I spent much of my childhood in the frost-tipped mountains of Colorado with my father, carrying everything I needed to survive on my back. On every Coloradan trail, there is a dominatingly large, weathered board at the trailhead. My father always paused to explain the regulations and warnings listed on these boards to me. He’d bend down to my level, put his hand on my shoulder, and remind me that the forest is a place where we come to observe — never to take.
He’d always say, “Leave No Trace.”
He’d explain, as I looked into his blue eyes, that I must always be aware of others: of people, animals, plants, ecosystems, and the planet as a whole. He taught me that I am not alone in the world, and it is my duty to show regard for all life.
During our treks, we’d always take the extra effort to secure our belongings so as not to affect the wildlife. When we fished for rainbow trout, we’d either release them back into the wild or immediately use them as the protein we needed for our journey. If there was a path, we wouldn’t stray from it. When in the wilds of the Rockies, we’d always be careful not to disturb the flourishing life. Most of all, we would tread lightly and leave the wilderness as we found it.
I grew up under that simple adage: “Leave no trace.” Like many children, I often needed a phrase or story to fully understand a concept. But now, as an adult, I’ve condensed the premise of that saying into one word: respect.
Sustainable travel is a form of respect that we show to the environments we explore. It ensures that we take only memories and purchased souvenirs with us, leaving no ill future for those who come after us, or for the organisms that might live there. It also applies to things without life, such as buildings — you don’t chip a piece of stone off the Pantheon, for example!
I desire that others witness the majesty and beauty of the world without my influence. I want to affect others’ travels positively by working through the local environment, not by leaving my own mark on it. Sustainable travel supports the cultivation of a world outside of “me.”
It requires respect for anything that might be influenced by my footprint, whether I’m a guest in a large city or camping in the wilderness.
Examples of this might include how we store and discard our belongings. When camping, surely we wouldn’t want a critter to gnaw its way into our food storage, so we would take the time to rope it into a nearby tree. When my father and I could legally light fires, we burned our trash, and when we couldn’t, we compacted and stored it in our backpacks. Now, when I visit a city that is mindful of the environment, such as Rome, I hold onto my recyclables and walk to the appropriate bin instead of using a generic trash can. Since millions of people visit Rome every day, walking a little farther to find the right bin would have a massive impact if everyone did it.
Solvitur ambulando. It is solved by walking.
Although slow travel has become a travel trend, I believe some of us just do it naturally. It is an important branch of sustainable travel, and there are enormous benefits to exploring the world this way — in addition to the obvious one of boosting your own health. For example, I do advocate for taking public transportation, but walking whenever possible is an even better way to experience a community authentically and to get a little extra exercise.
To illustrate: throughout the Dolomites, you can often support the local economy by purchasing a railway ticket to the summit of the peaks, something I recommend. At the top, you can stop and admire the scenery, and you can also continue hiking the mountain paths, eventually stopping at a farm-owned refuge for lunch. By hiking, in addition to taking the railway, you can sustain the local economy, including a small business (the refuge).
Similarly, when it comes to city travel, many major destinations are seeded with touristy vendors and restaurants — and the profit often goes to an owner outside the local economy. Personally, I would rather sample the city as locals do and see family-owned businesses flourish. It’s important to ask yourself if you’d rather have the real thing or convenience.
If we take time to leave no trace as we experience the world authentically, not only will our investments be more memorable, but we will make positive contributions along the way. Sustainable tourism is a compilation of small gestures that become habit, micro-improvements that pay our respects to our destinations. When it’s time to go home, we’ll have full hearts, knowing that the current generation will benefit from our influence and that new generations can witness what we have left them: a genuine experience.