23 Sustainable Travel Tips for Backpackers

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Travel. It’s a good thing, right? It inspires us to learn about new cultures, meet new people and live lives of adventure. But there is a darker side. With the negative environmental impacts of air travel and the harmful effects of mass tourism, travel can begin to look less glamorous. Enter, sustainable travel…

Would you rather be sustainable or unsustainable when you travel? The answer is probably “yes”, right? It’s a bit like asking if you’d rather pass your driving test or fail it. But, you’re probably still left wondering “what is sustainable travel?”.

“How does it work?”
“What do I need to do?”
“Is it even possible?”

This post is going to teach you everything you need to know about sustainable travel and introduce some ways you can be more environmentally responsible on your next trip!

What is Sustainable Travel?

Sustainable travel is an environmentally conscious form of seeing and experiencing the world.

It’s all about considering the environment with the choices we make on the road and choosing to lessen our impact on the Earth wherever possible.

The whole point of sustainable travel is to allow you to enjoy your backpacking adventure while lessening the negative impacts you have on a given destination and the world, as a whole.

It just takes little changes here and there and, they may not seem like much on their own, but collectively they add up and make a significant difference (especially when you consider all of the other backpackers that read this too).

Just one of the thousands of stunning beaches in the Maldives
Just one of the thousands of stunning beaches in the Maldives

Why Should You Travel Sustainably?

Although it may feel like a pain in the ass, at first, traveling sustainably will soon become a breeze to you, and – as that happens – you will begin to feel much better when you travel and you’ll be having a far more positive impact on the places you visit.

Sustainable Travel Tips

1. Choose a Green Destination

Do some research into which countries are the most environmentally sustainable to visit.

By visiting these countries and putting your money back into sustainable and ethical tourism practices, you are encouraging other nations to do the same. This will slowly begin to happen as sustainable travel becomes more popular in the backpacking community.

Check out Ethical Traveler’s Top 10 Ethical Destinations 2018

2. Fly Non-Stop

This isn’t the cheapest way to fly so I wouldn’t recommend it to budget backpackers but if you have the money to spare, booking non-stop flights will help reduce your carbon footprint while traveling.

Planes use up most of their fuel when taking off and landing so if you have a journey with multiple layovers, you’re going to be taking off and landing at least twice as much as flying direct.

Check out our guide – Everything You Need to Survive a Long Flight

Fly non-stop
Fly non-stop

3. Pack Light

Packing and traveling light is something we can all do and something that most of us can get better at.

More weight = more fuel = more harmful/less sustainable

Consider this when you’re loading up your backpack and try to be as brutally honest with yourself as possible. It may even help you to travel with a slightly smaller backpack.

I use the Osprey Farpoint 40 which is accepted as a carry-on, on almost all flights.

4. Use E-Tickets

It’s quite a well-known fact that we should save paper whenever possible and recycle it after we do use it. Well, using e-tickets to get through security, etc. at airports completely takes paper tickets out of the equation.

After being questionable when they were first introduced, the technology behind e-tickets has greatly improved and now, they should be everyone’s go-to choice when traveling through airports.

5. Use Public Transport

If you’re going to be doing a lot of moving around within your travel destination, consider making use of public transport.

Instead of flying domestically – which is very environmentally destructive – why not make use of night buses or overnight trains?

Yes, you may spend a bit more time in transit but it will often be cheaper and you’ll get to see so much more of the country traveling this way. Not to mention, this is a much better example of sustainable travel!

High five
High five

6. Road Trip

If you’d rather avoid public transport, why not make a little road trip out of your travel adventure.

When traveling with a group of friends or family, this will be more sustainable (even if you hire a real gas chugger).

If you have space, you could consider also picking up hitchhikers. Sustainable travel at its finest. And, you’ll also get the chance to make a new travel friend.

For those ultra-sustainable backpackers, consider hiring a hybrid or electric car.

Check out our guide – Road Trips

7. Get a Refillable Water Bottle

Having access to safe drinking water is not only a backpacking essential, it is also a life essential.

And, in many popular backpacking countries, tap water isn’t safe to drink. So, it’s an excellent idea to buy a BPA-free, refillable water bottle to take with you on your travels. This will mean you can avoid spending money on plastic bottles every day and this is also far less wasteful and more sustainable.

If you are backpacking in a country without safe drinking water, what you can do is buy huge containers of water, store them at your accommodation and fill your bottle up each day before you head out.

Reusable water bottle
Reusable water bottle

8. Avoid Straws

Straws (plastic straws, anyway) are one of the most wasteful inventions.

The best thing to do is to just avoid them, outright.

If you do insist on using them, I would advise getting a metal straw. These are reusable and far more sustainable.

9. Take a Shower

This may be slightly surprising but showers actually use up less water than baths do.

Since we’re backpackers, chances are we’ll never really have the opportunity for a bath anyway, but there are still ways to save even more water when showering:

  • Share: If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, consider sharing a shower with a friend or that special someone you meet on the road!
  • Short: Keep it short. Get in. Get clean and get out.
  • Save: Save additional water by turning the shower off when you apply shampoo, body soap, etc.

If you have a chance, take a natural shower at a waterfall or a bath in a river like Rob Greenfield

Waterfall shower
Waterfall shower

10. Split Laundry

Lots of accommodation that offers laundry services, will usually keep all guests’ laundry separate and wash everything independently (even if one person only has a few items).

You could just gross it out and skip on doing laundry while you’re away or if you – like me – want to have clean clothes, consider doing a joint set of laundry with whoever you’re traveling with.

Many places charge on a “per load” basis so you’ll be saving money as well as demonstrating what sustainable travel is all about.

11. Hang Up Towels

Do you wash your towels every day back home?

Well, why should you do it while traveling?

Instead of getting your towels washed after every shower, just hang them up to dry. If you’re staying in accommodation that provides cleaning services, this is the universal sign that means “don’t take my towel”!

12. Flip the Switch

Whenever you leave your Airbnb, hotel – or whatever accommodation you’re staying in – remember to turn off all lights, TVs, and air conditioning.

When done every day, this can make a significant difference.

13. Do Not Disturb Sign

Leave the “do not disturb” sign up on your door whenever you go out (unless your room absolutely needs to be cleaned). This will lessen the amount of harmful chemicals that are used in common cleaning practices.

Also, who needs their sheets and towels washed every single day?

14. Walk or Cycle

The two most sustainable ways to travel around your destination. While most backpackers cannot avoid flights completely, we can reduce the negative environmental impact we have by traveling like a local.

Get around by foot or hire a bicycle wherever possible and reduce your carbon footprint while working on your fitness. Not only are these methods more environmentally friendly, but they will almost always be cheaper too!

Check out our guide – How to Hitchhike Safely

Biking around
Biking around

15. Take Leftover Toiletries

You know the free toiletries you are provided in most hotels and some other accommodation?

Well, after you leave, the remains will likely be thrown out and never reused.

To stop this from happening, just take the leftovers with you. This will save you some money also!

Another great product to add to your toiletries kit is an eco-friendly hygiene product like LastObjects’ reusable swabs.

16. Buy Local

Any Western goods you find on the road will most likely have had to be imported at great cost and environmental expense.

Reduce your carbon footprint by sticking to local goods and vendors. This also helps the local people and the local economy.

17. Eat Local

Again, any of the famous chain restaurants you encounter will also have been imported.

Stick to the local supermarkets and restaurants.

A well-known backpacker secret is to go where the locals go. Not only will you usually find the cheapest local food in the area, but you’ll also find the most delicious places to grab a bite!

Check out our guide – Food & Drink Safety

Street food in Korea
Street food in Korea

18. Avoid Plastic Bags

If you’re planning on visiting the local supermarket during your stay, bring bags with you (or just stuff everything into your backpack).

People are trying to get plastic bags banned in many countries and we can help with this by refusing to use them at all.

19. Avoid Animal Tourism

Do not ride elephants (this is popular in countries like Thailand) or agree to see any shows featuring performing animals.

Those that do (often without even knowing it) are contributing to the illegal capture and brutal torture of these animals for the sake of profit.

Not to mention that riding elephants can actually cause lasting damage to the creature’s spine.

Elephants in Jaipur
Elephants in Jaipur

20. Recycle

Now, this is something we’ve all heard of (and one that most of us probably do).

But what about on the road?

Well, the principle remains the same. Recycle whenever you can. Be sure to ask your accommodation about their recycling policies. Obviously, it’s preferable to stay at accommodation that is already environmentally aware and is taking steps towards sustainability.

21. Pick Up Trash

If you feel like going the extra mile, why not pick up bits of trash that others have left behind?

If you bring an empty backpack with you, you could pick up a fair bit.

Collecting bottles
Collecting bottles

22. Ask Questions

Never be afraid to ask questions when it comes to sustainable travel.

Ask restaurants
Ask your hostel or hotel
Ask fellow backpackers. Maybe they can give you some insight as to what you can be doing to travel more sustainably.
This issue isn’t going to be solved by staying silent.

And with that…

23. Spread the Word

The more of us that are aware of these issues in the backpacking community and the more of us that become aware of sustainable travel, the more of a difference we can make.

So, this doesn’t just stop with you. Once you learn and begin to implement these more sustainable travel habits into your backpacking adventures, start to show others how they can do the same.

Even if it’s just one person!

If you liked this post and found it useful, please share it with your backpacking circle and on social media!

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Jamie Campbell

Jamie is a digital nomad and founder of the travel blog, Gaijin Crew. He’s been backpacking on a budget since leaving high school in 2016 and his goal is to teach others to do the same and help turn travel into a full-blown lifestyle.

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