How to Reduce your Impact from Traveling
One of the simplest ways to reduce your environmental impact can be to just to stay put. Most forms of travel, whether it be flying, driving, or even public transportation does have a negative impact and the more you move around in these things the more of a negative impact you’re creating. For those of you who are already doing your part to live more earth friendly at home, you may find that traveling challenges your ability to do so. At home, you may have things figured out already like where to get local organic food, your water purifier, you may have your bicycle to get around on, and have energy saving bulbs and water efficient faucets installed in your home. But once you leave your home and your routine behind for a new destination, you may have to start from scratch with everything that you’ve figured out. On the contrary though, I’ve actually found it possible to live even more environmentally friendly when traveling then when at home.
This guide will go through all the basics of how to reduce your impact from traveling. You might not be able to apply it all to every adventure but most if it is applicable to just about any adventure. If it’s not applicable you’ll have to ask yourself which is more important to you, reducing your impact on the earth, humanity, and the other animals that we share the earth with or your personal enjoyment and motives. You are free to decide whatever you like and I’m here to help those of you who desire to travel and do it in an environmentally friendly manner.
The biggest part of your carbon footprint from traveling is likely to be your flight. It’s easy to overlook a flight because it’s a relatively easy task and it happens fairly quickly. However it is by far one of the more Earth destructive ways to spend our time. So one of the biggest ways to reduce your impact from traveling is by not flying. Instead choose a location that you can get to by land or sea and take vacations closer to home. You can also reduce flying by doing meetings via webcam, and combining trips.
If you are going to fly though here are some must do’s:
Fly economy. Who the hell are we to think that we need a ridiculously comfortable and spacious seat while flying previously unimaginable speeds through a miraculous metal tube? In the past it would take arduous months to get places that we can be to in a day in comfort. We could at least have some sanity and consciousness to just suck it up for a short time in the sky. This would mean drastically more efficiency as the plane can fit that many more people.
Avoid short flights. Taking off and landing use a lot more fuel than flying at altitude so short flights have a proportionately higher carbon footprint. Just give up short flights all together.
Offset the carbon. If we can afford to fly than we can afford to offset the flight. I recommend using the The Gold Standard, which is the highest standard of carbon offsetting. Their are a lot of crap companies out there and I think we can trust this one. Flying round-trip across the United States will cost you about $30 to offset. I actually go as far as to offset my carbon 3x. See how I’m taking responsibility for my flying habit for more on that.
Now on to transportation once you are actually at your destination.
Take public transportation, especially trains and buses. This is a far better alternative than driving your own car. Taxis and car share programs have less of an impact than having your own car but I recommend choosing trains and buses over taxis. Even more ideal than a taxi is using an electric car share program. See Sharing in the United States: Sharing Economy Websites for a list of car share programs.
Walk. Simply explore your destination on foot. It’s a great way to reduce your impact, save money, and get in touch with the communities or land that you are traveling to and through.
Ride a bike. Bringing your bike on your travels is a magnificent way to cut back on your impact because it will mean being able to bike everywhere and avoid fossil fuel powered vehicles. If you don’t bring your own bike then check to see if the city has a bike share program that you can use while you are there. Or if your traveling to another city for an extended period of time just buy a used bike on craigslist and then sell it before leaving or give it to a child in need. If you get a rack and panniers or a trailer for your bike you’ll be able to carry all of your stuff as well and run errands. You could also rollerblade, roller skate, or skateboard!
See my Guide on how to reduce your impact from getting around for more on transportation.
Travel with Less Stuff
I find that the less stuff that you travel with, the easier it is to travel earth friendly. First off it means less fuel being burned on the flights, (minimal, but it’s something) but more importantly, it makes it easier to take the less impactful option. With a smaller bag, it’s easier to hop on the bus or walk and the need for a private car is less. Or with less stuff you can rent a compact car rather than a large vehicle. I’d recommend traveling only with a carry on bag. Most of what we think we need, we don’t, and the benefits of traveling light are pretty great.
Lodging is another big one when traveling. I used to love staying in big fancy hotels; I think I found a large amount of comfort in prestige in them. But I’ve given them up almost completely and really don’t enjoy the rare times that I end up in one. It’s just too hard to live in an environmentally friendly manner when staying in one of these places because it goes against all of their grains to do so. My first recommendation is just to stay away from big hotels, resorts, and corporate businesses completely.
Rather, I’d suggest finding lodging that is more of an eco-destination. If you want a hotel type experience then I’d say go for B & B’s or small hotels that strongly aim to minimize their impact on the environment and have a connection with the community they are in. Ideally a local owns the place and all the money stays in the community. When money is involved there is often a lot of waste involved, whether it be a ridiculous amount of sheet washing, one time use bottles of soap, the AC always running, etc., so that is another reason to avoid businesses for lodging.
Even more so I’d recommend you don’t stay in a business at all. There are millions of vacant rooms and houses in the USA alone and we have far too many hotels popping up all over the place. Houses can serve as both a house and a guest lodging so the space is much more wisely used. A great way to stay in a home is to use websites like airbnb.com or where you can rent out entire homes or apartments to yourself or just a room in a house. One of the great benefits to staying in a house is that you have access to a kitchen, which means you can prepare food at home. This makes it easier to eat healthy food that you get at the local market!
To take it even a step further I’d say make it a goal to not pay for a place to stay at all in most of your travels. Stay with friends and family or use sites like couchsurfing or Warm Showers to stay for free with hosts around the world. Or go from organic farm to organic farm and work there in exchange for lodging and farm fresh foods. See my guide on how and where to sleep for free for a lot more tips on this.
Eat a primarily plant-based diet. This means a lot more veggies, fruits, grains, and nuts and a lot less animal products. The simplest way to reduce your impact from food whether traveling or at home is by eating a plant based diet.
Carry your own plate and utensils so that you avoid disposable items. Bring your own reusable to go container to restaurants as well and ditch the throw out containers.
Buy local food. Eat whatever is grown in the place that you are visiting. Don’t travel to a destination just to eat what you eat back home. And just because the locals are eating it doesn’t mean that it was grown there. We live in a globalized world and there are many people all over the world that eat globalized food.
Support local and organic farmers. Seek out the small local growers who are stewards of their land. Farmers markets are a great way to do this.
I have a lot more suggestion on how to reduce your impact from food and I suggest reading my guide: The Planet Friendly Diet if you’d like to learn more.
I’m going to put this straight out there. You don’t need bottled water. No matter where you are visiting you do not need to be buying bottled water. Instead, bring a water purifier and purify tap water. Or if you are traveling through nature you can purify the water right out of natural sources. The technology truly exists so that you do not need to support bottled water companies and their often destructive and unfair ways of going about getting that water on the shelf. You can get a great water purifier for $20 that will create water equal to or better than bottled water and it will save you a ton of money. Besides bringing a water purifier you’re also going to need to bring a reusable bottle as well. Bring this with you everywhere and fill it up. In many places you don’t even need to purify it first.
Beyond that I would say just be very conscious about your water consumption wherever you go. Especially if you are visiting a place that does not have an abundance of water. It’s kind of uncool for us to roll up to a place where the locals only use five gallons of water per day and then take a twenty-gallon (10 minute) shower. See my guide on how to use less water if you want to learn some very simple ways to use less water.
Let’s talk about trash here. Recently I was traveling through Peru and I was blown away by the amount of trash that was littering the countryside and the roadside. I felt a bit appalled but then I felt even worse when I realized that I was actually responsible for that trash. No, I hadn’t put any there; the trash I created was safely put away in a trashcan. What I realized though is that this trash I was seeing was the trash from houses and businesses and it was coming from their trashcan. You see there are many countries that don’t have proper waste disposal services and the little hotel might just take that trashcan from your room and dump it in the street, on the outskirts of town, or even in the river. Even the landfills in many countries are poorly managed and the garbage ends up flying into the sky and eventually in the waterways. And when I say “proper waste disposal services” the thing is that there are very few places, if any, that have a truly proper waste disposal system. Landfills are just a hole dug into the earth for us to put our crap in. That’s far from proper.
With that thought in mind the best thing to do is to not create any trash in the first place. In order to do that my top five tips to create less trash when traveling:
-Carry a reusable bag, dishes and utensils, and a water bottle.
-Buy all unpackaged food. The market is a great place to do this.
-Say no to any disposable or one-time use items.
-Compost all of your food scraps. This is much easier done by staying at conscious destinations.
-Recycle. This one’s a no brainer but just make sure you never throw something in the trash if it can be recycled.
Here’s one idea to really help you stick to your guns if you’re serious about reducing your impact when traveling. Vow to take every piece of trash that you create home with you. Then the burden will be placed on you and you’ll have an un-selfless reason to reduce your trash creation. See my guide on how to live a near zero waste life for more tips.
Most energy is created by fossil fuels around the world. So when we leave the lights on when we’re not in the room it’s really not that different from leaving our car running in the streets. Both forms of energy come from the same source. The simplest way to reduce the energy we use while traveling is to really be conscious and pay attention to where it’s being used. When I walk into a place I’m staying I’ll immediately unplug everything from the walls so that no energy is being wasted on my behalf. I also travel with very few electronic items and even often carry a small solar panel to charge up the little I do have. The less you need that uses electricity the smaller your impact will be and the more free time you may have to explore the land you are visiting. See my guide on how to use less electricity for more tips.
I started this guide by saying one of the simplest ways to reduce your environmental impact can be to just to stay put. But I also explained the opposite, that I’ve actually found it possible to live even more environmentally friendly when traveling then when at home. So here are a few ideas of how you can actually travel in a manner that you can feel ridiculously good about and possibly live in a more earth friendly manner than you do at home:
Go on a long hike! You could hike the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail in the US for example but there are a lot of trails you can hike all over the world. When you’re out in the woods you won’t have to worry about consuming resources and when you come home you’re life very well could be changed forever.
Do a cycling tour! On my cross country cycling trips I’ve met people of all ages and physical capabilities on their own cycling trips. 70 year old men and women, youth in their teens, and even very obese people have proved to me that cycling trips are accessible to more people than I’d ever thought. And staying with WarmShowers hosts is a great way to keep a cycling trip affordable and eco-friendly. Check out my book, Dude Making a Difference if you want to read an exciting cross-country travelogue.
Go WWOOFing! Travel from organic farm to organic farm working on the farms in exchange for lodging and organic food. This is an excellent way to expand your horizons and be of service to others at the same time.
That should be quite a bit for you to think about and implement. It is a lot, but I don’t recommend getting overwhelmed. Instead, get excited about making positive changes in your travel routine to not only decrease your impact on the environment, but also possibly increase your positive impact on the communities that you visit.
For more traveling tips check out:
My book: Dude Making a Difference (100% of my proceeds donated to nonprofits)