Responsible small group walking

Travel right when on a small group walking holiday

Walking holidays are wonderful for getting that ‘not a care in the world’ feeling that so many of us crave in our busy lives. It is hard to imagine that there would be any issues of responsible tourism emanating from a few hikers moseying around the moors, or rambling along a river valley. But, in some ways, because walking holidays take us into remote, often totally wild places, the issues resulting from our being there are even greater. Mass tourism destinations are often prepared for visitors and local people have adjusted to having their annual invasion, but remote, rural areas might not be. Unless they are very popular hiking routes such as the Inca Trail or Nepal where there are crowds, but these have their own issues. Wherever you walk, there are certain things to keep in mind in order to keep your footprint featherlike in terms of the environment and, indeed, favourable to people who live there all year round.

People & culture

Porters’ rights

In places like Nepal or the Inca trail, it is most likely you will be using the services of a porter to carry supplies such as food, sleeping bags, tents, and so on. Luckily, in Peru, porters' rights are now protected by law. However, there are many companies that find ways of getting around the law, and are still exploiting the local porters. The minimum wage in Peru, for example, is 45 Soles a day, but reports suggest that still only a small proportion pay this and even this amount is barely a living wage. A good responsible tourism company will pay twice or three times this much. Same goes for the laws about the maximum weight they should carry. The law in Peru is 20kg max which includes 5kg for the porter’s personal possessions. There are weighing stations, but some companies spread the load to get through the stations and then drop the bags after the station for the porters to pick up. And then there are basics to adhere to, like ensuring these porters are fed and clothed properly, insured and given dry, warm sleeping areas.

In Nepal, it’s tempting to think of your porters or guides as heroic individuals who can trek Everest Base Camp carrying two packs, while wearing flip flops and an old jumper with no apparent discomfort. Although their knowledge and expertise is invaluable to us hikers, and the money they earn as guides is vital for their very survival, Nepalese porters have been found to suffer four times as many accidents as trekkers, and reports of porters being forced to carry up to 40kg are not uncommon. Reports of porters being abandoned by tour groups when they fall ill are not unusual and porters have even been abandoned in life-threatening blizzards while trekkers were rescued by helicopter. This is simply not on.

What you can do
Be wary, read up on it, and ask your trekking company endless questions about their ethical trekking policies. All tourists have a responsibility to make absolutely sure that the porters and guides accompanying them on their trek are not being taken advantage of. Ensure that your porters have proper clothing and footwear and consider the amount of weight your porters are carrying - 20kg is a reasonable, but probably maximum load per person – do you really need that extra change of clothes?

Ask about porters insurance and the provisions that are made for them should they fall ill, ensure that porters’ sleeping arrangements are comfortable and fair, and always make sure that your porters and guides are paid fairly - enquire about and agree rates before you set off to avoid uncomfortable conversations at the end of your trek. And if you see or experience something that you feel uncomfortable about then make it clear to your tour company that this is not acceptable.
Richard Goodey from our supplier Lost Earth Adventures: "Trekkers often ask me how much luggage they can give their porter. We have one porter between two clients and we set a limit of 12.5kgs per person, totaling 25kg per porter. The porter doesn’t bring a lot, perhaps a bottle of water, a change of clothes and some waterproofs, but he still has to carry that on top of 25kgs of kit. The problem is that porters will carry extra if you pay them extra, but that’s not the way to go forward; if you want extra kit carried you should be prepared to pay for an extra porter. They are not supermen; yes, they’re hardy to the mountains, but if they damage their backs or their ankles then they are unemployable and they will have no income. We have insurance for our porters, but that only covers their medical bills and evacuation. My advice is to be mindful of how much you pack. My bag when I’m guiding weighs no more than 7kg and I’m bringing first aid kits, emergency shelters and three types of telephone, so to allow 12.5kgs is pretty generous. Pack what you think you’ll need and take half out – you simply won’t need it."

Wildlife & environment


Is it OK to throw cherry stones into the Adriatic when hiking along the Croatian coast? Or an apple core behind a bush in the Atlas Mountains? It’s all natural, right? Wrong. Unless you picked the apple from a tree where you are walking, or unless cherries grow among the coral, they don’t belong there, so if in doubt, take it out. Such is the message of worldwide organisation, Leave No Trace, which is the font of all knowledge and training when it comes to environmental protection and outdoor activities. It all seems like common sense and, in general, walkers love the environment and are extremely protective of it. However, this doesn’t explain the wasters who leave things behind like disposable barbeques, cigarette butts, banana skins, chewing gum, drinks bottles and even pop up tents. Leave no trace also means leaving nature as you find it, so don’t pick wildflowers please. A hard one to teach children, but just part of the big picture of protecting the few wild places we have left in the world.

You can read more on the Leave No Trace website. Most is common sense, but here are some tips which are less obvious to most people but very important when it comes to lessening your impact.
  • Walk single file in the middle of the trail, even when wet or muddy.
  • If you are wild camping, pitch at least 60 metres from lakes and streams.
  • Deposit solid human waste 15-20 cms deep, at least 60 metres from water, camp and trails. Cover and disguise the hole when finished.
  • When washing dishes, or yourself, carry water 60 metres away from streams or lakes and use biodegradable soap.
  • Respect all rules about fires. Most national parks do not allow them, for example. But in wilder areas, construct only small ones within a carefully constructed fire ring. Use only small sticks and put them out completely, scattering the cool ashes. Leave no trace applies to fires too.

Responsible tourism tips

Travel better on a small group walking holiday

  • Charity climbs can be an issue in some parts of the world, with some organisers ignoring pleas for responsible rambling. Some peaks are now charity central, from Snowdon to Ben Nevis to Kilimanjaro. The numbers allowed on these peaks for charity climbs is becoming a heated issue, and often go unmanaged. It is rare for an event organizer to have an environmental policy or, indeed, to contribute towards the maintenance of the land they are running all over. There is an argument that they bring tourism money to the area, but many charity climbers swoop in and out again in 24 hours, so this is not always the case. If you are just going there for an event, consider extending your stay for a couple of days and spreading your money locally, not just funneling it all into a non-local charity. If every charity walker/runner spent one more night in a b&b and bought one more dinner locally, it would create a hugely positive impact for residents, food producers, publicans…the list goes on.
  • It is important to stick to the waymarked trails or paths that your guide shows you. They have been created by experts, and are managed carefully to avoid erosion and overtrampling. You may also be straying onto private land which is not only rude, but risky in some countries where hunting and guns go with the territory. If you meet the landowner, you can always negotiate a right of way, of course, which most will grant if you are nice about it.
  • One of the advantages of travelling with a responsible tourism walking company is that they work with carefully chosen local guides and experts, who check the walking routes at the beginning of the season to ensure that everything is clearly marked, or that there are no diversions necessary due to path damage and so on.
  • When you take a walking holiday in Scotland, you are benefiting from one of the most accessible, wild open spaces in the Europe. Traditionally, it has always been considered important and right that every person should have access to countryside in Scotland. This right is now enshrined in law, which basically says that as long as you act responsibly, you can walk, cycle, canoe and horse ride in all open land or waters. Beware of the deer stalking season, however, from 1st July to 20th October, with a hind season until 15 February. The Heading for the Scottish Hills website is invaluable for keeping you up to date on what the various estates are doing and when with detailed maps and regularly updated information. This is a time when cooperation between hikers and stalkers is vital. See our 2 Minute Guide to Scotland for more details.
  • When travelling in remote areas, you will come across small communities which will often charm the person who has just strolled into town. The temptation is to take photographs straight away. Take your time to get to know people, always ask their permission to take photos, and check in advance with your guide whether it is appropriate to ask in the first place. And remember how you would feel if someone wandered into your home on a quiet Sunday afternoon, taking pictures and selfies by the second.
John Hutchison, Chairman John Muir Trust, the conservation charity which owns the summit of Ben Nevis: "I’ve seen organised parties of a thousand people on the Ben in one day. Access to the Ben should always be free and while it is great that these charities make money out of Ben Nevis, it is really disappointing that nothing comes back to repair the paths, as it is charities like ours and the National Trust for Scotland that have to finance these. So we would hope that over time we can change hearts and minds about the ways in which these events are approached. It’s about appealing to the social conscience, I suppose."

Spokesperson from British Embassy in Madrid, Spain: “Make sure you have travel insurance. An emergency abroad can be extremely expensive. If you need to be returned to the UK it could cost you thousands, unless you are properly insured. It can cost, for example, £12,000 to £16,000 for an air ambulance from the Canaries. Every year British Consulates see cases of uninsured travellers facing huge bills – make sure you are not one of them.”
Photo credits: [Porters: John Pavelka] [Ignoring the signs: Catherine Mack]
Written by Catherine Mack
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