Is it Sustainable: Hiking

The frustrating part about discussing sustainability is the term itself, and how it means very different things to different people. It can also mean different things in different situations.

Applying the idea of triple bottom line balance as an anchor, let’s assess a situation where sustainability may be debatable.

My son and I are hiking in the Adirondacks, with the goal of hiking all the high peaks and becoming 46ers. We love hiking: the views, the physical stress, the unknown, the camaraderie, the mud, the flies, the sweat and sometimes tears. The scratches and battle stories.

And we feel some guilt. We live approximately two hours by car from the ADK mountain ranges, and typically we get up at about 4am, drive to a diner, eat a big carb and protein breakfast, and head to the hills. Using Noonmark Diner in Keene Valley as the talking point, this drive, for each mountain or two, is 210 miles round-trip. Even in our efficient plug-in hybrid uses five gallons of gas for this. Not very green, getting to the largest state park in the nation.

So what else is maybe not so green about enjoying the woods?

Bug spray. We have yet to find a truly effective non-DEET loaded spray. I tend to rely on low impact ones with eucalyptus oils and stuff, but I often only reduce my itchy angst. Sunscreen provides the same toxic laden issues.

Food. We still have plastic containers and bags specifically for hiking, as I will not hike with glass bowls! I wash and reuse, even the Ziploc bags, but it would be better to avoid plastic all together. And much of our hiking food is in single serve packaging. High-protein bars in all flavors and cheese sticks are easy to take in a backpack. We do try to take more whole foods each time, cutting up cheese and veggies and fruit, but the bars are easy and we rely on them.

Hiking itself. The wear and tear on the mountains is significant, and though summit stewards have made great strides in educating hikers about protecting delicate alpine vegetation, and about leave-no-trace practices, the sheer number of hikers is wearing down trails, packing earth and affecting the mountains. And many hikers are not being kind to the trails, attentive to other participants, or even safe. The ADK mountains have increased in traffic so much that there are constant discussions of limiting visitors. No clue how, but it’s a real problem looking for a usable solution. Maybe a hiker fee, a check-in mandate that tallies visits, a yearly fee, or more aggressively restricted parking. All of which could also create negative repercussions, such as limiting access to those who don’t have the fee yet who certainly have rights to forest and sweaty trails as much as I do, from my white bread suburban comfort zone. Mountains for all!

So is hiking undermining my calling 2bgreener? This is one place where sustainability is a complex issue, and many approaches deserve respect.

Would choosing to not hike be the greener choice? It is, if sustainability is just about energy use and materials use. When you balance cost, personal benefit and environment, it is not such a clear answer. Then introduce personal joy and benefit and it is a completely different story for each person.

My story – I benefit tremendously from the experience. I am stronger, more confident and happier. I gain so much from the hiking community, and my son and I have a connection that will last, given to us by the journeys up and down the mountain trails. I am more aware of nature, and of the issues facing my part of the world. I am more able and willing to weigh in when there is a policy issue affecting the ‘dacks, and a bit more informed when I read about oil trains and the freight line running past and through the area. I have seen erosion in action, and I now understand water flow differently. I appreciate the off-grid experience from staying at John Brook’s Lodge when we staged a few days of hiking, and can begin to understand how to approach living using less imported energy. These benefits are part of the sustainability balance, and we must consider them in any discussion of “is this a green choice”.

I will do what I can to clean up the trails as I hike, educate people as I learn, and support respect for our beloved ADKs.


Hiking the Haystack trail

I must improve. How will I work toward greener in my hiking adventures? I will continue to upgrade to more efficient and eventually zero emissions vehicles. I will carpool when I can by meeting up with fellow hikers at the diner, en route. I will buy and use whole foods and try to reduce toxic sprays and ointments. I will do what I can to clean up the trails as I hike, educate people as I learn, and support respect for our beloved ADKs. Finally, I will give back as an aspiring ADK 46er by pitching in on trail maintenance, telling my stories and connecting with people who are just starting out.

Sustainability is many faceted and never-ending.

See you on the trail.


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