I fell in love with hiking in the Canadian Rockies after moving to Canada. Something about being able to get up into the clouds on top of a mountain always had me going back for more, and the mountains of the Canadian Rockies are some of the most incredible I’ve climbed. Since so many people are adding this amazing part of the world to their travel bucket list, I wanted to share some easy tips to make your hike as eco-friendly as possible. Driving up to the Columbia Icefields and hearing about the shrinking glacier, hiking amid crowds in Lake Louise and seeing trash thrown on the trail, watching new hikers crush wildflowers as they run off into the trees… If you hike in the Rockies, it’s worth doing it the right way to make sure many generations of adventurers can do the same! Hiking can be done both sustainably and unsustainably. There are some obvious and not-as-obvious choices you can make while enjoying the Canadian Rockies that can help or hinder the surrounding environment. With an environment as wonderful as the Rockies, I think it’s definitely worth trying to be a sustainable adventurer.
Most people who care about spending time in the outdoors are likely open to doing it the right way, so I’ve compiled a few tips and tricks to make sure you’re enjoying the Rockies as an eco-friendly hiker. The tips range from what kind of water bottle to use to alternate transportation to the trail and everything in between! Whether you can implement a little or a lot of this advice, every effort adds up in the long run. Don’t worry about being perfect. Just do what you can. The more sustainable our hiking is, the longer we can enjoy this incredible slice of the outdoors! Here are 5 easy tips to keep your hiking in the Rockies as sustainable as possible.
1. Stay on the Trails
Do you know the quote about taking the road less traveled? Forget that! One of the easiest ways you can respect the environment while hiking is to avoid walking all over it. Find your trail and stick to it, resisting the urge to wander off, cut across switchbacks, or try and find an alternate path. Hikers who get lost or end up in a precarious spot may require rescue efforts, involving significant resources or damage to the surrounding environment. Not only does this keep you safer by reducing your chances of getting lost, but it protects the sensitive plant life that flanks the trails and cuts down on hiking-related erosion. Part of staying on the trail includes choosing your hikes appropriately for the season to reduce the amount of puddle or snow dodging you’re doing. Every time you step off the trail, you make it a little wider, contribute to a false trail, or damage the plant life next to the trail. I’ve definitely done the snow-hop or the rain-hop off the trail, but I try to check the conditions on the park’s website now so I can choose trails in good condition.
Staying true to the trail also prevents trail braiding, which happens when hikers create new trails branching off of the original one by deviating off the beaten path. This is problematic for a few reasons. Firstly, false trails created by braiding can mislead hikers, raising the chances that they may need the aforementioned resource-heavy rescue. I once got insanely lost on a hike to Ha Ling Peak because the trail braiding was so bad, and then I ended up having to bushwhack my way back to safety. Luckily I’d been able to navigate away from the scary rock face I ended up on, but it was a real reminder of why sticking carefully to the trail is so important. Also, trail braiding often needs to be corrected using methods that are detrimental to the plant and animal life living alongside the trail, so staying on the path reduces the need for invasive trail correction work. That trail I got lost on? They had to do extensive work on it to fix the braiding, and while I won’t be getting lost up there again, I know the experience of nature on that hike is different now because of everything they had to do.
2. Take Your Trash Home
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across beer cans, food wrappers, or apple cores on the trail. One time I found an entire pile of cans at the top of the East End of Rundle. There’s no cleaning service up there. Pack it in, pack it out. Anything you bring with you on a hike should come home with you because leaving trash on the trails is not only bad for the environment, but it’s inconsiderate for all the hikers after you who want to enjoy an unspoiled piece of nature. That’s a beautiful summit, but I couldn’t get over the pile of cans to enjoy it fully. Additionally, leaving trash on the trail can entice bears and other wildlife closer to humans. Worst case scenario, these animals venture onto trails to find that tasty-smelling trash, become too used to human presence or display threatening behaviors when encountered, and must be removed or destroyed. There’s a reason that “a fed bear is a dead bear.”
Not only that, but human food scraps and trash can also be unhealthy or fatal for animals if eaten. Wildlife is an important part of the mountain’s ecosystem, and messing with their natural food selections can draw them away from their normal spot in the food chain. I’ve seen birds picking at food wrappers more times than I can count, and I’m sure a curious bear might want to investigate that sandwich crust someone dropped. If you’re worried about tossing your wrappers or cans right into your bag, bring a small biodegradable bag to wrap them up in. If I forget to take my own grocery bag to the store (hey, nobody’s perfect), I’ll repurpose the biodegradable once from the store as my hiking garbage bag for the day.
3. Choose Sustainable Gear
While we recognize that having the funds to pick and choose your gear is a luxury, anyone with the ability to should try and choose eco-conscious gear. This could be as small as using a reusable water bottle to cut down on single-use plastics or as big as shopping from brands that pioneer responsible clothing production practices like JACK WOLFSKIN.
Another way to be more sustainable in your gear choices is saving up to buy lasting pieces or shopping secondhand. If you can afford to, grab a pair of boots or a backpack made to last longer. This way, you’re not disposing of wrecked gear and shopping for new pieces every year! If that’s not in the cards, trying shopping at a secondhand gear store. You can find great gently-worn pieces that still have some life left in them. This means you’re keeping that backpack or jacket out of the landfill and cutting down on your consumption of new products, which can take significant resources to produce. Also, check to see if your brands will repair your gear. I’ve got a hand-me-down fleece that’s been through the absolute ringer. My dad tore it fishing, it got burnt at a campfire, and then I fell down a scree slope (which is another story altogether), putting some very solid holes all through the back and elbows. The brand was kind enough to patch the fleece for me to keep hiking in it, and they offer similar services for nearly all of their gear.
4. Choose Greener Transportation
Unless you’re lucky enough to step outside your front door and onto a trailhead, you probably need to travel to enjoy hiking in the Canadian Rockies. There’s definitely more sustainable ways to get out there! The first thing you can do is consider hikes that are closer to you. If you’re lucky enough to be close to the Canadian Rockies, you’re spoiled for choice with trails to choose from. The most sustainable choices are the ones closest to home, which require less driving. If you can, save the longer treks for days when you’ve got a carpool group or public transportation available. My sister in law loves to hike, so we’ll ask as many friends as we can think of and pile into her hybrid SUV. Everyone gets their outing at the same time, and we’re only taking one vehicle.
Speaking of carpooling, ridesharing with hiking buddies is a great way to hike more sustainably! Travel together to trailheads whenever possible. If you don’t have many outdoorsy friends, a great option is joining a local hiking group. These groups often carpool to the destination, so you’re not adding extra emissions making your own trip. Other green ways to reach the trailhead include shuttles, public transportation, or even cycling! I’ll sometimes carpool with a friend part of the way, and then we’ll hop on our bikes the rest of the way if the road is cycle-friendly. It’s a nice way to spin your legs out after a hike and enjoy the mountain air a little longer. I’ve also hopped on the bike to reach the dreaded Moraine Lake parking lot (which is always past-capacity) if I’m already staying in Lake Louise so I can leave the car at home and the shuttle seat for someone else. Speaking of which, major cities close to the Canadian Rockies offer shuttles or busses out to the mountains, and these certainly aren’t just for out-of-town visitors. Book yourself a seat, so you don’t have to drive yourself!
5. Support Your Local Parks
Love getting out there? You owe the pristine condition of your favorite trails to the governing bodies that maintain them. For example, next time you’re happily hiking in Banff, consider supporting Parks Canada in any way you can so they can keep your favorite trails. If you can’t stop hitting the trail in Kananaskis, you could spend some time volunteering with Alberta Parks or pitch in your opinion when they’re collecting public opinion.
There are lots of people working behind the scenes to keep our trails usable for as many years to come as possible, so buying your park passes, donating to conservation efforts, volunteering your time, and obeying all official guidance can help you do your part. I like chatting up park employees when I see them on the trails to learn more about their work. They often love to share! I was hiking Tent Ridge in beautiful Kananaskis last year when I came across a park employee shifting around logs and branches on the trail. We got to chatting, and he told me that careful placement of the wood could help direct water runoff avoid pooling or flooding the trail. He said that it makes it easier for hikers to stay on the trail and protect the area’s flora. We’ve come full circle, haven’t we? In the end, it’s the parks organizations that are responsible for caring for the parks, so doing your part to be sustainable helps their efforts to keep every kilometer of the trail in the best shape possible.
There you have it- 5 easy tips that can make you a more eco-friendly hiker! Now that you’re that much more eco-friendly, it’s time to pay it forward. Spotting sustainability faux pas while hiking might drive you nuts, but how can you help? Obviously, nobody is obligated to be a teacher for anyone else, but I’ve found that the best way to let someone know they might be harming the environment is to give them the benefit of the doubt. A little “Oh, hey, you forgot your wrapper here!” can go a long way in teaching others how to be eco-friendly on the trail. In the Canadian Rockies, the hikers tend to be friendly and open, and I’ve always had great luck engaging others in conversation on the trail. None of us know how to be the best outdoor adventurers from the start, but we learn by watching others set great examples. Feeling ready to take on the trails? Feeling especially eco-conscious? Great, I’ve done my part! Take advantage of this stunning part of the world, and I hope you get out and enjoy the Canadian Rockies happily and sustainably.