Finding a Place to Lay Your Head

In my first blog post, I defined the parameters of what ethical travel means to me. The first point dealt with transportation and following two points focused on how to act once you arrive in a place. This post will focus on lodging once you arrive at your destination.

Any given destination usually has a multitude of accommodations to choose from: hotels, campgrounds, houses, cottages, or cabins to rent, hostels, homes of friends, relatives, or even friendly strangers. So which of these options can be classified as the most efficient with the smallest environmental footprint?

Personally, I’m a big fan of camping whenever possible, and that’s primarily because I’m drawn to nature-oriented vacations in the first place. Camping also has the added benefits of being one of the cheapest options for a place to spend the night and campgrounds are usually not too hard to come by.

When cost and environmental impact are concerns, staying with a friend or relative or crashing on a couch through Couchsurfing is a great option. It’s basically free and you get to visit someone whom you probably haven’t seen in a while (or have never met at all). Plus, if this person’s schedule allows for it, you might just end up with an awesome tour guide or at least someone who knows the place well and can give you tips about how to act like a local while you’re visiting. Whatever your lodging, ethical travel is most successful when you can blend into the local lifestyle (but that’s a discussion for another time).

What I would consider the next best option (if your budget allows for it) is renting. Renting is a great way to stimulate the local economy or even just support an individual family. When my family took our trip to Montana, which I wrote about in my first post, we stayed in a vacation rental apartment which a family had built over a garage they had on their property. In a rental like ours, you have your own space to cook, amenities like bedding and towels are provided, and you have a lot of privacy.

My family has also stayed in rental cabins where we have provided our own bedding, towels, food, etc. and while that means more packing for us, it also cuts down on the waste of restocking a rental facility and the excessive housekeeping practices of many hotels and some rentals. An added benefit of rental cabins is that they have allowed us to stay right in the forest; you can’t get that with a hotel.

Hotels are typically the least environmentally-friendly option because they generate the most waste, but the expansion of the “green tourism” sector has also led to an increase of green hotels which strive for environmentally-friendly practices such as cutting down washing linens, energy efficient lighting, heating, and cooling, and low-flow shower heads and toilets, and recycling or composting programs.

Green hotels are given a rating by agencies like The Rainforest Alliance and The World Wildlife Fund. So, searching for this environmentally-friendly option when choosing your destination is another good thing to consider.

Lastly, if you end up in a regular hotel, here are some tips for minimizing impact.

  • Set your air conditioner or heater to the most efficient temperature and turn it off if possible when you leave for the day.
  • Always turn off your lights and unplug appliances when you are not in your room.
  • Ask that your sheets and towels are not changed each day. (You don’t change them that often at home anyway.)
  • Find out if your hotel has a recycling program. If it doesn’t, then save your recyclables and take them home with you to dispose of properly.
  • Avoid using any disposable items in your room that are regularly replaced. This even goes for the trash can liners. If you dispose of garbage yourself in an outside dumpster, the trash can liner will be changed less often.

As far as my trip to Colorado is concerned, I’ll be staying a friend’s house in Loveland and tenting in Estes Park.


From the Prairie to the Mountains

The issue of travel, especially in the United States where cars, highways, and air travel all reign supreme is what first made me curious about the topic of environmentally friendly tourism. Is there a way for a girl from Iowa to sustainably visit the diverse landscapes that our country has to offer?

Unfortunately, the best course of action to take when attempting to minimize the amount of CO2 emissions a trip creates is simply to travel a shorter distance. Taking trips that are closer to home or taking a vacation at home are two of the most surefire ways to reduce your carbon footprint.

Now, as I’ve said before, I’m a prairie girl who loves the mountains. That doesn’t mean I don’t love where I’m from; there is much exploring to be done in the Midwest and I am a big fan of the landscape of my part of the country. But the United States is just so big and interesting, and I love seeing different parts of it.

What’s a traveler to do?

Well, if the adventure you’re seeking isn’t within the near reaches of your hometown, read on.

Let’s say that you live in Iowa and your dream trip is to the Rocky Mountains. What mode of travel will be the most practical for you and cause the least harm to the environment? (Note, when I talk about environmental harm here, I’m primarily referring to greenhouse gas emissions.)

Especially for short flights (500 miles or less), air travel is not advised as a method of transportation because it produces the most CO2 emissions per mile. The trip from my part of Iowa to Denver, Colorado is around 800 miles, so even for that distance, air travel is out. Air travel is convenient, but it also means that you lose out on a lot of good scenery along the way. So I’ll pass for the time being. However, if your trip requires you to fly, some options for reducing your carbon footprint are fuel efficient jets such as the Boeing 777 or Airbus 365 and booking nonstop, full flights whenever possible. You might have a little less space for your carry on if your flight is full, but avoiding a layover flight is definitely worth it.

The two most environmentally friendly modes of travel are train and bus. Forms of public transportation create less CO2 emissions per person because they transport groups of people at a time. Taking the bus might seem strange in a car obsessed world, but it takes the pressure off having to drive long distances alone. And trains? I think taking a trip by train would just be cool in general. I hope that I’m able to someday. Unfortunately train and bus stations are a little hard to come by in Iowa when compared to other states, so I would have to travel 162 miles by car in order to get to the nearest train station.

So how about bus stations? Well, the nearest bus station is in the next town over, but Jefferson Lines only services select states, and Colorado is not one of them. I could make it to Montana though. Which is cool. Because, of course, mountains are there, too. But if I want a bus station that can get me to Colorado, I’ll have to drive 85 miles. Then I can hop on a bus and get to Denver.

Bus and train stations sound like a great way to get to different parts of the country, but the problem is that they are still limited services in terms of where you can go and how far someone like me, who lives in a rural area, has to travel to get to such a station. There is also the issue of transportation once you reach your destination. In my case, a bus would get me as close as Denver to the mountains. Once there, I could take a shuttle from the Denver airport up to Estes Park or I would probably have to rent a car (which I’m not old enough to do).

This brings me to my next point, rental cars and general car travel. If you are a member of the population who is old enough to rent a car without racking up a ton of additional costs, here are some things to consider.

  • Rent the smallest car possible or opt for a hybrid (you’ll create fewer emissions and save money on gas).
  • Pack as lightly as possible. More weight means more fuel must be consumed.
  • Ensure that the vehicle is in good working order and use the cruise control as much as possible to obtain high fuel efficiency (keeping you save and saving money).

At least until I’m older, my most efficient and environmentally friendly option for travel from Iowa to Colorado would probably be asking my dad if I can borrow his hybrid to make the trip. However, a bus trip to a different location where I can still get to my beloved mountains is definitely worth taking into consideration.

Once you arrive at your destination (whether by some form of public transportation or by car), it is best to travel with your own power whenever possible. Walking, hiking, bicycling, sailing, and kayaking are all wonderful past times, but it is important to remember that they are all legitimate forms of transportation as well.

The last thing a traveler can do is buy carbon credits to offset the emissions created by traveling: donate to an organization that promotes healthy forestry, or even plant their own trees as a personal form of carbon credit (click on this link to learn more about carbon credits).

The Problem with Definitions

Delving into the topic of eco travel, I was met with the barrage of jargon that has come to characterize the modern day environmental culture. Ideas like: green, sustainable, responsible, ethical, environmentally-friendly—and the too-common practice of tacking the prefix “eco” on to basically everything. Does anyone actually know what any of this stuff means? Or is it all just a bunch of words that marketers and travelers alike hide behind in their attempts to persuade people that they are doing a good thing? And if we’re serious about wanting to minimize our impact on the environment while traveling, how do we decide what to call it to avoid the “eco-lingo confusion”?

Well, let’s take a look at some dictionary definitions, for starters.

Green (adjective): advocating environmental protection

Sustainable: (of economic development, energy sources) capable of being maintained at a steady level without exhausting natural resources or causing severe ecological damage

Responsible: answerable or accountable, as for something within one’s power, control, or management

Ethical: being in accordance with the rules or standards for right conduct or practice

Environmentally friendly/ eco-friendly: a marketing term referring to goods and services, laws, guidelines and polices that inflict reduce, minimal, or no harm upon ecosystems or the environment.

Let me offer a couple of theories about the origin of this onslaught of eco-language. First, to throw out another buzzword, let’s talk about “greenwashing”. Simply put, greenwashing is the practice of making something seem more ”eco-friendly” than it actually is. Most of the words mentioned above are ambiguous, an ambiguity certain people use to deceive others and to make a profit. It’s easy to characterize a practice as “green”, “environmentally friendly”, or “sustainable” when there is little pressure to clearly define what actions or regulations stem from those words.

With the rising interest in environmental awareness, corporations stand ready to capitalize on the profits they can make from merely labeling a product or service as “green”. People want “green,” so label what you have to sell as “green,” and turn out a profit. Unfortunately, corporations are not the only ones who attempt greenwashing. Any traveler, writer, blogger, or combination of the three may choose portray their experiences as more “environmentally friendly” than they actually are in order to gain readership, popularity, or just to enhance their own sense of virtue.

But, as I framed the issue in my first post, are we willing to truly turn our cameras on ourselves, to see if we’re really being as eco-friendly as we portray ourselves?

There are a lot of words we can hide behind. I don’t want to do that. But because of the confusion surrounding all of these terms, I feel that it is important for me to explain the term I’ll be using in this blog and how I define it.

I’m drawn to the term “ethical travel.” I believe that ethical travel captures the environmental and social impacts that tourism has on a location and the connection between the two. Ironically, blogger Jim O’Donnell captures this connection well in his definition of sustainable tourism. He says, “Sustainable tourism sustains or enhances the character of a place, meaning that your tourism dollars go to benefit the history, living culture, environment and socio-economic well-being of the people who live in tourism destinations.”

Something that I appreciate about this definition is that it offers a practical means of tourism that can theoretically be acted out anywhere by anyone. Based on this, I have chosen to characterize ethical travel in three ways, with the aim of being as transparent as possible:

  • Ethical travel seeks the most practical means of transportation with the least amount of pollution.
  • Ethical travel means minimizing negative impacts on the environment and people and maximizing positive ones. Ethical travelers should aim higher than “no impact”; they should aim for a positive impact whenever possible.
  • Ethical travelers should strive to act as locals in the places which they visit, treating the place as if it were their own home. This means making choices there which stimulate the local economy in ways that benefit all people who live there and cause minimal to no negative impact on the environment.

Ethical travel is a complex issue that cannot be fully explained in a short definition, but my hope is to continue to address the topics I have presented in later blog posts.




The World of Green Travel

There is no doubt that the topic of green travel has already amassed a large, ever-growing body of information. I have chosen to focus my blog on the practical things an ordinary person can do to engage in environmentally ethical travel practices, specifically in the United States. However, this topic is much broader than that, so I’ve compiled a list of some useful links for exploring some of the different facets of green travel.

If you’re interested in….

…Specific “eco-destinations” or “eco-friendly” tour companies, check out GreenSpot Travel. This blog recounts personal narratives and insights from different travel locations, giving readers valuable insights into places that may seem foreign to them. This blog is part of a larger travel website that provides links to travel destinations such as Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama, Mexico, and Iceland. Also, when searching beyond this website, be on the lookout for The Rainforest Alliance logo. This organization reviews travel companies with specific criteria related to sustainable travel.

…Exploring the natural world in adventurous ways check out National Geographic’s Adventure Blog. This blog takes traveling in nature to the extremes of physical activity and wilderness immersion. National Geographic also addresses conservation and responsible tourism within the parameters of this blog. One series of posts that I am especially interested in on this blog is entitled ‘A Year in the Wilderness’ which is about Dave Freedman’s year-long expedition into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, something he is doing in support of the Save the Boundary Waters Campaign. This campaign is focused on protecting the area from proposed mining in the area.

…The lexicon of green travel, check out this article from The Frog Blog. Run by the Rainforest Alliance, an organization that works to conserve biodiversity and sustainable land use, business, and consumer practices, The Frog Blog addresses many different environmental issues, so it’s a great blog from a reputable organization that provides further reading on the broader issues in environmentalism. This article specifically does a great job of addressing the ambiguity in words and phrases like “sustainable”, “eco-travel”, and “green tourism,” and opening the conversation to commenters to add in their own thoughts and definitions of sustainable travel.

…The ethics of travel in environmental and social dimensions, Ethical Traveler is the place to visit. The motto of this website is “empowering travelers to change the world”. The site is a great place to start gaining general information about the ethics of travel and it’s a good a springboard for planning your own trip. A helpful part of this sight is the list—“The World’s Ten Best Ethical Destinations—2015”. If you want to seriously plan a trip or just explore the possibilities, this website will be more than helpful.

Lastly, a post that helped me orient myself in this broad conversation is “Top Bloggers Talk Sustainable Travel” from The answers provided from different travel bloggers showcase all the different issues that play into what makes travel “sustainable”, especially on a global scale.

Setting the Scene

IMG_0444Here, at the top of the perfectly named Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park we pull over, stop the car, and get out to gape like the Midwestern tourists we are at the towering Rockies. Can you blame us? Who wouldn’t? It’s not just the altitude that’s breath-taking up here. The naked peaks draped in white sheets of snow dwarf the pine trees that huddle in groups in the lush green valley below. Pencil-streak waterfalls gleam and ribbon the cliffs that wall-in the valley floor.

Everything around us is blue and green and gray and bathed in brilliant sunlight. Two miniature clouds hang suspended in the blue air above the mountain peaks—a high ridgeline with one lone cone protruding in the center, puncturing the blue.

Captivated by the beauty of this place, the thin pine air, the texture and depth of the landscape, I sit on a large sunbaked boulder on the side of the road and simply stare.

It’s true. My parents and I are tourists.

We’re just passing through, consuming scenery like this, which we observe mostly through our car windows as we drive through Glacier National Park, our CO2 emissions adding to the assault on the glacier fields of northern Montana that are receding more and more each year.

So much for the whole “Take only photographs, leave only footprints” mentality. I don’t think a carbon footprint falls under that protection. The land is rugged and wild, but we keep it at a distance. I wish that I could just scoot down the rocky ledge away from the road and descend into the valley for a while. I daydream about what it would be like to saunter through the clusters of pines or drench myself in the shower of a thin waterfall. The mountains force me to stretch my imagination as high as they are tall. I try to picture what it would be like to stand on the summit of that cone piercing the distance.

Mountains baffle me. From the spot where I sit, the sun warming my shoulders, the mountain is only a part of the whole scene. Its size doesn’t register. It seems small in comparison to the landscape as a whole. But then, I look at the trees, compare them to the valley walls and then compare the walls to the mountain. I realize that it’s huge. Gargantuan. Massive. My eyes, which are so accustomed to fields of crops that stretch out until they meet the horizon, are confounded by the enormity of this landscape. And I feel very small here. But I don’t mind. I am content to play a small role in this scene and let the landscape overshadow me.

As Emerson said, “I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all.” And I want to believe that. I want to bask in my smallness, mollify myself with my own insignificance, and when I look at the mountains, it’s easy.

But over my shoulder there’s another photograph—one that won’t make a postcard. Cars snake their way up the road, engines whir and tires grind over asphalt. The shoes of other tourists crunch on the gravel pullout as they step up to snap their family pictures—their faces barely making room for the mountains. If I took a picture of them, I could post it under the title: “The industrialized world chugs on,” all of us clogs in one big machine of commerce and consumerism.

Even here.

I think back to the ticket booth that we were funneled through to purchase a park pass from a ranger sitting in a small box, belittled by his repetitive task, boxed in from the vistas that we and a thousand other travelers are stuffing ourselves with like pizza at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

I knew that, unlike Emerson, I could not trick myself into believing that I was nothing. I was part of the problem, and it broke my heart, because I want to be part of the solution.

The first step toward the solution is embracing both pictures. As humans, we crave beauty and landscapes like this one are truly awe-inspiring. I could write many blog posts on the importance of nature. However, we also need to recognize the consequences of human life on the natural world. We need to face the fact that our consumption of beauty comes at a high cost to the planet and work to minimize that cost.

I want to be someone who gives the land a voice and protects it, not abuses it.

Welcome to the Journey

Strawberry Mountains 1I took my first trip from the cornfields of Iowa to the mountains of Montana with my parents during the summer when I was twelve. We spent two days driving out to my uncle’s house, stopping at all the typical touristy destinations along the way. The Corn Palace of Mitchell, South Dakota. Wall Drug. Badlands National Park. Mount Rushmore. After spending a few days with my uncle we drove home through Yellowstone National Park and visited Devil’s Tower in Wyoming as our final destination before heading home to the Midwest. The trip opened my eyes to the beauty of the West, and I begged my parents to take me back again the next summer.

As I entered my teenage years, I began to develop two passions, a love of nature and a deep commitment to environmental responsibility. As a young child, I regularly participated in my town’s Earth Day celebration and picked up litter along the lakeshore near my house all year round. I helped maintain the recycling program in my school, and I volunteered at a city garden.

My family continued to travel regularly, and we made five more trips back to the West throughout my high school and college years. It wasn’t until the most recent trip to Glacier National Park that I realized my two passions could not merely coexist. I began to realize the devastating impact tourism often has on a landscape, and this sparked the question that my blog will explore: How can average-income, environmentally-conscious Midwesterners eco-travel?

Throughout this blog series, my aim is to explore how the average person can travel in an environmentally-friendly manner without necessarily needing to plan to travel to specifically “eco-friendly” destinations, which, ironically often require a plane flight to access. I want to discover how to enjoy the natural world without exploiting it, and I hope that you will come on this journey with me.