VAN LIFE SUSTAINABILITY: HOW TO REDUCE YOUR IMPACT AS AN ECO-FRIENDLY VAN LIFER
By Mary Kathryn Jackson, Bearfoot Theory’s Content & Community Manager
Over the last several years, there has been a huge increase in the size of the van life community. People have been nomadically living for all of time, but with the introduction of social media and its growth over the last decade, we’re seeing more and more people hitting the road and doing #vanlife. Today, there are nearly 7 million photos with that hashtag on Instagram alone. This brings more people on the roads, in public lands, and exploring areas they may not have explored otherwise. It’s an exciting time, and the Bearfoot Theory team celebrates that more people are outside adventuring (and you should consider joining us at Open Roads Fest this summer)!
But, it’s important to discuss the other side of the coin – what impact does van life have on the environment? How can you live sustainably in a van?
I consider myself an environmentally conscious person, and an important question I ask myself regularly is, “How can I live more sustainably?” So when I started to build out my van in early 2017, that question grew to become, “How can I live more sustainably in van life?” Throughout the last three years of living full time on the road, I’ve learned some van life hacks to reduce my footprint while living a mobile lifestyle, and I continue to look for ways to be more eco-friendly.
If you’ve thought about this too, you’re in the right place. In this blog post, we’ll answer these questions and discuss how to reduce your impact as an eco-friendly van lifer. We’ll discuss sustainability as it relates to van life, and I’ll highlight simple habits that work for me in my efforts towards waste reduction, water conservation, minimalist shopping tips, Leave No Trace principles in van life, and more.
Whether you’re just considering van life or you already live in a van or mobile home, here are practical tips to reduce your impact as an eco-conscious van lifer!
What Impact Does Van Life Have on the Environment?
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the transportation sector contributes 29% of the total US greenhouse gas emissions, making it one of the largest contributors. That includes aircraft, trains, and ships, but vehicle transport alone is 83% of that total. Much of that is from regular commuter vehicles. Considering the average American puts 13,000 – 15,000+ miles on their vehicle each year just as a regular commuter, it all adds up. Unfortunately, we haven’t derived an average like this for van travelers yet, but the range would be pretty wide if I were to guess. Depending on how and where you drive in your van, it is possible to cut this mileage total way down – we’ll get into that more down below.
Another way the influx of van dwellers has on the environment is the number of people traveling through, camping on, and exploring outdoor spaces. With the rise in visitors, it’s even more important to do our part in protecting and preserving the areas we get to visit. Over the years, I’ve seen littered trash, trampled vegetation, and a disregard for restricted areas and outdoor ethics. When we are responsible outdoor explorers, our presence does not adversely impact the areas and, instead, could contribute to preserving the area for generations to come.
As van lifers, we always want to strive to leave places better than we found them. I believe education is at the foundation of being a responsible, respectful outdoor enthusiast and the first step in creating new habits is to become aware of our actions, so we can learn to be better. Because, truthfully, a lot of people just don’t know how their actions impact the environment.
Alright, let’s get into some ways that we can all reduce our overall impact on the environment as a van lifer!
How to Live More Sustainably in a Van
Use Eco-Friendly Materials in your Camper Van Conversion
Whether you’re hiring a conversion company or DIYing your build, consider using salvaged or used materials as much as possible. The use of second-hand products reduces the demand on industries to produce more new products. And, it keeps those previously-used items out of the landfill by repurposing them. A lot of older items have more charm too, so it might give your design a little extra character.
There are several places you can find used and salvaged materials, so don’t be afraid to get creative in your search. Contact local salvage yards, boatyards, and even construction companies to see what project they’re working on. If you build a rapport with them they might be willing to let you pick through some of the unwanted materials or buy them outright.
My partner, Marco and I DIYed our entire build without any outside help. We didn’t have a big budget so we looked for places we could cut back on expenses by using second-hand materials. So, we contacted a local farm construction business, told them about our project, and they generously offered us as much palette wood as we needed for our build (check it out in the image below). It was a win-win; we got to save money on materials while repurposing something that would have otherwise been a one-and-done throwaway material for that company. We also bought used tools from a pawn shop, which cut on expenses and unnecessary new items for our build.
In Kristen’s van, the conversion company, Outside Van, used eco-friendly materials wherever possible, including on the galley drawers and walls. So, if you plan to use a conversion company then be sure to make it clear that using eco-friendly materials is important to you.
Photo Credit: @roam.thevan
Drive Less, Move Slowly, Stay Longer
- Strategize Your Route
- Plan Smart
- Drive Less
- Move Slow
- Stay Longer
This is a big one. Honestly, the idea of driving a diesel-fueled vehicle didn’t sit right with me. And, I would prefer an alternative but unfortunately, that isn’t an option for us right now. That’s why it’s important to reduce our footprint in all other possible ways. Driving less, moving slowly, and staying longer is one way to reduce your transportation footprint.
In three full years of being on the road living and traveling in our van, we’ve put less than 30,000 miles on it. That breaks down to an annual average of 10,000 miles. To put this in perspective, the average American puts 13,000 – 15,000+ miles on their vehicle each year as a regular commuter. Most American households have two cars or more, and each of those cars drives that on average each year. Consider that for a moment. Our full-time home/vehicle for two people has managed to reduce our annual mileage by 25-35% – double that if you consider that we’re now a one-car household.
We started our journey in Florida, and have since done multiple loops through the Rockies, western US, and into Baja. Some might be surprised by such low mileage, but it’s the truth. We strategize our route to maximize efficiency and follow this guideline. So, depending on your circumstances it is possible to drive significantly less each year than the average commuter. It requires having a strategy and smart planning, but it’s doable.
It’s said that the most efficient speed to drive on the highway is 55-60mph. Once your speed increases from 65-75mph, efficiency decreases by 20%. Plus, the “drive less, move slowly, stay longer” guideline isn’t only better for the environment, it also means you get to relax and enjoy the view more than you could if you’re on the move frequently. You also save money on gas. I understand this might not be ideal for everyone’s circumstances and in all scenarios, but it’s a good practice to get into as much as possible.
Photo Credit: @roam.thevan
Leave No Trace Principles for Van Life
The seven Leave No Trace principles are great guidelines for sustainable living in a camper van:
- Plan Ahead & Prepare
- Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
The first step in this process is to familiarize yourself with the areas you’ll be traveling through. Learn about the land – who owns it and the rules and regulations, as well as the wildlife that lives there. That way, you’ll be well prepared with the information you need to enjoy your time while minimizing your impact. It’s also a smart practice to contact the local ranger station, visitor’s center, Forest Service, or Bureau of Land Management to get the full rundown on the protocol.
Responsibly deciding where to park is based on the allowed uses for the land, the sensitivity of the soil and vegetation, and your potential to disturb wildlife. Plus, an honest look at the impact you and your group could have on the area. Sometimes, this means sacrificing “the perfect spot” to prevent damage.
Here are some more things to consider when choosing where to go and while setting up your camp:
- Is this land owned by the federal government or the state?
- What are the local regulations?
- How long are you allowed to camp?
- Are there fire restrictions?
- What wildlife is in the area and how do I need to properly store my food, trash, and scented items?
- Are there bathroom/trash facilities or do I need to plan for waste disposal (including pistachio shells and fruit peels)?
Photo Credit: @roam.thevan
Conserve Water and Reduce Your Consumption
In the US, the average person uses between 80-100 gallons of water per day for indoor home use (yep, per person, per day!) This includes toilet flushing, showers, dishwashing, cooking, and cleaning. That’s a lot of water. But, when you live in a van you don’t have the luxury of seemingly endless flowing water like you might at home. So, you’re forced to limit your water use to make the supply last longer.
Depending on your van’s plumbing system, you might have a water tank anywhere between 7 gallons and 40 gallons; the majority of van lifers I’ve encountered have a water tank between 7 and 25 gallons (due to weight/space restrictions). Having such a limited amount of water available demands that you ration it for the duration of the trip. Since a water refill might not be readily available when you run out, this is one of the key van life essentials to living off the grid.
In my van, we have two 7-gallon water jugs, with only one hooked up at a time. These 14 gallons of water are used for cooking, tea/coffee, dishwashing, and personal hygiene (we have a separate jug for drinking water), and our supply lasts over two weeks if we’re using it liberally. That breaks down to a half-gallon per person per day, on average. We’ve made it last three weeks on many occasions when we planned to be off-grid for a while, so it is possible!
When we first moved into the van, it took a little figuring-out before we got the system down. So, to help you save time (and water), here are some simple and effective ways to reduce your water consumption and conserve your supply.
- While doing dishes, place a bowl in the sink to catch the used dishwater. Then, reuse that water for all of your dishes. After they’ve been scrubbed, just give them a quick light rinse.
- Save any and all unused water – keep an empty jar around in case you pour more water than you need and save it for later use.
- Do not run the faucet full-blast. Start with the least amount of flow possible, then increase if you need more water or pressure.
- Turn off the water in between uses (soaping up your hands, scrubbing dishes, etc.) Only run the water when necessary.
You’re probably wondering about showers? Well, living the van life usually means you shower less than you do in a regular house. So, it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that you’re saving a significant amount of water by showering less. But, when you do get to shower, the same tips apply for conserving water. You’ll be surprised by how clean you can get in a one or two minute shower! It’s an essential van life skill and art – you’ll become the master of efficient showers in no time (pun intended.)
Be Mindful of How Much Trash You Produce
Minimizing waste is one of the primary van life essentials. In most cities and larger towns, trash and recycling get picked up by the city once or twice a week. Between that time, we fill our trash bins with garbage, food, packaging, etc. and then it magically disappears. While this is convenient, we might not realize how much trash we’re creating. And if we don’t know, then how can we start reducing it?
Similar to the water topic above, waste production becomes apparent pretty much instantly when you move into the van. Your space is small; you’re moving frequently; there’s no magical garbage fairy to remove your trash – it all piles up until you deal with it. You’re the one handling your trash and separating the recyclables, compost, and landfill items. You’re the one storing the trash when you’re off-the-grid away from facilities. So, how do we reduce our waste as an eco-friendly van lifer? I’ve got you covered:
- Buy fewer packaged items (groceries and produce, for example)
- Invest in high-quality reusable products for storage, like Stasher bags and mason jars
- Say no to disposable bags while shopping – use reusable bags and produce bags instead. The key here is to remember the bags when you go in. Otherwise, take the cart out and unload your groceries directly into your van
- Eliminate single-use disposable items, like plasticware, disposable utensils, and beverage cups
- Reuse containers to store other items
- Use cloth materials instead of paper towels – cut up old clothes to make a bunch of cloth napkins
- Install a refillable propane tank in your van, instead of using disposable canisters
- Start a game in your van to see just how little trash you can create in a week – how creative can you get?
Kristen rocking a Stasher bag for her mid-hike snacks
Buy Less Stuff
Buy less, acquire less. There isn’t enough room in a van (mobile home, RV, travel trailer, vehicle) to accumulate unnecessary items. You won’t have a surplus of storage space when you’re living tiny, so you’ll be forced into admiring things that you encounter without taking them home with you. Whether or not you realized it before, you’ll be participating in a practice of non-attachment because you, quite simply, don’t have room for the stuff you don’t need. So, make your purchases count by investing in products that will last and buying used items whenever possible. This will create less waste in your van and the environment.
Stop and Reflect
Being environmentally conscious provides continuous learning opportunities. Ultimately, if we have the privilege and opportunity to explore beautiful places in a van, we have a responsibility for something greater. We have the responsibility to reflect on our actions and how we might be impacting the land and its people around us. As you travel, you’ll undoubtedly encounter moments where you spot a gorgeous view that would make the perfect Instagram photo if you parked there, but you can tell no one has camped there, and it probably isn’t a good place for anyone to camp anyway… BUT… it would just be the perfect spot and the perfect photo!
So, what do you do?
We’ve all had moments like these, whether it’s out hiking on a trail and you see another switchback ahead of you and you contemplate cutting the switchback, or it’s in a situation like I just described above. I encourage you to just pause. Take a moment and reflect on why you’re out there doing what you’re doing. What inspired you to hit the road? What inspired you to live in a van? Maybe it was an awesome photo online, but what is the deeper motivation that drove you to get out there? And, then remind yourself and your friends that our individual actions make a significant impact on the environment around us. In those moments, consider these important questions:
- Are my actions benefitting the land and its resources for future generations?
- Is there anything I can do that will prevent further damage?
- Do I want this land to flourish?
- Do I want others to enjoy these places as I am?
So, when you reaaaaally wish you could just sneak over, without anyone noticing, just to get those photos and that epic wake-up view… if you answered YES to any of those questions, then you know what to do to be an eco-friendly van lifer. Ultimately, it’s best practice to leave a place better than you found it.
What are your tips and tricks for reducing your impact as a van lifer? Leave them in the comment section below to share with this community.
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