Backpacking and tourism has boomed after Covid-19 pandemic, with many people taking this as their chance to travel after two years of being stuck at home and obeying quarantine rules. Between 2020 and 2022 Nepal received around 600,000 visitors. It is likely that most of these visitors took the chance to explore the biggest attraction of Nepal: trekking in the Himalayas. While there’s no denying tourism and travel is good for a country’s economy, I always ask myself what its effects are on the environment?
As an avid traveler myself, I try to be as conscious as possible about the cultures, religions and ways of life of the places I visit. The main thing to keep in mind when travelling to a destination like Nepal, where the natural world is ever present, is to also respect the landscape, the flora and the fauna. I knew these were the values I wanted to uphold when visiting Nepal and planning a trek for myself.
My love for Nepal has definitely grown from my first visit, back in 2022, to my second trip in 2023. The trips were almost exactly a year apart from each other. My first time here I was a shy and nervous traveler, as I had never been this far from my home before. I took part in a volunteer program which was conducting a project of renovating and constructing local schools. I was quick to make friends with other people who were in the program along with locals of the area. I promised that I would be back in a year’s time, but I don’t think they believed me, however, we kept in touch throughout the year I was abroad. Who could blame them for doubting my promise? After all, it was far fetched and hard to uphold since I live in England, almost 7,300 kilometers away. Above that, I was also unemployed, with a rapidly decreasing savings pot.
It filled my heart with happiness when I was able to come back here and keep true to my promise. In the meanwhile I had travelled to various other countries and became a much more confident traveler. Being familiar with Nepal also made my second visit much easier. I knew my way around, but most importantly, I had people to call my friends, which made my experience more relaxed.
Something I have noticed about Nepali culture is the way in which every person you encounter has nothing but kindness to show you. This might be my favorite thing about Nepal and its people, and I feel like the rest of the world would do well to learn from them. In my experience, the first instinct of a Nepali person is the wish to befriend you and show you around in an inexplicably selfless manner. This can only be countered with my own desire to show them the kindest version of myself and to better myself as a person. I don’t just feel this in regards to the people in Nepal, but the flora and the fauna too. I feel compelled to be mindful of the environmental impact of my actions.
The environmental impact of travelling is something that is constantly in the back of my mind when I trek in Nepal. While culture-shock affects me less and less as I become more well-travelled, nothing prepared me for how upset seeing litter on the mountains would make me. I am sure I am not the only one who finds this sight jarring. Although many trekking agencies ask travelers not to carry items that can’t be recycled or disposed of properly, the sight of wet wipes, plastic food wrappers, etc.. is sadly not a rare one along the trekking trails. To see such natural beauty tainted by littered grounds really is a wake up call that we can all do better. Travels might not be the sole contributors to this problem, but we can’t deny that we are a big part of it.
We may feel reluctant to pick up someone else’s trash but as responsible travelers, we need to balance their thoughtlessness with our extra love and care for nature. While it may not be our trash we are picking up, it is everyone’s mountains we are cleaning. In this regard, my guide truly set a fantastic example. Firstly, he encouraged my mother and me to pick up any piece of trash we saw along the trail, and broke down the reluctance we had of picking up after somebody else. At the end of each day we would have a full bag to discard in our hotel. On the fourth day of our trek, we encountered a group of kids. Our guide instructed them to pick up all the litter around them. He also stopped to talk with a mother and daughter who asked why he had a bag full of trash with him. He was told them, “it’s not good for the mountains, make sure you take your trash home with you, younger sister.”
So, as tourists, what can we do to ensure we keep the places we visit clean? For starters, as our guide showed us, we can not only pick up after ourselves, but also to make up for other people’s negligence by picking up after them too. The actions we can take to be actively responsible are not a lot of work once we are more mindful and considerate of our surroundings. We are responsible for maintaining the beauty of the landscape we so love to trek in. Educating others, whether local or tourists, to do the same is part of our responsibility. Cleaning polluted areas is a way to address the problem of littering, but what would be even better is to fight the problem at its source, and produce less plastic waste to begin with.
Here are 5 tips on how to produce less trash as a backpacker:
1. Use a reusable bottle/cup for beverages on-the-go
When trekking the Himalayas, you might think that buying plastic bottles is better for accessing clean and safe drinking water. And while it’s better for your health, discarding these bottles on the mountains is harmful to the environment. Instead, use reusable cups and water purifying tablets – this is a far more sustainable method you can adopt while trekking.
2. Use Biodegradable wet wipes
Showers are hard to come by on the mountains, with many people choosing to use wet wipes to clean themselves during a trek. However, these are then just discarded, leaving the mountain littered with wipes. You can purchase biodegradable wet wipes which are more environmentally friendly, but even then don’t throw them on the ground. Simply put them in a bag and save them for when you are down the mountain and have access to a proper bin.
3. Don’t buy individually wrapped snacks
Snacking is a good way to keep your energy levels up whilst trekking, but snacks tend to be a big littering problem. Why? Things like sweets and energy bars tend to come individually wrapped and it may be harder to keep ahold of this trash for the duration of your trek. If you can, try and buy snacks and food that come in one singular bag that you can reseal. It minimizes how much plastic you are using and throwing away!
4. Zero waste feminine care
This one is for the ladies! Dealing with your period in the mountains and while trekking can be enough to make you want to stay home. A great feminine care product and my personal favorite to use is a menstrual cup. For backpacking, these products are not only waste-free but incredibly convenient and mean you’re not finding a suitable way to throw away menstrual pads or tampons. You might want to carry your own little personal pot to boil (or pour boiled water over) your cup, as it would not be culturally appropriate to this in a local’s kitchen.
5. Educate the locals
On a note that’s less to do with your own waste, the best way to stop littering is to educate everyone who is on the mountain. As a responsible backpacker who knows the damaging effects of littering, it is your duty to spread awareness and educate the locals on better methods of keeping their home and mountains trash-free. If you see some one who might be unaware, teach them about proper disposing methods, composting, litter-picking, sustainable and reusable waste management options. A clean mountain is not only nice for tourists, but makes a more beautiful home for locals.