A team of outdoor misfits collected 1,000 pounds of trash while hiking the Appalachian Trail.
By Jahla Seppanen
How much would someone have to pay you to pick up trash for five months straight?
In the spring of 2015, three buddies under the blog name “Packing It Out” did it for free, thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail’s (AT) southern to northern terminus and collecting every piece of trash (yes, toilet paper, too) they came upon. Their creed: no more passing the buck. In a rejuvenation of the Leave No Trace ethic, Packing It Out got concerned with what was been left to litter our trails.
The payback? One cleaner trail, tons of inspired hikers and more than 1,000 pounds of debris removed.
Now how much would someone have to pay you to do it again?
On May 6, 2016, the Packing It Out team will take their first steps on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)* in what they project will be another five months of playing nature’s garbage men. In preparation for a long walk north from the border of California and Mexico to the border of Washington and Canada, the Packing It Out team shared with SGB their hopes and fears heading into their second conservation epoch.
But first, who the heck are these guys?
Seth Orme, Paul Twedt and Joe Dehnert were brought together through the outdoors, where they worked for a guide service specializing in disability trips, dog sledding, skiing and sea kayaking. Raised in different states, there was a kinship among the three. “We wanted to go on another big trip and take another adventure, but step up the game, Twedt said. We wanted a reason bigger than ourselves.”
Orme added, “Working as guides in the outdoors, it started becoming our home. I saw so much trash and decided to pick up whatever I found. I got a pound per mile hiking near the AT when the idea came to me: Walk for five months and pick up trash to raise awareness and inspire other people.”
Easy as pie, the guys quit their day jobs and set out, unsupported, unfunded, in what only a year later would become a sponsored movement backed by brands like Granite Gear, Zeal Optics and Gear Junkie.
Any questions? We definitely had some…
What was the most shocking thing you saw on the AT?
Paul: Mattresses. They were two miles away from the closest road. Soggy and wet. We looked at them and thought, no way. But then figured, who else is going to do it? We ended up finding branches to make a stretcher-style carrier to bring them out.
Seth: We were also surprised at the variety of trash, like eyelash curlers. And tons of toilet paper.
I thought toilet paper would be fine to leave out because it decomposes?
Seth: Sort of. We always carried sticks to bury toiler paper that was on top of the ground. It decomposes
so much faster when it’s in the top layer of soil.
Did you ever wake up saying, “I don’t want to touch another piece of trash again!”
Paul: Oh, yes. We all had that. Some days it was difficult to want to keep doing it, but being in a group of positive like-minded people helped. We turned what we were doing into a joke and just tried to enjoy it.
What are your trail names?
Seth = Cap: He has an Outdoor Research hat with a clip-on sun visor that he wears everywhere he goes. He’s currently wearing through his fourth one.
Paul = Spice: He brought a very diverse and elaborate spice kit on the AT hike to use for dinners. The guys each agreed that despite its hilarity, it was one of the best things any of them brought.
Joe = Goose: He’s a goofy guy, they said. In the beginning of the AT, he was really adamant about being the navigator and getting everyone onto the next step, so they referenced Goose from Top Gun.
How much trash do you think will be on the PCT?
Seth: There has been so much change on the PCT. The number of people attempting it has essentially doubled over the past three years. But there’s always the chance there won’t be much trash, because it hasn’t been slowly accumulating for years like it was on the AT.
Paul: We don’t have a number we expect to find. One thing we have talked about is what if there isn’t much trash and our whole mission doesn’t seem necessary.
Seth: The ideal situation would be we don’t pick up any trash. It’s self-defeating. The bigger it gets the less important it will be. But we started Packing It Out with that mission, so we’d be happy to go out of business.
Where does a mission like Packing It Out go in the future, from an organizational standpoint?
Seth: I don’t think we want it to be massive. The premise was to show that anyone could go out and do this. We don’t have special skills. We pick up trash. The ideal for me right now is Packing It Out would become an ethic or minimum standard.
Paul: We started the Packing It Out blog and social media to inspire environmental stewardship. It has become a documentation to show what three people can do. Last year showed we were legitimate. This year we’ll ramp up engagement and plan to be more visible and connected by engaging local communities along the way. We hope to have a live talk on our blog and meet up with locals to clean up other trailheads.
Have you ever thought of partnering with retailers?
Seth: We had talked about, with our logo, adding it to the back of a Clif bar or something, more as a reminder for people to Pack It Out rather than as a sponsorship.
Does the purity of the mission change or get murky with sponsors?
Paul: It’s awesome getting free gear, but we don’t want that to get to our heads. We met Granite Gear at Trail Days in Virginia and they resonated with our personalities. It was genuinely fun to hang out and talk. Later we emailed, and they said they wanted to get on board and tell our stories.
Seth: We’re so lucky. All our sponsors said, ‘just be you.’ And what I found from applying for other sponsors is that brands are focused on helping people with the same visions and goals.
*Follow Packing It Out’s PCT expedition at packingitout.blogspot.com
Lead image courtesy Packing It Out and Nico Schüler