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Eco-Friendly Travel

Simple Strategies that Result in Cost Savings for You and the Planet

Reading the popular press, you would get the impression that the key to reducing your travel impact on the environment is just to buy some carbon offsets and stay at a “green hotel.” The former involves donating some extra money that goes to planting new trees somewhere. The latter involves staying at a hotel that has often just announced a round of energy-efficient lights and wall-mounted toiletry dispensers.

Budget travelers, however, are already using far less resources than the upscale tourists going down the above paths. We are not boarding private jets using 10 times the fuel per person of a normal airplane, nor do we feel the need to tone down the wasteful energy of a typical Ritz-Carlton to feel less guilty. Overall, most backpackers probably use less fossil fuel in a year than the typical American at home uses in a month. Plus let’s be real, if you’re going to travel to Australia or New Zealand, you’re going to have to fly there on an airplane. Not many of us have our own sailing ship for navigating the globe.

That doesn’t mean your moves don’t have a controllable level of impact though, especially when it comes to small, everyday practices that can compound over time. Here are a few simple steps related to what you pack and what you buy, each potentially making a huge difference over the course of a few months or a year.

Water Purification

One of the most blatant ways nearly every traveler screws up the environment is in the repeated purchase of bottled water. On the one hand it makes sense: you are constantly being told to be wary of the local water supply in developing countries if you want to stay healthy. On the other hand, all that plastic is an environmental disaster, from the petroleum production phase to the eventual landfill disposal. Even in the U.S., only 23 percent of these plastic water bottles are recycled. Just imagine what it’s like in countries where there is no infrastructure to collect and process them.

The solution, which is not all that painful, is to carry your own purification system. My favorite by far is the Steripen Traveler, an amazing invention that purifies water using ultraviolet light. You just stick it into the water, let it do its thing for 60 seconds, and you’re done. Granted this item costs around $100, but it only takes a few weeks on the road for it to pay for itself in some countries and the only ongoing expense is a battery that lasts for months.

This isn’t the only option, of course. I’ve also used a water bottle with a built-in filter. Katadyn manufactures the most popular one, but there are others. With these your sucking motion pulls the water through the charcoal filter, putting purified water into your mouth. On the Inca Trail in Peru I used MicroPur tablets bought locally. These are like an advanced version of the old iodine tablets, without the nasty taste to deal with. These are cheap and effective, but the drawback is that you have to wait for a half hour or so for them to work their magic, whereas the other items act almost immediately.

Power and Batteries

In a perfect world we would all bop around the globe like carefree explorers, without being encumbered by a daypack full of electronic gadgets. But here we are, with many backpackers armed with more technology than an IBM lab had a few decades ago.

I’ll leave aside the arguments about being unplugged instead of tethered to home and just say that if you must indulge, do it responsibly. Make sure your camera has a rechargeable battery set and bring an adapter that will allow you to charge it overseas. If your camera takes AA batteries, bring a portable charger and the kind of batteries you can use over and over again. Otherwise that acid is going straight into the ground (or will get burned) every time you throw the old ones out. If you’ll be in sunny places, pack a solar charger for your gadgets. No, it’s not very fast, but a day on the beach will certainly do the trick.

Then carry a flashlight that either uses rechargeable AA batteries or an LED one that goes for years on one battery. Better still, pack a perpetual flashlight that works with just a 30-second shake or a crank. You can often pick up one of these for less than $15 and they will work virtually anywhere.

Buy Smart Travel Gear

I’m more than a little skeptical about hemp shirts, organic cotton, and parkas made from recycled former jackets and the like. Items like these are nice in theory, but if you trace back the supply chain and the manufacturing process on any of them, the company has used pretty much the same amount of energy to get the eco-wear to you as anything else in the store. Unless you are buying homespun cotton from a sweet lady living next to a plantation, lots of energy was expended to make and ship that travel gear to your doorstep or local gear store.

So if you really care about the impact of your gear purchases, buy quality items that will last. Forget what’s trendy and hip at the moment. Big gear conglomerate brands like Patagonia and Columbia have unfortunately become as fashion-conscious as Prada and Armani, rolling out three or four new lines per year. That doesn’t mean you have to fall for it though. Buy well-made items that fit well, jackets or hiking boots you will still like a year or two later, and wear them out before you get rid of them. My trusty Jansport travel backpack lasted me 10 years, with three trips around the globe and four shorter trips to distant lands. The pack seemed expensive when I first got it, but it was certainly a worthy investment.

Go Local

When it’s time to replace something in your wardrobe halfway through your trip, buy locally and donate locally. Pick up something manufactured where you are at the moment: less fossil fuel gets used up and you’re directly supporting the local economy. If you have a jacket, pair of hiking boots, or pants still in decent shape, make a donation to an appropriate local charity. (Your guesthouse or hostel workers can usually point you in the right direction.)

You can apply the same principle to food and drinks. Eat what’s seasonal and doesn’t have to be shipped halfway around the world. Note what’s easy to prepare in that region and make that part of your diet. Go for cocktails made from regional spirits instead of ordering a Jack and Coke.

One last way to help out: bring your environmental awareness with you and unpack it wherever you go. You know paying a deposit for returnable bottles of beer in a store is better than buying disposable ones: one less pile of litter. You’ll see untold number of plastic shopping bags fluttering in the bushes in most countries: avoid taking a bag if you don’t need one.

If carbon credit offsets and eco-friendly clothing make you feel better, by all means add these to the lineup as well. Meanwhile, a few easy steps can make a clear difference every day of your travels.

Click on the covers below for more on Tim Leffel's books and to order.
Travel Writing 2.0
Tim Leffel's World Cheapest Destinations
Tim Leffel and Rob Sangster's Traveler's Tool Kit