Two Wandering Soles: On Creating a Nomadic Life and the Rise of Responsible Tourism


 

responsible tourism

The travel blogging world is a funny one. It has changed immeasurably since I launched The Fit Traveller, back in 2014. Thanks to the rise of Instagram, the numbers of influencers and bloggers has exploded. Despite this second wave, it's easy to spot the bloggers that stand out from the rest; for their storytelling, their work ethic, their messaging, their authenticity and their pure love of travel. Katie and Ben from Two Wandering Soles fall into this special grouping. Having spent 6 years wandering the world, I was curious to hear more about Katie and Ben's life on the road; their experiences and in particular their role as responsible travellers.

Skye Gilkeson | Images via Two Wandering Soles

You’ve been on the road since 2014. Tell us how this big adventure all started.

The last 6 years really have been a whirlwind, and as cliché as it sounds, that first flight seems like so long ago and yesterday, at the same time.

Here’s the short version of our story. Not long after getting married, Ben and I found ourselves itching to travel and see more of the world. We eventually decided to quit our jobs in order to take a 3-month backpacking trip to South America. And as you can probably guess, that 3-month trip never really ended.

Over the next 6 years, we did everything we could to continue traveling while still paying our insanely high student loans. We taught English in South Korea which allowed us to save up enough money to travel for a year. We worked at a ski resort, which helped us fund our own campervan build. We taught English online and took freelance writing and design jobs to keep the dream alive.

Throughout it all, we documented our stories and advice on our travel blog, Two Wandering Soles. Eventually, we started earning money on our blog. At first, our goal was to cover our sizeable student loan payment each month. Once we reached that milestone, we set a new goal. Little by little, we kept growing until we both found ourselves working as full-time travel bloggers.

Our last two years have meant a much slower pace of travel, as a lot of our time is spent working on our website. We’ve had “home bases” in Thailand and Bali, and now we’ve finally moved back to the United States. Even though we’re not living out of backpacks anymore, travel is still a huge part of our lives.

You describe yourselves as responsible travellers. What do you mean by that exactly?

There are many definitions out there of responsible travel encompasses, but we like to sum it up simply:

We aim to travel in a way that brings more good than bad to the place we’re visiting.

If you think about it, all of your actions as a traveler have an impact, and they can be positive or negative. You can choose to support local businesses, pick up a few pieces of litter on a trail, and refrain from supporting an attraction that exploits animals. All of those seemingly small decisions are actually big for the people who call the place you’re visiting home. And if more people travel with this mindset, the world would be better for it.

Have you always been careful and mindful of your travel footprint?

We have certainly learned a lot over the years as certain issues are talked about more openly. And like most people, we make mistakes all the time and are in a state of constant learning and growth.

But even before the term “sustainable travel” was mainstream, we’ve had a deep respect for nature and a belief that supporting locals is the best way to travel.

During our first trip to South America in 2014, we were looking for a lodge to stay at in the Amazon. We chatted with some other backpackers who told us about the place they went to, and they spoke of how the sewage system was leaking into the waters. They also said there were a couple of the rainforest’s famed “pink dolphins” in an enclosure so guests were guaranteed to see them. My heart hurt just thinking about it. And so we did a little more research and found an eco-lodge run by the indigenous people of the region.

It was a lot more expensive, and we were not guaranteed to see wildlife, but it just felt right. We were on a tiny budget, but we knew deep down that the extra money we paid was well spent.

After that experience, we became particularly mindful about the places we supported on our travels. We researched as much as we could about trekking companies to Machu Picchu, and again went with a more expensive one that paid their porters fairly. And that just became how we traveled.

Most backpackers we met on that trip were looking to book the cheapest tour available. It wasn’t because they didn’t care, but instead because they weren’t aware of the consequences and they didn’t fully realize the power they had in what type of businesses they chose to support. 

Back then “responsible travel” wasn’t the buzzword it is now, but we decided after our trip to South America that the focus of our website would be on providing other travelers with resources to help them make better decisions when traveling.

We don’t ever claim to be perfect, and I don’t think we ever will be. But listening, making learning a priority, admitting when we’ve made mistakes, and committing to do better next time, will help us be better than we were yesterday.

You take on a lot of adventure travel activities while on the road. Can you share a few with us?

You’re right — our favourite memories on the road are usually made when we’re sweaty, dirty, and our hearts are racing. We’ve done a lot of the token adrenaline junkie activities:

  • Bungee jumping over a gorge in New Zealand
  • Skydiving in the Canadian Rockies
  • Whitewater rafting in Ecuador, Washington, Costa Rica, and Nepal
  • Paragliding in Colombia and Turkey
  • Scuba diving around the world
  • Canyoning in Vietnam and around Latin America

But some of the most memorable moments have been in the adventures that are the experiences we didn’t necessarily plan on having:

  • Sleeping beneath the stars at a hidden hot spring in Idaho.
  • Traveling around the US for 3 months in a campervan we built ourselves.
  • Road tripping through Iceland on a super tiny budget.
  • Hiking for 5 days through a remote place of the Annapurna Mountain Range in Nepal.
  • Cliff jumping with locals in the Galapagos.
  • Hiking to a mountain hut in New Zealand where we spent the night with complete strangers.
  • Volunteering on a farm in the Andes Mountains, so remote that it took 6 hours of buses and 2 hours of hiking through knee-deep mud to reach.

Truthfully, the adventure doesn’t have to involve a bungee cord and $100. As cliché as it may sound, it really can be found anywhere – with the right attitude, of course!

What does ethical travel mean to you? What are your key tips for travelling in an ethical way?

There are many different aspects of ethical travel and I could ramble on for days on this topic. But to keep it simple, I’ll share three simple ways every single person can start traveling more ethically. 

1. Support local businesses whenever possible. This means locally-run guesthouses and hotels, restaurants, and shops. Go to a small coffee shop instead of a Starbucks when you can. And when your service is really great, go a step further and write them a review on Google or TripAdvisor, because those help the businesses grow and reach new customers. (I’m trying to get better and remembering to do this!)

2. Do your best to create as little waste as possible. The easiest way to do this is to plan ahead and pack items that will help you say no to single-use plastic. We have an entire eco-friendly packing list with all our favorite items!

3. Whenever encountering animals on your travels, do some extra research. There are some really incredible experiences out there where a portion of your money goes back to protecting the animals and their environment, but there are far more “animal encounters” that exploit the same creature they claim to care about. Read reviews, email the operator with specific questions, and research the type of experience to see if it is really in the animals’ best interests.

Good to know: Just because an organization claims to be a “sanctuary” doesn’t necessarily mean it is treating animals well. Just another reminder to do your research!

Cannon beach oregon

What are your top five places you’ve visited and why?

This is always a tough question to answer, and my answers change daily depending on my mood. I have favorite places for different reasons, but here are a few countries that stick out:

  • Nepal: There is something about Nepal that just speaks to me. We have been privileged to travel to Nepal twice and go trekking in some incredible parts of the Himalayas – both to Everest Base Camp and to Mohare Danda, a seldom-visited part of the Annapurna Range. The people of Nepal amaze me with their warmth and resilience, and the mountains and towns enchant me with their beauty.    
  • Thailand: This is the country we’ve returned to the most times – 5 to date! We’ve spent time living in Thailand, traveling to the hotspots and well off the beaten path, and we think there is so much more to this country than typical island-hoppers generally see. We love the food, the people, the culture and the diverse landscapes; and it’s a place that feels like home to both of us.
  • New Zealand: We have an obsession with campervan travel and were able to spend a month exploring New Zealand in one. There aren’t many other countries where you can wake up by the ocean and be deep in the mountains by lunchtime. Around every turn was a sight so breathtaking, we had to park and take photos. It was absolute magic.
  • Italy: For both Ben and I, Italy was the first country we traveled to outside of the United States, so obviously it has a special place in both of our hearts. It has been 10 years since we first landed in Florence, the town we called home for a semester, so we can’t wait to return someday and visit some of our favorite places as well as areas we never made it to.
  • Washington State: One of our very favorite places in the world is the North Cascades in Washington state. We spent the better part of a year living in Washington, and we fell head over hiking boots for this place. It is truly one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever seen, and there are endless adventures all around this state.

As you grow your blog and your influence, how important do you think it is to be consistent with your message about responsible travel?

We try to have responsible travel at the core of all our big decisions with our business, and it is something we think about constantly.

One example is when sharing photos, we try to be conscious of the impact they can potentially have. A photo might encourage someone to go to the place in our shot, and as overtourism is becoming an ever-growing issue, we try to be mindful about whether locations have enough facilities to accommodate more people.

We try to think about how responsible travel looks in different locations. For instance, making a positive impact when you travel in Switzerland looks different than responsible travel in Colombia. So when we write about places, we try to weave in specific and practical tips that anyone can use to travel more responsibly.

Another thing we try to be mindful of is creating a space where people can learn and grow without judgment. As “sustainable travel” becomes more of a hot topic, I have seen quite a bit of shaming out there. And sometimes it is 100% valid. But in other instances, I think some messaging can have the opposite effect and alienate people, making them closed off to learning.

Responsible Travel will always be at the core of our brand, and we are passionate about showing others that it doesn’t have to be hard or expensive. And we truly believe that each person can make small difference that is big to someone.

Do you get a sense the industry is moving in a better direction when it comes to conscious travel?

Absolutely! When we quit our jobs in 2014 and went to South America for 3 months, we never heard other travelers talk about reducing plastic waste, limiting their carbon footprint, or trying to travel more responsibly. Now, it’s a huge conversation, and we are constantly impressed with how passionate people have gotten about this topic.

Plus, many companies are making efforts to change, which is fantastic. But it does make it a bit hard to determine which companies are “for real” and which ones are using this movement to help their branding without really following through.

What do you think needs to change for the general population to become more ethical/responsible travelers?

I think the majority of people want to do the right thing, and a lot of times it comes down to people not having the information or resources they need in order to make ethical travel decisions. That’s where travel media, bloggers and influencers come in, as they have the platforms to help spread knowledge and awareness.

Additionally, I believe businesses play a huge role in this as well. When hotels and tour operators start taking more responsibility for their businesses practices by reducing their footprint, paying fair wages, and giving back to their communities, things will really start to change.

And it’s a cycle: We as travelers, need to support companies that are doing the right thing in order to keep them in business. They, in turn, become an example of success in their industry, which encourages more companies to follow suit.

two wandering soles

A key to responsible travel is to work with locals, eat local food and give back. Can you share any stories that stand out where you and Ben have really enjoyed that part of a trip?

The most memorable moments from our travels almost always have to do with local interactions. One example is during our time in Laos, we wanted to do a trek with a homestay in a remote village. We decided to book our trek with a company that employs local guides, and early on in our hike, our guide asked us if we could veer from the itinerary a little bit.

That day was Hmong New Year, he explained, and he was hoping to spend it in his home village. We agreed, so instead of staying in the first village we walked through, we kept going a bit further. Our guide explained that his village had never hosted outsiders overnight, so we would be the first. And when we arrived, we were overwhelmed by invitations to have us over for the New Year meal. In the end, we went to 3 homes for dinner because we couldn’t say no!

Each household had prepared chicken and rice for dinner, and we ate with our hands under a single light bulb. Our guide translated the conversations and we kept looking at each other, feeling a sense of awe that we were able to have this experience.

The last home we went to offered us shots of moonshine that kept mysteriously getting refilled. And after dinner, the town shaman arrived and did a blessing for the family’s teenage son. He had just bought a motorbike and would be making the 3-hour journey to the nearest city the following day. Everyone in the room, including us, got to tie a string around the boy’s bike as a blessing.

It wasn’t the most glamorous of our travel experiences or even the one we have written about most. It wasn’t our most comfortable night of sleep or the best food we’ve eaten. But still, it sticks out as one of our most memorable travel experiences and is a reminder that we don’t necessarily need luxury hotels and expensive tours to have an incredible experience. In those moments, we were so grateful that our paths led us to this special place, and we often think about the people we met during our short stay and wonder how they are doing now.

What do you have planned in terms of travel for the rest of the year?

After nearly 6 years of being nomadic, we just moved back to the United States! It is a huge change for us, but we are super excited to create roots and have a home base (with drawers for keeping our clothes!) that we can return to in between travels.

And on the topic of travels, yes, even though we have a “home” now, we will still take trips, both domestically and internationally.

We are based in Oregon for now and are excited to explore the state and do lots of hiking and camping in the PNW. In December, I’m also taking a trip to Europe with my mom to visit Christmas Markets and have some girl time!

Follow Katie at Ben on Instagram here.

Read more about their travels and get more ethical travel tips here.