Outdoor recreation is incredibly healthy and is one of the most fun ways to maintain an active lifestyle. But it’s also important we think about the natural environment we’ll be recreating in, and be aware of ways we can contribute to its sustainability.
The US Forest Service (USFS) recognizes both needs:
“The benefits to American society that outdoor recreation provides are needed more today than ever before. America spends $2 trillion dollars on crisis medical health care…Physical activity is an integral part of a healthy lifestyle, and outdoor recreation is the natural solution—a disease prevention solution—and part of the nation’s existing wellness infrastructure”
“Unmanaged recreation has contributed to degraded recreation settings, damaged
heritage sites, unacceptable resource impacts, and conflicts between users.” (source)
Here are some ways we can all take part in reversing these damaging affects while taking advantage of the many benefits of outdoor recreation:
Stay on the Trail
Whether recreation is human-powered or motor-powered, it’s important you stay on the trail system in local, regional, state and national parks, and other public lands.
Staying on the trail is one of the most practical ways we can protect these lands for the animals and plants that call them home. And to protect it for the generations who will come after us and will want to enjoy these same areas.
This includes hikers, bikers, ATVers, snowmobilers, horseback riders, skiers, snowshoers—anyone who uses trails. It could be in urban parks, remote wilderness areas and everything in-between.
One way to help protect the trail systems themselves is to stay off them when they’re muddy. After heavy rains and during spring snowmelt, these trails will stay in their best shape without impact from bike tires, ATV tires, horse hooves and even foot traffic. Either stick to dry trails or take a few days off until they firm up again.
Don’t Bring Single-Use Plastics
Waste plastic in our landfills is a major issue, as we’re sure you know. One way to practice sustainable outdoor recreation is to commit to keeping single-use plastics out of your life as much as you can, including on your activities outside.
There are lots of reusable plastic or silicon items available that are lightweight, durable and washable. Be OK with a few extra minutes cleaning up afterwards instead of dumping plastic in the trash.
[NOTE: Single-use backpacking meals can be especially problematic because you just can’t get away with not using them for some adventures, like long through-hikes. But there are ways to minimize environmental impact. This article from FieldMag.com is a helpful read.]
Leave No Trace Wilderness Ethics
“Leave No Trace” (LNT) is both the name of a specific organization and a philosophy for the way we do outdoor recreation. As the organization puts it: “It takes all of us” to recreate sustainably.
You can go to the LNT organization’s website for all kinds of details and articles. As an overview, though, here are the seven principles of Leave No Trace:
- Plan ahead and prepare
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces
- Dispose of waste properly
- Leave what you find
- Minimize campfire impacts
- Respect wildlife
- Be considerate of other
Camp Only Where Designated
In most state and national parks and protected wilderness areas (in the US, at least) it’s illegal to camp except in designated campsites. Be sure to respect those guidelines to reduce your impact on the outdoor areas you visit. Build fires only in designated fire pits.
In those places where you’re free to camp anywhere (mostly because there aren’t any designated sites!), commit to Leave No Trace principles. For example, use a camp stove to cook and heat water instead of building a fire. Don’t damage or cut off branches from live trees.
Plan Ahead When Recreating in Popular Areas
There are growing restrictions on visitor numbers in a more and more high-traffic outdoor destinations. Some of these started during the Covid-19 era and park managers continued them. Others were already in use before that to prevent overcrowding in their most popular areas.
What that means is you’ll want to do some research before you head out, especially if you’re traveling a few hundred miles, or hopping on a plane.
An example is the new list of required vehicle reservations for Glacier National Park in Montana. During their high season, the park now requires advanced reservations for four of its most popular areas. Other parks restrict trail use to limited daily numbers, like the Fiery Furnace trail in Utah’s Arches National Park.
While this can make planning a little more work, it will make your experiences at these places more enjoyable!
Use “Green Gear”
You can practice sustainability in your outdoor recreation by supporting outdoor industry companies that are committed to sustainability. This can be through various business practices like:
- Environmentally-friendly products that avoid harmful chemicals, are durable and easy to repair, are sourced locally when possible.
- Sustainable packaging that takes advantage of recyclable or biodegradable materials.
- Ethical sourcing for gear components like down and feathers for jackets. Or using recycled materials in their products, like we do.
- Ethical business practices that include only working with companies that respect human rights and pay fair wages.
- Buying from companies with philanthropy, community involvement and giving programs.
How do you know which brands to support? The good news is that many, many outdoor recreation brands are serious about sustainability. Do some online research or go to the sites of your favorites and see what they say about it.
Recreating outdoors sustainably is a doable thing! It just takes a bit of awareness and forethought.