Sustainable Tips for Life on the Road from Two Eco Vanlifers
When Dustin and I moved into our ‘85 Westy in the spring of 2016, we had never heard the term ‘vanlife.’ Since then we’ve seen this under-the-radar-lifestyle grow from a millennial trend to a truly viable way of life for anyone. And the ranks of vanlifers on the road continues to grow, in spite of (or perhaps thanks to) the COVID-19 pandemic.
For us, moving into the van was about more than just traveling and breaking free of the corporate grind. It was about living a life of intentionality. And we quickly learned that life in 80 square feet can be challenging, especially when it comes to implementing eco friendly habits and practices.
We often joke that we’re “accidental minimalists” – downsizing and adopting a life of minimalism out of necessity. But when it comes to living an eco friendly vanlife, our journey has been anything but accidental. These tips come from years of trial and error on the road.
Of course, we’re far from perfect, especially when it comes to our environmental footprint. We continue to learn and adapt in this ever-evolving lifestyle. If you have any eco friendly vanlife tips that you’d like to share, please do so in the comments.
Here are our tips to help you live an eco friendly vanlife
1. Aim for Zero Waste:
This is a good general rule for any lifestyle and it should especially be a priority in vanlife. Minimizing waste helps maximize space and reduces what we send to the landfill.
It’s impossible to be truly “zero waste.” But adopting a zero waste mindset has helped us to implement sustainable, eco friendly habits into our daily lives.
For example, Dustin and I make a weekly meal plan. We purchase ingredients like grains and beans because they’re versatile and easy to store (we store them in mason jars). When combined with seasonal fruits and veggies from local farmers’ markets, we have all the ingredients for a variety of fresh, van-made meals for the week. Buying fresh and in-bulk eliminates most of the packaging we would otherwise bring into the van. This also saves valuable pantry space.
Speaking of buying in bulk, shop in the bulk section at the grocery store and buy only what you need. Food waste is a topic we don’t talk about enough. In the US, food waste is estimated at 30–40 percent of the food supply. That comes out to about 133 billion pounds ($161 billion) worth of food. This waste has an environmental toll. According to the US EPA, food is the single largest category of material placed in landfills. And municipal landfills are the third-largest source of methane emissions in the US.
Which leads me to our next eco vanlife tip…
This isn’t easy to do in vanlife, but if you’re intentional, it can be done. Dustin and I put our food scraps in a mesh bag and hang it out to dry. Then we transfer it to a burlap sack that we store in our TrashARoo on the back of the van.
Sometimes we ride around with our food scraps for weeks until we find a drop off facility. When we pass through cities we check to see if they offer municipal composting and drop it off there. Even if the city does not have an option, it’s likely someone within the city will take it – try calling around to local schools, nurseries, community gardens, co-ops, even local farms. Some farmers’ markets offer drop off services for food scraps and compost which they then use to fertilize the soil. You can even give away your compost on Craigslist – yeah, really.
It’s fairly easy to find recycling centers on the road, especially compared to compost facilities. But unfortunately, much of what we send to the recycling facility still ends up in the landfill. This is why recycling should be a last resort after reducing and reusing.
But don’t let that last piece discourage you. Recycling is still better than sending trash to the landfill. And since we all inevitably end up with some items we need to discard, recycling is an essential component to a low waste vanlife.
Here are some tips:
- Dedicate a container for recyclables and sort them at the recycling facility (we use our generic TrashARoo).
- To save on space, buy cans instead of bottles and crush them down. (Note: recycling centers typically don’t like this, but in vanlife, space is a premium).
- Buy in bulk, and if you do buy packaged products, opt for items packaged in recyclable and/or compostable materials.
- When you do end up buying something with packaging (which you will) unpackage it as soon as you get to the van, and recycle the packaging immediately.
4. Wash Dishes in a Wash Basin To Save Water:
Water is life. And those of us living and traveling in our adventure mobiles don’t have an unlimited supply flowing through our tiny taps – so conservation is key. For us, water is the single determining factor for how long we can stay off grid. If we’re intentional about conserving water, we can go up to a week between fill-ups. One of our top tips for conserving water is to use a wash basin for washing dishes. This collapsible wash basin does the trick. It’s much bigger than the sink in our van, and it collapses down for easy storage. Check out this video showing how to do dishes using a wash basin and how to dispose of greywater. This is extremely important for those who don’t have a gray water holding tank.
5. Shop Secondhand:
Shopping secondhand is one of the best ways to deal with waste because we’re utilizing what’s already in the economy. And secondhand items don’t have packaging!
Dustin and I recycle seasonal gear through this system. We don’t spend a lot of time in cold climates, so rather than having bulky winter gear taking up valuable space in the van, we shop at thrift stores when the weather turns cold and donate it back at the end of the season, or more likely, when we head south to someplace warm.
6. Go Non-Toxic:
The type of toiletries we use in the outdoors is often overlooked, but many common products produce waste that can be detrimental to the environment. They contain microplastics and harsh chemicals that harm wildlife and pollute waterways. And since most of us essentially live outdoors, knowing what’s in our products can make a big difference in our efforts to live an eco friendly vanlife.
These are some of the non-toxic alternatives we’ve switched to:
- Sunscreen: We use all-natural, fragrance-free, non-nano zinc oxide sunscreen like Badger Balm.
- Insect repellent: we use lemongrass and citronella essential oils for basic protection. Depending on where we are we may need something that will last longer – our backup is an all-natural insect repellent spray or balm. (Again, Badger Balm makes some great options).
- Body wash and dish soap: we use biodegradable castile soap or a natural solid soap.
7. Opt for a Low Waste Period:
Periods are a natural part of life for us menstruators, whether we live in a van or not. And one of the biggest impacts we can have on the environment and our bodies is our choice of period products. More than 100 billion period products are thrown away globally each year. Most are made of plastics which can take 500 years to decompose. And many traditional period products contain fragrances, pesticides, and toxic chemicals. Yikes!
Before vanlife I made the switch to a menstrual cup. There are many on the market – I use the DivaCup. It can take a bit of practice, but once you get used to inserting the DivaCup, it’s easy to use. And when inserted correctly, you won’t even know it’s there. It’s the ultimate tool for managing my period on the road. When it’s time to empty, I bury my blood like my poop: 6-8 inches deep and away from water sources. I give it a wash with water or, when needed, with mild soap. If I’m in a public restroom that isn’t private, I wipe my cup with toilet paper, reinsert and wash it when I have privacy. Sometimes I bring a water bottle with me into the stall. At the end of my cycle, I sterilize my cup with boiling water and store it.
8. Un-paper Your Van:
This was probably the easiest switch we’ve made in our van and it’s helped reduce our waste significantly. We cut up old t-shirts for cleaning up floor spills and checking the oil, and use microfiber cloths for wiping up when we cook and wash dishes. We found a beautiful set of linen napkins at a thrift store for $2. There are so many possibilities!
9. Ditch The Wet Wipes:
I know, they’re practically a staple in vanlife – and they’re terrible. These popular soapy washcloths are wreaking havoc in waterways and sewer systems around the world. They contain plastic fibers that break down into microplastics and end up in waterways, in the ocean, and in our water supply. And they’re extremely harmful to wildlife. Also, many contain chemicals and fragrance that should not come in contact with human skin. Even if it says “biodegradable,” rethink them! This applies to all types of cleaning wipes – makeup wipes, the hand wipes they offer at the grocery store, even the moist towelette from the restaurant.
Instead of taking a “baby wipe bath,” fill a bowl with water and use a washcloth and a small amount of natural, biodegradable soap. Or opt for our favorite way to get clean – a swim in whatever body of water we can find. Just remember to forego the soap.
10. Go Reusable:
We have our homes with us 100% of the time. That being said, there’s no reason we should be using disposables. Sorry, not sorry! These days you can find reusable EVERYTHING, from grocery bags to water bottles and takeout containers. While reusable items come with an upfront cost, they will save money, resources and impact in the long run.
11. Build Green:
If you’re building out your van, you have a great opportunity to create a healthy home from the start. Many building materials are known to off-gas, which is especially dangerous in a small space. Do your research and make sure the materials you use are safe and durable. And use recycled or upcycled materials whenever possible.
Making smart decisions in your build will go a long way in providing you with a healthy vanlife and help to minimize your environmental impact.
12. Go Solar and Rechargeable:
Most of us already use energy from the sun to power our life on the road. As digital nomads, energy efficiency is crucial for our work-life balance. And not relying on the grid for power allows us to take our office with us wherever we go. To maximize your power, make sure you have proper wiring and energy efficient appliances, which for most of us just means a good fridge. We upgraded to a Dometic Dual Zone because it’s energy efficient and having a freezer in the van is a luxury.
If you’re interested in solar or looking to upgrade your current system, the folks over at Renogy Solar can size out a system specific to your needs.
Disposable batteries produce gnarly waste. Go rechargeable or solar for exterior lights. There are many good options on the market – our favorite is BioLite.
13. Maintain Your Home on Wheels:
Home repairs are a necessary part of home ownership – and that’s especially true for a home on wheels. Maintain your home – get your oil changed regularly, check your tire pressure, make sure your emissions are up to par. Proper maintenance will eliminate leaking coolant, oil and other nasty liquids that can pollute groundwater. These things not only reduce your carbon footprint and save you money in the short-term (think fuel economy), but they also extend the life of your home on wheels.
14. Travel Slow:
It’s easy to get caught up wanting to see and do it all, but magic happens when you travel at the speed of slow. It allows you to develop a real sense of place and helps to minimize your footprint. Stay a while when you visit a town or landscape you really enjoy. Get to know the locals and the environment. Hike the trails, swim in the rivers. And this takes me to the next one…
15. Shop Local:
While you’re enjoying the in-between time in a small town, support the local businesses. Have a cup of coffee at a local coffee shop, eat at a local mom-n-pop pizza joint, visit the local library. Buy groceries at the local co-op and farmers’ market. Invest in the local economy.
This is something we normally practice when we travel. Though ‘normal’ may never be what it used to be. It is extremely important that we are conscientious and intentional with our interactions as we travel, especially when in small towns. Since COVID started, we have done our best to avoid stopping in small towns altogether in an effort to minimize the chance that we bring COVID into the local community. Hopefully someday soon we can enjoy mingling with the locals once again. Until then, wear a mask, wash your hands, stay 6 feet apart, be safe.
Offer your services to a local project in need of help. Restore a trail, pull weeds or plant tomatoes at a community garden, organize a beach cleanup. These opportunities are easy to find if you do a little research. Most local co-ops and supermarkets have boards with event listings, check them out when you make your bulk shopping trip.
17. Be a Good Steward for Mama Earth:
When you’re on the trail, carry a ‘dirt bag’ and pick up trash as you go. If you find a trashed campsite, clean it up. We know, it sucks! Feel free to rant on social media. It’s up to us to be better stewards of our environment by following responsible environmental practices in the outdoors and encouraging others to do the same. Bottom line, it’s up to us to be the change.
18. Advocate For Our Public Lands:
We are the voice of our public lands. It’s where we sleep, work, and play. As vanlifers and outdoor enthusiasts it’s our responsibility to advocate for the protection of our public lands. We can do this by speaking up and bringing attention to issues that threaten them, by spreading awareness, voting, and reaching out to our representatives in government. Support organizations and companies who are investing time and resources to the protection of our public lands. And encourage your friends and loved ones to get out and enjoy our public lands and build a relationship with them. Let’s drive the conversation of conservation.
19. Cook More, Eat Out Less:
This can be hard at times. When you’ve been driving all day and you get to camp late, the last thing you want to do is cook. But healthy home cooking is essential to minimize waste and fuel our adventurous lifestyle. Plus it makes you healthier and happier. And this goes hand-in-hand with the next tip…
20. Exercise & Meditate:
These can be hard to work into a routine in a lifestyle of constant movement. But once you do, they can be very grounding. I’ve found a combination of running, yoga, and meditation has helped me in relieving stress and fatigue from travel. I’ve also implemented a TRX workout routine into my vanlife and it has been a game changer.
21. Build Community:
The vanlife community is one that Dustin and I are very proud and fortunate to be a part of. If you’re new to the community, reach out for support, advice, and inspiration. We’re always looking for reasons to get together and share stories from the road, hold a gathering or insta-meetup (post-COVID or course). Some of our favorite memories are of impromptu campouts with fellow travelers.
I’m also the founder of Diversify Vanlife, a platform turned community dedicated to creating a safe space for representation of Black, Indigenous, Asian, LatinX, and other people of color and underrepresented individuals within the nomadic community. Give us a follow on Instagram @diversify.vanlife and say hi.
BONUS: Do Something Creative
Everyday! Bonus if it’s outside your comfort zone.
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