Backpacking. When someone asks what my favorite activity is, backpacking is the first thing that comes to mind.
I love backpacking. For me, it’s the ultimate way to unplug, unwind and recharge.
Dustin and I have done a lot of backpacking trips together. In fact, Dustin proposed to me during a backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail way back in 2013.
And when we decided to give up everything we knew and move into a van, the ability to be closer to nature and explore as much as possible was one of the biggest contributing factors. So, like I said, we’ve done a lot of backpacking trips.
We’ve also learned a lot since the first time we strapped on our packs and hit the trail together. Not only about backpacking, but about our impact on the land we love and the history of those to whom this land belongs.
In 2018 Dustin and I began experimenting with low waste backpacking. Now, I know what you’re thinking, isn’t backpacking already a low waste activity? The answer is yes. And no. On one hand, you can only pack what you can carry, which, at least in theory, leaves little room for the excess waste. On the other hand, our modern-day penchant for convenience has given us pre-packaged and single-use everything – snack bars, wet wipes, toiletries, even backpacking meals. All those wrappers and containers add up.
But here’s the good news. With a little planning and preparation, we can minimize our waste from start to finish.
Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the privilege associated with low waste backpacking. Not everyone has the money to invest in reusable gear or the time to seek out bulk shopping or to plan a low waste trip. In fact, even feeling safe on the trail or in the backcountry is not a given for many people. It wasn’t always for me. So for anyone who may be considering their first backpacking trip, my advice is to do the best you can. Prioritize your safety and your enjoyment. Even if you can’t commit to a low waste backpacking trip, the tips and advice in this article will still help you to maximize your experience.
NEED A HEADING OR SEPARATOR
The second learning I mentioned in my intro is about the land on which we recreate. All land has a history. And the history of the land of the North American continent is one of genocide, theft, and broken treaties. As we work to minimize our waste and our impact on the environment, we must also recognize that we are on stolen land. The Indigenous peoples of this continent have inhabited this land since time immemorial. If we prioritize eco-friendly and minimal impact but fail to recognize and honor Indigenous peoples, our actions are meaningless.
I encourage you to learn the Indigenous names and true history of the land on which you recreate. Native-Land.ca is a great resource. Then take it a step farther and use Google to research the history of the people and their land. If you are able, consider making a donation to a local Indigenous organization. Support Indigenous businesses, creators, and artists. Share what you’ve learned with others and have conversations about honoring Native Land on social media and in your social circles.
If you’re interested in minimizing your waste on your next backpacking trip, read on…
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Plan your trip and trip your plan
Wait, that didn’t come out quite right. Oh well. A good backpacking trip starts with a good plan, and a miserable trip starts with no plan at all.
And when your goal is to minimize your waste, planning is crucial. The first place we start (which is the first place Dustin wants to start everything) is with food.
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Planning and Meal Prep
Food, food packaging and food storage is where we generate the majority of our waste on a backpacking trip. Backpacking meals are super convenient and so are individually packaged snack bars, but their packaging usually ends up in a landfill. The low waste option is CIY – cook it yo’self!
I’m a visual person, so when Dustin and I plan meals for our trip, we write down each meal we’re going to eat, in order.
A meal plan for a 3-day, 2-night backpacking trip might look like this:
A granola bar for breakfast. A quick lunch stop on the trail. Dinner at camp. An extra granola bar and trail mix for snacks.
Breakfast at camp. Lunch that can be packed for a day hike. Dinner at camp.
Breakfast at camp. Snacks for the hike out. A burger and a beer for dinner at a local dive in town.
So from that I know we need to prepare 3 breakfasts (one of which is basically a snack), 2 lunches, 2 dinners + snacks.
Rule # 1: Keep it simple.
Boiled eggs and pre-cooked bacon are my go to for a minimalist backcountry breakfast. Add a tortilla and some cheddar cheese for a simple breakfast burrito. If you’re feeling fancy, bring along an avocado, just make sure to secure it so it doesn’t get squished. More on that in a bit.
Pro tip: bring along condiments (salt & pepper, hot sauce, sugar, creamer) in these little backpacking nalgene containers.
Don’t forget the coffee. Before your trip, pack your coffee (or loose tea) in a coffee filter and tie it up with a piece of string. Dip in a cup of hot water like a tea bag and let it steep. No mess and easy to pack out.
Another breakfast option is dry oats. Just add hot water at camp for a nice oatmeal breakfast.
Every lunch I’ve ever eaten in the backcountry has been on the trail, for the simple reason that I’m not going backpacking to spend the daylight hours hanging around camp. Lunch takes place either on the hike in or out, or on the epic spot we find on our day hike. So my goal with a backpacking lunch is something that requires zero preparation.
My go-to is cheddar cheese, tortilla and stored in a reusable bag. Quick, easy and satisfying.
Here are some other great options if you wanna get fancy:
- Dried hummus, sun-dried tomatoes, cucumber, pita bread (or tortilla if you’re feeling semi-fancy). Top it off with olive oil stored in one of those cute little nalgene bottles.
- This sweet & spicy cashew chicken salad wrap has my mouth watering right now.
Dinner at camp gives you a little more flexibility with your meal prep, so this is where you can get creative. Here are some of our favorite go-to camp dinners.
Homemade burritos. These are fully prepared before you hit the trail. They do add a bit of extra weight to your pack, but a hearty burrito after a long day of hiking is super rewarding.
Here are my two favorite trail burrito recipes.
- Black beans, rice, avocado, cheese, cabbage, hot sauce, wrapped in a flour tortilla.
- Breakfast style with eggs, bacon, peppers, avocados and hot sauce in a flour tortilla.
Though sometimes you want a hot meal at camp. Dried, just-add-water staples like quinoa, couscous, or quick rice are easy to cook on a camp stove and weigh much less for the hike in. Add some fresh veggies like pre-sliced bell peppers and carrots, and/or roasted chicken breast and a touch of olive oil for a hearty camp meal.
Here’s where the fun begins. Make your snacks at home and store them in reusable bags for guilt free, healthy-as-you-like snacks.
My trail mix recipe (I like to hit the bulk section at the grocery store and mix it up) usually consists of raw nuts (almonds, cashews, peanuts, pecans, walnuts, macadamia), seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, etc), dried fruit (raisins, cranberries, apricots, mangoes, banana chips, goji berries) and dark chocolate chunks. Have fun with it!
Homemade granola bars, energy bites, dried fruit, apples and cheese make for great snacks on the trail and at camp. Store them in reusable food wraps or silicone reusable bags. More on that below.
Side note about backpacking meals
I don’t want to knock on pre-packaged backpacking meals too hard. Those things have come a long way. Some of the well-known backpacking meal brands have been innovating their packaging to be recyclable. For example, Mountain House partnered with TerraCycle – a recycling company that specializes in hard to recycle waste. The thing to keep in mind here is, these containers cannot be placed in standard recycling bins, they must go to a TerraCycle facility. Mountain House offers prepaid shipping labels on their website so you can send your empty containers in to be recycled.
So while pre-packaged backpacking meals are not a bad option, I still recommend the CIY method. Preparing for your trip in this way adds another layer of intentionality that, for me, enhances the entire experience.
Beeswax wraps are our go-to for food storage. Made from cotton or hemp cloth coated in beeswax or plant-based wax coating, they’re a great alternative to plastic wrap and aluminum foil. We use them to wrap sandwiches, cheese, veggies, even shape them into a plate or bowl in a pinch. They’re water resistant, fold up small and weigh next to nothing.
Stasher reusable silicone bags are an excellent replacement for disposable ziplock bags. They’re sturdy, easy to seal, and versatile. We use them for trail mix, snacks, even toiletries.
Bear canisters are required on many trails in the US. Check with the local forest ranger station or visitor center for regulations before setting out. We pack all our food in our bear canister before we set out, this way it doesn’t take up extra space in the pack and it protects your avocados from getting squished. When you’re at camp, store all food and toiletries (anything scented) in the bear canister and place it 100 feet away from your tent. Bears are attracted to scented items, even toothpaste can attract bears. The last thing you want is a midnight wakeup call from a black bear.
Stainless steel or insulated food containers add another level of protection for delicate foods. You can pack in your avocados without worrying about them getting smashed or even take some hot soup with you on the trail, then pack out your dirty socks or food scraps.
Water storage is less about waste and more about practicality and minimizing weight. How much water you carry depends on where you’re hiking and if there’s a water source along the way. I recommend carrying a water filter or at the very least, some water purification tablets. I prefer a water filter because the tablets tend to give the water a funny taste.
Our go-to for water filtration is LifeStraw. Dustin and I each carry a LifeStraw Go stainless steel bottle. It’s insulated and has a built in filter, so you can fill it from a stream or lake and keep on truckin. If I know that there will be water along our route, I’ll fill my LifeStraw bottle and that will be the only water I carry with me. If I’m unsure about the availability of water along the route, or if it’s really hot and dry, I’ll fill my hydration bladder before we set out. The downside to that is, water’s heavy.
You’ll also need to filter or purify water at camp for cooking as well as drinking. For this we use a LifeStraw Flex with gravity bag. It’s compact, lightweight, and filters a gallon of water at a time.
Wine & Liquor
I don’t know about you, but I like to chill out at the end of the day with a drink around the campfire. Wine bottles are heavy and clunky and not at all ideal for the backcountry. So I carry a Platypus wine flask. It’s lightweight and travels well, plus it holds a full bottle of wine. Dustin also carries a flask of whiskey. The cool thing about reusable flasks is, you can drop your wine or liquor bottles in the recycling before you hit the trail and save the weight and the waste.
Those cute little nalgene bottles I mentioned earlier come in different sizes and work great for storing all sorts of things, like bug repellent, sunscreen, soap, oil, hot sauce, and other condiments or whatever else you can think of.
This is a big one. Many common toiletries contain microplastics and chemicals that can harm wildlife and pollute waterways. Many animals, especially bears, are attracted to the scent of toiletries, so Dustin and I choose to leave most of it behind. When we’re out in nature, why not embrace our natural selves? I just bring along my toothbrush, no toothpaste necessary. Just simple brushing twice per day is all you need to remove plaque. Now, I haven’t given up toothpaste entirely, but a couple days in the woods with no toothpaste has literally never hurt anyone.
The only toiletries we bring are sunscreen and insect repellant. We opt for a fragrance-free non-nano zinc oxide sunscreen. For insect repellent, we use lemongrass essential oils, with an all-natural, deet-free insect repellent spray as a backup. Pro tip: a mesh mosquito head net can be a lifesaver if you’re in a humid area where mosquitos are thick. Because sometimes bug spray just isn’t enough.
This is another one that’s easy to overlook. You may not think of your gear as producing waste, but those disposable batteries can be gnarly if they end up in a landfill. If you can, investing in good quality rechargeable gear, like this BioLite headlamp, can eliminate waste from disposable batteries and save you money in the long run. In fact, the only electronic gear Dustin and I carry into the backcountry is our headlamps and a solar-powered battery pack in case we need to recharge our phones.
Speaking of phones, if you don’t have a dedicated GPS device (which we don’t) you can use an app to turn your phone into a backcountry trail finder. We use the AllTrails app. With the premium version you can download maps for offline use. It costs about $29 per year, but if you do a lot of hiking, it’s well worth it.
Everybody poops, even in the woods. And nothing can ruin a backpacking trip quicker than finding (or stepping in) human waste at or near your campsite. Human waste can take up to a year to decompose when it’s just sitting on the ground. But if you bury it, all those friendly microbes in the soil will accelerate that decomposition process. And the next camper coming after you will be none the wiser.
Here’s how we deal with poop in the woods. First, always pack a trowel. Next, Select an out of the way location, at least 200 feet from campsites, trails and water sources, where it’s unlikely someone will walk or set up camp. Dig a “cat hole” about 6-8 inches deep and 4-6 inches acorss. Do your business, cover it with dirt and disguise it with natural materials. 200 feet is a good rule of thumb because it allows enough of a buffer that a hard rain won’t wash it down where it could potentially contaminate a water source.
And even though we’re burying and disguising the site of our cat hole, animals may still find it, dig it up, and scatter the nasty bits of toilet paper. So it’s a good practice to pack out your tissue. A small ziploc bag will do the trick. Or opt for natural materials like leaves or sticks and bury them in the cat hole. Just don’t accidentally use a pinecone. Ouch!
Menstrual products should also be packed out. A low-waste option to consider is a menstrual cup. There are several brands on the market, I use the DivaCup. It’s reusable and can be worn for up to 12 hours. When it’s time to empty, I bury my blood like my poop: 6-8 inches deep and away from water sources. I just give it a rinse with water. Other eco friendly menstrual products include Thinx period panties and Lola’s biodegradable options. I haven’t tried these yet since my DivaCup has been my tried and true option. But I have heard from friends who swear by both of these brands.
Even if you do everything you can to minimize or eliminate your waste, you’ll inevitably encounter some trash on the trail or at camp. Dustin and I have a small dry bag that we’ve dubbed our ‘dirt bag.’ It always comes with us on the trail so we can pack out any trash we do create and whatever we find along the way.
I hope this article has inspired you to minimize your waste on your next backpacking trip. Remember, low waste and eco friendly isn’t about being perfect, it’s about doing the best you can, where you are.
If you have some low waste backpacking tips you’d like to share, please do so in the comments.