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Slowly, then all of a sudden, I’ve turned into an outdoorsy gal who is in need of sustainable hiking apparel and camping gear.
I grew up tromping through the woods around our house in North Carolina, attended a hippie sleepaway camp in the mountains, and did one more overnight backpacking trip in middle school. Then, life took me away from the woods and into the big city, where I sought out sustainable fashion that didn’t look outdoorsy.
But, nature beckoned. When I found myself getting down and moody about the world, I insisted my then-boyfriend-now-husband go with me on a hike upstate. It was an easy one — accessible from the train station and only about 3 hours of casual ambling through the woods. But, I got him hooked. During our honeymoon in Hawaii, we found ourselves hiking for seven hours through Haleakala’s crater. Having accomplished the two hours of switchback up the cliffside with time to take in the astonishing view, we realized what we were capable of. We did more hiking throughout Central and South America and Vietnam. But it took a pandemic to send us the store to shop for a cookstove and a tent. Yep, we’re doing an overnight backpacking trip.
We’re not the only ones! While through-hikers on the Appalachian trail are being told to postpone their trip, day-trip and overnighters are still heading out to the trails.
And frankly, the amount of gearing up required is making me a little uncomfortable. So much shopping! For synthetic stuff! Ouch. It feels downright hypocritical at times.
So, for me, and for you, I’m putting together a big guide on how to gear up for the outdoors — both hiking and camping — in the most sustainable way possible. Before I share with you the best places to shop, here are some guidelines:
Yes, it’s a lot of synthetics. If you’re coming from the sustainable fashion community, you might be nonplussed by how much of the camping gear is petroleum-based. I thought these were supposed to be planet and plant lovers? Polyester and nylon are two types of plastics that take hundreds of years to biodegrade, and — especially fluffy fleece jackets — shed microfibers into the environment, which make up about 35% of microplastics in the ocean. Synthetics also tend to hold tightly on to smells, so you’ll find that synthetic t-shirts, shorts, socks, sports bras, underwear — anything against your skin, really — will start to permanently smell. (My husband just threw away a synthetic Nike t-shirt because the B.O. was unbearable even after a wash with vinegar!)
But unlike with, say, sundresses, there’s a really good reason that hiking and camping gear is made up of synthetics, and it’s not to save money. (One look at the price of a new snowboarding jacket will disabuse you of that notion.) No, it’s because synthetics just perform better than natural materials in almost every situation. High-end branded versions of nylon and polyester are lightweight, stretchy, waterproof, sweat-wicking, breathable… I could go on and on. The alternative is heavy leather or waxed canvas over wooden tent poles. Which is cute… if you have someone else carrying and setting up your glamping set-up for you. Like with bathing suits, you’re just going to have to accept synthetics into your life for your tent, shoes, and waterproof gear. Try to go with brands that use recycled polyester and nylon, if possible, to lessen their impact.
But merino wool is your friend. The one area where I prefer natural materials over synthetics is apparel that sits next to my skin. And for that, merino wool cannot be beat. Contrary to the regular, itchy wool you find in sweaters, merino wool is lightweight, sweat-wicking, odor-repelling, and much healthier for your body, especially when you’re wearing it for long periods of time. You don’t have to wash it every time you wear it — just hang it up overnight and put it right back on, which is great for lightweight backpacking and also saving water and energy. It’s especially good for socks, but I also am in love with my merino wool zip-up hiking sweater, and recently invested in a t-shirt and leggings from the same brand. Read more about the sustainability of wool here.
You can also look into bamboo rayon and lyocell products for your underwear, as it’s as comfy as cotton, but more lightweight and sweat-wicking.
Watch out for “forever chemicals.” Another problem that has bedeviled the outdoor wear industry is PFAs, those synthetic chemicals used to coat rain jackets and other outdoor gear to make them waterproof, while keeping them comfortable and breathable. (Yes, you could wear a trash bag, but then you would be sweating bullets.) These chemicals in Durable Water Repellents (DWRs) have been linked to neurological, liver, and immune system damage, as well as some cancers — especially for workers that make and use these coatings, though there just hasn’t been enough research into how they may affect the wearer. It’s been a struggle for even the most eco-friendly apparel brands to shed the worst class of these chemicals completely. But, the good news is that if you are a novice, it should be easy for you to avoid them, as they are really only needed for outdoor gear that is used by the pros for extreme conditions. (I’m assuming you’re not hiking Mount Everest any time soon.)
Borrow or rent first. Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild romanticized the fact that she showed up to the trail with zero experience. But most people know better and ease into it. While you’re slowly trying your hand at hiking longer and longer trails, and trying out car camping and then backpacking, you should also ease into gear-buying — both to save money and to shrink your environmental impact. For your first few hikes, you shouldn’t need anything more than some sneakers, a baseball cap, and whatever small backpack and water bottles you have lying around. (If you do need more for this first hike, then you are hiking the wrong trail!) When you’re ready for an overnight at a place that is close to where you park your car, see if you can borrow the basics from an experienced friend: a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, headlamp and lantern, cooler, and hiking map along with a trail recommendation. If you don’t have an outdoorsy friend, look for a place near you that does rentals. That could be a small local business, REI, or Outdoors Geek. Having the perfect gear only really makes a difference once you get into high-impact hiking, like attempting the Appalachian trail.
Do your research. Though sustainability and reputation often go hand in hand when it comes to outdoor brands, you might find that the backpack that fits you the best is from a conventional brand and isn’t available in the used version. Or, you feel guilty about getting synthetic trail running shoes instead of the longer-lasting leather hiking boots. But I’m here to tell you that it is much more wasteful to buy an “eco-friendly” piece of gear only to replace it in a few months with what you wanted in the first place. And it’s especially wasteful to overshop! I made this mistake when I bought a pair of heavy hiking boots because I thought that they would last a long time. I hadn’t done any research. If I had, I would have realized that many hikers have switched to trail running shoes. I did as well, just so I could stuff them in my carry-on, and I’m so glad I did. I’ve worn those nice hiking boots… twice in two years. I’m sorry!
So do your research! Figure out what you absolutely need now, and what is a nice-to-have that you can put off. Shop around, look at online reviews and forums for other people’s experiences, try everything on. Outdoor enthusiasts are incredibly honest and generous with their advice and reviews and opinions, so take advantage! When you find something you like, check out the guarantee, return and repair policies so that if something breaks or it gives you nasty blisters, you know you can return it or get it repaired.
Buy secondhand. OK, you’ve done an overnight and ascertained that you like this life and want to get back out there, do it soon, and do it a lot. Luckily, there are a lot of places to get secondhand and refurbished hiking gear for a song, including REI, Patagonia, Arc’Teryx, who all take back their own gear for repair and resale; Outdoors Geek, which sells its rental gear; and peer-to-peer selling on Gear Trade, Craigslist, and eBay. This article has the pros and cons of each. I personally bought from REI’s used selection when I needed snowboarding gear, because I only go snowboarding a few times a year, and I’m very pleased with that decision.
Go small and lightweight. There are several good reasons for this. One is that the smaller and lighter an item, the less material was used in its manufacture, and the fewer emissions expended in shipping it to you. But also, buying small and lightweight is a good investment! If you buy something assuming that you’ll only ever be car camping, you will be very frustrated dragging it a half-mile down the road to a music festival site. (Remember music festivals? Sigh.) Or you won’t be able to take it on the bus or plane. Or you’ll end up replacing it within a year when you go on a backpacking trip. That was me: I bought a lovely secondhand air mattress and now I can’t use it because it’s too big even when deflated and rolled up! So take it from me, go as small as you’re able to right now.
Alright, all that being said, let’s look at where you can find the most sustainable hiking and camping apparel and gear:
American, Apparel, Gear, Secondhand, Food
Patagonia is the leading apparel brand innovating toward a more sustainable future, and also a leader in the outdoor apparel industry. The cult-favorite brand with a vintage aesthetic has too many initiatives to all list here, but they include pioneering a recycled version of Gore-Tex, using recycled wool, using Chilean recycled fishing nets for its trucker hats, all adding up to more than 70% of its materials being from recycled sources now, with a goal to get to 100% by 2025. It partners with Fair Trade-certified factories, aims for carbon neutrality by 2025, funds research into microfiber pollution, and donates to environmental nonprofits and political campaigns. If new Patagonia is too pricey for you, then check out Worn Wear, Patagonia’s store selling refurbished, like-new, and upcycled Patagonia gear. Patagonia also sells tasty camping food made with regenerative ingredients called Patagonia Provisions.
American, Apparel, Gear, Tools, Secondhand, Food
REI is a one-stop shop for everything you need for camping, from apparel to gear, food, tools… anything you might need is there. Its YouTube channel with Miranda as the charming host has been really instructive for us as we’ve been deciding what equipment to get or even learning how to DIY alternatives, like camping meals! Every brand that REI carries meets a minimum standard of ethical and sustainable operation. Although not every single item is made out of recycled and/or natural materials, many of them meet some sort of eco and/or ethical standard and are made by companies who are committed to progress, including many of the ones listed here. Or, you can shop from its Used Gear section, which is perhaps the most sustainable (and affordable!) option. Plus, it just launched a program where you can trade in your old gear for a gift card. For more about REI’s sustainability initiatives in depth, read this.
American, Apparel, Gear
Named after a famous mountain in the Ecuadorian Andes (which I’ve visited!), Cotopaxi’s motto is Do Good, and in the short time since this Utah-based startup launched, its color-blocked backpacks and apparel have become a favorite of adventurous backpacker-travelers. It’s a certified B Corp, and each purchase helps fund poverty-fighting projects around the world. It has a special Del Dia collection where the garment workers get to “design” backpacks out of upcycled materials leftover from other outdoor apparel companies, so no two are exactly alike, and fleece jackets made from recycled materials. Because this is a newer startup, it might not have the depth of experience to yield the same quality as an old timer like Patagonia, but it does have a guarantee in case anything goes awry.
Apparel, Gear, Secondhand
This high-end Canadian brand sells apparel, backpacks, and hiking shoes, climbing and snow gear with sleek, modern design. Though not as well known for its environmental innovation as Patagonia, you’ll see the Arc’Teryx name in many of the same programs around microfiber research, science-based carbon emissions reduction, and reducing the use of PFAs and other toxic finishes and dyes. It also has a repair program, and resells used Arc’Teryx apparel and gear at an affordable price.
European, Apparel, Gear
You might recognize this Scandinavian brand’s famous backpacks, but it offers much more in the way of hiking apparel and gear, including sleeping bags and tents. It uses recycled wool, organic hemp and Tencel®; recycled polyester, and traceable wool; along with a few conventional fabrics like polyamide and regular cotton. It does not use PFCs, PVCs and angora wool, and is working on getting PFAs out of the last of its products. It only offers repairs of products covered under the Limited Lifetime Warranty (for which you have proof you purchased it from an authorized seller and for defects such as split seams, broken snaps, buttons, zippers, and buckles,) but it does offer instructions for very basic repairs such as patching rips and fixing zippers. Its goal is to become carbon-neutral by 2025. This is a good brand to try if you feel really uncomfortable with synthetics and prefer a backpack that is waxed cotton and leather, for example.
New Zealand, Apparel
Icebreaker uses mostly natural OEKO-TEX certified merino wool, with the goal of completely eliminating all synthetics in its products by 2023. It establishes long-term relationships with its merino growers in order to ensure strict animal welfare. The company is committed to transparency and regularly audits its factories for things like waste management and human rights labor practices.
European, Apparel, Gear
This European brand is a fusion of streetwear and outdoor apparel and gear, with flat-brim trucker hats, patterned sleeping bags, 18-liter backpacks, and stylish surf and snowboard apparel. A certified B Corp, Picture’s overarching goal is to fight climate change and reduce its footprint, through using organic, recycled, upcycled, and natural materials, along with PFC-free waterproofing and cruelty-free wool and leather. It also leads mountain cleanup expeditions, and donates to outdoor-focused charitable projects.
American, Apparel, Gear
Coalatree designs eco-minded gear and apparel for people who move easily between the great outdoors and the office and going out. It started out as a self-sustaining organic farm in Colorado, which launched its own workwear collection of apparel in 2010, moving into the outdoor industry while preserving the ethos of making sustainable goods. Find t-shirts, hats, multi-use travel blankets, camping hammocks, and packable bags that fit in stuff sacks, the majority made of recycled or organic materials, and a few even from recycled coffee grounds!
This brand mainly focuses on yoga, but it also has a hiking line with outdoor gear like hiking pants and jackets made with recycled nylon and organic cotton. It also offers extended sizing up to 3X. This is a good brand to shop for beginning day hikers or travelers who want a little more style.
Wild Rye is a women’s mountain brand offering technical apparel with fun patterns. It has an edited selection of mountain biking clothes and merino wool layers. It uses Bluesign-certified non-toxic fabrics, offsets its carbon emissions, and donates to outdoor-focused charities.
European, Apparel, Gear
For our European readers, this German outdoor apparel and gear company has transparent and stringent criteria for its eco-friendly and ethical products. You can explore its extensive sustainability report, but to sum it up, it strives for durable, repairable products using sustainable materials such as Tencel, organic cotton, hemp, and recyclable materials, avoids toxic finishes and materials like PVC and PFCs, and is certified as non-toxic by bluesign and OEKO-TEX. It also makes a large portion in its own facility in Germany, has pioneered ensuring fair working conditions in its foreign factories with a living wage required that is above and beyond the legal minimum wage, and is working on ensuring the same in 2nd and 3rd-tier suppliers, like fabric mills.