WHETHER you’re seeking refuge in outdoor solitude or setting up a tent at your favorite music festival, camping can be a source of enormous amounts of waste. I once met a man who used to wait until the French music festival Les Vieilles Charrues was over to descend upon the post-festival wasteland. He’d skim over the detritus before the bulldozers came through to kit himself out with top-quality camping gear that had only been used once. The festival eventually banned people from “shopping” like this, leaving all that shiny new equipment for the jaws of the dozers, year in, year out.
Being in natural solitude or celebrating your favorite music doesn’t have to come at a high cost to the environment. What if you tried to make your next camping trip “zero-waste?” Striving to minimize the amount of trash you make, and turning what little trash you do make into a resource might sound intimidating. But the key word here is “striving.”
Going zero-waste is more a willingness than an achievement. It’s a willingness to question the status quo, to pay attention to how we consume, to slowly change our habits, and take responsibility for the stuff we use, even after we’ve used it. And while some of your buddies might be reluctant to follow “zero-waste principles”, living by example is all we can do, and your efforts might just inspire them to make a few changes of their own.
So how can you apply the zero-waste mantra — Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot — to your next camping trip? No matter whether you’re planning on pitching your tent on the pristine slopes of an isolated mountain, or if you’re spending the weekend on beat-up festival grounds, here are some great tips for leaving a lighter footprint.
It all starts with the big buys. Long gone are the days when a pair of boots or a backpack would last a lifetime. We currently live in an economy where products are designed to break. This phenomenon is so real that it even has a name: planned obsolescence. So how do you go about investing in heavy-duty gear associated with camping in a non-wasteful way?
Rule 1: Choose the right brand.
There are many ways to look at the lifecycle of a product. If your priority is investing in sturdy, made-to-last gear that won’t end up in a landfill anytime soon, then why not go for old-school design and materials like the ones Under Cover Camper, or Reliable Tent & Tipi use.
The good news is that with nature-lovers becoming increasingly concerned with protecting the very spaces they enjoy spending time in, outdoor brands are finding themselves under increasing pressure to become environmentally conscious. Do your research and you’re sure to find some responsible choices out there.
Rule 2: Repair it. Don’t junk it.
We’re encouraged by advertising to get tired of stuff — and quickly! Add to that the infuriating fact that it’s often easier to buy a new backpack or head-torch than it is to find someone who will fix your old one. I suspect that some of us know someone who’d rather leave their Quechua 2 Second Easy Pop Up Tent at a festival than learn how to fold it up again.
This is where we all need to work on a serious shift in mentality. Stuff can get fixed! It might feel like a schlep, but it’s empowering to find a solution to a problem, rather than surrender with a shrug. Taking ownership of your life, your choices — and your stuff — is a key aspect of embracing a zero-waste mindset.
Want to fix some old gear? Find a Repair Café in your area to get help from talented and enthusiastic people. Or see Rule 1 and start out on the right foot by buying from Patagonia, which is an excellent example of a brand making it easier to do the right thing. Check out their Care & Repair page to find out how you can take matters into your own hands. If you’re not confident doing it yourself, Patagonia can take care of the repairs for you.
Rule 3: Someone will love your used gear if you don’t.
If the time has come for you to part ways with some old camping gear, by all means, don’t throw it in the trash. Instead, you could exchange used goods using Yerdle or tap into the massive community of people who use Freecycle to keep good stuff out of landfills. You could skip the mall altogether and just “shop” here! You could even donate your stuff to your local charity second-hand store.
Once again Patagonia leads the way with its Worn Wear program which enables its customers to keep their gear in action longer through repair, reuse, and recycling. Buy something with a story to tell here.
Now that you’re kitted out with the fundamentals, it’s time to think about how you’re going to eat. Your trip starts as soon as you leave home. This is where a whole lot of the refusing, reducing, and rotting comes in.
Many contemporary humans are lazy, so the food sector has come up with a plethora of ultra-convenient ways to minimize the labor between our favorite treats and our mouths. The paper napkins, plastic smoothie cups, takeaway shells, plastic bags, plastic utensils and single-use chopsticks have only become a standard because we demanded them. We can change the status quo if we just start turning down all the planet-killing plastics we’ve come to accept as the norm.
In order to refuse wasteful, single-use objects, you’re going to have to learn how to say NO. Here are a few pro-tips on how to make saying no easier:
Do it with a smile.
You’re not being difficult or ungrateful — You’re genuinely trying to make a difference, so don’t forget to say “no” with a smile, and take the time to offer up an explanation for why it’s important to you. At worst the person on the other side of the till will stare blankly or look irritated. At best they’ll chuckle, strike up a conversation, or even consider changing the way they do things.
Equip yourself with a readily available backup plan.
Let’s imagine you’re en route to your favorite lakeside camping spot and you want to pull over for a lunch break. You’re dying to order that milkshake you always get from that great halfway-house diner, but you can’t slurp up that thick sludge without a straw. Simple: Tell your waiter as soon as you place your order that you won’t be needing a straw and show them the snazzy reusable glass straw you never leave the house without. Want to grab a tasty meal from a festival food truck? Ask them to dish it up in your stainless steel tiffin. Your camping buddies have an elaborate picnic planned and offer you a plastic knife and fork? Whip out your bamboo reusable utensils.
Packaging is everywhere. Once you start noticing it, it can seem like a rapidly-spreading cancer. But, there are ways to side-step the excessive amounts of packaging we can feel forced to buy.
Buy in bulk.
You don’t have to find a specialized zero-waste supermarket to be able to buy in bulk. All kinds of supermarket franchises and health stores are starting to sell food in bulk using dispensers. Paper bags are often available for you to pour your rice or lentils into, but why not come with your own origami food sacks or glass jars? Just remember to zero the scale with your container on first before weighing the goods.
Remove the middle man.
The easiest way to side step all the packaging that comes with supermarket food is to cut out the middle man and buy at markets or straight from the farmer. Not only will you cut out enormous amounts of plastic and preservatives, but you’ll also get a less globalized corporate experience of the region you’re travelling. Rather than see the same two-minute noodles and candy bars you could find anywhere on earth, you get to experience the colors, smells, and flavors of somewhere unique.
If you’re travelling abroad, do your research into local water quality. You’d be surprised to find out how many places have perfectly potable tap water. Just like you might be surprised to discover that 25% of most bottled water is municipal water anyway. Worse comes to worst, if you’re going to an area where tap water is not drinkable, put those 5 liter bottles back in the supermarket refrigerator and check out these tips for what to do instead.
Zero-waste cuisine doesn’t end there. Picture it: You’re sitting around the campfire ready to cook up a spectacular breakfast with eggs from that organic farmer you met a couple miles back; fresh beef-heart tomatoes you picked up especially for the trip, from the urban greening program just down the road from your place; and chickpeas from a great wholesale shop you found. You’re already on track for a low-impact meal, but here’s how you take it to the next level…
A Wonderbag is a non-electric portable slow cooker — like a little sleeping bag for your cooking pot. It insulates the pot so well that it, “continues to cook food which has been brought to the boil by conventional methods for up to 12 hours without the use of additional electricity or fuel.”
Originally designed to reduce the amount of fuel required in the cooking of food in developing countries, it can be put to good use anywhere. You can leave those chickpeas cooking overnight without using ridiculous amounts of gas or wood — or worrying about attending to an open flame.
There’s no easier waste to turn into a resource than food waste. To transform your camping food scraps into gardening gold, all you need is a decent sized tub and a wondrous thing called bokashi — special bran inoculated with good bacteria which composts your kitchen scraps and stops the foul smells associated with wet waste. It’ll make living with your food waste on your camping trip more bearable until you can get it home to your compost heap — or you can give it to your urban greening program.
Keeping clean while on a camping adventure doesn’t have to be at odds with keeping the planet clean. Here are some useful zero-waste hacks for the sweaty traveler:
Buy solid soap and shampoo.
Not only will a solid bar of soap or shampoo reduce the amount of plastic you buy, it will make your camping pack significantly lighter too. For an all-in-one wonder, try Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Bar Soap.
Use mineral stone or solid deodorants.
A neutral smelling alum stone or a solid bar of Lush’s dreamy Aromaco deodorant are great alternatives to the waste intensive roll-on and aerosol deodorants.
Change from pads/tampons to a menstrual cup.
The thought of using a menstrual cup can seem intimidating. But how’s knowing that you’ll use around 12,000 tampons or pads in your lifetime for intimidating? All that waste will all end up in a landfill or in the ocean.
After I made the transition myself, it turns out using a menstrual cup is a whole lot less icky than using absorbent materials for dealing with your flow. If the technicalities of how to use a menstrual cup are what is holding you back from making the change, check out this informative wikihow.
Find alternatives to single-use goods.
Remember wash-cloths? Those little guys can be used for all sorts of stuff. They can replace wet-wipes, q-tips, and more. Be sure to pack a few damp cloths and boil them over the campfire to keep them spick and span.
Rethink your toothbrush.
No one’s perfect, right? The good news is a zero-waste lifestyle isn’t about perfection. It’s about trying. And you’re bound to end up with a few scraps of trash lying around by the end of your camping trip. Here’s one last hack for how to reuse those pesky little bits and bobs that you just can’t repurpose or recycle.
Ecobricks are old plastic bottles “stuffed solid with non-biological waste to create a reusable building block.” Grab an old Coke or water bottle that you find on a hiking trail and pack it full of all the clean, dry, non-biodegradable materials you find yourself with — think cigarette butts, dental floss, or other scraps of plastic. The idea is that, if these nasty bits and pieces are going to be in circulation for however many thousands of years it’ll take for them to biodegrade, better they stick around as a useful resource which can be used to build with. Pack the contents tightly in the bottle using a stick and keep it with you until you get home and you can drop it off with an ecobrick project near you.