Eco Travel

A Guide to Sustainable Surf Trips

Words by Kim Feldmann de Britto
“[Sustainable Tourism is] tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment, and host communities”. 
World Tourism Organization
Surfers are travellers by nature. It comes as a fine print on the contract, like a healthy side-effect. It is impossible to be(come) a surfer and not dream of riding waves across the globe. It is not that we are unsatisfied with the waves that we have; it’s that we yearn to surf them all. And it goes beyond the waves or the act of riding them. It’s as though the saltwater functions as an elixir, and through it, both our understanding of our connections is attuned and our need to connect further enhanced. We thus become “one with nature”, as so many surfers describe the feeling of being out in the ocean. Suddenly the world is ours and we are of the world: we want to discover it, explore faraway shores, and we acknowledge, via a tacit agreement, that we are responsible for every grain of sand we step on and every drop of water we touch. 
Mentawai Islands by Kandui Resort.
If for surfers, or at least many of us, this is as clear as Maldives water, for the majority of the world population, who may not have such emotional link with their natural surroundings, this sense of responsibility is not taken for granted. Yet, like a child learns to walk by observing other people’s examples and putting them into practice, we too, in our constant change of habits toward a healthier and more wholesome lifestyle, can benefit from this observer-actor framework. It comes down to identifying the areas of your life which you interact actively, assessing how to improve your engagement, and taking the steps to do so.  
With the boom of the tourism industry over the last couple of decades (when you can get pretty much any where you want and have any thing you need), there has also been an alarming increase in the levels of ecological and cultural deterioration in many of our natural environments. Fortunately, finding ways of travelling more sustainably (aka leaving only footprints) is nowadays both accessible and straightforward: it can be as simple as choosing what you pack and deciding where you will stay to more intricate, moral matters of how to behave while you’re there.
Peniche Portugal, image by Dominik-Mentzos.


The “Where” is either the reason for a trip or the first question to be asked. If you already know where to go, the next step is usually deciding where to stay. “Green” or “eco-friendly” accommodations are places that not only promote environmental ethics but have indeed introduced sustainable practices into their business model – ranging from the way the place is built and maintained, to how much it supports and respects the local community. Nowadays, most of them are certified by third parties such as the Global Sustainable Tourism Council. Even if you can’t find an accredited establishment where you are going, you can make sure they at least follow some environmental standards. Or you can search for a locally-owned place as opposed to a large foreign hotel chain.
When trying to figure out a destination, besides matching your wishes, consider the following:


Explore your backyard

One positive aspect of the COVID-19 situation is that it coerced people to think more about exploring their own country and region. Often we think we know a place only to find out there is much more to discover – or different ways to experience somewhere we already ‘know’. Faraway destinations hold a kind of inherent glamour for the way they seem alien to us. But this perception may be simply a comfortable or distorted way of looking at it, as if the number of kilometres was directly proportional to the richness of the trip. When looking at it from a sustainable perspective, where long-distance travel usually involves flights or modes of transport that cough high amounts of CO2, venturing deeper and/or more enthusiastically in your backyard (or at least closer to it) can prove not only fulfilling but also eye-opening.


Pick an already established sustainable destination

Around the world, there are already several locations which have been categorised as “sustainable destinations” for the way they think about and implement tourism-related policies and practices. Cities like Ljubljana, in Slovenia, which was voted Europe’s greenest city in 2016, is among the places one can travel and know that there will be both encouragement and possibilities to leave a lighter footprint. Palau has also been regarded as a ‘sustainable country’ in the way they ask visitors to pledge to protect the natural environment upon entry. There’s a list of green destinations compiled by international sustainability organisations. Some of the criteria they examine are whether or not the country/region has shown the commitment to protecting natural and cultural resources, has a governing body that manages sustainability practices, and has actually made some of these practices work. 


Reconfigure your trip to well-known destinations

Should your mind be made up in going to a particular place that is not necessarily known for its sustainable conducts, you may still change your conduct concerning the place. Visiting a location outside the peak touristic season is an option. Alternatively, you can plan to stay longer instead of bouncing around frantically from area to area, pay even more attention to the type of accommodation you are booking, as well as find a way to avoid tourist traps by picking less-known activities and tours that are directly linked to the local community. 


Choose locations that could use the support of tourists

It is not uncommon to see in the news how badly a place has been hit by a natural disaster and ensuing economic crisis. And it may not be surprising to realise that such a place may fit the kind of destination you were looking for your holiday or surf trip. As it happened in Puerto Rico after the devastating 2017 hurricane, the tourism sector indeed helped the country and the people to get back on their feet. This “help” can be done financially by the mere act of travelling there, but it may also extend to hands-on assistance through volunteering in the community and NGO-based projects. 

Keep an eye out for places with nature reserves

It may not always be the case, but the number of nature reserves and National Parks established by a national government shows at least some motivation in their part for protecting the natural environment. Moreover, these areas of preservation often depend on and provide for the local community, be it in the form of work opportunities, educational programs for youngsters, or simply as a symbol that this particular area is rich and worth looking after. It almost works as a subliminal message – and supporting these initiatives assists in ensuring that the message becomes more and more clear.


Although it may be easy to overlook, what you take on your trip may reduce the impact you cause on the destination. In addition, in our consumerist society, what you own – whether you want it or not – reflects how you live and how you believe life should be lived. It is ironic to protest about environmental protection or labour injustice but indulge in fast fashion brands and buy a new phone every year. Indeed, this is easier said than done. But since going on a trip requires a strategic outlook at what you take, using travel as a sort of gateway for behavioural change may be a good opportunity to move closer to your own sustainable goals – and that begins by opting for sustainable gear. 


Be strategic about your portable wardrobe

For surfers, it is easy to grab a bunch of clothes and throw them into the board-bag as cushioning for the surfboards. But even for the general traveller, it can be more comfortable and secure to overpack than to under-pack. Nevertheless, the fact is that the more you take the heavier your luggage(s), and the heavier the luggage(s) the more difficult it is to transport it, thus forcing the plane, train, boat or car to emit more CO2 to get the job done. Individually, the difference may be marginal: it’s when you contemplate the wider picture of thousands of travellers with heavy luggage that the consequences become alarming. Therefore, allowing yourself some time to pack and organising the items with their level of essentiality in mind (e.g. clothes that can be layered, natural materials that are easy to wash and durable) has its perks both to the environment and your peace of mind. 


Less plastic – always

There is so much to be said about plastic that one can tire just to think about it. When going on a trip, one of the most straightforward ways of decreasing your dependence on single-use plastic items when you are there is by taking a reusable liquid container with you, such as water bottles or travel mugs. Nowadays, it’s even easy to find bottles with water purification systems, which can prove handy when travelling to destinations where tap water is non-potable. 


Other reusable gear to consider packing can include:

  • Cutlery: Plastic and metal sporks or foldable cutlery is a way of ensuring that you will not need to rely on single-use spoons and forks from cafes and supermarkets;
  • Tupperware: These work great to store hard-drives and other small items while in transit and serve as a container for snacks as well as trash when going on day trips;
  • Reusable straw: Probably the biggest villain of plastic items, straws leave their debris floating around enough to end up in the stomach of animals. Fortunately, many are the establishments and governments that are re-thinking the use of these items, either finding other alternatives or banning them altogether. If you’re a straw user, consider bringing a stainless steel straw along. 
  • Toiletries: There are plenty of options for more sustainable toiletries in the market, and not at high prices: from bamboo toothbrushes to biodegradable soaps and eco-friendly conditioners and shampoos that come in refillable bottles. 
  • Tote bag: Many of us may already use a cloth bag for daily grocery shopping, so taking it along with you as a day-pack is not a hassle whatsoever. Consequently, you will carry on saying “No” to plastic bags even when on holiday. 
  • Cloth napkins: It is also a good idea to wrap more fragile items, such as camera batteries or sunglasses, in small cloth towels or bandanas, that can, in turn, serve as napkins when you eat on the road. You’ll thus avoid using paper napkins, whilst also protecting your gear.



Surfers often have to consider other gear besides these basic items – and surfboards are the first that come to mind. Questions range from How many to Which kind, but depend mainly on what type of waves you are expecting to surf, as well as the cost and hassle with transport to and around the destination. As a rule of thumb, opt for (at least) one main board which you’re more likely to be using, a backup of similar shape, and a step-up in case the swell picks up.
While thinking of surfboards and sustainable travel, we can again use our wish to travel more sustainably as an excuse to indeed live more sustainably. Here’s a chance to contemplate other types of materials, eco-friendly alternatives to the generic PU and EPS foams and polyester and epoxy resin, such as wooden surfboards or those using bio-resins and recycled foam blanks. Or at least support a shaper who is steering his/her business toward more sustainably-conscious practices.  


Traveling to surf, boards and boat, image Mahalo Surf Experience.


The same goes for board-bags: we can find means to decrease our environmental footprint by re-configuring the way we are habituated to pack our surfboards and refrain from wrapping them in bubble wrap, or by seeking alternative bags made of recycled materials. By all means, the main fear of any surfer heading on a surf trip is to unzip the board-bag only to find a board full of dings and cracks. Yet that doesn’t justify dressing it up like a bubble-wrapped astronaut. Try to use your clothes and towels as protection, as well as cardboard boxes, which can be sourced at your local supermarket for free. 



Taking two leashes should be more than enough to see you through the entire surf trip without having to sit out on session for fear of losing your board or breath. Taking one leash may be risky. Although the market for eco-friendly leashes is less developed than that of surfboards or wax, new initiatives popping up across the globe that tries to use recycled materials (such as PET bottles) to produce them.



When it comes to being safe rather than sorry, the packing of fins can follow the same modus operandi as that of leashes. Many are the times we have to duck dive in shallow waters, and then those fin cups prove not to have been glassed as rigidly as they should have. As far as a more ecological alternative goes, it is easy to find strong, reliable fins made from bamboo, wood, or hemp.



Unless you surf with two grip pads (which I doubt 2% of the surf population does) you will be needing wax. These wonderful-smelling sticky blocks more often than not come from petroleum-based products and, besides resins, dyes, and synthetic glues, contain chemicals of the likes of microcrystalline and paraffin wax, all of which are detrimental to our bodies and the marine environment. While we can’t surf without waxing our boards, we can wax our boards with less aggressive wax. There are still loopholes on the making of so-called eco-friendly waxes. But choosing a product that contains fewer harmful ingredients is better than sticking to the one that has more. 



If we were to take a poll, the majority of surfers would probably say they tend to choose warm-water destinations for their surf trips. Notwithstanding, many surfers, besides those living in tropical locations, own a wetsuit and other cold-water gear. Those who already have a wetsuit and are travelling to not-so-warm locations, will most likely take it along and use it rather than purchasing a new one. But for those who happen to have chosen a destination that will require a second skin and are browsing for options to buy, some companies have begun to take a more careful look at the production of such items, developing more eco-friendly wetsuits. Since neoprene wetsuits are usually either oil-based or limestone-based (thus entailing either oil drilling or mining and becoming non-recyclable), these companies are experimenting with natural rubber that is sustainably harvested from trees. 



Again, since the majority of surfers is likely to choose warmer and sunnier places for their surf trips, packing sunscreen becomes off the essence. We’ve all heard accounts of how dangerous it can be to spend long periods under the blazing sun without some form of protection on our skin, and for surfers, who will easily overlook the UV index over catching another wave, this makes us even more vulnerable to health issues. While surfing with a hat on or wearing a rash vest go a long way, nothing beats the sense of freedom and simplicity of paddling around with just boardshorts/bikinis on. Yet the majority of sunblocks contain chemicals that can be harmful not only to the marine ecosystem but also to our bodies. Among them, some of the nastiest, which you should try to avoid, are Oxybenzone, 4-methyl benzylidene camphor, Octinoxate, and Octocrylene. Conversely, several brands are working toward creating non-harmful sunscreens that protect both the skin and the well-being of coral reefs. Even if it’s not possible to find these at the local pharmacy, they can be easily purchased online. 


Someone once said that it’s not about what you do but how you do it. Whether it rings true for everyone or not, the fact is that both what you do and how you do it carry their weight. Amidst the excitement of an upcoming trip, as well as during your stay, how you choose to travel comes to form a picture of what travel means to you and locals. A prime example is when people say they will “do X country”. From the start, this very mentality incites a non-symbiotic approach to the experience: the place you are going becomes a sort of target, and from that approach, the respect and attachment necessary for sustainable practices to flourish are cut short. 
Contemplating ways to avoid such outcome, you may want to re-think the pace you are travelling, as well as how deep you are going within a single place, not so much how much of the territory you are covering. 
And you may also:

Prepare your home before the trip

This may sound simple, but amid excitement is something easily overlooked by most of those leaving for a trip. Unplugging appliances such as TV, microwave, and other electronics will make sure they stop drawing energy while not in use. If your house has a thermostat or heater, set it to the most energy-efficient setting. Also, place on standby any regular deliveries and/or newspaper or magazine subscriptions so they don’t drive to your place while there’s nobody home.


Getting there 

We’ve all heard about how means of transportation, planes and cars, in particular, are responsible for a fair share of the greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. And yet, we need them. When travelling overseas, flying remains the cheapest, fastest, and most hassle-free option; in long-distance overland journeys, cars are the usually the most flexible way of getting from A to B. That said, there are still ways to minimize our footprint in both cases. 
One of the easiest and most efficient ways of doing so is avoiding flying between destinations you could reach otherwise, as planes burn a lot of fuel on take-off and landing. And if your second choice is driving, consider using ride-sharing apps and try to fit as many people in the car as possible – the more passengers per vehicle the lower the carbon footprint per person. 
When trains are available, use the fact that they are the non-human-powered transport that emits the lowest levels of harmful pollutants as a motivation to spend a bit more on a ticket. But regardless of how you choose to travel, it is still possible to support initiatives trying to combat and/or mitigate the emissions of greenhouse gases and thus offset your journey. 

Getting around

Even if you hadn’t another option besides catching a plane, once you have arrived at your destination many are the alternatives to get around more sustainably:
  • Rent a bike for the length of your stay or simply walk as much as possible
  • When in coastal regions or archipelagos, for example, where water transport is highly used, search for sailboats instead of power-engined boats
  • If renting a car is your best option, many places offer electric cars nowadays
  • Don’t shy away from public transport. Not only does it decrease the carbon footprint per person per vehicle, but it’s also a great way to experience the culture
  • If you feel comfortable, give the car-sharing apps a try
  • Offset your footprint once again by joining environmentally conscious day-tours and activities, such as beach clean-ups

Eat locally

If the transport industry hampers the overall well-being of the earth’s environments, the food industry can be considered an even bigger villain in terms of emission of greenhouse gases. With that, what you eat has a direct impact – even if seemingly abstract – in the health of ecosystems. This relationship with food is foregrounded even further when we travel since we often face unusual dishes and ways of eating. And so is our responsibility toward what/how we choose to eat.
Eating locally has a double-effect: it will support the local community financially and will most likely make use of local ingredients instead of imported goods. This means only you had to travel such a great distance to eat the curry – the potato came from around the corner. Your actual diet also affects the footprint you leave, as we know from the way the meat and dairy industry holds such a large percentage in the yearly overall emission of greenhouse gases. Compared to other practices, to eat vegan or vegetarian falls into a more philosophical kind of consideration. But if you do choose to eat meat or drink milk, again, it is always possible to look for what is locally produced. 


Shop consciously

This feels imperative even at home, for as a consumerist society (at least the majority of the population) we often buy things for the sake of buying. When in a different culture and system, paying even closer attention to how you shop is an effective means to lower your overall footprint. Some practices include:
  • ï Asking questions about the products you are looking to purchase, both in terms of how it is made, with what, and by whom
  • ï Again, choosing local products instead of international chain stores that sell cheap, imported items
  • ï Even if you don’t eat vegan, you can always choose to buy vegan products 
  • ï Looking for shops that stock eco-friendly items and local, artisan goods
  • ï Keeping an eye out for products with a Fair Trade logo
  • ï Saying No to packaging and always taking a reusable bag with you
  • ï Prioritising the quality and material of an item over the price: not only the processing of some materials impact the environment more than others but some items are built to last more than others

Participate in green actions

More and more establishments around the world are either organising or participating in environmental programmes or initiatives. You can always join in some green actions during your stay, as well as learn more about how the recycling is done in that particular location. Other simple yet crucial actions include being mindful of how much water you are using (some places have less water to spare than others) and relying on air conditioning and heating as little as possible.


Leave only footprints

The saying “take only photos, leave only footprints” has become a cliche – but that doesn’t diminish its importance. An inexplicable elation bubbles up when we see a pristine natural environment, and although not everybody acts accordingly in keeping it clean and natural, we all wish it would stay that way. After all, none of what we see belongs to any of us, and so, as mere passers-by, we don’t have the right to alter it, especially not in a detrimental way. Those who resonate with this perspective can keep enjoying these places by respecting regulations (e.g. not straying from trails while hiking or fiddling with coral reefs while diving), leaving things in their place (take a good old picture instead), and take both your and others’ trash away with you. Examples move the world more than doctrine. 


Support local charities and organisations

It is easy to overlook that travelling sustainably means having a responsible approach not only to the environment but to the social and economical circumstances of the given destination. If you don’t have the opportunity to stick around longer and lend a hand with a local project, consider finding an NGO or charity focusing on improving some aspect of the community’s life. Since these organisations often work with the help of volunteers and donations, any financial aid ensures that they keep the project up and running. 

Share your experiences and practices

Even with almost unrestricted access to information online, not everyone is aware of how to (or how easy it can be) travel more sustainably. While you are sharing your pictures on social media or stories at the dinner table, make sure to highlight not only the delicious dish you ate or the insane barrel you caught, but also the incongruities you witnessed on a socio-cultural and environmental level and the practices you put in place to do your part in improving it. 
Just as surfers are travellers by nature, there is also an intrinsic bond with the ocean and natural environments as a whole that makes us feel like their children and guardian at the same time. As the children of the seas, what we should strive for is to honour it for all it has taught and provided; as the guardians of the oceans, our daily actions and demeanour should function as both shield and sword – we hold the first high to repel threats and protect its well-being, we use the latter to counter-attack with examples and awareness.
The motivation to have more sustainable conduct in life doesn’t lie in what scientists say or even in the amount of plastic floating in the oceans. It comes from way deeper within each of us, and its source is directly linked to the way we relate to other beings and the world around us. Whether you are travelling to the Maldives, the Caribbean or staying close to home, once you get in touch with this silver cord, treading carefully and acting sustainably will feel like the only way to go.
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