Low Impact Trekking

By Mr. Everest

A Journey Beneath Dhaulagiri. Photo © Liesl Clark

A Journey Beneath Dhaulagiri. Photo © Liesl Clark

In most parts of the world, the higher we journey, the more rarified the air and pristine the environment. But in Nepal, that truth is changing. Twenty thousand visitors per year travel to the Mount Everest region, and thousands climb the 20,000 foot trekking peaks to catch glimpses of the world’s highest mountains. It’s imperative that we strive to leave as little impact as possible, and take steps to reverse some of the impacts left behind by others.

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This summer, we’ll be on our 13th journey through Nepal with our children, and feel fortunate to be able to share our work in the Himalayas with them, continuing the friendships they’ve established after 12 consecutive years of coming to this rugged country every spring or summer.  Exploring the outdoors brings joy to my 10 and 13 year old daughter and son and is integral to who they are.

Our children go on expeditions with us in Nepal.

Our children go on expeditions with us in Nepal. © Liesl Clark

My wife, Liesl, and I strive to pass on to them the 7 principles of leave no trace, established by the Center for Outdoor Ethics. I’ve added my personal insights and recommendations to the basic principles that you might find useful in planning for your next trip into the wilderness, whether alone or with your family and friends. The less impact we have on the environment, indeed even in our own backyards, the more readily our unique ecosystems and all the flora and fauna therein can thrive.

1) Planning your trip ahead of time and preparing is the first step. Take extra care to gain cultural knowledge of the behavior and the accepted norms of the country you’re travelling in. Learn about the environment you’re going into, whether it’s a pristine alpine wilderness or a heavily used high desert. Memorize which habitats are the most at risk and stay clear of them. Knowing this can make a difference in the choices you make for camping and recreating. Establish contingencies and have a plan in place for all contingencies.

Spinning prayer wheels in Kagbeni. © Liesl Clark

Spinning prayer wheels in Kagbeni. © Liesl Clark

Here are a few steps you’ll need to take in the planning phase that will greatly reduce your impact:

a) Get rid of all excessive packing of items you’re bringing with you. Remove the packaging from batteries, for example so you don’t bring that unnecessary paper and plastic (called blister packs that are not recyclable) with you.

b) Procure the right medicines and medical supplies for your trip. Remove the unnecessary packaging.

c) Bring maps and navigation materials like a compass or GPS.

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d) Set up the necessary insurance you’ll need in the event of a medical evacuation or helicopter rescue.

e) Where will your water sources come from? Please avoid plastic bottled water and plan to bring your own reusable water bottle to be refilled. Bring a Steripen for ultraviolet water purification, a water filter, or iodine tablets to treat your water.

2) Travel and camp on durable surfaces. For most trekking, you don’t need big heavy boots. You can travel in lighter trail shoes which don’t impact the terrain as much, causing erosion. Avoid going over people’s stone walls or walking through gardens. If you open gates, close them behind you. The point here is that you’re leaving no trace that you passed by. This is one instance where you don’t want to leave a big impression behind.

Sometimes travelling by foot is more reliable than by jeep. This jeep lost its fuel tank en route up the Kali Gandaki River. © Liesl Clark

Sometimes travelling by foot is more reliable than by jeep. This jeep lost its fuel tank en route up the Kali Gandaki River. © Liesl Clark

3) Have a plan for dealing with your waste:

a) If you’re in a National Park, use blue bags or something similar to pack out your own human waste. If you’re trekking, use outhouses. Otherwise, carry a small trowel or shovel and dig catholes. Carry your own toilet paper and burn it.

b) Carry out all plastics from your bars and all packaging from your food. A compression sack can do the trick to keep the waste in one place in your pack and consolidated.

c) Carry out the batteries from cameras and other equipment. These should be disposed of responsibly. Either take them home with you if you’re travelling in a country that doesn’t recycle them, or research where your nearest recycling facility is at the end of your trip. We stockpile all our batteries on our expeditions and bring them home.

d) Water: This might be the single most important step you take. Bringing your own reusable bottle saves the environment from hundreds of plastic bottles potentially littering the landscape. If others see you using a Steripen, a filter, or water tablets, they’ll see how easy an option it is. You can always ask for boiled water, but this water requires fuel to boil contaminants. A Steripen or hand-filter will mean you can get water wherever you want and it’ll be cold. It will also be free! I use a Steripen that has a solar charger attached to it so I’m not reliant on power or batteries to use it. Learn where the potable water stations are so you can support these efforts to stop people from buying bottled water.

Using a Steripen means we can have fresh cold water anywhere. © Liesl Clark

Using a Steripen means we can have fresh cold water anywhere. © Liesl Clark

e) When you’re on your way out, pay it forward by removing any waste you see in the environment. Especially if you come across potentially toxic waste like batteries or CFL light bulbs. These shouldn’t be anywhere outside, helping to remove these things and disposing of them safely, helps zero-offset your impact.

Removing a battery from a village water source. © Liesl Clark

Removing a battery from a village water source. © Liesl Clark

4) If you’re cooking on your own, be sure that you know where you should and shouldn’t have fires. Use local fuel that you can find easily and use those in substitution of wood fires.

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a) If you’re trekking where there are villages nearby, eating locally is a great way to reduce waste. The more local produce and indigenous food products you can eat from nearby fields and kitchens the less imported foods are needed to support your journey. We eat in homes and tea shops wherever we can in Nepal, where you’ll always find dhal bhat a Nepali dish of rice and lentils along with side dishes of locally grown vegetables.

Local Fresh Goatsmilk Yogurt in Kolapani. © Liesl Clark

Local Fresh Goatsmilk Yogurt in Kolapani. © Liesl Clark

b) Save your organic waste rather than throwing it outdoors to decompose. In some environments like the desert, even eggshells take an inordinate amount of time to break down. If you’re passing through villages, local farmers will be happy to take your stockpiled organics to feed to their stock animals (chickens, cows, yaks) or put in their compost piles.

5) Leave the natural environment as it is. Refrain from picking flowers or taking mementos from the natural world. Take only photos, leave only footprints.

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6) Be respectful of wildlife and don’t disturb any birdlife, mammals or any animals you come across.

7) Be respectful of other travellers using the same environment. The same goes for locals. Try to learn some of their language so you can greet them and ask a question. For starters, learning how to say hello, goodbye (often the same word), thank you, good morning, and counting to three will get you far. And, as in step #1, be aware of cultural norms.

9-hour day in jeep will put any 7-year-old to sleep. © Liesl Clark

9-hour day in jeep will put any 7-year-old to sleep. © Liesl Clark

Most of all, be in the moment and enjoy the journey, and where it takes your mind and heart.

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Zero Offset Vacation Days

Zero Offset Your Carbon-Heavy Vacation Travel with Days Spent at Sustainable Organic Farms. Photo © Liesl Clark

Let’s face it: Flying to Florida from Seattle isn’t the most carbon-free activity. But if we want to see Grammy, we have to go to her. She simply doesn’t fly.

Once we arrived in Florida, we dreamed up a few activities to help offset the jet fuel burn our family of 4 incurred. Hitting the beach, only 100 yards away, was easy — just throw a towel around your shoulders. But be sure to bring a bag for collecting plastics.

Plastics Retrieved En Route to the Beach. It's Easy To Do. Photo © Liesl Clark

Before reaching the beach, we filled our bag with lots of straws and straw sleeves found in juice boxes. Interestingly, we didn’t find too many plastics on the beach as I discovered, a day later, that 2 men drive along the beaches in a little golf cart with a trash picker and retrieve all the debris. I wondered why they couldn’t simply walk?

Here's one they missed. Sunglasses part on the beach. Photo © Liesl Clark

Every day, we filled a bag with plastics while walking along the sidewalks or shore. For our children, the incentive was finding something odd and different. A tiny working flashlight in the shape of an alien was the first day’s reward, then a cute plastic fish the next, and all types of plastic beach toys were recovered, too. We needed a shovel and it didn’t take long to find one. No lack of entertainment when you decide to do a bit of daily good and pick up the world’s plastics. And the Earth always gives back to our little scavengers in interesting ways. Plastic “swords” used in tropical drinks to hold fruit together washed ashore daily to the delight of my son, who started collecting them for his Lego characters.

McWashed Ashore. Sliced apples in a bag? Photo © Liesl Clark

The contents of a bag of McDonald’s apple slices found tucked in the dune vegetation became food for eager sea gulls.

Apple snacks. Courtesy of sea-borne McDonald's fare. Photo © Liesl Clark

In between hours of play amidst the waves and digging in the sand with our newly-found beach toys, it didn’t take much effort during our “plastics recovery” walks to fill a bag a day. If we all did this, just bent down and picked up the straws and plastic caps under foot, we’d feel like we did a form of good, helping to extract the plastics from our shorelines before they head back out to sea.

This leaf wasn't plastic, and it's a pleasure to see a stretch of sand that was plastic-free. Photo © Liesl Clark

But the greatest fun we had was visiting a local organic fruit grove. I spent a little time online and discovered a list of pick your own-type farms in our region and many are organic farms. We hopped in the car and drove inland about 16 miles to find an organic orange grove.

Get to know the places you vacation in a little better by picking local organic produce there. Valencia oranges are in season in February in Western Florida. Photo © Liesl Clark

The kids had never picked oranges and this experience is surely one they won’t forget. In the direct sun, the temperatures were in the 90s and we had to watch the ground for fire ants. With some long fruit picker poles in our hands, we ambled several rows of valencia orange trees into the grove and were overwhelmed by the sweet smell of orange blossoms.

Fruit Picking in Manatee County, FL. Photo © Liesl Clark

These fruit-laden trees grew in what loooked like pure sand, but they’re obviously getting the nutrients and water they need because the oranges are delicious and juicy. It took us 15 minutes in the hot sun to fill a 10-gallon bucket. And with the price of $10/bucket we walked away feeling we got the better end of the deal.

Bucket Full of Valencia Oranges. Photo © Liesl Clark

The children needed an ice cream cone to cool off, so we discovered another U-pick organic farm down the road. This one grew hydroponic strawberries — and we picked our fill of delicious sun-sweetened fruit.

Picking Strawberries at O'Brien Family Farm. Photo © Liesl Clark

And the ice cream cones, of course, were the perfect plastic-free end of day snack, a just reward for our zero offset vacation day efforts.

Ice cream cones are the original plastic-free treat. Photo © Liesl Clark

Vacations And The Allure Of The Simple Life

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Vacations are an opportunity to try new places, new lifestyles on for size, to see how they feel.

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We like to dream of living our everyday lives in the places we visit, and interestingly most places we spend time in, when vacationing, are deeper into the wilderness.

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These trips into the outback bring us closer together as a family.

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The children get to try new outdoor sports, like alpine touring on mountaineering skis and equipment, carrying their own backpacks filled with their chosen clothes for a few days.

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It teaches them a little about self-reliance and reliance upon us as their teachers.

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Our time in the wilderness is special for us, where we face the gambit of all emotions, together, while pushing ourselves to go harder and further than we thought we could.

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And we have time for silence together in the depth of the woods.

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The children learn how precious our time is spent together, the value of setting goals, simple ones, like getting to where we’re sleeping for the night.

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Just when you think that goal is not attainable: 6 and a half hours uphill to 10,450 feet and your own feet ache…

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You arrive.

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Hot cocoa comes quickly, along with a warm fire where snow is melting for water.

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Days are spent telling stories, far from the allure of social media and electronics.

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We create a magic together, a joy of simplicity.

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And slow way down, just enough to commune with the pinyon jays.

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We have family council out in the snow on the snow chairs the children make for us.

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The frosty air feels good for the soul.

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Thank you, 10th Mountain Division, for sharing the beauty of your mountain huts with us.

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We can’t wait to come back again soon.

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What simple pleasures do you share together as a family?