How to Reduce Waste on Car Camping Trips

Ditch your disposable items and learn how to reduce your waste while camping. Work towards reducing plastic use on your next car camping adventure.


By Bearfoot Theory writer Katherine Oakes

For many car campers (and backpackers!) it’s not uncommon to depart your campsite with a full trash bag with plenty of waste. You are always required to carry in and carry out your belongings, but do you really need to have that much trash? At Bearfoot Theory we’re always looking for ways to be more responsible enjoyers of the outdoors and plastic-free, zero waste camping is currently at the top of our list.

Whether it’s food and drinks, disposable or other throw-away items there’s probably more in our trash bags than there needs to be (guilty as charged!).

Looking for ways to tread more lightly? Here are a few tips to help you reduce waste while camping.

Tip #1: Ditch Disposables and Choose to Reuse

The main culprit of unnecessary waste while camping is in your camp kitchen. Things such as disposable plastic utensils, Ziploc baggies and other food items that come pre-wrapped in single-use plastic can 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:

Our Favorite Reusable Products for Camping

Tip #2 – Prep and Pack Food From Home

Grab your reusable food containers and pack your coolers full of fresh food from home to reduce waste while camping. From homemade sandwiches and wraps to trail mix and energy-boosting snacks (check out this recipe by Fresh Off The Grid), there are many ways to avoid all of the pre-packaged foods out on the market.

However, while zero-waste camping is ultimately the end goal we know it’s not always easy to go cold turkey. If you’re a backpacker trying to keep it lightweight and handy, those grab-n-go bars and deydrated 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 in and pack out whatever waste you create no matter how small.

Learn more about what it means to Leave No Trace

Tip #3: Don’t Use Plastic Bottled Water

Using plastic water bottles is one of the easiest ways to accrue unnecessary waste while camping — not to mention in our everyday life. There are a ton of options for reusable water bottles which makes it easy to kick the plastic water bottle habit for good.

Single-use, plastic water bottles are limiting for campers and backpackers, too because of their small size. The number of water bottles you’d need to bring for cooking, drinking and cleaning would take up way too much space in your pack or car and simply isn’t a good idea no matter how convenient it might seem. Using a large reusable water bottle (Hydro Flask is Kristen’s favorite for keeping water cold) or a hydration pack is an easy, and efficient alternative for zero waste camping. If you’re packing for a group, bring a bigger water container – like this 7 gallon jug – that people can refill from.

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 favorites here.

Tip #4 – Bring Your Own Toiletries

It’s tempting and easy to toss a few small, disposable toiletries in your backpack before an epic weekend of peak-bagging. To really do your zero-waste camping trip right, try to leave disposable things like hand wipes, face cleansers or other personal items that have a too-short shelf life at home.

Instead of stocking up on travel-sized toiletries that will head to the trash sooner than you think, buy reusable containers as a permanent replacement and simply refill as needed. We love Toob+ containers & Nalgene even has small reusable containers in varying sizes for toiletries. Multi-purpose, plant-based products like castile soap can work wonders for cleaning both your hands, face and your dishes! Also consider swapping plastic baggies for a compact camping toiletry case, too. 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.

Tip #5: 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, to say the least, 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 and build good habits remember to always follow the principles of Leave No Trace (link to LNT) by packing out every last piece of trash that you brought with you. This includes things like used toilet paper, tissues, and hand wipes, plus, bring a bag specifically for recyclables. We love to have a cold one around a fire as much as the next camper does, it’s recycling your bottles, cans, and containers that make all the difference. Remember to always urinate and poop away from water sources, trails and campsites and to dispose of your waste correctly. 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 (go you!), or even if you are still learning (go you, too!), 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. To brush up on your campfire safety know-how, read here!


Written by Katherine Oakes

Katherine Oakes is an outdoor travel, sustainability writer and yoga teacher. As an avid hiker, skier, yogi (namaste) and aspiring environmentalist, her best days are spent getting a little dirt under her fingernails and fresh air in her lungs.

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