Sustainable Camping Habits For the Outdoors
It’s cold outside friends! But spring is right around the corner. And this is shaping up to be a spring unlike any other. For more than a year, most of us have been living through COVID lockdowns and social distancing. Once the weather turns warm and the flowers start to bloom, we’re likely to see a mass exodus out of the cities and into nature.
If you’re anything like us, camping is your favorite springtime activity. It’s a great way to shake off the winter chill, recharge your batteries, and immerse yourself in nature. It’s also a great way to get out of your comfort zone and try new things. If you’ve been thinking about eco friendly camping but not sure where to start, you’ve come to the right place.
Dustin and I have been living on the road and traveling full-time since 2016. Over time, we’ve developed habits and practices to minimize our impact, not only on the places we visit, but on the Earth as a whole.
Looking to get out of the campground and into the backcountry? Check out our article: Low-Waste Backpacking – Going Plastic-Free in the Outdoors
1. LOCATION: TRAVEL SMART
Eco friendly camping begins with a good plan. The first thing to consider is location. Choose a place close to home and carpool to save on fossil fuels and reduce your carbon footprint. This is especially important now as lockdowns begin to lift. Check for travel restrictions for any place you’re thinking of going and stock up on supplies before you leave to minimize your interactions in communities you pass through. By staying close to home you minimize your risk of catching or transmitting COVID.
Plus less time driving means more time at your campsite, relaxing and enjoying nature. You can usually find a State Park, National Forest, or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land within a short drive from any US city. Most offer options for developed or dispersed camping and the opportunity to discover new places close to home.
2. WASTE: AIM FOR ZERO
Packaging, it’s everywhere! There are many ways to reduce or eliminate it entirely. Dustin and I shop in bulk and store our food in reusable containers. This is particularly useful when camping because we have little or no packaging waste to carry out. If you do have packaging, open it at home and repack in reusable containers. Stasher Bags are a great alternative to ziplocks and beeswax wraps can be used for just about anything. Transfer coffee, tea and condiments to small jars and bring only what you need.
Minimize food waste by planning meals in advance. Even better, pre-cook and freeze it. We’ve found that one-pot meals are super easy to heat up, leaving less dishes and mess, which means more free time to enjoy your camping experience. While we’re on the subject – forget single use, bring reusable dishes. Forgo paper towels, use quick-dry cloths instead.
Ditch the plastic water bottles and opt for a reusable option like LifeStraw’s Stainless Steel with filter or Hydro Flask insulated bottles. For a budget friendly option, BPA-free Nalgene water bottles are light and durable. Instead of buying cases of water or gallon jugs, opt for a 5-gallon reusable water jug (like the kind on the office water cooler). Adding a pump like this one gives you a portable water station without the plastic waste.
For backcountry water filtration we use a LifeStraw Flex with Gravity Bag. It’s compact, lightweight and filters a gallon of water at a time.
Disposable batteries produce gnarly waste. Opt for rechargeable gear, especially when it comes to lighting. There are many products that can go days on one charge. Our go-to is this BioLite headlamp. It’s hands-down the most comfortable headlamp we’ve ever worn. And we always carry a portable solar charger and battery pack with us just in case.
Sharing a beer (or three) with friends around the campfire is how we roll, or at least how we used to roll pre-COVID. Tossing a growler in your cooler not only gives you good quality beer, but it eliminates the need for single use bottles and cans. Many backcountry campgrounds do not have waste facilities, so plan ahead and bring only what you need.
3. Shop local and organic
Locally grown and organic produce is not only better for our health, it’s also easier on the environment. Conventionally grown foods typically use a lot of fertilizers and pesticides, while organic foods are grown on farms that use eco-friendly agricultural methods. Buying local helps support the local economy while reducing the environmental costs associated with food miles. I don’t know about you, but I like knowing where my food comes from. And since you’re already out connecting with nature, why not complete the feel-good by eating fresh and seasonal.
4. Borrow, Rent, Share
Before you buy new, try to borrow or rent the gear you need. If you’re camping with friends, share a tent and cooking equipment. If you still need to purchase something, shop secondhand. Used gear is always a great option because it decreases the demand for new and keeps other people’s unwanted things out of the landfill. Plus it saves money. Let’s be honest, quality gear ain’t cheap. By shopping secondhand for your gear, you’re participating in a circular economy.
5. HUMAN WASTE
Nothing can ruin a camping trip quicker than finding human feces at your campsite. It’s a problem we see much too often, especially in popular areas. This poses a serious health risk to humans and wildlife and pollutes the natural environment. There are many ways to properly dispose of human waste.
- Use bathrooms and outhouses when available. Remember that people coming after you will be more willing to use them if they maintain a clean and sanitary condition.
- Portable toilets are a great option. They allow you to pack out your waste, they can be reused, and most are convenient and easy to use. Be sure to dispose of your waste at designated areas like RV dump stations and designated vault toilets. This greatly reduces the impact on campsites and the environment. this Camco Portable Travel Toilet is an affordable option. If you’re looking for something with some privacy, try this Cleanwaste Portable Toilet System.
- Bury your waste. If you’ve made it this far, I’m sure you’ve packed your trowel. Select a location at least 200 feet from trails, water sources and campsites, where it’s unlikely someone will walk or setup camp. Dig a “cat hole” 6-8 inches deep and 4-6 inches in diameter. Do your business. Cover it with dirt and disguise it with natural materials. Remember to pack out your tissue and toilet paper.
- Feminine products such as tampons or pads should also be packed out. For me, menstrual cups are the way to go. There are many options, I use Diva Cup. It’s reusable and can be worn for up to 12 hours. Empty it in a cat hole for proper disposal.
6. CLEAN SWEEP: START FRESH
When you get to your campsite, spread out and pick up matter out of place (MOOP). Inspect your campsite for micro-trash, glass, plastics, food scraps left behind. This will ensure you have a safe camping experience from the start, especially if you’re camping with children and pets. If there’s a fire pit, inspect it for materials that may be harmful.
7. CAMPFIRES: BURN RESPONSIBLY
Some people would not think of camping without a campfire. Yet, many natural areas have been degraded by overuse of fire and an increasing demand for firewood. So before you light up, follow these basic steps to make sure you burn safely and responsibly.
- First things first. Make sure there are no fire restrictions in your area. Check firerestrictions.us or your state’s website.
- Have a shovel and bucket of water nearby in case you need to extinguish the fire.
- Use an established fire ring if there’s one present.
- If there’s not an established ring, choose a spot at least 15 feet away from your tent, trees, or anything flammable.
- Gather stones and build a small ring to contain the fire and shield it from wind.
- Purchase or collect wood locally. Do not transport wood long distances (50 miles from the source is a good rule of thumb).
- Check regulations on wood collection and use only dead and down wood, collected away from your campsite and no bigger than the size of your forearm. And collect a diversity of wood – softwoods ignite easily, hardwoods burn longer.
- Never leave a fire unattended and make sure it’s properly extinguished – burn all wood and coals to ash and scatter the cool ashes before you leave.
- Campfires are not garbage cans. Pack out all food and trash! Do NOT burn excess food, tea bags, or coffee grounds. Even partially burned food matter attracts wildlife.
8. LOCK IT UP: PROTECT WILDLIFE
Dustin and I often camp in areas with high concentrations of bears and other wildlife. We’ve even had some close encounters. Animals can become aggressive and dangerous when they’ve been exposed to human food. Always use proper food storage methods to protect wildlife and yourself.
- Don’t turn your back on your food, keep it at arm’s length.
- Never leave food scraps on the ground.
- Use bear-resistant containers and bear-proof coolers.
- Many parks offer bear boxes/lockers. Store your food, cooler, trash, dishes and toiletries in these when available. (remember to take your trash and anything else you’ve stored in the bear locker with you when you leave).
- If you don’t have access to a locker, store it in your car (as long as you’re not sleeping in it). Never leave food in your tent or in your backpack.
- Many animals are attracted to toiletries, especially bears! Store it all!
- For backcountry camping, string up your food by tossing a rope over a sturdy tree limb and hoisting it at least 10-15 feet above the ground. Some backcountry campsites have bear poles.
9. GREY WATER: TO DUMP OR NOT TO DUMP
When it comes to grey water, regulations vary from place to place. Check guidelines in the area you’re camping to learn the proper methods of disposal. Wipe out your dishes and dispose of any excess food before washing to avoid attracting animals.
Always use biodegradable soap. And wash yourself and your dishes at least 200 feet from any water source. Never put soap (even biodegradable), food, human or pet waste in any water source.
If dumping grey water is allowed, strain out excess food particles and dump the water on a plant away from your campsite. Choose a different plant each time. Bring a container for times when you can’t dump and carry it to the nearest disposal site. We have a collapsible container dedicated to grey water. You can also use a 5-gallon bucket with a cover.
Challenge yourself to a low waste backpacking trip.
Read about our zero-waste adventures deep in the backcountry of Yosemite National Park.
10. PRODUCTS: KEEP IT TOXIC-FREE
Maintaining proper hygiene and keeping things sanitary is important for our health. We must be mindful of the products we use in nature, as many can be harmful to wildlife and take a long time to degrade. It’s also something we can easily overlook when planning a camping trip. Always choose biodegradable, eco-friendly products and make sure you wash and brush at least 200 feet away from any water source to keep waterways clean.
- Toothpaste – Most people brush and spit right on the ground. Many kinds of toothpaste contain toxic ingredients which can be harmful to animals and plants. Try an all-natural toothpaste like Toms or make your own.
- Soap – Many soaps and shampoos also contain harsh chemicals and detergents that are harmful to the environment. Try Dr. Bronners biodegradable soaps and dish soap.
- Sunscreen – Oxybenzone, a UV filtering chemical found in many brands of sunscreen, is harmful to our bodies and our waterways. Hawaii recently passed a bill banning sunscreen containing oxybenzone as it’s destroying coral reefs. Consider eco-friendly sunscreen next time you go camping, especially if you plan to take a dip.
- Bug spray – Most insect repellents found in stores contain toxic chemicals that are bad for our health and the environment. Keeping mosquitoes away is a priority, but we should try to avoid products containing deet, which is linked to a number of neurological issues. Try making your own insect repellent with essential oils and burn dried herbs in your campfire. Or try this natural bug spray.
11. GOLDEN RULE: PACK IT OUT
Finally, always remember the golden rule – Pack It In, Pack It Out. This one’s a no-brainer. Have respect for your fellow camper and for the environment in which we are guests. Consider the flora and fauna who call it home. Bring a reusable trash bag and separate your trash, recycling, and compost. Drop it at the nearest facility or take it home and dispose of it there. After you pack up, do a final sweep and clean your campsite. And don’t forget the micro-trash and food scraps. Organic matter like banana peels and apple cores can take a very long time to biodegrade, that’s if an animal doesn’t find it first. Pack it ALL out.
Remember to always leave it better than you found it. Be stewards of the land and consider the joy of the camper or family coming behind you.
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