Molly Harris—Moral Compass
For most hikers, the joy of long-distance hiking is leaning into the increasing slope of a meadow, feeling the burn with each step, until finally summiting a peak that grants a stunning, sweeping view–not necessarily the environmental and cultural impact their vacation could be making on the planet.
Sustainable long-distance hiking is designed to benefit everyone involved. Trail operators safeguard the environment by limiting the number of visitors that can take the path at once, protecting the natural habitat against damage caused when too many hikers pack a trail. Additionally, truly sustainable trails incorporate local villages and cultures into the experience, putting money into their national parks, locally owned guesthouses, and other small businesses. And hikers get to fully immerse themselves in authentic adventures.
While most trails advocate for “leave no trace” environmental practices, not all trails can be considered truly sustainable. Some tourism companies work independently of the region and can exclude the local population, taking money from their rural economies. Others fall short of the best environmental practices, which require the cooperation of both environmental agencies (or trail authorities where available) and the tourism companies that operate alongside them. Apart from the physical protection and maintenance of the trails to prevent widening or the accidental creation of off-trail paths, environmental protection partnerships also help ensure the trails and surrounding environment remain intact.
With the help of an expanding tourism industry, as well as a rising trend in environmentally and economically conscious business and travel, long-distance hiking is on the path to becoming an in-demand option for adventurers to travel ethically while also immersing themselves fully in their destinations. These are some of our favorites.
The Via Dinarica is a 1,199-mile mega-trail stretching across eight countries in the Western Balkans. The full hike, which starts in Postojna, Slovenia and ends in Lake Ohrid, Macedonia and can take around three to four months to complete. Hikers can also opt for shorter, multi-day hikes along one of three trail options: blue, which runs along the coastline; green, connecting meadows and untouched forests; or white, following the highest peaks within each country on the trail.
One of the most unique aspects of this sustainable hike is the interaction it facilitates between trekkers and locals. Hikers can stop and rest in local villages, share meals with guesthouse owners, and talk with shepherds tending their flocks along trails that were once ancient trade routes. With every step, Via Dinarica brings old-world culture and heritage to life.
Opened in 2015, The Transcaucasian Trail crossing Georgia and Armenia clocks in at 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles). While the trail is already open to travelers, those with serious backcountry skills can volunteer to help with the development of new paths through the Caucasus mountain range. Once finished, the Transcaucasian Trail will cross seven peaks higher than 5,000 meters (16,404 feet).
This hike begins in the resort town of Dilijan, Armenia and winds through the surrounding Dilijan National Park, passing Soviet-era infrastructure and medieval Christian Armenian art along the way. The trail’s newness, and therefore up-to-date maintenance, means it infringes less on the surrounding environment than some less sustainable alternatives. Booking a local guide and eating locally also provide a closer look at the countries’ cultures.
New Zealand’s 3,000-kilometer (1,864-mile) mega-trek begins in the North Island and continues to the South Island, spanning glacial ridges and sweeping views from the headlands. In order to ensure hikers reach the end before the weather turns cold and makes travel by foot more difficult, the trail’s website recommends starting the walk sometime in October or November.
Te Araroa means “the long pathway” in the language of New Zealand’s native people, the Maori. Trekkers can book an overnight stay in a Maori community and enjoy a traditional dance and dinner. Those planning to complete the full five-month walk can purchase a hut pass, which allows them to interact with locals on a longer-term basis.
Crossing eight regions of Jordan, the 650-kilometer (404-mile) Jordan Trail spans the country’s dramatic desert and valley landscapes as well as archaeological sites like Petra, the famous ancient archaeological city in the southern part of the country. Though one of our shorter long-distance choices, this trail still requires around one month to experience.
Those who walk the full path will cross 52 villages, observing how past civilizations continue to influence the culinary culture expressions and cultural traditions still practiced today. Passing the Dead Sea canyons, which are home to the Jahalin Bedouin tribe, hikers should approach the camps from the left as a sign of respect. Be sure to carry some cash in order to purchase a locally-brewed beer—a favorite recovery drink for endurance travelers and adventure seekers— along the way and to help support the small businesses providing such trail-side luxuries.
Perhaps the newest long-distance trail in the world, the Patagonian Route of the Parks was announced in October 2018 and much of the route is already accessible to travelers. Connecting 17 of Chile’s national parks and stretching over 2,800 kilometers (1,740 miles), the path should take five months to walk.
The land was donated by the Tompkins Conservation, a U.S. foundation created by American billionaire Douglas Tompkins, the founder of North Face clothing company. After a fatal kayak accident, the conservation fell to Tompkins’ wife, who signed the land donation over to the Chilean government in March 2017. At the core of the trail’s mission is economic development by way of conservation, says Tompkins Conservation executive director Carolina Morgado. With 60 villages now connected by the trail, trekkers will have ample opportunity to experience the culture and interact with locals.
Another new trek, the High Scardus Trail, was also announced in mid-September 2018 and covers a large swath of land in the Balkans. While the nearby Via Dinarica largely covers the Dinaric Alps and the Sharr mountain range, the High Scardus Trail runs exclusively along the Sharr Mountains and connects areas of Macedonia, Kosovo, and Albania. The shortest of our choices, this path is 495 kilometers (308 miles) and takes only 20 days to complete, making it a nice introduction to thru-hiking.
The new initiative was made possible as a part of a regional project funded by the German government and a program called the German Society for International Cooperation. In creating the High Scardus, the hope is to increase job opportunities through tourism development in this corner of the Western Balkans.