When it comes to zero waste camping, the whole premise is based on the fact that when you pack you are packing things that will leave zero waste. But a lot of the time, that is not the case. We pack a lot of single-use plastic items like cutlery, cups, plates, etc. that we leave behind in garbage bins, or in some cases, it's left as litter. Neither of these is a good option.
It's kind of ironic that we produce so much trash when we camp! In this ultimate guide to zero waste camping, I'm going to break it down into food, gear, toiletries, garbage, etc. And hopefully, give you enough information that you will leave no trash behind! Remember to take nothing but pictures, and leave nothing but footprints.
I am by no means a professional camper, my hubby is and together we make a really good team, he gave me lots of advice for this blog, there are lots of great sites you can visit for the best gear, etc., but I do know a lot about waste and how to reduce it!
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How to plan a zero waste camping trip?
The most important thing you can do before you camp is to research the area you are going to. In the USA and Canada, we have hundreds maybe even thousands of campsites, and almost all of them have websites that you can look at to plan your trip. You will want to know what kind of bathroom/ shower facilities they offer, do they have dishwasher stations? Do they have outhouses or water facilities nearby where you can fill up?
Most car camping sites do offer some of these amenities, but if you are heading into the backcountry, most likely these will not be an option. No matter the kind of camping trip you are taking you going to need to do some research before you head out. And keep in mind backcountry camping is not an invitation to leave garbage behind, whatever you bring in, you must bring it out! That includes food waste and yes even soiled toilet paper - more on this later.
One thing you absolutely need to know is what kind of waste management services they offer, recycling, composting, etc. if there are none, you will need to be properly prepared, I'll go into more detail in the garbage section.
Responsible waste management and removal are critical to camping. It ensures our parks and campsites are safe for people AND animals. Animals can choke on plastic because they think it's food! Your safety is also of paramount importance and that means the campsite needs to be kept BARE for bear safety. Parks Canada has some really great resources for how to do it right.
Here's the thing, if you leave food out and a bear wanders in and attacks you, they have to kill the bear. We need to avoid this at all costs and remember we visiting their home, not the other way around!
Leave No Trace Canada is an organization that promotes responsible camping whose principles are recommended by the province's camping guides and have a simple rule: pack it in, pack it out. I highly recommend a visit to their website.
Once you have a good idea of where you are going and what they offer, now you can start planning what to actually take. I am not going to lie, planning a zero waste camping trip is work, but in the end, it's worth it.
Zero Waste Camping: Water & Ice
Where do you get water when camping?
The biggest tip I can give you is to plan plan plan ahead. The only way to make sure your camping trip is eco-friendly is to pre-plan! Food, snacks, and water can be a challenge if you are backcountry camping.
Water when backcountry camping: I suggest packing a large reusable water bottle (filled). When you run out use the portable water provided on-site instead of carting a whole bunch of plastic water bottles. You might also want to consider a water filter.
For car camping sites, there are normally places you can fill up on water close by. But the best option is to buy a large reusable water container, I'd say at least 5 liters as you are going to need water to drink, wash with and cook with. If you camp often you can buy this once and reuse it over and over, you can also look at getting something like this secondhand or even borrowing one. This is what my husband and I use. We store it in the garage when we are not using it.
If you are buying drinks in a nearby town, try to buy in glass and tin, these have higher recycling rates than most plastic containers.
What about ice when camping?
Great question, it can be a real conundrum for sure as the ice comes in plastic bags! I have two ways you can approach this, the easy and the hardish way.
The easy way (not the best though) is to buy bagged ice. If you have to do this then buy the biggest bag you can, and then keep the bag to reuse for other things on your trip. Like collecting trash, using toilet paper, or recyclables.
The hard-ish way just takes a little more planning and work. But is totally doable! Instead of ice, use ice packs. These stainless steel ice packs are pretty amazing, they stay frozen for a really long time.
If you don't have enough ice packs you can make your own. Keep old plastic containers, fill them with water, and freeze them. This is what my hubby and I do. You can use plastic yogurt containers, margarine, etc. The bigger the better.
You can also freeze water in older plastic water bottles and when they melt, you can use that water to clean your dishes or wash your hands or even drink. Obviously, I am not a fan of plastic water bottles, but if you have them, you might as well reuse them. Just make sure you discard them properly.
Make sure you keep your cooler in a shaded area, to help the ice last longer. In some parks, they do have ice dispensers. Ask if you are not sure.
And of course, always pack your reusable water bottle! You will need this when hiking and are away from your campsite.
What kind of food should you pack when camping?
You need to eat right! And it's super easy to just buy buns, burgers, hotdogs, etc. that come in plastic bags, but again with a little planning ahead, you can reduce your waste significantly, this is especially true for zero waste camping!
For buns, buy them directly from a bakery and use a reusable bread bag. For hot dogs and burgers it's a little more challenging, so maybe opt for different food.
For snacks, go to a bulk shop and stock up on nuts, seeds and granola, mix them to make your own snacks, and package them in small silicone baggies or sandwich bags like these, or these or these. These are great for kids and adults, are easy to pack and lightweight and great for taking on a hike too. Making your own snacks is good for your budget too. They are also really great backpacking food containers.
I know pre-bought salads like macaroni are easy and popular. See if your grocery store will allow you to bring your own glass container, if they do great, when you get it home package it in something a little lighter like stainless steel. These Tiffin ones are the best. I find glass is good but can be a bit heavy. You can also make your own salads, much healthier too!
What can I use to wrap food instead of plastic when camping?
Instead of packing plastic wrap opt for beeswax wraps instead. These are a way better option than saran wrap, you can wash them in cold water and reuse them to wrap food. Beeswax wraps will keep your food fresher than plastic, 100%. I suggest packing a few sizes. If you don't have any of the above reuse whatever you have at home, even if it's plastic!
What is the best food to take camping?
For meals, I like to pre-cook a large batch of chili, portion it out into silicone baggies and then freeze them. These can double as ice packs too. You can thaw these out in the day and cook at night. You can either warm it up on a camping stove or on the fire. You can do the same for soups!
It's all about prepping ahead of time, can you see the theme here? Plan out your meals, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Try to pre-make as much as you can. And don't forget you can always use food scraps as food too!
For breakfast, you can pre-make your pancake mix. And if you want to pack eggs, scramble them up raw and place them in a container. That way you don't have to worry about the eggs breaking.
If you are not going to be cooking then pack foods like salads, sandwiches, smoothies, muffins, whole fruits like apples and bananas, corn on the cob, baked potatoes, and squash that can be roasted on a campfire, and are also really great budget options for camping.
Other budget foods when camping is carrots, celery, and homemade hummus, plus peanut butter for your apples. Easy to make, easy to carry, and yummy.
If you are cooking, I've given you some ideas, Pinterest has some amazing ideas for homemade make-ahead camping meals, not only will these save you time when camping but will save you a ton of cash as well!
Now, don't forget to pack, loose tea and instant coffee, plus salad dressing, oils, butter (for the corn), etc. I keep my almond milk in an insulated water bottle, it keeps it nice and cold. You can do this for any hot or cold drink actually.
So you see, planning zero waste camping meals is not as hard as you think. Some finals food tips:
- Vegetarian dishes are easier to make and will last longer than meat and dairy
- If you are packing meat, eat it first, while the ice is still hard
- Buy bread and fruits the day before you level to keep them fresh, or freeze the bread
- Dry goods are lighter, pack more of those eg: nuts, granola, etc.
- Always be aware of where your closest water station is
What about plates, cups, and utensils?
Please don't take single-use plastic items with you when you camp. If you don't camp often, take what you have, silverware from your kitchen will do just fine. The same goes for the plates, if you have patio sets made from melamine use those. If you don't have reusable plates, then either rent them, borrow them, or buy them secondhand. Thrift stores can be gems for these types of goods. You can also take coconut bowls. They are super light and easy to clean.
Earth Hero is one of my favorite alternatives to Amazon has these fantastic zero waste kits that are perfect for your next camping trip! Life Without Plastic also has some really good zero waste camping options. Like stainless steel plates, contains, water jugs, and more!
What about zero waste camping toiletries?
Pack the basics. I take a shampoo bar that I can also use as soap. Zero waste toothpaste and toothbrushes. Zero waste deodorant. Beach towels that can be used for showering and swimming. I have to be honest when we camp we swim and that's basically my shower. A lot of the time there are no shower facilities, so we have to rough it a bit and I am totally okay with that! I also pack a really good all-purpose salve that can be used for bug bites and as a lip balm.
Now, let's talk about toilet paper and pooping. Yeah, we are going there! Leave No Trace Canada details how to properly dispose of waste – human waste – when camping. Please read it before you head out. Bring toilet paper that is unbleached and when you pee, throw some water over it. If you have to take sanitary napkins or tampons, never bury them, you will have to keep them and dispose of them in the garbage or compost bin.
What about bug spray and sunscreen when sustainable camping?
"The recipe for this bar is inspired by natural repellents traditionally used long ago, like citronella, cedarwood, and neem oil. It is GMO-free, cruelty-free, certified organic, and plastic-free making it one of the most Earth-friendly insect repellents."
What type of gear do I need when I am camping?
For this blog, I am not going to go into every detail of everything you need. I am going to cover the basics. Obviously, when it comes to gear, zero waste is not possible. You need a tent, sleeping bags, etc. But you can make your camping trip more sustainable by choosing better gear. And don't forget your swimsuit.
This eco-friendly tent from REI is made from recycled polyester that was headed to the landfill. REI has some of the best camping gear on the market. Built to last. I feel like a tent is an investment, you want to buy a good one ONCE so you don't have to keep replacing it over and over. This eco-friendly sleeping bag is made from recycled fibers and is super affordable too.
Now for camp stoves, this is probably one of the coolest items on the market for camping. The BioLite is a small compact camping stove that comes with a grill and a kettle. BioLite is on a mission to help people who don't have access to electricity.
"Half the planet lives in energy poverty, lacking safe and reliable ways to cook, charge, and light their lives; three billion people cook over smoky open fires every day, leading to 4 million premature deaths annually."
It was these startling stats that got the founders thinking about how they could bring bringing safe, affordable energy to those who needed it most. How cool is that! I own this one and LOVE it!
For blankets, you can pack your own but I do find you need a little to make your camping trip comfier. These from Rumpl are made from discarded plastic bottles that are turned into synthetic insulation. Rumpl sources everything ethically and is also part of 1% For The Planet.
They are also working to be carbon neutral by partnering with Climate Neutral to achieve this. They also support a ton of local grassroots organizations and are also B. Corp Certified.
You will also need a really good bag for zero waste backpacking. United By Blue carries a gorgeous range of backpacks. For every single item they sell, they remove one pound of trash from oceans and waterways, to date they have removed 3.5 million pounds of trash and counting!
When you buy one of their sustainable backpacks you are buying something that's built to last! All of the materials they use are from GOTS-certified factories from sustainably sourced materials. Find a range to choose from like hemp, organic cotton, recycled polyesters, and even Tencel.
United By Blue is a B. Crop Certified business that takes ethical manufacturing to heart, you can read all about all of their factories right on their website!
So these are the big things you need, you should also consider solar-charger, and rechargeable batteries, these have saved me so much money!
How do I clean up when camping?
This is so important. As I said at the beginning of this post, leave nothing behind. Pack extra bags for your garbage. Have a dedicated bag for things that can be recycled like pop cans, canned foods, etc. Dedicate another bag to organic waste (food scraps) that can be composted.
If you have plastic waste, never ever burn it, it's highly toxic, and never bury it either. Plastic contains chemicals that can leach into the soil and water and of course animals can ingest it and get sick.
Never bury food waste either, it will attract animals to the campsites which are dangerous for them and us. Just like pre-planning your food, you need to pre-plan for your garbage too. Find out what kind of waste management is available where you are going. If they don't have compost bins, be prepared to bring this home with you. If you are worried about the smell, use compost bags and place the bag in the cooler. When you get home, place it in the green bin.
Waterproof, reusable shopping bags can also serve as garbage bags while camping. You can use the rags to clean up, clean your hands, etc. I take my reusable DIY wipes with me. Make a batch before you head out, and pack them in a silicone bag. I also pack a small container of Dr. Bronners Castilelle soap you can use this for basically any cleaning job.
Can you wash your dishes in the lake?
There is a lot of debate about this. Lake and rivers can contain parasites and bacteria, if you can't drink from them then probably not a good idea to wash your dishes. On the other side of the debate is the kind of soap you use. You must use a water-friendly, biodegradable soap that is not packed full of toxins and other crap that can harm the delicate ecosystem. Here's an in-depth look at how to wash your dishes when camping.
If you're using biodegradable soap, Leave No Trace Canada recommends using small amounts and doing so about 70 meters away from any bodies of water. Once you're done, scatter soapy water.
Making a zero waste campfire
Do NOT make a fire unless you know it's permitted and there are no fire bans in place. This information will be available on the camp's website as well as in the park itself. It's really important you follow these rules. Ask yourself do you really need a fire, Leave No Trace says "the natural appearance of many areas has been degraded by the overuse of fires and an increasing demand for firewood”. Use dead wood, do not cut trees, and disturb habitats.
If you want to make a fire here are some suggestions from them: pick a location that has lots of wood available and avoid higher elevations and desert settings, use an existing fire ring, and jeep the fire small and burn all the wood to ash and make sure it's 100% out before you walk away.
Why zero waste camping?
Getting away from the city and spending time in nature is one of the best things you can do for yourself. Nature gives us so much, it's basically like medicine for the body, mind, and soul. For me taking care of nature is one of the most important things I can do as an environmentalist.
With a little pre-planning, you can have a sustainable camping trip. If you camp often you have probably had all the camping essentials already. If you are just getting started you can rent or borrow items, Shop second-hand and thrift shops.
Zero Waste Camping Checklist
🗹 Stove & Fuel
🗹 Reusable Coffee Cup/ Insulated reusable bottles
🗹 Large Water Container
🗹 Reuseable Eating/Cooking Utensils
🗹 Matches or natural fire starters
🗹 Cooking Oil/Condiments
🗹 Pre-packaged Snacks
🗹 Hiking Snacks
🗹 Pre-planned meals, chili, etc.
🗹 Bags For Food Storage
🗹 Bags/Containers for your garbage
🗹 Warm Socks for the evening
🗹 Light windproof jacket
🗹 Rain Gear
🗹 Swim Suit
🗹 Hiking Shorts/Pants
🗹 Hiking Boots
🗹 Comfy campsite shoes eg: Birkenstocks
🗹 First Aid—Survival Kit
🗹 Allergy meds if you need them
🗹 Medic Alert ID
🗹 Your medications
🗹 Polysporin/ bug bite cream
🗹 Water Purification Filter or Tablets
🗹 Fire/Camping Permits
🗹 Personal Identification
🗹 Field Guides
🗹 Playing Cards
🗹 Small Board Games
I will leave you with this: “A bad day camping is still better than a good day working.” And for any camping essentials you might need from this list, we've got a ton of them in the brand directory. Just click on zero-waste.
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