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Why Backpacking is a Sustainability 101 Course for Work and Home

Words by Leon Kaye

One of the best ways to see the world is by backpacking. “Backpacking,” of course, can mean just about anything. It can mean taking those overnight trains throughout Europe, arriving bleary-eyed at the next town and stumbling into a hostel. It can also involve trekking along remote rural areas in countries from Bolivia to Nepal. Whatever your budget is and however you prefer to spend your time — as in, city and nightlife versus national parks and outdoor activities — setting off on a long trip abroad will allow you to bring home lessons on living and working sustainably for when you eventually return home — a timely lesson at the moment considering all the holiday shopping messages currently bombarding us.

I recently completed a long trip through Chile and Argentina, a region through which I had traveled before, but this time my trip was geared more toward the outdoors in Patagonia. I had a place to stay, which meant it was tempting to pack a huge suitcase since I wasn’t spending every day on a bus. Of course, the mantra, “if you pack it, you carry it,” stuck with me, and I ended up packing only enough clothes to fill up my 20-plus-year-old Millet backpack.

And packing light is just the start. “If you want to truly enjoy the great outdoors, or any trip for that matter, focus more on experience and forget the excess,” said Suzi Wortman, who, along with her husband Claudio Retamal, owns Summit Chile, an adventure tourism company in Pucón, Chile. “Bottom line: If you want to travel responsibly, then you really need to be even more conscious about your social and environmental impact,” Wortman added as we spoke one afternoon in her company’s office.

In addition to ensuring Summit Chile’s customers have a fantastic time while they are visiting the Pucón area’s volcanoes, lakes and alpine forests, Wortman and Retamal’s venture also gives them the opportunity to share their values with visitors.

Summit Chile, founded five years ago, was the result of the couple's desire to be together after having jobs that required them to often spend time away from their now-teenaged children. Retamal is one of only three mountaineering guides certified by the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA/UIAGM). Wortman spent years organizing excursions for tourists who were taking cruise ships around Tierra del Fuego with stops at Punta Arenas and Puerto Montt: an exciting time and great way to meet people, but also a reminder of how these massive ships can have an impact on the local environment.

“When you lead a group of 75 people on an expedition to see the glaciers or penguins, it’s hard to instill the need for acting responsibly and sustainably,” said Wortman, “but our agency’s day-trips rarely have more than a dozen people. So, we can teach our guests about how to respect the land and local people in a constructive way, without sounding [like we're] lecturing.”

For example, Summit Chile follows the principle of Leave No Trace, an NGO that aspires to teach people of all ages how to to enjoy the outdoors responsibly. When I joined the agency for a walk up Volcan Quetrupillan (as Villarrica, the real draw to Pucón, did not re-open after an eruption until Nov. 12), Retamal and his guides were quick to remind our group of what to do, and what not to do, to respect the park’s grounds. Those orange peels and apple cores? Sure, they are biodegradable, but they are not native to the local environment, so take them back to town with you, along with every bit of trash you create — carry, don’t bury. That kila (indigenous bamboo) walking stick or chunk of obsidian are nice keepsakes from the climb, but they stay behind. And it doesn’t matter if what appear to be a few footsteps make for a nice short cut — stay on the trail.

These are all simple steps that one may think are common sense, but Wortman and Retamal have carried that to their home life. Their custom-built home outside of town, replete with adobe walls and reclaimed wood, is certainly comfortable, but Wortman noted how different her life is now compared to her upbringing in Vancouver — and the same goes for Retamal, whose parents are successful entrepreneurs who reside outside of Santiago. As I was helping Wortman prepare dinner, there was no need to ask which bowl to use for salad — there was only one.

“Not having all this stuff is liberating,” she said, as she gingerly opened her refrigerator, which is probably a third the size of what is found within most North American homes. “I know our kids will have a laugh when they reminisce about their childhood, as in, ‘Remember that janky fridge mom always had to open carefully so the freezer door wouldn’t crash onto the floor?’,” Wortman said. “But if it works, why replace it? I’ve got my family, my clean water, fresh air and view of the volcano — and that makes me feel far richer than most folks I know.

Those four weeks I spent in Patagonia left me feeling the same way: surrounded by abundance yet free and unencumbered of things that I have accumulated in my own two-bedroom condo in California. Sure, I had name-brand clothing stuffed into my backpack, most of it from brands that reflect my values: The North Face, no-to-Black-Friday REI and, of course, Patagonia. But even then, my jacket had been scored at a thrift shop, one pair of pants was an e-Bay find and the hiking pants were bought on clearance. I had left a walk-in closet full of clothes behind and was happy for it. “Oh man, the last thing you should do is go on a shopping spree before a trip, especially to a region like this where your clothes will get trashed from trekking,” Wortman advised.

We were reminded of that as she saw me off at the bus station for a week in Argentina. We eyed a young good-looking North American couple as they were pushing a young baby in the Ferrari of baby strollers. She was in a smart, spotless Patagonia jacket, while he was lugging a brand new The North Face duffle bag with nary a crease. “Those new outfits won’t stay neat long, and never mind the fact that catalogue look makes them walking targets,” said Wortman, noting that theft was one risk people had to mind when visiting the region.

In the end, we end up possessed by our possessions, whether we are traveling abroad or living the daily grind in our home or office. The less things around us, the less stress we feel.

So, what should you pack for a backpacking trip?

I asked Wortman, who traveled extensively before she called Chile home, about her thoughts on what to take on a backpacking trip. The reality is: After your money, tickets and passport, most things can be purchased abroad, so forgetting that necessary clothing item or favorite product is hardly a tragedy. If you have an affinity for a particular brand of personal item, bring it, Wortman advised — as in: necessities such as tampons or even condoms. Common sense applies, as in photocopies of your credit and debit cards, prescriptions, and all forms of identification.

But for clothing, keep it simple. “Stick to moisture-wicking materials,” said Wortman, “as you can handwash them at night, and [they] will be dry the next morning.” Forget the jeans, as they are heavy. “A nice pair of hiking pants will not only serve you well when backpacking, but can look more than nice enough if you’re going out in the evening — plus most are made by companies that reflect your values.” And no matter where you are going, most equipment can be rented — keep those crampons at home.

Men: Two pairs of hiking pants; one pair of hiking shorts; two long-sleeved shirts; two short-sleeved shirts; one pair of thermals; one lightweight sweater (merino wool works well); one polar fleece; two tank tops; three pairs of high-performance socks; one or two pairs of athletic socks; four pairs of undies; one pair of workout shorts or pajama bottoms for sleeping. That heavy jacket, of course, can be worn on the plane and be rolled up and tied to your backpack. Don’t forget the hiking shoes and a pair of flip-flops for lounging or in case you need to shower at any lodging where cleanliness may be suspect.

Women: Two pairs of hiking pants; one pair of hiking shorts; two long-sleeved shirts; two short-sleeved shirts; one pair of thermals; one lightweight sweater; one polar fleece; two tank tops; three pairs of high-performance socks; one or two pairs of athletic socks; four pairs of undies; that comfy T-shirt, shorts or pajamas for sleeping; three sports bras. Ditto on the jacket and footwear, and remember: Everything should be moisture-wicking.

Image credits: Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.

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