We have written previously about the huge environmental impact of some sports, such as golf and skiing. Activities like hiking and trail running seem like a better option for climate-friendly sports, but what is the impact of working up a sweat out in nature? Are we having more of an impact than we think, and should we just stay out of nature altogether? (Spoiler alert: at Curious.Earth we would never advocate staying out of nature, don’t worry!)

What are you wearing?

Exercising on trails, whether that’s running, walking or cycling, seems low impact as we aren’t keeping a golf course trimmed and watered or generating pristine fake snow. However, the impact of lots of people in synthetic clothing and rubber-soled running shoes has an alarming hidden effect on the environment: microplastic pollution. A study from Australia showed that fibres from synthetic technical clothing were found in large numbers on trails after running events, and microplastics from running shoes were also shed onto the trails. The softer the sole of the shoe, the more particles were shed.

Lots of waterproof outdoor clothing and footwear also contains ‘forever chemicals’ (perfluorochemicals, or PFCs) which can leak into the environment when the clothing is used, and which then take thousands of years to break down.

Clothing waste is also an issue at large running events, with free t-shirts and goodie bags given to race finishers that are often unwanted and never even worn. However, a movement to make finisher tees optional, so fewer t-shirts are produced in the first place, is growing. Initiatives like Trees not Tees also give events the option to offer a tree planted in place of a free t-shirt. A huge amount of clothing is also discarded at some race events, as people layer up while they wait for the race to start and then take those layers off when they start running. The New York City marathon donated 10.4 tonnes (yes, tonnes!) of discarded clothing in 2022 and previous running articles have even made suggestions of the best clothing to throw away on the start line.

Litter from other sources on trails is also a huge problem. A study from the UK found that there were a shocking 41 pieces of litter per km of trail and a study of marathons in the US estimated that large running events generate an average of 7 tonnes of plastic waste per race. That’s a lot of litter. 

What can we do about it?

There are some solutions to pollution caused by exercising on trails. Non-synthetic fabrics like merino wool can be an alternative to polyester technical gear – but only if you’re not vegan. Some clothing brands are also removing PFCs from their clothing to make them more environmentally friendly. When replacing outdoor gear look for brands and fabrics that have a lighter environmental footprint (check out brands such as Finisterre, Patagonia or Rab, or you could use Ethical Consumer’s guide to outdoor clothing brands), but remember the most sustainable item of clothing is the one you already own!

You can reduce waste at trail events by using a reusable water bottle or a hydration pack, and by refusing a finisher tee if taking part in an organised event. If you are taking part in a race and the option to decline single use water bottles or a goody bag isn’t offered, why not contact the organiser to let them know you’ll be opting out and suggest they reduce their waste footprint by making freebies optional?

Don’t hike so close to me!

Even with the most sustainable kit in the world, are we still potentially harming the natural world just by being in it? Well, maybe. A review of over 300 studies about human interactions with wildlife found that the presence of humans can impact animal behaviour even from as much as 1km away, and even if the activity is a quiet one such as hiking. Another review of 274 studies found that outdoor recreation can have serious negative effects on wildlife, including potentially causing reductions in their population sizes. A study from Glacier National Park compared animal behaviour during covid-19 lockdowns when the park was closed, to periods when the park reopened. This study found that animals used the space in the park differently to avoid humans, but this wasn’t necessarily bad for the animals. 

This study does not say that hiking is necessarily bad for wildlife, but it does have some impacts on … how wildlife uses a landscape and when. Maybe they are not on the trails as much, but they’re using different places, and how much does that actually impact species’ ability to survive and thrive in a place, or not?

Alissa Anderson, a recent WSU master’s graduate in the School of the Environment

Keep out?

So should we just keep out of nature altogether? Unsurprisingly, the Curious.Earth view is: of course not. Spending time in nature has been shown to have huge benefits for our physical and mental health, as well as making us more likely to act in a way that is beneficial to the climate

If anything, it should be made easier for most people to spend more time in nature as access to green spaces is not evenly distributed. In the UK there are huge race and class divides in levels of access to nature. Poorer communities and communities with higher numbers of black and minority ethnic residents have far fewer parks or green spaces than richer, predominantly white neighbourhoods. Lack of good public transport in rural areas also prevents equal access to national parks and other beautiful parts of the countryside. Given that over one-third of the UK population do not live within easy access to any national parks, the lack of public transport restricts visits to people who own cars. This also increases the environmental impact of visiting rural areas, as the use of private cars becomes necessary.

Deliberately removing people from wild places in order to preserve the natural environment (known as ‘fortress conservation’) is linked to colonialism and human rights abuses. This is despite evidence showing that indigenous people remaining on their ancestral land is a highly effective way of conserving the natural environment.

Who makes the rules?

It is clear that we need to  balance the benefits of being in nature with the need to look after the environment. While it might not be possible to enjoy hiking and trail running with zero environmental impact, we can do our best to make that impact as low as possible. So how do we do that?

It’s obviously important that people are able to get out there, but there might be a level of which that starts to be problematic. 

Daniel Thornton, WSU wildlife ecologist

Sets of rules or guides such as Leave No Trace or the Countryside Code are a good place to start. But when being out in nature we need to consider who gets to make those rules in the first place, and whether they are actually accessible to everybody. Given that we know time spent in nature is not shared equally between everyone in society, we should make sure that in trying to keep our trails pristine and full of nature we don’t take part in gatekeeping the outdoors

Be curious! 

Featured image by Brian Metzler on Unsplash.