The Points & Miles Backpacker is a weekly column appearing every Monday. TPG Contributor Brian Biros, who has backpacked the globe for the past 15 years, discusses how to fund this adventurous, budgeted and increasingly popular form of travel with points and miles. He’ll also explore all things backpacking-related. Read his story here and his high-level approach here.
A common dilemma for frequent flyers is wanting to see the world, while also being mindful about the impact of their carbon footprint. Personally, I find my desire to protect the Earth is stronger than ever when I’m exploring delicate coral reefs or listening to the sound of moving glaciers. I love the planet, but I don’t have any plans to stop exploring it.
That’s why I’ve adopted some environmentally-friendly practices for my travels, which include packing a handful of eco-friendly products for every trip. These items have become staples in my backpack, even though space is at a premium.
Water Purification Bottle
You have many options for safely drinking water anywhere in the world. The one that should be avoided though is, unfortunately, usually the most convenient: and that’s purchasing single-use plastic bottles of water.
My favorite option for safely drinking water while traveling is the GRAYL Water Purifier Bottle, because it’s a stand-alone unit. To use it, fill the outside chamber with water, then push the inside chamber into the bottle. The water purifies as it passes through the filter at the bottom of the inner chamber. It’s my primary water bottle, even when the water is already clean, so it doesn’t require me to travel with anything more than I’d already have.
Another reason I love this water bottle? It’s a true water purifier — not just a filter — meaning it eliminates bacteria, protozoa and viruses. When the filter needs to be replaced, it will simply become more difficult or even impossible to push the inner chamber through, so you never have to worry about drinking contaminated water.
A word of caution when flying with this bottle, though. After you purify water, there’s always a bit left in the outer shell, even after the filtered water is gone. The seal at the top of the bottle between the outer and inner chambers keeps the water contained, but in an airplane, the air inside the bottle expands. The expanded air then pushes the outer layer open just a bit so air can escape, but if the bottle isn’t upright, the residual water will drip out, too. The simple solution is to pull the outer layer open a bit and let the water drain out before the flight, or to keep the bottle upright. It took me a couple flight to figure out why I always had water in my bag. Still, it remains my favorite choice.
I hate to have to remind you of this again, but the coral reefs are dying. Climate change may be the leading factor, but it’s not the only one. Most sunscreens contains the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate, both of which are toxic to coral reefs. You can witness the damage firsthand in Oahu’s popular snorkeling spot, Hanauma Bay. Most of the inner reef has died from the hundreds of pounds of toxic sunscreen deposited in the bay each day by tourists. As a result, Hawaii and Key West, Florida, whose coral reefs are also rapidly declining, passed laws that all sunscreen sold on the islands must be reef-safe by 2021.
But many people buy sunscreen before travel, so it’s important to buy a reef-safe product. Usually, there will be a notation on the label advertising it as such — but to be sure, check that oxybenzone and octinoxate are not listed as ingredients on the label. Even if you won’t be snorkeling in a coral reef, those chemicals will eventually drain into an environment to which they are toxic.
Admittedly, reef-safe sunscreen isn’t as convenient as traditional sunscreen. It can take longer to rub in, and in the case of completely natural zinc-oxide, which is the best option for the environment, you may look like you’re covered in a layer of primer paint.
But a new sunscreen brand, Amavara, has tackled all of these problems. A former Navy SEAL teamed up with a long-time skincare chemist to perfect a zinc-oxide sunscreen that feels like skincare. It’s good for your skin, safe for the planet and actually pleasant to wear.
In my less environmentally-conscious days, I took every amenity from every hotel room. And after a decade traveling as a consultant, that added up. Many of these amenities still sit in a box in my basement. Just because the amenities are there and “free” doesn’t mean you have to use or take them. I won’t suggest refraining from pampering yourself with luxury toiletries at high-end hotels, but that tiny plastic bottle of shampoo from a Holiday Inn Express? You deserve better.
I recommend traveling with your own soap, shampoo and conditioner in refillable, silicone containers. They come in carry-on sizes and allow you to use your preferred brands from home. If you go this route, make it obvious the toiletries in the bathroom have not been touched. Leave them off to the side in their original presentation so housekeeping staff can see they don’t need replaced.
Bamboo Toothbrush and Straws
I’ve walked across beaches strewn with plastic waste, and saw a surprising number of discarded toothbrushes. And plastic straws may be the only easily distinguishable item more common than toothbrushes on these polluted beaches. After all, they’ve become ubiquitous despite usually being unnecessary.
To reduce plastic waste, consider toothbrushes made of bamboo instead of plastic. Also, break the habit of using straws. If you do need them, travel with reusable straws made of bamboo or metal. The reason bamboo is suggested is because it’s highly sustainable. It grows quickly without fertilizer and regenerates from its own roots, not needing to be replanted.
Plastic cutlery is also wasteful. Travel with one of these titanium sporks instead. Or, if you happen to meet a local carver, ask him or her to show you how to craft your own, just as I did with this travel spork I made in the Solomon Islands.
Herbal Mosquito Spray
DEET is highly effective at repelling mosquitoes, but there’s a lot of debate about how safe it is for both people and the environment. It can be especially dangerous if used incorrectly or in excess. And when it comes to environmental issues, it’s often cumulative use of many individuals that ultimately damages the environment.
There are plenty of alternatives to DEET and chemical-based insect repellents. My favorite is Bugs Be Gone by Green Goo. With a line of herbal products that started as a booth at an Idaho farmers market, you don’t have to worry about any negative impact to your skin or the environment. Honestly, my favorite part about this product is the scent. When is the last time you put on bug repellent and had someone say, “You smell nice — what fragrance is that?”
Note that natural insect repellent seems to only work on the exact areas where it’s applied. So, mosquitoes may still hover around you until they find the one little spot on your ankle you missed. The lesson with natural repellent is to apply it liberally and thoroughly, and make sure you completely cover all exposed areas. If you miss a spot, a mosquito may let you know pretty soon.
Scrubba Laundry Wash Bag
Traveling with a laundry wash bag is as much an added convenience and money-saver as it is environmentally-friendly. Even at budget hostels in Europe, you’ll still pay 8 euros for a load of laundry. And hotels that charge per item for laundry can quickly make you spend more on cleaning clothes than you spent buying them.
In a pinch, I used to take socks and underwear in the shower with me, but the scrubbing was a waste of water and time. That’s how I found Scrubba wash bags. These fully enclosed bags have inner washboards that make cleaning quick and effective. They also require zero electricity and much less water than a full load of laundry or an impromptu shower laundry session.
If you’re looking to back that pack up and get some guidance, send your questions to email@example.com!
Brian Biros spent most of the last 15 years backpacking through 100+ countries. He writes TPG's Points & Miles Backpacker column, so you'll more likely find him in a hostel than a Ritz, if you can find him.