Sustainable Camping Habits
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 are 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.
1. CAMP CLOSE TO HOME AND EXPLORE YOUR OWN BACKYARD
The first thing to consider when planning a camping trip is where you’re going. One thing Dustin and I have learned in our years on the road is that every part of this country holds its own special beauty. There’s likely a State Park, National Forest, or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) area within a short drive from you. Most offer options for developed or dispersed camping and the opportunity to discover new places close to home.
Before vanlife, when Dustin and I first started camping, we only had the weekends available to us. So we explored every camping option within an hour’s drive of New Orleans, and we discovered some places we never imagined we’d find so close to home.
Choosing a camping area close to home saves on fossil fuels and reduces your carbon footprint. Staying close to home 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.
Something Dustin and I do when we’re researching an area to camp is learn about the land and the Indigenous peoples who have called it home. Native people have inhabited every part of this continent since time immemorial. By taking the small step of acknowledging and verbalizing the Indigenous names and true history of the land we’re on, we are paying respect to the land and the peoples, and we move one step closer to unlearning the painful legacy of colonialism.
Native-Land.ca is a great resource to learn whose land you’re on. It’s important for us to understand the history that has brought us to this land and seek to understand our place within that history. But understanding will not come from land acknowledgment alone, we must go Beyond Land Acknowledgement by taking action.
After learning whose land you’re on go a step further and use Google to research the history of the people and their land. 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 Lands on social media and in your social circles.
2. GO REUSABLE AND MINIMIZE THE WASTE YOU BRING WITH YOU
I can’t tell you how many times we’ve come home from a camping trip with a bag full of trash – paper plates and paper towels, snack wrappers, chip bags, plastic water bottles. Single-use items are marketed as convenient, but we pay for them in the volume of waste we send to the landfill.
Rather than continue the cycle of waste in the name of convenience, Dustin and I began thinking of our camping trips as if we were pitching a tent in the living room. We bring dishes from the kitchen rather than buying disposables. We opt for old dish towels over paper towels, we prepare most of our food at home, and we even make our own snacks. But the biggest and easiest switch we’ve made was investing in reusable water bottles.
LifeStraw’s Stainless Steel bottles with filters and Hydro Flask insulated bottles are great replacements for single-use plastic 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). You can refill it with fresh filtered water at one of many refill stations. Or you can exchange your bottle for a new full one at Walmart, Lowes, or several other locations. Click here to search for a water refill or exchange location near you. Adding a pump like this one gives you a portable water station without plastic waste. Side note: this was our water setup in the van for years.
When it comes to food packaging, 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. Not everyone has access to bulk shopping so if you do end up with packaging, open it at home and repack in reusable containers. Stasher Bags are a great alternative to Ziploc and beeswax wraps can be used for just about anything. Transfer coffee, tea, and condiments to small jars and bring only what you need.
One of the first things Dustin and I do after we set up camp is crack open a couple of cold beers. That’s the moment we’re officially camping. But of course, beer comes in single-use cans or bottles. This is why we were stoked to learn about beer growlers. A beer growler is a container or vessel used for the transport of beer. You can find growlers at most micro or craft breweries. They’re typically made of heavy amber color glass and come in 32 or 64 ounces, and they’re refillable. There are also some dope insulated growlers available. This is the one we use. We simply stop at a local brewery and have it filled with our brew of choice. This has been more difficult during COVID as some places have suspended refills. Call the brewery ahead to find out.
When we can’t fill our growler, we opt for cans over bottles. Aluminum is easier to recycle than glass and it’s lighter to pack out. Some campgrounds have recycling bins, making it easy. If yours doesn’t, take it home with you and recycle it there or drop it off at a local recycling center near your home.
3. BUY LOCAL AND ORGANIC FOODS
Dustin and I LOVE shopping at local farmers’ markets – something we’ve sorely missed during COVID 🙁
Locally grown and organic produce is not only better for our health, it’s also easier on the environment. Conventionally grown foods 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.
Here’s the thing though, not everyone has access to locally grown organic produce. If you do, recognize that it’s a privilege. If you don’t have access to organic produce, I recommend buying as fresh as possible. Fresh fruits and veggies are healthier than processed foods. My rule of thumb for camping meals is, shop the same way you would for your kitchen at home. And remember, eco friendly isn’t about perfection, it’s about creating healthy habits to minimize your impact while still aligning with what brings you joy.
Before vanlife, Dustin and I would cook our camping meals at home and pack them in Tupperware. This way we could enjoy a healthy meal at camp without the dishes and cleanup. Leftovers also heat well at camp too. We always try to minimize the work we do at camp so we can maximize our relaxation. Because camping is fun.
Food scraps and composting:
Food scraps in the landfill produce gnarly methane gas. So Dustin and I try to compost our food scraps whenever possible. This can be difficult living in a van, but we’ve adapted some tricks to make it work. If we lived in a stationary home we would definitely compost as it keeps food scraps out of the landfill and makes an excellent fertilizer for a home garden.
Composting at home is easy to set up and it’s fun to see just how much waste can be reduced when you compost. We keep a small mesh produce bag dedicated to food scraps. We simply hang it out to dry during the day and store the dry food scraps in a dry bag. If you’re camping for just a few days you can store your food scraps in a dry bag or Tupperware and take it home to compost.
4. BORROW OR RENT GEAR OR BUY SECOND HAND
Quality camping gear is expensive. And cheap camping gear tends to cost more in the long run because it doesn’t last. Dustin and I have a good collection of quality gear, but it’s taken us years to build. When we first started camping, we borrowed nearly everything from friends and family.
You can also rent gear if you live in or near a major city. REI offers gear rentals, including a Car Camping Kit which comes with all the basics – tent, sleeping bags & pads, camp table & chairs, headlamps, lantern, camp stove, cook set, and cooler.
For other gear rental providers, Google “camping gear rental [your city]” or “camping gear rental near me” and call ahead to check availability.
Consider renting or buying from local gear outfitters before you rent from REI or another major gear outlet. Small businesses have been hit hard by the COVID pandemic. Whenever possible, support BIPOC businesses in the outdoor industry who are trying to make a space for themselves. If you’re in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, check out Slim Pickins Outfitters – the first Black-owned gear shop in the nation.
Borrowing or renting gear is also a good way to get an idea of what you need before you invest in your own gear. Do you need a big tent or a small one? A lightweight sleeping bag or heavily insulated? What kind of stove works best for you? All of these questions can be answered by trying before you buy.
Another great option for finding good quality gear at an affordable price is buying secondhand. Thrift stores, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace are all great places to find second-hand gear. Before vanlife, Dustin and I got all of our gear second-hand – seriously, we refused to buy new. 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.
5. ECO-FRIENDLY CAMPING GEAR
When you are ready to invest in your own camping gear, consider eco-friendly options. Dustin and I have steadily upgraded our camping gear until we finally have a complete collection of quality gear.
Good quality gear in and of itself is an eco-friendly option when compared to cheaper made gear. Inexpensive gear tends to end up in the landfill much more frequently, whereas good quality gear is made better so it lasts longer, and it can often be repaired when it eventually breaks.
Many outdoor gear brands offer lifetime warranties – Osprey, Outdoor Research, Patagonia, Stanley, Cotopaxi, Eagle Creek, Therm-a-Rest, Big Agnes – just to name a few. These companies will replace or repair damaged gear for life!
Here’s some of the gear we keep in our camping arsenal:
Our sleeping bags are made by Big Agnes. They use environmentally responsible down and recycled synthetic materials in their bags.
Our tent is a Big Agnes as well and, while I can’t speak to the material used, they took our tent back and repaired it when a piece broke off from the fly last summer.
For lighting and power, we opt for rechargeable gear. 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. For lighting around camp, Dustin and I use this LuminAid solar lantern. It’s inflatable so it packs down small, it gives a nice diffused light on lower settings, and it recharges with the sun. It also doubles as a cell phone charger. We keep ours on the dash in the van when not in use so it’s always juiced up and ready to go.
We do not currently own a camp stove, as we have a propane stove in our van. But one stove that we are intrigued to try out is the Solo Stove. It’s received excellent reviews and it seems like the real deal. It uses sticks, twigs, pinecones, and other biomass as fuel. The company claims that the stove’s 360-degree design allows it to create a super-efficient burn. It also comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee and a lifetime warranty. I’ll let you know what it’s like after we try it out.
When we leave camp for a day hike we carry a Cotopaxi daypack. It’s durable, made with recycled materials, comes in a variety of bright color combinations, and has a lifetime warranty.
While having a collection of quality camping gear can make your trip more efficient and enjoyable, ultimately the most eco-friendly gear is what you already own – chairs, tables, dishes, whatever you can bring from home. Dustin and I always try to repurpose something we already have before we go out and buy new.
6. WHAT ABOUT POOP?
Nothing can ruin a camping trip quicker than finding human feces at your campsite, especially if your dog finds it first. Trust me, it’s not pretty.
Many established campgrounds don’t have bathrooms. For those that do, sometimes the bathroom is just too gross to use – I could tell you some stories. If there is a bathroom available, that’s always our first option. Bonus if it has running water! Whenever we find a clean-ish campground bathroom, we treat it like a luxury and try to keep it clean for the person coming after us.
If a bathroom is not an option, there are several ways to properly dispose of human waste in the outdoors.
Portable toilets are a great option. They allow you to pack out your waste, and most are convenient and easy to use. This portable travel toilet is an affordable option for an actual flushable toilet that you can literally carry with you. It flushes with freshwater, so there are no chemicals to worry about. Just dump it in any toilet to dispose of.
If you’re looking for something with some privacy, try this portable toilet system.
The most basic and equally effective travel toilet is just a toilet seat on top of a bucket. This toilet seat is made for it, just add a 5-gallon bucket. This type of toilet is best used in conjunction with liners like these. To absorb liquids and smell, toss in a handful of wood chips, dirt, or other organic material after each poop. When you’re done, you can tie the bag up and toss it in a dumpster or in your trash can at home.
Another affordable, albeit less eco-friendly option, is a Wag Bag. What is a wag bag you ask? It’s a bag you poop in. They vary by brand, but most contain a powder that solidifies and breaks down, and deodorizes your waste. These are typically designed for single-use as you don’t want to go back in once you’ve sealed it up. We keep a couple of these in the van for emergency situations. They’re compact and lightweight, so they make a good addition to an emergency preparedness kit. Wag bags are also required in some remote and protected areas. When you’re done, you can toss it in a regular trash can.
Dustin and I don’t have a toilet in our van. I’ll repeat. We do not own a toilet, portable or otherwise. So I’ll share with y’all the primitive and effective way we deal with poop.
This method works whether you’re at an established campground, in the backcountry, or if you find yourself locked out of your house in a pinch. All you need is a shovel or trowel. A garden trowel works well, metal is best but plastic will do the job. Since we do this often we upgraded from the trowel to this badass tactical folding shovel. It may be overkill, but at least if I’m attacked by zombies while I’m pooping, I have a weapon.
How to do it:
Select a location at least 200 feet from trails, water sources, and campsites, where it’s unlikely someone will walk or set up camp. Dig a “cat hole” approximately 6-8 inches deep and 4-6 inches across. Do your business. Cover it with dirt and disguise it with natural materials.
You may be wondering, why to bury it, since poop is natural and we’re in nature. But human poop takes about a year to biodegrade, and one good rain can wash down and contaminate a local water source.
Even though we’re burying and disguising the site of our cat hole, animals still sometimes find it and dig it up. When they do, they scatter the dirty toilet paper. So it’s a good practice to pack out your tissue. I bring a Ziploc bag with me to pack out my used TP. Another option is to use natural materials like leaves or sticks and bury them in the cat hole. Just don’t accidentally use a pinecone.
Menstrual products such as tampons or pads should also be packed out. Since we started spending more time in nature, I switched to 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, bury your blood like your poop: 6-8 inches deep and away from water sources. Give it a wash with water or, when needed, with mild soap.
There are many other eco-friendly menstrual products on the market, including 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.
If you’re still unsure about what to do with human waste in the outdoors, or if you just get a kick out of talking about poop, check out this book “How to Shit in the Woods.”
7. MAKE A GAME OUT OF CAMPSITE CLEANUP
Cleaning up your campsite can be fun, especially if you have children. Hand out gloves and reusable trash bags and make it a game to see who can collect the most trash. 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.
The first thing Dustin and I do when we get to our campsite is spread out and pick up any trash we find. If there’s a fire pit, that’s the first place we look and we often find trash, broken glass, and partially burned food scraps. A little effort to clean up at the beginning makes our camping experience much more enjoyable.
The last thing after we pack up to leave is to make one final sweep to make sure we’re not leaving any trash behind. I’m sure the person coming after us appreciates it.
It’s also helpful to separate trash, recycling, and compost. Some campgrounds have recycling and composting bins, which is super convenient. If that’s not an option, you can take it home with you and dispose of it there or drop it off at your local recycling facility.
8. PRACTICE CAMPFIRE SAFETY
One of the first things that come to mind when we think of camping is sitting around a campfire with people we love roasting marshmallows and engaging in fun conversations. But having a campfire is a HUGE responsibility.
So before we light up, we follow these basic steps to make sure we burn safely and responsibly.
- First things first. Make sure there are no fire restrictions in the area. Google “fire restrictions [your state]”
- Keep a shovel and bucket of water nearby in case you need to extinguish the fire. If you don’t have a bucket, a dry bag can double as an excellent water container. Since space is a premium in our van, so we keep a collapsible bucket like this one.
- Use an established fire ring if there’s one present. Campfires sterilize the earth beneath preventing new vegetation from growing. Aside from being an eyesore, burn scars can lead to erosion. For this reason, it’s good practice to use existing fire rings whenever possible and avoid creating new burn scars. A great alternative is to bring your own fire pit to keep your fire up off the ground. This is a really cool pop-up fire pit that we haven’t tried yet, but it’s on our list as a future addition to our camping arsenal. Another really cool option that we’d love to try is the Solo Stove outdoor fire pit. According to the website and Amazon reviews, it’s low-smoke, burns efficiently, and comes with a lifetime warranty.
- 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 the wind.
- Purchase or collect wood locally (50 miles from the source is a good rule of thumb). If you’re transporting wood long distances or from one area to another you may be unknowingly carrying an insect hitchhiker. Invasive species can have a detrimental impact on the local ecosystem.
- If you plan to collect wood, check regulations first. Most National and State Parks do not allow wood collecting. You can typically find this info on the signage board at the front of the campground. If wood collection is allowed, use only dead and downed wood-dried twigs and sticks found on the ground no bigger than the size of your forearm.
- Collect a diversity of wood from a dispersed area away from your campsite. This helps to maintain the natural appearance of the area as well as preserving some of the downed wood that will later become nutrients for the soil.
- We make it a point to never leave our campfire unattended. Every year millions of acres of forests are lost due to wildfires. I don’t know about you, but I do not want to be responsible for starting a wildfire. It helps to have at least two people camping together, that way when one person goes to the bathroom the other can watch the fire.
- Before you leave the fire and make sure it’s properly extinguished – burn all wood and coals to ash and scatter the cool ashes with your hand. Dowse with water if necessary. Smoldering embers can quickly reignite and a stray spark can cause a wildfire. Make sure your campfire is dead out.
- Lastly, campfires are not garbage cans. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve gotten to camp and found the fire pit full of half-burned food, cans, and broken glass. We even saw a deer picking through food scraps in the fire pit of a neighboring campsite once. Please pack out all food and trash. Even partially burned food matter attracts wildlife. This brings me to the next tip.
9. STORE FOOD TO PROTECT WILDLIFE AND YOURSELF
Dustin and I typically opt for dispersed camping. That is, camping outside of developed campgrounds and away from other campers. And we often camp in areas with high concentrations of bears and other wildlife.
One time camping in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee we had a friendly black bear visit us, attracted to the smell of our dinner. Looking back I can say he was friendly, but to be honest, it was terrifying. Animals, especially bears, can become aggressive and dangerous when they’ve been exposed to human food. And when a bear becomes habituated to human food, it usually results in the bear being put down by animal control.
By using proper storage methods, we can protect wildlife and ourselves. Here are a few tips we practice when camping in bear country.
- We always check the area we’re camping in. The Forest Service website can tell you of any restrictions.
- Keep food at arm’s length and lock it up when not in use.
- Dispose of food scraps immediately and try not to drop crumbs on the ground.
- Use bear-resistant containers and bear-proof coolers.
- Many campgrounds in bear country offer bear lockers. These are metal boxes that latch to prevent bears from getting in. If these are available, that means you’re in bear country and food, trash, and toiletries should be stored when not in use.
- 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, the last thing you want is a late-night wake-up call from Mr. Bear.
- Many animals are attracted to toiletries, especially bears! We store it all.
10. DUMPING GREYWATER
Greywater is what rinses off when we wash our hands, our bodies, and our dishes. In household terms, greywater is wastewater from baths, sinks, washing machines, and kitchen appliances.
Some places have restrictions when it comes to dumping grey water. Check guidelines in the area you’re camping in to learn the proper methods of disposal.
When it comes to washing dishes, even the tiniest food particles on the ground can attract wildlife and affect their natural diet. Before washing, I scrape excess food particles into the trash and wash my dishes in a washbasin. There was a time, back in the day, when I would wash my camping dishes in the river. This, as I learned, is a big no-no. Food particles and soap can alter the natural pH of the water and cause harm to local wildlife. With the inevitable mass influx of visitors, imagine the effect if everyone washed their dishes and themselves in or near bodies of water.
Dustin and I use this collapsible wash basin then strain our greywater through a mesh strainer into a bucket.
If dumping greywater is allowed, 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 out with you. We have a sink in our van but it drains straight to the ground. So we keep a mesh strainer in the drain and we use a collapsible container dedicated to greywater when we’re in areas where we can’t dump it on the ground. You could also use a 5-gallon bucket with a cover. Greywater can be dumped in a toilet, a drain, or use it to water your plants when you get home.
11. OPT FOR NATURAL TOILETRIES AND SKINCARE PRODUCTS
One thing that folx often overlook when it comes to interacting with the outdoors is the stuff we put on our bodies. Many of the toiletries and skincare products we use contain harsh chemicals that aren’t very good for us and can be harmful to wildlife.
Dustin and I make our own skincare products when we can. And when we can’t, we opt for natural, eco-friendly products.
As I mentioned earlier, even the smallest amount of soap or detergent can alter the pH of the water and harm wildlife. The general rule of thumb is 200 feet away from water sources when we wash ourselves, our dishes, or brush our teeth. This gives a nice buffer to prevent our soaps and detergents from washing down into the water source.
Here are a few common toiletries and options Dustin and I choose:
- Toothpaste – we make our own tooth powder using baking soda, bentonite clay, activated charcoal, and peppermint essential oils. When we don’t have time or the ingredients to make it, we opt for natural toothpaste like Toms.
- Soap – Many soaps and shampoos contain harsh chemicals and detergents. We use Dr. Bronner’s biodegradable soaps and dish soap to ensure we’re not pouring chemicals into the soil.
- Sunscreen – Oxybenzone, a UV filtering chemical found in many brands of sunscreen, is harmful to our bodies and our waterways. A few years ago Hawaii passed a bill banning sunscreen containing oxybenzone as it’s destroying coral reefs. After reading that, we switched to reef-friendly sunscreen – currently using Badger Balm. And before we plunge ourselves into the deep end, we do a customary wipe down to get any products off of our skin that may pollute the water.
Bug spray – Most insect repellents found in stores contain toxic chemicals that are bad for our health and the environment. Many “deep woods” mosquito repellents contain deet, which is super effective but there are questions about how safe this chemical actually is. Deet can also damage plastics like sunglasses. Personally, it’s not a risk I like to take. We make our own insect repellent using citronella essential oils. When we need something a little more powerful, we use a natural bug spray like this one.
12. TREAT THE OUTDOORS LIKE HOME
Pack it in, pack it out. Leave it better than you found it. I ain’t ya momma.
There are a lot of sayings to remind us to clean up after ourselves and each other when we’re out in nature. Personally, Dustin and I like to think of it like this: wherever we go, we treat it like it’s our home (because it is someone’s home). If there’s trash in my backyard, I clean it up, no matter how it got there.
Let us all have respect for our fellow camper and for the land on which we are guests.
Dustin and I have spent A LOT of time camping, and we practically live in the outdoors. Still, we are constantly learning and looking for new ways to adapt our practices, minimize our impact and honor the land we’re on. If you have any eco-friendly camping tips that you’d like to share, please let us know in the comments.
For more tips on how to enjoy our natural world in a sustainable way, subscribe to our newsletter and check out the posts below.
Note: This article contains affiliate links, meaning if you click and make a purchase we get a tiny commission and you get our undying gratitude.