Highlander Hikers Collect 1,200 Pounds of Trash, Learn About Responsible Recreation

As Flathead Valley trails become increasingly strained, Highlander's five-day overnight backpacking trip focused on low-impact recreation, responsible stewardship and community building

By Anusha Mathur
Participants in Highlander 2023 hike from Blacktail Mountain. Courtesy photo

When Jessi Wood, general manager of Blacktail Mountain Ski Area, agreed to let Highlander use Blacktail as their base camp, she didn’t anticipate a huge splash. After months of coordination, Highlander participants embarked on their backpacking journeys on Sept. 19. 

However, when she saw the 170 hikers return to base camp from their trip days later with 1,202.73 pounds of trash that they picked up along their trails, she was both shocked and overjoyed.

“Oh my gosh, they cleaned up so much garbage, like a literal ton” Wood said. “The thing I love most about this event is that it’s about recreating responsibly. It was geared towards taking care of and appreciating our public lands.”

Highlander organizes 30-mile and 60-mile backpacking trips across the world, hosting events in 17 countries. Participants in Highlander Kalispell chose between a five-day, 54-mile route called Hercules and a 38-mile, three-day route called Pegasus. They collected double the amount of trash as participants in Highlander’s event last May in Big Bear, California.

Aljosa Vojnovic, Highlander’s head of global marketing said that picking up trash is not the organization’s main goal. But he finds that the Highlander’s core goals of low-impact hiking and education surrounding sustainability drives participants to care for the trails they hike on. The organization has adopted the phrase “erase the trace” as their mantra.

“In a world where a lot of companies are using sustainability as greenwashing, we are actually trying to make a difference and to be genuine,” Vojnovic said. “‘Leave no trace’ is okay, but ‘erase the trace’ is much better. You’re having a positive impact; you’re actually actively trying to leave public lands in an even better state than you found them in.

Hikers collected over 1,200 pounds of trash during Highlander’s Kalispell backpacking trip. Courtesy photo

Vojnovic likes to call Highlander a “hiking festival.” The organization’s inaugural event in 2017 had 30 participants. Since then, it has grown to connect hundreds of outdoor enthusiasts and invite dozens of sustainability experts to speak about their work. The recent Kalispell trip was Highlander’s second hike based in the U.S.

“Hiking is free, but with Highlander you have to pay to be hiking,” Vojnovic said “So why would you do it? It’s because Highlander is not only about hiking. Hiking is a medium for us to access many different layers. Highlander is about sustainability, education, digital detox, and community.”

Wood, who participated in the event, said that the nightly programming and speakers representing organizations like Glacier Institute and Z Pak were her favorite part of Highlander Kalispell. 

“There was a guy who talked about hikes that we could do that would be similar to this kind of level,” Wood said. “Afterwards, I showed our film that we produced about Blacktail and the building of this ski area for our 25-year anniversary last year. Many participants knew nothing about Blacktail, and it was fun to introduce them to my little ski area as we don’t get a lot of national attention.”

Hikers listen to guest speaker during 2023 Highlander Kalispell event. Courtesy photo

Highlander also worked closely with Diane Medler, executive director of Discover Kalispell. Medler said that in addition to trash collection, the event had a measurable impact on the larger Kalispell economy. During shoulder season, a time when local businesses struggle with a dip in tourism, this event provided a much-needed bump in revenue. 

“If we can introduce people to our area, and really educate them on responsible recreation in a controlled way, it’s not going to cause damage to our landscape, rather it’ll be a positive impact for our area,” Medler said. “And the participants come early, and they stay after, so they spend money at our hotels, restaurants, shops, breweries, wineries, and whatnot. So, it’s a positive economic impact.”

Wood said that especially after the pandemic, there is a surging interest in being outdoors in places like the Flathead Valley, but inexperienced visitors can sometimes unintentionally negatively impact the landscape. She noticed that Highlander’s event sought to mitigate this strain by giving participants the tools to recreate responsibly and safely.

“We see right now that the outdoors is being tapped again and I absolutely love that,” Wood said. “But we see a lot of people inside the country who don’t really know what they’re doing. I really appreciate that Highlander focuses on education and helps people recreate responsibly.”

A hiker laces up her boots during Highlander’s five-day backpacking journey. Courtesy photo

Highlander also coordinated planning and logistics with the Flathead National Forest, Montana State Parks, Flathead Ridge Ranch, DNRC, Aspen Meadow Farms, Diamond Hangin T Ranch, Foys to Blacktail Trails, and Flathead County Fairgrounds.

Vojnovic said that just a year ago, many people were skeptical that Highlander could pull off an event of this scale, so he is proud that the organization’s community is now rapidly growing. He added that Highlander’s ultimate goal is to build the global presence of an athletic event like Ironman.

“They thought that we were a scam – five people from Croatia, talking in bad English with a Russian accent, and whenever we did planning calls it was dark because we were waking up at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m.,” Vojnovic said. “We’re claiming that we’ll do this amazing hiking event with 200 plus people, a 60-mile trail with checkpoints, and have all the logistics taken care of. They thought there was no way. So, when they saw that we were actually able to pull it off, we got a lot of support from the hiking community within the US.” 

Highlander will be back in Kalispell next fall from Sept. 10 to Sept. 14, with a slightly modified trail and stronger partnerships. Those interested in Highlander 2024 can register at https://highlanderadventure.com/en-us/kalispell.

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