You May Think You 'Leave No Trace', But Do You Really?
By Di Westaway | Chief Adventure Chick at Wild Women On Top
I’ve been a hiker for nearly 20 years and I’ve always thought of myself as a “Leave No Trace” kinda girl. I love the wilderness, and do what I can to protect it. I always take my rubbish with me, and use wilderness wash instead of soap. That’s it, right?
A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of hiking with a woman named Elaine, a very experienced independent hiker who had a different take on “leave no trace”. This was a lady who made plate-licking not just politically correct, but compulsory. She taught us that the best way to do the dishes was to eat everything on your plate, lick it clean, and put it back in your pack.
She had a point.
One night, I made the mistake of rinsing my clean-ish laksa pot in a small pond high up on a lush, moss-covered hill. As I removed my pot from the water, the light from the sunset shimmered on the tiniest molecule of oil floating on the previously pristine surface. I had most definitely left a trace.
Guiltily, I looked up to see Elaine rolling her eyes at my carelessness. And this was the beginning of my slow journey towards not only leaving no trace, but leaving things better than I found them.
Hiking, by its very nature, is an environmentally friendly activity. We’re propelled along the trails by rechargeable legs, we camp without electricity, and we use less ‘stuff’ than if we were at home. If all goes according to plan, we take away only magic memories.
Hiking also shows us how to live with less, plan and prepare thoughtfully, survive on what we remembered to pack, be resourceful, work together for the greater good, and to treasure our water and wildlife.
But many of us, me included, hike in a way that may leave no trace on the trail, but not on the earth.
Here’s a few suggestions you might like to consider on your quest to become a more nature loving hiker.
Reduce single-use plastics
Zip Lock Bags
I used to use my zip-lock bags for everything from scroggin, nuts, veggies, dried milk, loo paper, tea bags, my phone, chocolate, snakes, and accessories as well as pee, poo and used tampons. They were one of my favourite things because they’re light, convenient and generally sealable.
However, as single-use plastics, they’re not very eco-friendly.
Now, I swap them for re-usable silicone bags, a Tupperware container or a wide-mouth water bottle. If I need one in an emergency, I will wash it and re-use it several times before disposing it.
Single-use plastic bottles are completely unnecessary on a hike. A good quality bladder (like a Camelbak) or a BPA-free plastic or metal water bottle will last you years. You can now get water bottles made from recycled or compostable materials. (Remember, use what you have before purchasing more, always!)
If you do get caught out having to buy bottles, you’ll be amazed how many times you can reuse and repurpose them. You can re-use a plastic water bottle for everything from head torch pouches and wee funnels to mini-pots or watering containers in the garden.
Cling wrap and foil
Another way to reduce single-use plastics is to wrap your lunch or meals in beeswax wraps, brown paper or use a container. If you can’t avoid the cling wrap, try using less.
Instead of buying travel-sized shampoo and soap, you could use a small bottle you can refill multiple times and simply decant from your supply at home. Nalgene have a great range of little bottles with leak proof lids. Alternately, you can re-use vitamin bottles, small jars etc.
Where you can, buy better
It’s hard to eliminate single-use things completely. I love the convenience of wet wipes, so I try to buy the biodegradable wipes and toilet paper.
It's great if you can use a cloth for washing your less dirty bits. I have a small fast-drying tiny towel that works a treat. Many a wild woman has snuck in a quick sneaky "sponge bath" in a mountain stream with a small cloth instead of wet wipes.
When it’s time for a wash, even if you’ve got biodegradable soap, you must put water into a pot and move away from the stream to take your bird bath. Then fling the grey water away in a wild spray, so it spreads out over a wide area (rather than directly into the water source), reducing the impact to the little plants and critters nearby.
You can’t use regular soap in the wilderness. It can pollute the water and damage the ecosystem. However, some outdoor suppliers sell all-in-one biodegradable hiking liquids, like Wilderness Wash, or bars. They’re not multi-use but they reduce the number of different bottles because you can use the same product for shampoo, soap, and dish washing.
However, washing dishes with soap is rarely necessary when you’re a wild woman. Incredibly, you can use sand and dirt to clean pots. It’s astonishingly simple. Clean your dishes as much as you can by eating all the food, or use a bit of toilet paper to wipe out any sauces or grease. Then, scoop up some wet sand, mud and/or grass mixed with dirt and add a bit of elbow grease and voila … all grease disappears. Dump the dirt away from water. Rinse in water only when you see that there is no food/oil left.
Reuse, recycle, repair
Like most of us, I struggle with this one… but I’m trying to get better.
We really don’t need the latest hiking gear and garments every season. High-end technical gear like over pants, backpacks, boots and raincoats can last decades if you take good care of it! I’ve got some fabulous Gore-tex mountaineering pants I’ve had for 20 years, and they’re still awesome. I’ve had them repaired and re-waterproofed, but they still work a treat.
Even base merino layers, socks, tights and undies can last years if you’re committed to repairing holes when they eventually spring up!
Patagonia have a repair all policy which even fixes gear made by other brands, so you’ve got no excuse
We can also buy, swap and sell with other wild women here. Some things might be in perfect condition, but you just don’t fancy the colour on you anymore. Someone else might love it.
Recognize and buy eco-conscious gear and attire
This is not always possible, but try to consider information about the materials, production and recycling when you’re next looking for new hiking gear or clothes. Look out for ethically harvested down, jackets made (partially or entirely) of recycled plastic bottles and similar products. Gear makers who do 1% for the Planet, such as Patagonia, are proud to show it and it would be great if we could all support them.