. Further, Global Basecamps’ Tanzania safaris and Kilimanjaro treks are led by expert local guides who are well-paid and receive a variety of benefits.
Read more about sustainable travel:
- How to Travel Responsibly on a Budget
- 8 Secrets to Guilt-Free Travel in Developing Nations
- 10 Tips for More Eco-Friendly Travel
- 5 Ways to Experience Sustainable Travel