Responsible Travel and the Environment

Responsible travel mattersGreat walks tend to be in special places, often with vulnerable or threatened environments and culture, and undeveloped economies. We describe below the possible risks that exist and what you can do, not just to help protect the environment, culture and economy of the areas you walk in, but to improve them.

Walking and hiking, when done thoughtfully, are some of the most responsible holidays you can take – they should:

  • have low environmental and cultural impact; and
  • create jobs and income for local communities, and contribute positively to the protection of their culture while supporting real, sustainable economic development.

But care is needed to ensure that your walk or hike is beneficial (or at least neutral) rather than harmful.  

We urge all walkers and hikers to work to:

  • adopt a low impact approach to your journey;
  • keep your cultural impact to a minimum, and avoid being intrusive or disruptive;
  • contribute positively to the local economy and the protection of the area’s environment and culture; and
  • avoid ending up as exploiters: try to give back and much as you get.

See what this means in practice below.  

Carbon footprint:  An aspect of walking and hiking that can be environmentally harmful is getting there. Obviously, the nearer home you go, the less impact your journey has. We hope that Walkopedia will help walkers and hikers to minimise the impact of their expeditions by giving information on a large number of wonderful walks around the world, many of which will be close to your home or to each other. Walkers and hikers can minimise the impact (reducing the carbon footprint) of their expeditions by:

  • choosing walks near home;
  • combining walks which are near each other, thus reducing flying and other travel impact;
  • travelling to and from their walk in as low-impact a way as possible (take public transport where possible); and
  • offsetting their emissions. 


1.                     The risks 

Almost by definition, you will be walking in unusual – even special – places, and these can often be vulnerable.  The following are some of the risks to an area’s environment, culture and economy of significant numbers of people coming to walk in that area.  Not all of the following issues will apply to all areas. 

Environment:  damage through littering, polluting (whether in the area or elsewhere through use of unenvironmental products), harm to wildlife and vegetation and erosion of the trails.
Culture:  pollution or undermining of indigenous cultures by visitors who behave badly, thoughtlessly, or needlessly assert “western” ways of behaving, thinking and doing things.

Economy:  underpaying or being accessory to local people not being paid fairly – or overpaying, which can itself distort the local economy.  Not contributing to the local economy by “buying local” where possible. 

Much of what makes an area’s environment, culture and economy special is irreplaceable, so there is only one chance to preserve them. We all need to contribute now

2.                     How you travel will make a difference 

Your attitude and behaviour: how you plan your expedition, and what you do when out there, is profoundly important.  As well as minimising damage, you can enhance the local environment, culture and economy.  This is discussed in detail below.  Please do your best! 

Expedition organisers: how these companies behave and what their priorities and methods are is more likely to affect the area and its people than the behaviour of individual walkers.  And you can affect how those companies behave: if enough walkers make it clear that they look for organisers who are genuinely committed to responsible travel and conserving (even improving) the area, and will select who they travel with by reference to these criteria, their minds will be focussed. 


3.                     What you can do 

(Note: not all the issues and suggestions discussed below will necessarily be relevant to any particular walk (e.g. US wilderness hike vs. “full monty” Himalayan trek vs. a stroll round Venice or Angkor Wat.)


A.                When planning and arranging your expedition

Questions for you:

·         What can you do to minimise the carbon footprint of your holiday / expedition?

·         Why do you want to go to this place? What are you wanting to achieve? Are there some ways of making the journey that have lower impact than others?

·         Will you stay locally and contribute to the local economy, or will you be bussing in to “bag” an experience, then speeding away, leaving no benefit for anyone?

·         What are the environmental, cultural and economic issues in the area you are going to: what can you do to minimise impact and actually improve these issues?  Is the area so delicate that you really shouldn’t be going at all? 

Choosing an expedition organiser: 

Research as wide a selection of expedition organisers as possible.  As well as your “obvious” concerns (what will you be doing, when and at what price; are they reliable?), look carefully at what they say about environmental and sustainability matters, and responsible travel. Choose accordingly. 

Remember that travel companies can make a positive difference, beyond merely avoiding doing damage - for instance by encouraging, and demonstrating the real (economic) benefits of, conservation, and actively supporting the local economy.  For example, some expedition organisers have actually created or restored walking routes.  And the Alternative Travel Group has played a key role in stopping beautiful, irreplaceable flower meadows being ploughed up and a windfarm built in one area of Italy.  They were able to use the influence and moral leverage they had developed to avoid these catastrophes to a unique area. 

If practicable (and if you are confident that they have the skills and approach you need), try to use a genuinely “local” expedition organiser or guide. 

Questions to ask your expedition organiser:

·         What are the environmental, cultural and economic problems in the area you will be walking in?

·         What problems can be caused by the expedition itself?

·         What do they do to minimise impact and positively contribute to the protection and enhancement of the local culture and environment?

·         What steps do they take to benefit the local economy where you will be walking, e.g. staying at locally owned hotels or guesthouses, eating local produce (at locally owned restaurants, if relevant), using local guides, support staff and animals, as relevant; what involvement do they have in local projects?

·         What do they pay their local staff (and for local services)?  Are these fair for the tasks undertaken (or goods or services provided) in the local circumstances? 


A problem is, of course, that it can be hard to evaluate the truth of answers to such questions until you are on the ground. You are, however, likely to get a “feel” from their responses and what they say about themselves; and you can report on the reality of their claims in practice for the benefit of future walkers.


B.                 Detailed preparations 

·         Think about what clothing and kit will be appropriate (and culturally sensitive) to the area.

·         Pack what you will need in order to travel responsibly, e.g. eco-friendly stuff such as biodegradable soap if trekking.

·         Prepare to travel responsibly. Read up about the area so you will be ready to do so.  (Print this page and use it as a checklist?)

·         Plan what presents (if any) you take. Remember, almost everything can be converted into cash (e.g. pens), so requests for such like can be disguised begging.


C.                When you are there

How you travel and your attitude will make a huge difference. 

“If we travel seeking only to be thrilled and entertained, removed from our mundane lives for just a few weeks as if in some kind of fantasy, we will experience little and do much harm. If, on the other hand, we travel with respect and openness, desiring to learn, adapt and share at every opportunity, not only will we travel lightly but we will return home so much richer, with understanding of a way of life that has many lessons for the Western world.”

Charlie Loram, in Trailblazer’s excellent Trekking in Ladakh. 

The following are things you can (should try to) do:

Environmental issues

·         Do not leave litter. Bury organic waste carefully (burn used loo paper). Take all other waste out. Try to leave the area cleaner than you found it.

·         Find out what recycling facilities are available (if any) and use them.

·         Don’t pollute the water (be especially careful about defecation).

·         Avoid harm to wild life (e.g. by feeding animals inappropriately or causing them to develop unnatural habits) or vegetation.

·         Take great care if lighting fires and use only fallen wood.

·         Minimise wear and erosion of the route and local soil.

·         Avoid bottled water (the plastic bottles are a real problem).


Cultural issues

·         Interact sensitively with the locals. Show interest in and respect for their way of life and customs.

·         Behave (and dress) appropriately to the area and its culture.

·         Avoid flaunting your relative wealth.

·         Do not encourage begging. (see above re: presents)


Economic issues

·         Use “local” (i.e. locally run and, if possible, locally owned) hotels/ hostels, restaurants, shops and other services.

·         Buy local food and other products.

·         Try to avoid overpaying or underpaying – both are equally harmful. If non-money economies exist, bring suitable items to exchange.

·         Ensure that all helpers are treated fairly – including fair pay for their task and the local circumstances. If you are using an expedition organiser, check their practices in this regard.

 Spreading the word

You can help to embed the message locally that environmental and cultural conservation matters, and that whether they are successfully managed will make a big difference to the sort of tourism they get and thus, directly, to the local economy.  Language barriers may hamper this (and guides can make a difference here), and you may find yourself wrestling with the conservation conundrum: getting the message across without being hectoring, pompous or pious – or implicitly condescendingly culturally superior. 

 Take some things for a local charity: see the clever

“How many times have you been travelling and visited a school or community or local charity that you would love to help? The school needs books, or a map or pencils; an orphanage needs children's clothes or toys. All things that, if only you'd known, you could've stuffed in your rucksack. But once you get home you forget, or you've lost the address, or worry that whatever you send will be stolen before it even gets there...”

That's what they are for: they list charities who need kit and would welcome some being brought.


 After you expedition, let us know of anything useful – tips (places or people to use/ link up with or avoid; things that can be done to help) or views (good or bad) on a particular expedition organiser. 

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