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  • Writer's pictureSarah Baxter

Walk the world, responsibly

Tackling a meaty trek is a wonderful way to explore, but how do you make sure you’re giving back as much as you’re getting from the experience? Sarah Baxter shares her essential insight (see also Sarah's feature on responsible trekking companies to consider for your next trip)

three people walking towards village
Walking in Kathdhara, India. Photo: Village Ways

Trekking can be the most rewarding way to travel: slow-paced, big-spaced, away from the crowds, immersed in the great outdoors. And it is, by its nature, a more sustainable way to explore. You’re travelling under your own steam, often in small groups, usually in remoter regions. But how can you ensure your footsteps have the lightest impact on the environment and the most positive effect on local people?


The key is to do your research. Know who you are travelling with and what that company’s principles are, which means asking your tour operator proper questions.


“Don’t just ask: are you sustainable? That’s too easy to just have the answer be ‘yes’,” says Christina Beckman, senior director of strategy and impact with the Adventure Travel Trade Association. “Ask: how are you a sustainable company? Have you invested in sustainability? How will locals benefit from this tour I’m considering?”

four smiling women sitting down
A group of women in Binsar. Photo: Village Ways

Ask how staff are treated. Are porters and guides paid fairly? Is information on climate change and environmental protection part of their training? How does the company invest in their future?


Ask what size your group will be. Large groups can overwhelm local communities. “Tourism needs to be small and empathetic,” says Gavin Bate from trekking specialists Adventure Alternative. “We try to not be part of the problem by not sending too many people to the same place.”


Don’t just rely on the company itself for answers. Seek testimonials from past clients too


Don’t be embarrassed to get into the details. Ask: Will I be given loads of plastic bottles? Is food sourced locally? Do you use biodegradable waste bags? Solarpowered lamps? Local transport?


Don’t just rely on the company itself for answers. Seek testimonials from past clients – a good operator will be happy to share that information. Research whether the company is a member of a carbon offset scheme or organisation such as 1% for the Planet (contributing at least 1% of annual sales to environmental causes). Has the company been evaluated by third parties such as the Rainforest Alliance? Is it a B Corporation?


“It’s pretty easy for companies to fake their sustainability credentials through their own marketing channels, so travellers need to dig beneath that,” says Gary Cohen, Intrepid Travel’s managing director for Latin America. “Consider whether operators have any reliable external certification, which is far more objective.”

woman touching a rhododendron
Huge rhododendrons on a walk in the Himalayas. Photo: Village Ways

A good way to lessen your impact is not to trek where everyone else is – to hike away from tourist honeypots and into areas where tourism can still bring considerable benefits. “The world is waking up to overtourism – look at those images of heaving trails on Everest and Snowdon,” says Megan Devenish, head of product expansion and sustainability at Much Better Adventures. “Instead, go off the beaten track as much as possible. Think about the experience; break the bucket list mentality.”


Of course, trekkers will always be drawn to high profile routes such as Kilimanjaro and Everest Base Camp. And there are some positives to come from popularity. “In the 1980s the numbers climbing Kilimanjaro were far lower but those people made more mess. Now Kili sees around 40,000 trekkers a year but the mountain is pretty clean,” says Bate.


But if you choose to tick off a headline trek, you still need to quiz your tour operator. “Going to Kilimanjaro? Ask about the company your operator works with in Tanzania – what is their relationship to them? Do they pay their staff well? Do staff get proper rest between trips? Ensure you’re going on a holiday that gives people economic dignity,” adds Bate.

person carrying wood above their head
carrying wood in Kathdhara, India. Photo: Village Ways

And compare prices. Paul Cripps is the founder of Cusco-based Amazonas Explorer, which takes people on adventures around the Sacred Valley and beyond – including the Inca Trail. “In Peru you get what you pay for,” he says. “If it’s cheap, you need to be asking questions.”


There are things you can do on a practical level, too. For instance, ensure your toiletries are biodegradable and don’t contain chemicals that will leach into the soil. Consider your use of trekking poles – they can be beneficial for your knees but damaging to the soil and vegetation. If you take them, use them only when needed, be mindful of where you plant them and consider fitting rubber tips to the metal ends.


Don’t litter – carry out rubbish you create and pick up other people’s rubbish too, if possible. And talk about litter, to keep the issue on the agenda. That means asking trek operators, hoteliers and restaurant owners what happens with waste, what their policies are on single-use items, and whether they have recycling facilities.


Learn about where you’re going to. Talk to the people – learn some language and don’t be afraid to try using it 

Take responsibility for your water consumption too. Ask your trekking company how they provide water to clients. And research how you can treat your own water – bring your own filtration bottle or purification system.

group of women dancing
Dancing at a Gonap village, India. Photo: Village Ways

At the end of your trek, consider donating any excess outdoor clothing or kit directly to your porters.


Perhaps most important is not to just trek though a place, but to interact and engage with it. Learn about where you’re going. Talk to the people – learn some language and don’t be afraid to try using it. Spend money on local crafts and at small, local-run businesses.


“One of my biggest peeves is seeing travellers treating locals poorly either in outright lack of respect or taking advantage of the beauty of their locations or cultures without any giving back,” says Beckman.


“Travel is a privilege, and people should learn while they are doing it,” says Cripps. “It’s all part of an environmental lesson. We show people places in order to help protect them; the aim is to create advocates for the planet.”


This article appeared in the October/November 2023 issue of the Green Traveller magazine.

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