How To Make Your Next Road Trip Greener

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With road trips representing nearly 40 percent of all vacations in the U.S. in 2018, an increase of 17 percent since 2015 according to the New York Times, the great American road trip is more popular than ever. But with the changing climate, it’s also more important than ever to think deeply about your trip’s environmental impact.

That’s something climber and environmental activist Alex Honnold, whose famed, ropeless ascent of El Capitan was documented in the award-winning film Free Solo, thinks a lot about. As a former van dweller, he knows a thing or two about the environmental impact of long road trips. He says the biggest way to make a difference is to, well, go big. “Go by bicycle. Or use an electric vehicle,” he suggests. “Make the big asks.”

But the reality is, while the steady growth of charging stations across the country makes electric vehicle road tripping easier, many of us don't have the checkbooks to purchase a new vehicle without a lot of planning and saving. That’s why we've chosen to focus this list on ways you can improve the sustainability of your next summer road trip in other ways. Every little bit matters.

Drive Less

While Americans are taking more road trips than ever, we're also taking shorter trips on average, according to a New York Times report on MMGY Global’s annual Portrait of American Travelers. That’s a good trend to follow. Fewer miles means less gas, less carbon emissions and more money to spend at your destination. But don’t stop there. Wherever you’re headed, consider ditching the car as often as possible once you arrive.

“If you want to go out and see stuff,” says Greg Gausewitz, a product sustainability manager at REI, “do it by bike, foot or some mode of transportation that doesn’t involve burning fossil fuels.” Besides, slowing down and getting out in the open air is a more intimate way to experience a new place than watching it through a car window, and that’s why you packed your bags in the first place.

Another option is to use public transportation or infrastructure to get around your destination. There are plenty of great tools out there to help you navigate unfamiliar bus lines, subways and light rail routes. One of our favorites is the free Transit app, which tracks public transportation in more than 175 cities around the world in real time.

There are also often options to get you from the city to the trail without a car. Stopping in Seattle? REI’s Trailhead Direct program will take you to popular hikes on the outskirts of town like Cougar Mountain or Mailbox Peak. In Portland, Oregon, you can take a bus from downtown to four popular spots along the Columbia River Gorge, and in Washington, D.C., city leaders, in part with assistance from REI, are drawing up a trail system that will connect the District’s urban neighborhoods to surrounding parkland and wilderness.

Maintain Your Vehicle

It sounds obvious, but a well-maintained vehicle drives better and more efficiently than a neglected one. One of the simplest things you can do is to properly inflate your tires. Filling them to the correct pressure can increase fuel economy by up to three percent, which can save you more than half a gallon of gas for every 500 miles you drive, given an average fuel efficiency of 27.6 miles per gallon, a figure based on the average economy and age of cars on the road today. You’ll find the target tire pressure for your vehicle on the driver’s side door or your owner’s manual.

Drive Smarter

It also probably won’t surprise you to learn that aggressive driving kills your fuel efficiency, but it may be a shock to learn by how much: speeding, rapid acceleration and hard braking can reduce your car's economy by as much as 30 percent at highway speeds and 40 percent in stop-and-go traffic.

“Relax and let the vehicle do the work,” says Nena Barlow, owner of Arizona-based outfitter and guide service Barlow Adventures. As a certified master Tread Trainer, Barlow teaches other motorized recreationists how to be responsible stewards of the land, and she recently tested her own advice on the famed 22-mile Rubicon Trail in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains using two identical Jeeps with identical loads.

“We had one driver who was very smooth and basically let the vehicle idle through obstacles like it was designed to do,” she says. “The other driver was very aggressive, on and off the throttle, on and off the brakes.”

At the trip’s end, the smooth driver had a quarter tank more gas than their counterpart.

One more thing: use AC sparingly. It can reduce your fuel economy by more than 25 percent, especially on shorter trips. That means being smart about where and when you travel, such as avoiding hot places in hot months, can go a long way.

Camp Out

An average night in a hotel carries a footprint of 15 to 27 kilograms of CO2, equivalent to about 40 to 60 miles of driving. If a hotel is your only option, choose one that uses sustainable practices, or better yet, one that is Green Seal or LEED certified, like Taos Ski Valley’s 80-room Blake, which is also just steps away from lift-served mountain biking.

Otherwise, camp. You’ll tune into nature, and sleeping outside in a forest, canyon or mountain site will always be more of an adventure than any hotel. Just remember to practice Leave No Trace principles, and pack out what you pack in.

Offset Your Impact

People typically think of air travel when they plan to offset their travel-related carbon emissions, says Jonny Bierman, owner of Eco Escape Travel, a travel-focused marketing and eco-content firm. “But there’s no reason we can’t do it for road trips, too.”

Reducing your trip's emissions and footprint should always be your first step, but carbon footprint calculators make it easier than ever to determine the environmental cost of your vacation. Then you can purchase carbon credits to mitigate what you can't reduce. But not all offsets are created equal, and you should do some research before making a purchase. There are several certifications for carbon offsets, such as Green-e and Gold Standard, and Energy Sage, an online marketplace for home solar panel systems, has a great primer on what to look for before opening your checkbook.

Bierman also suggests another option: donating that amount to a local conservation program near your destination that aligns with your values (think “Friends of” nonprofits, for example).

Be A Minimalist

There’s no need to count ounces like ultralight backpackers, but road trippers could learn a thing or two from that group’s general ethic. For one thing, the less you take, the lighter your ride and the less power your car needs to haul your load. Plus, using less gear also minimizes your overall environmental footprint.

“If you can bring one product that does three things, that’s better than bringing three products,” says Gausewitz.

And you don’t need as much as you think. Taylor Zehren and Mitch Gilbert, expert road trippers whose 2016 South by Land project took them from Seattle to southern Argentina, packed light, only stuffing two shirts, shorts, pants, socks and undies each into a single, small plastic bin. “You just do well with what you have, and you adjust,” Zehren says. “Life on the road is simple.”

Whatever gear you do bring, consider renting instead of buying. REI has rental bundles for activities like car camping, climbing and paddling that are perfect for road tripping. If you do buy new gear, try to find products made from recycled content. “Look for gear whose manufacturing has a smaller carbon footprint and uses less impactful materials,” says Sue Long, REI’s sustainability initiative manager. Not sure how to do that? This guide is a great place to start.

Eat Thoughtfully

“It’s super easy to fall into a pattern of grabbing those quick packaged meals that come wrapped in 47 layers of plastic,” Zehren says.

Instead, bring reusable containers and bulk bags for shopping, and whenever possible, hit the local farmers markets, where you’ll support locally grown food with smaller transportation footprints. Plan ahead with the USDA’s National Farmers Market Directory. No matter your diligence, you’ll still likely to produce some waste. Put it in a reusable trash bag, like Sea to Summit’s Trash Dry Sack.

And don’t forget that what you eat matters, too.

“If you’re trying to reduce your impact,” Honnold says, “do it by changing your diet and reducing meat and dairy.”

Give Back

Even using all these practices, the reality is your road trip is still going to have a negative impact on the environment. But that doesn’t mean you can't do good in other ways. For example, during their mission to South America, Zehren and Gilbert partnered with environmental law firm AIDA Americas to document environmental issues through photojournalism.

“It can be really powerful, even on a weeklong road trip, to dedicate an afternoon to volunteering with an environmental organization or stopping to do a beach cleanup if you’re doing California 101,” Zehren says. “It doesn’t have to be organized. If you see trash, be the one who picks it up. Putting in those hours deepens your interaction with the landscape and is a way to give back that goes beyond car efficiency.”

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