For many car campers (and backpackers!) it’s not uncommon to depart your campsite with a trash bag or two full of waste. Even if we make our best effort at home to reduce our environmental impact, it’s easy to let those good habits slide while packing for a car camping trip. Single-use items like paper plates, plastic utensils, and plastic water bottles may be convenient, but they’re not necessary, and the amount of harm they cause the environment simply isn’t worth it. Plus, how many times have you driven to a campsite and found the garbage bin overflowing with trash, or even worse, found entire garbage bags of trash dumped by the bathrooms? So let’s all do our part to reduce waste while camping – we promise it doesn’t have to be hard.
We’re always looking for ways to recreate more responsibly, reduce our environmental impact, and leave the outdoors better than we found it, and reducing waste while camping whether in a tent or camper van (and really in our everyday lives) is a big one. Whether it’s disposable utensils, plastic bottled drinks, or excess packaging, there’s probably more in our trash bags than there needs to be (guilty as charged!). Together we can make small changes to reduce the trash we make, which is not only better for our planet, but less hassle to deal with on your camping trip as well.
Looking for ways to reduce waste while car camping? Here are a few tips to help you get closer to more eco-friendly, zero-waste camping.
1) Ditch Single-Use Disposables and Choose to Reuse
The main culprit of unnecessary waste while camping is in your camp kitchen. Things such as disposable plastic utensils, Solo cups, Ziploc baggies, paper plates, plastic water bottles, and food items packaged in plastic add up over time. So before you head out, take stock of your camp kitchen inventory to see if there’s any room for improvement, then put together a bin of reusable supplies in order to reduce waste while camping.
Here are a few of our favorite reusable camp kitchen items:
- Stanley Camp Cookware & Drinkware
- Reusable utensil set
- Silicone sandwich and snack bags (instead of Ziplocs)
- Reusable napkins, bandanas, or small microfiber towels instead of disposable napkins
- A kitchen towel or two from home or a quick-dry microfiber towel instead of paper towels
- Insulated tumblers with lids – perfect for both cold and hot drinks
- A set of reusable plates and bowls (here is a good solo set and a set for four people)
- Reusable containers for leftovers
- An AeroPress coffee maker with ground coffee instead of instant, packaged coffee
- Ice packs instead of bags of ice for your cooler
2) Prep and Pack Food From Home
Grab your reusable food containers and pack your cooler full of fresh or pre-prepped food from home to reduce waste while camping. From homemade sandwiches and wraps to batch-cooking granola, trail mix or other energy-boosting snacks (check out this recipe by Fresh Off The Grid), there are many ways to avoid the pre-packaged foods out on the market.
While zero-waste camping is ultimately the end goal, we know it’s not an easy transition. Here are some of our favorite camp foods that typically don’t come wrapped in plastic, and are easy to prep or make ahead of time:
- Veggie kebabs
- Hard boiled eggs
- Apples + nut butter
- Homemade hummus + loose carrots
- Easy pancakes (1 banana + 1 egg ratio)
- Roasted potatoes
- Pasta salad
- Quinoa salad
- Potato salad
- Quinoa, rice, pasta, lentils, and other legumes in the bulk section
- Granola, trail mix, nuts, and other snacks in the bulk section
If you’re a backpacker trying to keep it lightweight and handy, those grab-n-go bars and dehydrated backpacking meals might be your best bet, and for car campers who need to feed a crowd it might be hard to avoid all store-bought items, so do what you can and build on it as you go. At Bearfoot Theory, we’re all for making smart, sustainable choices and, as always, the most important thing is to pack out and properly dispose of whatever waste you create, no matter how small.
3) Eliminate Single-Use Plastic Water Bottles
Using plastic water bottles is one of the quickest ways to accrue unnecessary waste while camping — not to mention in our everyday life. Plastics are polluting our oceans and waterways, and nowadays with so many reusable water bottle options, there is absolutely no need for this – it’s time to kick the plastic water bottle habit for good.
Plastic water bottles also take up a ton of space and simply aren’t a good idea no matter how convenient they might seem. Use a large reusable water bottle instead (Hydro Flask is our favorite) or a hydration pack in your hiking backpack as an easy, efficient alternative for zero waste camping. If you’re packing for a group, bring a bigger water container – like this 7 gallon jug – that you can refill at camp. Many National Parks and State Parks have potable drinking water refill stations but always check ahead of time.
Another option for car campers who are staying for a long period of time and have a water source nearby is to use a water filter. Collecting and safely filtering your own water is an especially great option for saving some room during a multi-day trip. Check out some of our favorite water filters here.
4) Don’t Buy Miniature Toiletries
It’s tempting and easy to toss a few small, disposable toiletries in your car before an epic weekend of peak-bagging. However, since you are not limited to travel-sized 3oz liquids like you are for carry-on air travel, why not just pack your normal toiletries for your car camping adventure?
If space is an issue, buy reusable containers as a permanent replacement and simply refill as needed – that way you purchase them once and you’re set. We love these goToob+ containers, and Nalgene even makes small reusable containers in varying sizes for toiletries. Multi-purpose, organic, biodegradable products like Dr. Bronner’s soap can work wonders for cleaning your hands, face, and dishes! Thinking outside the box is key when it comes to zero-waste camping and you might just be surprised with what you come up with.
5) Use a Refillable Propane Tank
According to the California Product Stewardship Council, 40 million disposable propane cylinders are used annually – now that’s a lot of waste. Individual propane cylinders are expensive to recycle (when they’re recycled) but many are improperly disposed of and end up in the landfill. Refillable propane tanks are an easy answer that reduce waste while car camping, help the environment, and save you money to boot. You can buy refillable 1lb propane bottles (the same size as the typical ones available at outdoor stores) or if you camp often or travel in a camper van, you may want to buy a larger 5, 10, or 20lb cylinder so you can go much longer without having to refill.
6) Use Rechargable Devices
Buying batteries for your flashlights, headlamps, lanterns, and speaker is not necessary anymore now that there are rechargable options out there. One time use batteries have to be disposed of properly at specific hazardous waste drop off sites -in fact, it’s illegal to throw single use batteries in the trash in California. When you’re in the market for a new headlamp, lantern, or speaker, purchase one with a rechargeable battery, and opt for an energy efficient LED option which will last longer. Here are some of our favorite rechargeable products for camping on the more eco-friendly side.
7) Leave No Trace (and Leave It Better Than Before)
After hours of driving, you finally pull up to a campsite that you reserved online months ago, expecting to see nothing but a clean and pristine area — only to find a pile of trash and a few empty beer cans strewed around the fire ring. It’s disappointing and no one wants to arrive at that sort of scene, let alone have to pick up another camper’s garbage, but it happens.
To avoid this scenario, remember to always follow the Leave No Trace principles by packing out every last item and piece of trash that you brought with you. This includes things like used toilet paper, tissues, and any broken or unwanted gear. Bonus points if you pick up other trash you find at the campsite that isn’t yours!
No matter if you are well-versed in how to Leave No Trace and practice it regularly, here’s something else to consider: learn how to make a campfire that leaves no trace. Small things like burning your trash, recyclables and leftover food may seem harmless but they have a bigger impact on the environment than we might realize.
8) Use Bathroom Facilities & Know How to Poop Outdoors
Also, it’s worth noting to always use bathroom facilities if they’re available to reduce impacts on your campsite and the surrounding areas. We’ve been to campsites that smell like pee and we’ve even encountered human waste and used toilet paper which is SO not ok. If there are no bathroom facilities where you’re camping, bring a portable, folding toilet or dig a hole 6-9″ deep at least 200 ft away from water sources, trails, and campsites, do your business, bury it with dirt, and dispose of your used toilet paper in the trash. Check out our complete guide to pooping outdoors for more on this topic.
One thing to note is that the method of pooping outdoors outlined above is not ok everywhere. Some areas are particularly sensitive, such as desert environments and narrow river canyons, and require that human waste is packed out in wag bags if no bathroom facilities are available.
9) Separate Your Recycling & Compost
Bring an extra box or dedicate a trash bag just for your recycling while car camping – this is an easy way to divert some of your car camping waste from landfill to recycling! Did you know that although 75% of all waste is recyclable, only about 30% ends up being properly recycled? Properly separating your waste while car camping can have a big impact! Some campgrounds have separate bins for recycling, and if not, take your recycling home with you where you can recycle it properly. If you rinse it out and put it in a separate trash bag or bin it’ll be a cinch.
If you compost at home, why not pack a small seal-tight container for your food scraps? They’ll be fine in a bin for a couple of days and if it seals tight you won’t smell a thing. If you don’t compost at home, check out ShareWaste for finding hosts to drop off your compost while on the road. Food waste is the #1 item that ends up in landfills, so composting can have a huge positive impact!
10) Reuse Bags & Containers for Trash
While you should always bring a trash bag along on your camping trip so you’re prepared to pack out your trash, re-using bags you already have is a nice way to reduce your use of plastic. That ziplock bag your tortillas came in will make a perfect receptacle for used tissues or TP, and the plastic bag your burger buns came in can serve as a mini trash bag as well. Reuse whatever you can to reduce waste while car camping.
How do you reduce waste on car camping trips? What areas are hardest to tackle? Share your sustainable camping tips, comments, and questions below!