Whether you’re headed out to one of the United States’ most visited National Parks or snagging a tent site at your favorite local campground, leaving the area better than you found it is a top priority for any responsible camper. “Pack it in, Pack it out” is a popular mantra among seasoned outdoor enthusiasts, and it’s one of the seven Leave No Trace principles for protecting the outdoors. But what if you didn’t have to worry about packing out the trash because, well, you didn’t generate any?
With the rise of zero waste living— epitomized by some extreme practitioners fitting a year’s worth of trash into a mason jar — many of us are evaluating how we can minimize our personal waste footprint. The good news is, you don’t have to be an extreme zero-waster to make a difference. Planning a low waste camping trip is just one way to incorporate the principles of zero waste living into simple, actionable steps on a bite-sized timeline. And you might even find yourself bringing the habit home with you (along with your jar of trash!)
Ditch the Disposables
While disposable plastic utensils and single-use water bottles are lightweight and convenient, their negative impact on the environment outweighs their benefits. Instead of buying a box of plastic forks that you’ll probably throw away after your camping trip, consider picking up a reusable eating utensil, collapsible bowl, and hard plastic plate that you can use on future trips.
Even dollar-store reusable bowls, plates, and cups are a step up from the flimsy disposables or *gasp* styrofoam. And if you’re worried about finding safe drinking water near your campsite without bringing bottled water from home, you can bring a reusable water filter like this one, from Sawyer.
Meal Plan with Intention
If you’re used to buying packaged foods for their convenience (and, okay, maybe their taste) consider instead purchasing fresh foods where you can. Fruits and vegetables are less packable, but they don’t require ice or the plastic packaging that comes with it. They also have a lower carbon footprint and tend to be healthier, too.
Glass mason jars aren’t just good for bragging about your zero waste prowess; use them to store meals you prepared at home before heading out for your trip. If you’re scared of the glass breaking, you can pack them in linens— like that washcloth or bandana you’re probably bringing anyway.
If you do plan on consuming packaged food and beverages, like soda in aluminum cans or the box of graham crackers for your s’mores, make sure you bring a bin to collect your recycling. If you separate the recyclables at your campsite, you’ll be that much more likely to properly recycle them once you’re back in civilization.
Carry Out the Compost
With only a little extra planning and a bucket, you can help cut down on methane emissions which are produced by organic matter when it decomposes in landfills. It doesn’t have to be fancy— you can store your food scraps in one of those ubiquitous plastic five-gallon buckets with a lid and handle, found at most hardware or gardening stores. If you already compost at home, this should be a no-brainer. Just make sure you secure your compost bucket in your trunk to keep animals away or use a bear-safe container.
If you’re looking to save money while saving the earth, look no further than secondhand gear. Many retailers specialize in gear resale, giving thrifty, sustainable buyers the opportunity to pick up pre-loved tents, backpacks, clothing, and more. Look for a local outdoor goods seller in your area, or use tried-and-true favorites like Geartrade or REI Garage.
But if you’re someone who revels in that new-gear feeling, consider buying high-quality (read: expensive) items. With that hefty price tag often comes a longer lifespan, and therefore a more sustainable product. You want your new purchase to last a lifetime rather than ending up in a landfill.
Better Yet, Borrow
Does your outdoorsy neighbor have a veritable REI gear closet in their basement? Odds are, you know someone who loves to be outside just as much as you do. Consider asking friends if they’d lend a tent or stove to a careful camper before going out and purchasing your own.
No outdoorsy friends? Many outdoor retailers have equipment rental programs, which are great for first-time campers and veterans alike. If you’re not sure you’ll make camping a lifelong activity, why buy that expensive tent when you can rent one? Even if you know you’ll be planning your next trip on the way home from this one, gear rental can be a smart option if you’re not sure which brands or products you’ll want to create a lifelong relationship with.
Use Less Harmful Hygiene Products
If you’re camping for more than one night, you’re probably bringing things like shampoo, dish soap, hand sanitizer, deodorant, and toothpaste. If it’s summer, you might want to add sunscreen to that list. And, depending on your campsite’s amenities, you may even be bringing toilet paper. While camping is no excuse to completely ignore personal hygiene, you can shop smarter for products that are eco-conscious.
Instead of shampoo in a plastic bottle, try a shampoo and conditioner bar packed in a natural wrapping, like beeswax. Companies like Life Without Plastic have loads of natural hygiene options that won’t break the bank and will be healthier for you and the environment. You can even buy biodegradable toilet paper— but remember, if you’re camping in the backcountry, burying TP is against Leave No Trace principles.“Pack it in, Pack it out” still applies.
Be mindful of runoff; when you spit your toothpaste or dump your soapy water onto the ground, the rain will eventually carry it into a nearby waterbody. That’s why purchasing products with natural ingredients is so important. They’re less likely to degrade the ecosystem than products that contain harmful chemicals.
Leave it Better than you Found it
A responsible camper is always looking for ways to leave nature better than they found it. This may mean bringing along an extra reusable bag and picking up litter you find along the way. The goal of a sustainable, zero-waste lifestyle is to make sure that future generations have the ability to enjoy the earth’s natural places. So, next time you see that energy bar wrapper on the side of the trail, consider picking it up and packing it out.