Conservation Currents | Bring Leave No Trace Home

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, Conservation & Advocacy Director Betsy Robblee shares tips to lower your carbon footprint off the trail.
Betsy Robblee Betsy Robblee
Conservation & Advocacy Director
October 26, 2021

I had a light bulb moment this summer when I got back from a backpacking trip.

I arrived home and immediately turned on the air conditioning, took a long shower, and ordered a bunch of Thai food. Earlier that day, I’d been perfectly content tolerating the heat by dunking in a stream to cool off, throwing on a hat to hide unwashed hair, and eating the last bits of trail mix to avoid wasting food. I began to wonder why I’m perfectly happy living out of a backpack on the trail, but my resource consumption spikes once I get back in my car and drive home? How could I incorporate some of my backcountry practices into my frontcountry life and lessen my carbon footprint?

Reducing our impact on the environment has been a core part of The Mountaineers since our inception. In our current strategic plan, Vision 2022, The Mountaineers committed to do our part to exemplify sustainable practices and address climate change by reducing our organization’s carbon footprint and educating our community. The term “carbon footprint” refers to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the activities of a person or organization, such as purchasing goods, transportation, heating and cooling buildings, etc. Over the last three years, thanks to generous donor support and passionate volunteers, we’ve made progress towards this goal by installing solar panels on the roof of the Seattle Program Center, replacing hundreds of old light fixtures with more efficient LEDs, publishing our books on recycled paper, and hosting virtual educational events.

We can all take many small and large actions to reduce our individual carbon footprint. Fortunately, as seasoned practitioners of Leave No Trace principles and recreationists who are accustomed to carrying everything we need on our backs, Mountaineers are already well-prepared to bring these low-impact skills into our daily lives. By becoming more aware of our impact on the environment both in the backcountry and in our neighborhoods, we can all live a little lighter on the earth.

Think like a backpacker at home

Consider transferring some of your resource awareness to your life off-trail. I know that I think twice about throwing an extra shirt or bulky food items in my pack, and I definitely have a much lower bar for personal cleanliness in the backcountry than I do at home. Here are a few ways you can incorporate low-impact practices from the backcountry into your frontcountry life:

  • Embrace the weather. Just like you do in the mountains, if it gets chilly at home throw on a sweater or snuggle under a blanket instead of turning up the thermostat. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, heating and cooling accounts for about half of home energy consumption. A couple degrees can make a big difference in your overall carbon footprint.
  • Tolerate a little dirt. While bathing at home isn’t nearly as scenic as a dip in an alpine lake, think about how you might bring some of your backcountry hygiene practices home. Skip a shower from time to time, take shorter showers, wear your jeans again before washing them, and conserve toilet paper. But for the sake of your family and friends, maybe don’t take this one too far!
  • Reduce single-use plastic. In the backcountry, we often replace single-serving bars, trail mix, and instant coffee with bulk options. If you use freeze-dried meals, save the bags (you’re packing them out anyway, right?) and recycle them using services like TerraCycle and Ridwell. At home, reuse food containers, buy in bulk or direct from local farms, and drink tap water instead of bottled.
  • Don’t be a gear junkie. It can be tempting to buy the latest, lightest, most advanced outdoor gear, but all that consumption comes at a cost. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 42% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are caused by making, transporting, and disposing of materials. Instead, buy used gear (REI garage sales and local gear shops are good sources) and borrow items from friends. The same idea applies to other consumer items: check Goodwill, Craigslist, or OfferUp before you go out and buy something brand new.

Big changes, big impacts

According to a 2017 study in the Environmental Research Letters journal, the five highest-impact ways to reduce your carbon footprint are having one less child, living car-free, avoiding one transatlantic flight, buying into green energy, buying a more efficient car, and eating a plant-based diet. While some of those actions depend on your personal values and financial situation, outdoor enthusiasts can consider the following:

  • Carpool and bike more. Transportation is necessary to get ourselves to the mountains and shorelines we love to explore, but it’s one of the biggest sources of carbon emissions. Carpooling, biking to work, taking public transportation, and purchasing an electric vehicle can all go a long way toward decreasing your transportation footprint. In Seattle, the Trailhead Direct bus service can take you directly to hiking trails in the summer. Make it an adventure: how far can you get under your own power
  • Travel local. Traveling by plane contributes significantly to your carbon footprint, so vacationing local can be better for the environment. For many of us, this might be an easy way to cut our emissions - the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest can make it hard to leave! Tackle the Bulger List or go for the Snoqualmie Peak Pin instead of vacationing abroad.
  • Eat less meat. Despite how tasty a burger can be after a long weekend outdoors, animal products are responsible for 75% of greenhouse gas emissions in the average U.S. diet. You don’t have to give up every post-hike burger, but reducing your meat consumption can have a big impact on your carbon footprint - and your health.
  • Go solar. In just one year, our solar panel system on the roof of the Seattle Program Center saved 65 metric tons of CO2 emissions, or the equivalent of 14 passenger vehicles driven for an entire year. If you have the financial ability, investing in solar panels, installing a heat pump, or purchasing energy efficient appliances can significantly reduce your emissions.

Advocate for change

There’s no shortage of ways to lessen your impact in the backcountry and at home, which can make it easy to get stymied over what actions would make the most difference, or obsess about every car trip or energy bar wrapper. It’s best to do a little bit of everything, try things out, and make it fun. Don’t let “perfect” be the enemy of progress.

Finally, some of the most important actions Mountaineers can take to address the climate crisis don’t cost a dime. Contact your legislators and ask them to pass legislation to tackle climate change. Subscribe to our Conservation Currents e-newsletter for opportunities to help protect our natural spaces. Vote for candidates that prioritize climate solutions. Talk to your friends and family about climate change. Go to a protest or a letter writing party. The climate crisis is a global problem that requires national and international policy change, and your voice matters.

Whether it’s carpooling to the trailhead a little bit more often, buying a used backpack, or calling your senator, we can all be part of the solution and protect the places we love.

Learn more about what The Mountaineers is doing to decrease our carbon footprint, and find resources to help lower your own, at mountaineers.org/carbon-footprint-reduction-committee


This article originally appeared in our Fall 2021 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our  magazine archive.

Lead image by Rafael Godoi.