Head for the Hills Low Impact Gear for the Great Outdoors

In the 70s, a backpack, some granola and a roaring campfire was all any hiker needed for a complete nature get-away. But today, enthusiasts worry about overcrowded trails, high-impact trends and whether or not to bring the cell phone. For many people, camping in the 1990s also involves buying the lightest, most waterproof synthetic materials available—gear which taxes the environment with toxic solvents, volatile organic pollutants and factory waste.

Credit: eltpics, flickrcc

But contrasted with high-tech know-how is an outdoor ethic that’s transforming America’s wilderness. Leave No Trace (http://www.lnt.org), an outdoor preservation group which stresses low-impact recreation, points to the growing number of hikers that are leaving trails cleaner than when they first hit them. While the current etiquette asks hikers to “take photographs, leave only footprints,” some outdoor enthusiasts are embracing the philosophy with even more gusto. But treading lightly on Mother Nature means more than low-impact—it also involves gearing up responsibly.

Walking the Walk

The production of high-tech, synthetic sports gear pumps dioxin and other harmful pollutants into the air, but isn’t the only harmful outdoor apparel fabric. Woodland camping and short-term getaways usually have hikers donning cotton for less-rugged ventures. Unfortunately, conventional cotton accounts for one-quarter of the world’s pesticide use, according to Pesticide Action Network, polluting waterways and taking its toll on land and wildlife.

Ventura, California-based Patagonia wants to change all of that. An outdoor apparel manufacturer that became famous for its recycled soda bottle fabric lines a few years ago, Patagonia has recently put its money where its mouth is and switched its entire cotton line to organic fabric. Featuring pants, shirts, caps, jackets, vests and adventure apparel for men, women and children, Patagonia also donates 10 percent of its pre-tax profits to grassroots environmental organizations, subsidizes an environmental grants program that’s given out $10 million to date, and thoroughly scrutinizes its manufacturing processes to improve environmental responsibility. “We also diverted over 54 million bottles and 600,000 gallons of oil by re-using soda bottles between 1993 and 1996,” says public affairs director Lu Setnicka.

And because feet take the brunt of any hike, Portland-based Deep E Co.‘s Headwaters Hikers were designed to be comfortable, as well as sustainable. This rugged, hemp hiking shoe ($75) inspired by Headwaters activist Woody Harrelson uses water-based adhesives and recycled components, with portions of the proceeds supporting Headwaters Forest preservation. And because many hikers still insist on leather shoes (which are created with a toxic tanning process), Deep E Co. has created the Saguache (pronounced “se-watch”), a durable high-top hiker ($92) made from the sustainably-raised, organically-fed, free-ranging cattle of Coleman’s Natural Meat ranches, utilizing low-impact tanning methods. Deep E Co.‘s Denali and Salishan socks also keep feet warm with hemp, wool and Ecospun (recycled soda bottle fabric).For shorter jaunts in the wild, Deja Shoes’ Terra Hiker Low ($64 to $70) uses pesticide-free hemp, recycled magazines, soda bottles and cardboard, and post-consumer tire rubber to make a lightweight hiker fit for groomed trails. To “waterproof” shoes, tents and rain gear, hiking magazines highly recommend Nikwax, a water-repellent coating using beeswax and a water-based finish instead of petroleum-based solvents, to protect fabrics.

Pass It Around

Another growing trend among outdoor enthusiasts is second-hand gear. Used gear saves money and minimizes toxic waste created by many manufacturers. Several web sites offer gear barters, as well as second-hand and “factory-seconds” camping and outdoor equipment.

Sports Replay (www.bearcatweb.com/sportsreplay/camping.htm) sells used sleeping bags, stoves and tents, and the Outdoor Gear Exchange (http://www.gearx.com) offers used, consigned and factory-seconds backpacking, climbing and camping gear. New Uses General Store (http://www.newuses.com), based in Columbus, Ohio, features used camping and fishing gear, cooking utensils and outdoor accessories. And the Great Outdoor Recreational Pages (GORP), loaded with wilderness and outdoor adventure articles, gear updates, job listings and how-to tips, also offers a “buy, swap or sell” forum for web surfers (http://www2.gorp.com/forums).

Sunburnt, Sore and Skeeter-bit

Nothing spoils a camping trip like a tapestry of bug bites, driving serene nature lovers into itching frenzies. But many users of bug sprays worry about the effects of DEET, a noxious ingredient linked with numerous health problems. DEET-free, low-toxic alternatives are plentiful on the market, and are still effective against insects resembling birds of prey. Aubrey Organics’ chemical-free GONE! Spray ($5.75) uses lavender, eucalyptus, rosemary and camphor to scare off buzzing critters. Quantum’s Buzz Away lotion ($7.50) features lemongrass, peppermint and aloe, as well as sunscreen, to tame two camping miseries at once. And North Carolina-based Burt’s Bees proffers its all-natural Farmer’s Friend Lemongrass Insect lotion ($5), as well as an inventive lemongrass and citronella incense stick ($8 for 10), to combat pesky assailants. Burt’s Bees’ Sueanne Justice says the smoke, combined with the smell, adds double repellent duty, and can be conveniently stuck into the ground and lit near cook sites or tents. To avoid sprays altogether, The Original Bug Shirt (pants and gaiters too) protects against biting insects and UV rays with its “no-see-um” mesh outwear.

Making Camp

Campers still argue the merits of backcountry bathing. Many opt for the luxury if they can, but organizations like Leave No Trace recommend foregoing soaps and cleansers, even if they are low-toxic. One option is a water rinse: The solar-heated, lightweight Sunshower (various sizes $8 to $25) provides warm to hot bathing complete with bag, hose and nozzle. For campers wishing to forego water and suds, there’s No Rinse shampoo or body bath ($3.50 for eight ounces). Biodegradable and alcohol-free, No Rinse products are found in outdoor stores, and are frequently used by NASA astronauts on shuttle missions (an obvious shower-dilemma).

To accompany that second-hand sleeping bag, there’s Jagged Edge Mountain Gear’s Whip Stitch blanket, made from recycled soda bottle fabric called ECOFleece ($54). Jagged Edge’s catalog is 95 percent ECOfleece, and features vests, caps, ear warmers, jackets and pants for those cold camping nights.

And for that hiking partner that tends to drool, Casey Company makes a collapsible pet bowl ($12; created from 100 percent recycled soda bottle fabric) to give four-footed escorts water and food on the trail (holds two quarts).

Backcountry Grub

After miles of weary treading, some hikers won’t settle for “worm stew”—the unfortunate nickname of add-boiling-water ramen noodles. For hot and healthy organic meals, hikers have the choice of buying staples in bulk, measuring out portions and repackaging them, or opting for Backcountry Organics. With pages of mouth-watering concoctions in its mail-order catalog, from breakfast frittatas to chocolate mousse and curried lentil bisque, this offshoot of Paradise Farm Organics gives campers hearty, natural fare ($2.07 to $5.72 for two to four servings), and offers bulk food too.

And for nutritious snacks on-the-go, energy bars have replaced the traditional gorp of the 1970s. But many brands are loaded with corn syrup, and resemble apricot-flavored tire tread. Breakthru’s organic bars ($2) offer complete nutrition, are vegetarian, and come in four flavors you can’t get from Goodyear. Another treat: Boulder Bar’s vegan, fruit juice-sweetened endurance bars ($1.49) are guaranteed not to freeze or melt, and are packed with natural ingredients like apple juice, pure vanilla, berries and oat bran.

With all the worries about impact, just don’t forget to enjoy the view.