Leave No Trace or Trash: Tips for Zero Waste Camping Trips

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Camping is a great way to enjoy and get an appreciation for nature! How can it be done in an eco-friendly way that leaves no trace? We share our tips for zero waste camping trips!

It’s always harder to keep up your low waste lifestyle when away from home because you are far away from your tried and trusted bulk stores and you don’t know the area and where being zero waste is supported. It is hard when you don’t know where you can get things plastic free or in bulk!

It can be even harder when you’re in remote areas and there are not many options around like there are in big cities. This is usually the case when camping. There’s normally not much else around.

The upside to this is that you generally have to be prepared when you go camping anyway so to make your camping trip zero waste you just have to plan it so it is zero waste.

There are many different types of camping and campers. We’re not camping experts, we don’t camp as often as we’d like to and we definitely do not have all the camping gear. We’re also lazy campers so we like to have everything worked out before we go so we don’t have to do anything once we’re there and set up, which actually works out perfectly for low waste camping.

Here are some tips we’ve come across and/or implemented when going camping to make it as little waste as possible and to ensure we can be as lazy as possible when we reach our beautiful destination in the bush...

1. Zero waste ice

The thing we were most worried about when going camping and where we thought we would most likely fail was plastic free ice. We previously always bought ice from a petrol station in a plastic bag just before we got to our destination and generally had to buy another one a day or two later. Camping in Australia in summer can get seriously hot - it reached 42 degrees Celsius on our last trip.

But avoiding these plastic bags of ice turned out to be not so difficult after all!

You can simply make your own ice blocks at home in ice cube trays, tupperware containers, and old margarine and ice cream tubs (the bigger blocks last a lot longer), use reusable ice blocks, and freeze other things you plan to drink and eat on the trip.

Also, keep an eye out for an ice dispenser you can get ice from in your own container. On our last camping trip, after all our homemade ice had melted, we luckily came across an ice vending machine on the side of the road. We caught the dispensed ice in a reusable shopping bag and quickly drove back to camp.

For plastic free ice, you can:

  • use reusable cooling aids like these non-toxic ice bricks and gel ice packs,

  • make your own ice blocks (if you make ice with salty water it stays frozen longer),

  • freeze large blocks of water (these last longer than smaller blocks),

  • freeze water in water bottles (not salty so you can drink it later),

  • freeze aluminum canned drinks,

  • freeze smoothies in glass jars (remember to leave enough room for it to expand),

  • freeze meals you plan to eat while camping and use them as ice while they thaw out, and/or

  • seek out an ice machine that allows you to catch the ice it dispenses in your own container.

To keep ice frozen for as long as possible:

  • get a good quality cooler,

  • keep the cooler box in the shade,

  • insulate your cooler using something like a car sun shade,

  • wrap a wet towel around your eksy to help it stay cool, and/or

  • make your ice blocks using salty water as this makes them last longer.

2. Take a container for your recycling

Take a box, plastic container or your normal recycling receptacle to collect any recycling you create so you can dispose of it properly in a recycling bin - whether it be nearby or at home. If you’re in a different state check whether they have a container deposit scheme and you could deposit your recycling for a few cents.

Try not to use a plastic bag and think of other reusable options for your recycling bin.

Hopefully you won’t be creating any landfill waste, but take along something to put this waste in too just in case you do.

3. Take a bucket for your compost

Take a bucket to bring home any food waste you make while camping if you can’t/don’t want to throw it into nearby overgrown bush to decompose naturally. This ensures that no biodegradable waste ends up in a landfill bin and in landfill, where it releases greenhouse gases.

4. Zero waste outdoor eating

Plan, plan, plan! Create a menu of what you’ll eat for each breakfast, lunch and dinner everyday. Then, list all the ingredients you need for each meal to create a shopping list. Then, buy everything you need at your usual bulk food stores and markets where you get your produce and food plastic free and chop and cook everything that you can beforehand.

Buy the fruit and vegetables and bread as close to the day you leave as possible so they stay fresh for as long as possible - we usually leave this until the day before. You can either buy all the pantry items earlier or on the same day.

Keep your menu simple - sandwiches, oats, smoothies, simple salads, a bean dish, a rice dish. We try to stick to food you don’t need to cook or heat up while camping, generally only using our tiny gas cooker to boil water for oats or tea or coffee.

Chop your fruit and veggies, slice your bread, and grate your cheese so that everything is already prepped so it is easy to grab and eat and you don’t have to take many cooking utensils.

You can make things like muffins, pancake batter, little quiches, smoothies and cookies beforehand, as well as your main meals, which you can either freeze or just keep cool and place in the cooler.

You can also buy zero waste snacks like veggie chips, BBQ corn, pretzels, nuts, and soy chips in produce bags before you go and pull these out when anyone is feeling snacky.

To ensure you don’t waste any food, check your fridge to see if there is anything you need to eat or use in your menu to make sure you don’t come home to anything mouldy and buy and make only the amounts of food you need and will eat.

Remember to pack in spices, oils and dressings, loose leaf tea, ground coffee and all the small things that you’ll need to complete your meals and menu - chances are you won’t find these without packaging where you are going and you don’t want to have to run to the shops to get something you forgot.

5. Zero waste water and refreshments

You’ll need water to drink, cook with and clean with. We bought a 5 litre water container with a tap on it years ago and have just reused it over and over again, filling it up at home. If you don’t have a large water dispenser, buy one and start reusing it. Having one with a tap is very useful for washing hands, cleaning and filling water bottles.

You should be able to refill it with tap water in the nearest town if needed. Check if the water is drinkable first if you’re going to drink it! If it isn’t look for a water refill dispenser. If you know that the water isn’t going to be drinkable where you’re going, read our How to Avoid Plastic Water Bottles When You Can't Drink the Tap Water article for some solutions.

For other refreshments, make your own kombucha at home, fill up a growler with kombucha on tap or beer, refill your wine bottles if you can in your area - you can do this at ReWine in Melbourne - or buy drinks in glass bottles or tin cans and recycle them afterwards.

6. Eating implements and camping kitchen utensils

Take reusable eating implements, cooking utensils and plates rather than single-use ones.

If you already have plastic reusable plates at home use those. Ceramic plates can be too heavy, so if you don’t want to use them and don’t have anything else, search second hand stores for lighter reusable plates or picnic sets, which are usually perfect.

You can also buy light crockery made from bamboo or rice husks like in these reusable and biodegradable camping sets (we have a similar set we have been using for years - they last ages and can be composted when they are no longer usable as they are made from plant matter). Coconut bowls are another reusable option that would be perfect for camping!

Reusable is better, but if you do go single-use, choose compostable plates and choose carefully to ensure they are home compostable and actually compost them! They won’t degrade in landfill. There are some great options these days like these compostable plates, which are microwave, oven, and freezer safe! It doesn’t say so but I’m sure you could wash and use them a few times before having to compost them.

Pack in any other kitchen utensils and implements you’ll need like some knifes and forks. Just use what you use at home if possible - for example we pack in our Mocha coffee pot to make coffee on our gas cooker.

7. Zero waste campfire

Firstly, always make sure there is no fire ban and the fire danger rating is low before lightening a fire! Also consider whether you need a fire as “the natural appearance of many areas has been degraded by the overuse of fires and an increasing demand for firewood”, according to Leave No Trace, an organisation that protects the outdoors by teaching and inspiring people to enjoy it responsibly, which advocates rather using a camp stove for minimum-impact camping.

There are a few ways in which you can lessen the impact of your campfire if you decide to light one, according to Leave No Trace:

  • camp in areas where wood is abundant if building a fire and choose not to have a fire in areas where there is little wood at higher elevations, in heavily used areas, or in desert settings,

  • build the fire within an existing fire ring in a well-placed campsite,

  • keep the fire small and burning only for the time you are using it, and

  • allow wood to burn completely to ash.

When choosing wood for your campfire, leave standing trees intact as they are home to birds and insects, while fallen trees also provide wildlife with shelter and increase the water holding capacity of soil and recycle nutrients back into the environment through decomposition. Leave No Trace suggests using dead and down wood as it burns easily, is easy to collect and leaves less impact. It also suggests:

  • using small pieces of wood no larger than the diameter of an adult wrist that can be broken with your hands,

  • gathering wood over a wide area away from camp,

  • using dry driftwood on rivers and sea shores, and

  • not bringing firewood from home, rather buying it from a local source or gathering it responsibly where allowed.

Never burn litter like plastic items and foil-lined wrappers in a campfire.

If you’re looking for true zero waste ignition, Melbourne startup Zero Impact has started making logs from used coffee grounds! These are a great option for a zero waste campfire! According to Zero Impact, they regulate temperature, are easy to store and stack, and burn longer than firewood. We can’t wait to try them out!

Use natural firestarters rather than packaged, chemical ones. Corks, lemon rind and pinecones all make great homemade firelighters. To turn corks into very effective firelighters, soak them in rubbing alcohol in a closed jar (leave room at the top of the jar as they will expand). Pinecones can be covered in melted wax and left to harden for later use as firestarters.

You can use citrus skin as a firelighter as the oils inside the skin are extremely combustible and when lit with a match, the skin holds a flame. The citrus skin needs to be dry, so you need to dry them until they are crispy hard first (in the sun, on a heater, or in an oven). Some people dip it in methylated spirits before placing it with some firewood to get a fire started, others don’t. You can go even further and place wood shavings and beeswax, or shredded paper or dryer lint and candle wax in a hollowed out dry citrus half if plain citrus isn’t working well enough for you. You can also use egg cartons as the holder. This article has some good ideas.

If you prefer to not DIY, you can also buy If You Care Firelighters from Biome (AU) or Well.ca (US/CAN). They are made from FSC wood and non-GMO palm oil-free vegetable oil and are packaged in a recycled chlorine-free dispenser box. Or you can search for homemade ones you can buy on Etsy.

Finally, use matches over plastic lighters when lighting your fire.

8. Solar power

You can use solar energy to power and charge whatever needs charging and power, saving you from needing to use energy from the grid or having to start up your car to charge your phone. Small portable solar chargers like these can be used to charge mobile phones, cameras and other devices or you can get larger foldable transportable solar panels like these, which are ideal for charging bigger batteries and to use for cars, motorcycles, boats, camping, climbing, hiking, or in emergencies.

You can charge solar powered lanterns and torches during the day for use at night. You can buy solar glass jar lanterns like these, which can be hung via a carabiner, solar lanterns like these, which are portable and foldable, collapsing into a small circle, or solar torches like these.

You can also get epic portable solar ovens like these, which are great if you want to do some serious cooking while camping.

9. Zero waste sun protection and bug spray

In terms of toiletries, you’ll need to pack your usual zero waste toiletries - natural deodorant, bamboo toothbrush, soap bar, shampoo bar, toilet paper etc - as well as sunscreen and bug spray, which are both camping necessities!

We covered sustainable sunscreen comprehensively in another article, which you can find here. In our Sustainable Sunscreen: Why Homemade Doesn't Work and What Natural, Reef-Safe Ones Do article, we search for sunscreen that is both eco-friendly and effective, and share some brands you can trust.

If you do get burnt, peppermint oil can help soothe sunburned skin by providing a cooling sensation and lavender oil can help reduce the sting and redness of sunburn. Remember to dilute essential oils before using them on your skin! You’ll find some recipes for natural remedies to soothe sunburn here.

Bug spray will most likely also be needed! Biome sells a range of natural bug repellents and natural pest control solutions for moths, cockroaches, mosquitos, ants and spiders that control them in non-toxic, natural and humane ways. Its range includes Beauty and the Bees’ Bugged Outdoor Balm (AU), which is a richly lemon-scented, 100% chemical-free outdoor balm to that discourages biting insects like mosquitoes and comes in a metal tin.

Other options are Don’t Bug Me (US/CAN), a bug repellant bar that also comes in a metal tin, Skeem Citronella Sea Salt Outdoor Incense (US/CAN) incense sticks, and The Physic Garden Bug Balm (AU), which comes in a glass jar and contains citronella, lemongrass, geranium and eucalyptus - nature’s insect repellents!

If you have an essential oil diffuser, you can use Black Chicken Remedies’ Repel (AU) essential oil blend to deter mosquitoes and bugs.

You can also try DIY your own insect repellent or buy homemade ones from Etsy. For example, lavender oil or tea tree oil (or both) can be mixed with water and sprayed in around the campsite to deter bugs. You can also try rubbing lavender flowers or lavender oil or fresh or dried leaves of anything in the mint family (peppermint, spearmint, catnip, pennyroyal) or citronella or lemongrass on your skin to repel insects.

Wet wipes are always handy when camping but the store bought ones are terrible for the environment. If you feel you and/or the kids are going to need them, you can DIY some cloth wipes before you go!

For homemade reusable wet wipes, cut old sheets, shirts, washcloths, or any extra material you have lying around into squares or rectangles. Cut them with pinking shears so the edges don’t fray or hem the edges. You can also sew two pieces together if you want, depending on the fabric used. Place the cloth wipes in a container, preferably one with a hole at the top you can pull them out of, and cover with a wet wipe solution.

There are many recipes out there for the solution. I like this one because it is so simple: 1 cup of water, 1 tablespoon of natural baby shampoo or Castile soap and 1 tablespoon of coconut oil. Take a wet bag for dirty wipes and wash them when you get home.

10. Cleaning camp

When everything has been prepared beforehand, there should be minimal cleaning, but bring along some soap bars or refill a bottle with liquid detergent at your local bulk store to take along.

Multipurpose soap bars and liquid soaps like Castile soap (which can be found here in US/Canada and here in Australia) are super handy as they can be used to wash so many different things - hands, dishes, laundry, fruit and vegetables etc.

Take cloth dish towels and napkins and rags instead of paper towels. Also take something like a drawstring bag to put the dirty ones in so you can take them home and wash them and reuse them. See above to learn how to DIY zero waste wet wipes!

Also remember to take something to wash dishes and/or clothing in so you use less water when washing them, as well as a rag or crocheted cotton cloth for cleaning, a dish towel and/or a bamboo scrubbing brush.

11. Borrow camping gear you don’t have rather than buying

Rather than buying new camping equipment - especially if you are not going to be camping often - try borrow it from friends, family, neighbours, or local free, Good Karma, or Buy Nothing groups (you’ll can find these on Facebook).

You can also ask local Buy Nothing groups and Good Karma Networks if anyone has any camping gear they don’t use that they are happy to give away for free.

If you do need to buy, look second hand first. If you buy new, buy quality camping gear that will last.

You can also borrow or buy camping activities and entertainment second hand - books, fishing gear, games, etc.

Camping is a great way to get away from it all, get back to basics, enjoy nature and your friends and family’s company, and completely relax without the distractions of modern life. And with a little forethought it can be done very low waste.

Plan your stay, pack it all up and put your feet up!

Do you have any camping tips for us? We can’t wait to get back to the bush!

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