Thru-hiker trash

5 Rules to Reduce Waste on the Trail

A thru-hiker’s best tips for decreasing your garbage


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Planning for a long hike is a series of decisions that all entail compromises. High-quality gear, for instance, might not always be the cheapest. The most spacious tent might not always be the lightest. As you ponder ways to slim your footprint on trail, keep these simple rules in mind.

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Get Gear That Lasts

On the Appalachian Trail, I wore Hoka One One Speedgoats and went through seven sets. For the Pacific Crest Trail, I did more shopping around before settling on the Topo Ultraventure 2. Not only do they fit my feet better, but thanks to their wider toe box and rugged Vibram soles, I wore through only three pairs despite 400 additional miles of trail. All new gear necessitates a chain reaction of waste—think about a pair of shoes’ packaging, or the unseen scrap back at the factory. Treat gear as an investment, so that your dollars last a little longer, and you’ll generate less waste, too.

Purchase (and Sell) Secondhand Gear

As a recovering packrat, I’m here to admit you don’t need every piece of gear you ever buy. It’s OK to realize that a sport isn’t for you and find a new owner for its accoutrements. It’s OK to admit that your body has changed and what once fit now makes you look like an Oompa-Loompa. It’s OK to want the newest and the best, too; just find a store that can get that gear to someone else at a better price. And before you buy new, check the physical and virtual racks for someone’s seconds.

Stop Reaching for Tiny Servings

In Snoqualmie Pass, Washington, where the Pacific Crest Trail intersects with Interstate 90 near Seattle, grocery options are comically limited—a few convenience stores, a couple restaurants, a travel center. You do what you have to do to keep going. But while grabbing an eight-ounce block of Tillamook cheddar, I watched another hiker gather ten three-quarter ounce bars of the same cheese, each individually wrapped. It cost at least twice as much for less cheese and generated ten separate pieces of trash to my one. When at all possible, buy the larger package and, if need be, split the rest with a friend.

Buy in Bulk and Ship to Yourself

A confession: I am the doofus who buys a plastic disposable razor in town, uses it once, and throws it away. The same goes for shaving cream, shampoo, soap, and the like. In the future, I’m going to change that with a bounce box, a cache of goods like larger shampoo bottles or reusable razors I can repeatedly mail to myself as I hike between trailside post offices. The upfront cost of Priority Mail is daunting, but you’ll save in town. And you can always split the real estate with a hiking buddy, if you’re not filling it full.

Use Hiker Boxes and Reuse What’s Available

Sorry to repeat myself, but hiker boxes are magic. Troves of extra gear, food, and accessories other hikers didn’t need, hiker boxes have stopped me from buying cellphone charging cables, water-filtration parts, and even shoe inserts. They are not only a way for hikers to give one another a boost but to circumvent the stream of endless landfill fodder. Before you buy something, check a hiker box. And before you trash something, ask yourself if there’s any way it can be salvaged or even scavenged for parts—if so, find the hiker box.

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