Please respect the outdoors by practicing Leave No Trace. Learn more about how to apply the principles of Leave No Trace on your next outdoor adventure here.
Jared Kennedy | 10.14.2019

My career started in the building industry helping architects, engineers, and contractors work to make their projects more sustainable. My years in the field taught me a few things that apply to outdoor recreation as well, the most imperative being that, even with the best of intentions, we all make an impact on the places we visit and inhabit. Applying a lens of sustainability and carbon reduction brings awareness to the way we do the things we do. These choices inform our habits, and habits are incredibly hard to change. Getting started is the hardest part, but with intention and planning anything is possible.

Outdoor recreation requires protecting the places we love to recreate, so our desire to change habits has a positive reinforcement mechanism already built in. With this in mind, here is a simple guide on how to get started reducing your recreation carbon footprint or find new ways to up your game.


Tree-planting projects offer a simple, impactful way to offset emissions. Jaime Johnson.

The Newbies

Newbies need a place to start without feeling overwhelmed. Let’s get started with a basic primer. The first order of business is to have a great time connecting with nature. If you have never thought about reducing the carbon impacts associated with your outdoor recreation activities, here are simple ways to get started when you plan your next trip.

Transportation: Carbon emissions from transportation to and from your adventure is the biggest carbon impact to consider with your outdoor recreation planning. The nice four-wheel-drive rig makes you look like a badass when you pull up, but the roads were all paved, so your fuel-efficient compact would have gotten you there just fine. Did you carpool with your friends or drive separately?

Gear and Apparel: Next comes your gear and apparel needs, and when identifying the carbon intensity, take into account the product life cycle, shipping emissions, and what happens when you are done with the product. Depending on the activity, you may require new gear. Borrow from a friend if you aren’t sure how much you’ll use it. If you are only going to use it a few times per year, buying it used is another great option. Don’t stress on the newest styles. And once you have a product, use it up, patch it up, or sell it to a secondhand store that can fix it up for someone else.

Camping: Making an inefficient campfire is the biggest camping impact, but others include how you handle your camping waste and other impacts on undisturbed land. Remember, camping is fun. Sleeping under the stars is great. There is no need for a huge bonfire, but you are outdoors, so enjoy a night with passive cooling and remember to turn off your air conditioner or turn the heat down when you leave your house for the night. (Just don’t let your pipes freeze!)

Discovery: Prepare for your plans with a map and your other nine essentials. Make sure you are adequately familiar with the area you are exploring. Let someone else know your itinerary. Activating search and rescue is a very carbon-intensive operation, so make sure you are sufficiently prepared that this won’t happen.


The Weekend Warriors

Weekend warriors can build repeatable habits, in this case making an effort to take impacts into consideration as part of each planning process. Time to think a bit more deeply on the ways to minimize and offset our impacts and build some replicable habits into the weekly adventure plan.

Transportation: Find areas you can reach with public transit or go by bike. If the only option is to drive, save these trips for when you can go with a full carload instead of just one or two people.

Gear and Apparel: Put your gear choices into overdrive by always buying second hand, and stretch the life of your products as long as possible. When buying something new, buy for durability and longevity, and factor where the item was made and shipped to you and what options are out there to recycle it once its life cycle is over.

Camping: Bring blankets and layers so you can avoid making campfires unless you really need the warmth. Use wood that would have otherwise been chipped rather than buying firewood. Keep your fires small. Follow Leave No Trace guidance to clean your camping dishes properly, and camp only in designated or impacted areas.

Discovery: Use Outdoor Project! You can offset your energy usage (see offsets). Alternatively, buy a used guidebook or check one out from your local library. 

Offsets: One option is to consider buying offsets for your annual recreation carbon footprint. This allows you to measure your annual driving miles and other carbon uses, and then make sure you pay for added clean energy production. Alternatively, or in addition, get involved with local conservation organizations seeking to increase wilderness protections, take on the timber industry and other extractive industries’ lobbying efforts, or support groups looking to build a post-carbon future. All of these groups are constantly in need of donations, volunteers, and people willing to call or email elected officials to support these initiatives.


The Ultralight (Carbon) Ounce Counters

Take it to the max! Thru-hikers cut their toothbrushes in half to shave an ounce. Here is how to apply this level of rigor to your recreation carbon footprint. Although some of these may sound crazy to the newbies, all are things you can do right now.

Transportation: Only drive to your destination when in absolute need. But in general, recreate in places near enough that you can walk, bike, or ride public transit.

Gear and Apparel: Sew your own clothes and blankets from patches and scraps dug up from the dumpsters behind your local outdoor shop. Buy only products that can be reused in their entirety with a full life cycle cost analysis worked out ahead of time. Borrow gear from friends or rent it for any new activities you are interested in doing but that require you to have your own gear.

Camping: Skip the fire. Use a camping stove that can be refilled instead of using wasteful canisters.

Discovery: Once you get outside, turn off your phone to save the charge while you are out of cell range. When deciding if you want to do something for the first time, like skydiving, don’t. Are the carbon implications worth the enjoyment it will add to your life?

Offsets: If you buy offsets for any carbon uses you just can’t avoid, make sure you buy them from providers who use the funds to drive new clean energy projects rather than credits from efforts that are already mandated by state or local rules. These are offsets that match the “additionality” rule. If this is new to you, you can learn more here. Another way to apply additionality is to become an activist. Get intimately involved in the never-ceasing efforts to protect the outdoors from extractive industries. Write your favorite conservation groups into your will.



Thanks for trying to broach this topic with the outdoorsy set. We all need to start thinking more about the impact of our lifestyle.

But I can't agree with you about campfires! Campfires are (nearly) carbon-neutral if you're burning dead, downed wood (who cuts down green trees for firewood anyway?).

And why no mention of EVs? Biking or bussing really are not practical options to reach places off the beaten path, with gear. Especially with children. So if you're going to drive, you can cut your carbon footprint significantly by using Kilowatt-hours instead of gallons. (The exact savings depend on the electricity mix where you live, but even in the worst case your EV will get the "carbon equivalent" of over 40mpg. In California it's well over 100mpg. And it gets better every year.)

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